Former Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi's widow, Mukami Kimathi, was recently detained at Nairobi Hospital for not paying a pending hospital bill. As a result of media and social media coverage and outrage, President William Ruto has cleared the hospital bill for Sh1.3 million.
Mukami played an active role during the Mau Mau struggle. Despite being labelled a terrorist group by the British, the movement inspired many colonised people worldwide and made them reconsider the viability of the Kenya Settler colony. According to President Ruto, Mukami "remains a symbol of our struggle and resilience. Her presence reminds us of our struggle for independence."
A key strategist, she organised binding oaths in order to recruit and induct resistance and fighting force members. In particular, women played a crucial role in relaying messages to the Mau Mau fighters since they could move more freely. For the fighters in the forests, women were often spies, oath administrators, resource mobilisers and food suppliers. As a result, Mukami earned the nickname 'the wasp'.
Despite all the accolades and the significant role she played in our history, she, like other freedom fighters, continues to live in poverty.
The Kenya Heroes Act became law in 2014, recognising, identifying, and honouring national heroes. Specifically, Section 21 establishes the National Heroes Assistance Fund (NHAF), which provides financial assistance to national heroes and their dependents. Apart from the exchequer, the NHAF can get funds from people, foundations and other well-wishers.
The Kibaki administration recognised and honoured Kimathi as a national hero in 2007. Under the Act, Mukami qualifies as a beneficiary in her own right. In order to receive financial assistance, she must be registered under Section 27, which can be for a short time or for life. A living stipend and health insurance could have been provided by the Fund as long as the council determined the nature of the assistance.
Heroes Council should have coordinated her assistance and communicated how she was being helped to Kenyans. According to Section 25 of the Kenya Heroes Act, she is entitled to a number of privileges including healthcare services, accessible housing, and financial assistance.
Freedom fighters and dependents of national heroes are fundamental to our nation's history, pride, and identity. Although our Constitution and laws have mechanisms to recognise, honour, and assist them, it is unfortunate that they often remain unrecognised and struggle to care for themselves and their progeny.
In the Constitution, Kenyans are honoured for their heroic contributions to freedom and justice. As part of its national outreach, the National Heroes Council and its Secretariat should ensure Kenyans are aware of the office. National heroes and heroines must be selected and nominated through a transparent, verifiable process that inspires pride and patriotism in the nation. The generation of Mukami's freedom fighters is dwindling because of old age. In the process, they will likely take to the grave many stories that should be archived.
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Is there anything we can do to ensure our heroes receive the recognition and respect they deserve? Is our education system adequately capturing this chapter in our history? In Kenya, the colonial government built concentration camps and subjected hundreds of thousands of people to inhumane treatment and torture. Do our people know this?
We have a rich pool of heroes and heroine in many areas including the fight for justice and democracy, academia, science, sports, arts and culture, business, and philanthropy who deserve recognition.