Mukami Kimathi outlived two British kings, a queen as well as three presidents but when she ultimately breathed her last on Friday aged 93, a rare flame of passion and patriotism was extinguished.
That flame had defiantly flickered throughout Kenya’s most tumultuous period fluttering over waves of betrayal, prejudices and oppression and was the fuel that inspired the quest for Kenya’s freedom. Mukami represented thousands of peasant women who were brutalised by a society that had normalised their discrimination.
When she was 18-years-old, she had ensnared the heart of one Kenya’s most renown freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, who the colonial government had hated with a passion and deprived of all his his earthly possessions and later took his life.
Her strong will and undying love made her defy her father, Wangome Ngumo, who regarded Kimathi as a pauper undeserving to be his son in-law. She survived many forms of betrayal from her own family who treated her a pariah and feared her state of widowhood would destabilise the equation of sharing out family land with her brothers.
Her close association with Kimathi, the face of Mau Mau and rebellion who was hanged in 1957, made Mukami undesirable in Central Kenya and Nairobi where being a son or daughter of Mumbi was a crime punishable by detention or a gun shot in the back. Mukami died a disappointed woman whose wish to accord her husband a dignified burial by colonial and successive post-independent governments had fallen on deaf ears.
Despite her shabby treatment and unlike many freedom fighters who bottled up their experiences and frustrations in their hearts, she left the country with memories of what she had gone through in her eventful life.
Though she dropped out of her school in Tetu and waltzed into welcoming hands of her hero to be his bride, she has immortalised her struggles in 307 page autobiography, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter, published in 2017.
Hers is a story of a villager whose parents were disinherited before her birth in 1930, torn between opposing forces of colonialism, Christian missionaries and traditionalists who were forever tussling for supremacy.
Her illiterate father was a traditional seer who believed in his mwano, (traditional guard used by medicine men) and a swish of his fly whisk to foresee the future, even as he supervised other villagers slaving for the Consolata Missionaries who had appropriated their land in Tetu.
Mukami’s polygamous father hated the missionaries and had bought two hippo whips which he liberally used to drum sense into his wives and daughters whenever they strayed.
On more than one occasion, Mukami tasted the whips when she listened to the Christian preachers and neglected to look after goats. The same whip administered his father’s version of justice after she defied him and chose Kimathi.
One occasion, incensed by Kimathi’s courtship of his daughter, Wangome went to a court in Ruring’u Nyeri where he extracted orders to attach his property for trespassing his compound in pursuit of Mukami.
“My father walked to Kimathi’s homestead waving a warrant in the air. Come fight me,” he said, “you who has the guts to trespass on my property,” the angry father taunted. Kimathi refused to fight him and would not even stand up or cast away the newspaper he was reading.
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When his challenge was declined, Wangome herded out all Kimathi’s goats and cows to his home and Mukami says “they became my father’s property. Kimathi did not appeal the court’s decision, so my father kept all Kimathi’s livestock as his own.”
According to Mukami, Kimathi was not a very rich man since, Wachiuri his father, had never returned after he was conscripted to fight in the First World War, shortly before the birth of his son.
Kimathi had somehow beaten other suitors including two primary school headmasters and a local tycoon all who were given preferential treatment by Mukami’s father.
He permanently wrote his name in Mukami’s heart by penning passionate love notes decreeing that their love was ordained by God and nobody, including the mercurial father, could change that which the god’s of love had decreed.
When Kimathi finally pleaded with Mukami to marry him with a disclaimer that he had no cows or goats for dowry as his earthly assets had been attached by her father, she readily agreed and the couple started their family and later moved to Ol Kalou.
It was from Ol Kalou where he was working in a white man’s farm that he shifted to Nyahururu where he started a secretarial college even as he intensified his underground recruitment and oathing of Mau Mau members.
When the colonial officers finally raided Kimathi’s house in Nyahururu while he was away, they carted away all the love letters and other political correspondences and documents as well as photographs and clothes. When the government placed a bounty of £500 (Sh85,831.48) on Kimathi’s head, he escaped into Aberdare Forest from where he would fight alongside other fighters such as General Mathenge Mirugi.
Mukami alternated between secretly slipping ammunition and other supplies to the freedom fighters in the forest to organising underground resistance cells in Nairobi up to the time she was captured.
Four months in jail
When she was arrested and convicted for being a Mau Mau member, she infuriated the judge who had ordered her to pay a fine of Sh2,000 or serve four months in prison.
“If I had the Sh2,000 you are asking me, don’t you think I would buy a dress to cover my naked behind,” she said. The judge slapped her with an additional for months for contempt. It was at Kamiti that she met Miriam Muthoni, General Mathenge’s wife and Ngina Kenyatta, who was popularly referred to as Nyina Wa Gatheca. “My cell mate Ngina was wife of Jomo Kenyatta. They kept those they referred to as Mau Mau wives in an enclosure they called Kambi ya fisi (Hyena’s camp),” she recalled.
She recalled how she learnt of Kimathi’s capture on October 21, 1956. After incessant sirens in prison, she heard speakers scream: “Announcement, announcement!. Dedan Kimathi, the terrorist leader of the Mau Mau has been shot.”
Mukami stood rooted to the spot. The announcement was followed by taunting from some prison warders who jeered her that the man Kenyans thought was their messiah had been shot.
Mukami wondered what would become of their children Waciuri, Nyambura and Waceke. She was momentarily reunited with Kimathi after she was granted permission to visit him at Industrial Area Remand Prison where he was transferred after he was found guilty of being in possession of a firearm and sentenced to die. “He asked me to be strong. Then he asked that I should not allow the Kimathi name to die. If you get children after I am gone, they must carry my name because they will be my children but do not get married to anybody else.” His last words to Mukami were: “Find ways to keep my name alive. They will kill me but do not let them kill my name, Kimathi Wa Wachiuri.” Although Kimathi knew he was going to be hanged, he desperately wanted to see his children one last time. Mukami was asked to prepare to go and fetch them and was shocked to learn the following morning that her husband had been hanged.
While Mukami got to know of the death from the Kamiti grape vine, the government press officer issued a press hand out, No 199 titled, Dedan Kimathi executed. And announced that this had been done at 6am at Nairobi Prison.
The bounty for Kimathi’s capture was later distributed on November 5, 1956 where six members of the tribal police were given 25 pounds each while the man who shot Kimathi, Ndirangiu Mau, was given 150 pounds while his colleague Njugi Ngati, who had assisted him, bagged 75 pounds. When Mukami was released after Kimathi’s hanging, she went home to find that her husband’s land had been shared out to home guards, and his mother had lost her other sons and was living in somebody else’s land.
When she went to her home, her father was very cold. “He looked at me and asked me why I had come home. “As she was to learn later, her father was now a head man, a colonial symbol of authority who could not entertain any Mau Mau in his home. She was literally chased out of her home by her biological father who warned her never to set foot on his compound again. Since she was still on probation, the home guards under who she worked without pay would cane her as the father smiled. “My father was extremely pleased to see his wayward daughter who had embarrassed him work in public and told me so.”
Though she lived in squalor, when the agitation for independence came, Mukami campaigned for Kanu and was nominated as a councilor in Nyandarua County Council after independence.
“Serving as the only female councilor was a hard task as whatever I said was dismissed. They were very uncomfortable with my presence not only because I was a woman but because they thought I should not make any decisions.”
She tabled a motion to have women teach kindergarten and primary schools, and after lobbying, succeeded in convincing the council to pay them the same salaries as men. She sacrificed her youth for the freedom struggle and dedicated her entire life fighting for what Kimathi lived and died for freedom and human dignity.