Freedom fighter Field Marshal Muthoni Kirima takes final bow

Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima (seated left) with former First Lady Mama Ngina Kenyatta after she shaved her dreadlocks. [John Muchucha, Standard]

One of Kenya’s prominent female figures in the liberation struggle, Field Marshal Muthoni Kirima, has passed away. Museum records show that Muthoni was born in 1930 as Muthoni Whihuini in Nairutia village, Nyeri County.

Former Nyeri Museum Curator Anthony Maina, who is currently in charge of the Murang’a museum, said she was named after her grandfather, foreshadowing her future as a woman breaking barriers in a male-dominated world.

Muthoni embraced Christianity during her childhood and learned about the new faith at missionaries’ tents alongside other children.

However, a distressing encounter at a settler’s farm, marked by racist altercations that included verbal and physical violence against Kikuyu men and sexual violence against Kikuyu women, changed her path.

This experience strengthened her determination to enter the forest and join the fight for her kinsmen’s liberation in 1948.

Joseph Macharia Mwangi, a Mau Mau war veteran known as General Kihithuki, who fought alongside Muthoni, confirmed her involvement with the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), which led to the Mau Mau uprising in the Aberdare Forest.

Muthoni fought alongside notable freedom fighters like Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi and General Mirugi Mathenge.

“Muthoni was nicknamed ‘Nyona wa Thonjo’ meaning weaver bird, by Kimathi himself for her ability to get out of any situation,” said Macharia.

She achieved the unique distinction of becoming the only woman to hold the title of Field Marshal in the Mau Mau struggle.

Her primary responsibility was leading raids on farms to procure food and livestock for the forest fighters.

Muthoni remained in the forest until the very end, surrendering to the independence government in 1963. President Jomo Kenyatta personally sent a vehicle to pick her up along with less than 20 other fighters from the forest before her public surrender at Ruringu Stadium in Nyeri.

Fearless fighter

Macharia described Muthoni as a fearless fighter with exceptional forest navigation skills and marksmanship.

However, he declined to discuss how she earned the title of Field Marshal.

After her surrender, Muthoni led an active life both in entrepreneurship and politics. She was nominated to the defunct County Council of Nyeri, setting an example for other nominated women in politics and actively participating in local politics.

She served alongside former nominated councillor Sheikh Uledi Majjid who eulogised her with kind words.

“In Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima’s demise, I have lost a close friend, colleague and confidante,” Uledi said.

He recalled how she told her colleagues stories of forest escapades, including leading night raids, stealing supplies, and gathering intelligence.

“I learnt a lot about the independence struggle from her during our stint in politics and as residents of Nyeri. We struck up a friendship where I asked her to teach me Kikuyu while I offered to teach her Swahili,” he said.

Uledi added that Muthoni always preached peace and coexistence among the councillors, and asked them to do the same.

Muthoni’s influence extended to the formation of the Former Councillors Association of Kenya, which aimed to support the welfare of past county and municipal leaders.

Maina described Muthoni as one of the two esteemed daughters of Nyeri, the other being the late Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathai. “Nyina wa Thonjo was among those who were in the forest for the longest period, having joined the liberation struggle in 1952 and surrendered in 1963 together with her husband,” he said.

Maina said Muthoni was a valiant warrior who was never captured, but led the struggle from the front.

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