Leadership in times of crisis: Why Monica Muthoni outshined men in power

Lamu Woman Representative Marubu Muthoni  [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

There, at times, comes a time when silence on the part of the supposedly responsible people in the midst of crisis is tantamount to betrayal. That silence, probably a product of ‘fear’ or heho in the veins of leaders, leads to desperation and despair because those that the public looks up to lack courage and vision; they instead emit hopelessness.

That sense of hopelessness lasts until there emerges a person, not out of the existing crop of those waiting to be anointed as ‘leaders’, but out of a person who thrusts him/herself into the midst of the crisis and seemingly captures the feelings of the desperate.

That person, probably of unknown quantity or quality, gains the trust of the people while the ‘grandees’ ignore the pain as they compete for ‘leadership’. The public accepts and confers authority to such a person, even if emerging from the tumundu lineage, because of making sense out of a dire situation.

Monica Muthoni Marubu of Lamu County appears to be such a person by refusing to be silent in the midst ethnic cleansing. In the process, she shames men in power who condone atrocities and look for excuses for their failure to speak up and protect the victims.

Monica would not be the first ‘Muthoni’ to shame men for their docility. In 1922, another ‘Muthoni’ challenged the ‘men’ to liberate Harry Thuku from Kingsway (Central) Police Station. The police killed her and those she inspired as white setters cheered at the Norfolk Hotel.

Thuku had ridiculed Governor Edward Northey, who had dispossessed Africans from their land in order to implement the ‘Soldier Settlement Scheme’. The government deported Thuku to Kismayu, then part of Kenya, before Britain gave it to Italy in order to appease Benito Mussolini in 1924/5. Both Thuku and Muthoni became heroes of anti-colonialism and contributed to Kenya’s eventual independence.

Dispossessing people of their land was poverty creation to make them subservient. The dispossessed were scattered across the colony as labourers, petty traders, or junior colonial clerks in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kilifi, and Lamu, where they intermarried and produced famous descendants, including Kenya’s prominent post-colonial journalist Joe Kadhi, who was born in the 1940s of Kikuyu and Bajuni parentage.

The Mau Mau War created its own land dislocation challenges as home guards dispossessed Mau Mau fighters and detainees, and some were detained at the Coast, mainly on Manda Island. Since the 1954 Swynerton Plan had recommended the resettlement of Africans, many Mau Mau detainees at Manda Island were resettled in the Lamu area.

The colonial state, as it prepared to exit, also started settlement schemes. It was in that context that Ronald Ngala, when he ran the colonial state following the 1961 elections, offered to settle people in different parts of the country. Some people, waiting for land from Jomo Kenyatta, failed to take the Ngala offer, and they lived to regret their short-sightedness.

 The regret was because the Kenyatta who became president was different from the one who had inspired them into the Mau Mau War. Scared of the chaos that white settlers could unleash to the country he was about to inherit, Kenyatta went out of his way to be agreeable to Britain and the settlers.

He was under pressure to prove that he was not a radical, that Kenya was not Congo, and that he wanted white settlers to stay. He was in a dilemma and had to balance British expectations of safeguarding settler interests with those of land-dispossessed Africans who remembered his pre-Mau Mau promises. Some could trace lineage to the Coast, the Shungwaya zone.

From the time of Shungwaya intermixing of peoples, the Lamu region accommodated multiple identities. It was a detention place at Manda Island for Mau Mau anti-colonial troublemakers, some of whom settled in the area after detention.

Its peoples include big Arab landowners reportedly with grandparents in Oman, the Bajuni, Somalis with relatives in Somalia, Westerners who jet in for holidays, the Wakamba, the Luo, the Mijikenda community, and the Mountain peoples with their Shungwaya roots. Mountain people peculiarly attract hostility that has colonial conditioning as a governing/controlling mechanism.

The hostility was part of the establishment of the colonial state. Imperial conqueror Francis Hall, for instance, suggested wiping the Kikuyu from the earth for not being ‘obedient’, only that he needed them because they work. The anti-Kikuyu hostility intensified during the Mau Mau War with official government policies that led to two outcomes.

First was the intensified creation of poverty, and second was conditioning other communities to hate the Kikuyu as a people. Bwana Firimbi’s violent activities in Uasin Gishu before independence symbolised manufactured hatred. This hostility repeatedly manifests itself in the atrocities that are selectively meted out on the Kikuyu in diverse places in the country, including tiny Mpeketoni in Lamu.

The effect of colonial conditioning, through the media and education systems, therefore, was to ‘normalise’ hatred of the Kikuyu so much that some Kikuyu elite hate themselves in order to be acceptable to the others.

Former Attorney General Charles Njonjo’s reported unhappiness in having been born a Kikuyu reinforced the rise of what Michela Wrong termed “anti-Kikuyu Kikuyus”, who then normalised and turned anti-Kikuyu attitudes into a national creed. Singling out the Kikuyu for atrocities, blaming the Kikuyu, and the subsequent condoning of the evil then appeared to be normal.

 The presumption of normality in anti-Kikuyu atrocities seemingly drove an exasperated Muthoni into action that attracted attention. She spoke in Parliament about two levels of inaction in the midst of atrocities.

First, State officials appear to ‘understand’ the logic of evil perpetrators and shift blame to the victims for being there. Second, and probably more hurting, is the tendency for Mountain-connected officials to join the understanding, ignore the pain of the affected, and similarly shift the blame to the victims. Such security officials abandon the victims with their purported ‘understanding’ of the logic of terror perpetrators; the hurt is deep. This was the impression that Muthoni created when she spoke in Parliament, that those responsible had abandoned the victims.

 In speaking up when those aspiring or claiming to be leaders are loud in their silence as they jostle for recognition, Muthoni shames them for failing to respond to an existing crisis. They run around holding meetings about being ‘leaders’, even hold rallies to recall the heroic deeds of their ancestors, give each other conditions for coming together, and pat themselves on their backs.

They appear satisfied that they lead, although there is little connection with the supposed followers because they continue to abandon victims of atrocities. Like her namesake more than 100 years ago, Muthoni has stood up in times of crisis as the others watch. It is her time.  

The writer is a professor of history and diplomacy.