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Badass Women of History: Mekatilili wa Menza

Opinion | December 17, 2015

Mekatilili wa Menza was not your typical rebellion leader. Born in 1860 and a member of the Giriama tribe in present day Kenya, she was the only daughter in a poor family of five children. When she was 53, British colonization began in Kenya. The British had success in growing crops in nearby colonies and established a number of rubber plantations in the Giriama area. As part of this, many Giriama men were forced into low-wage labor on these plantations. In addition, a number were pressed into the British army to fight against other colonial powers in the region, especially Germany.

During the period, Giriama women rarely (if ever) had significant levels of political involvement. However, as a widow, it was culturally acceptable for Mekatilili to speak in public. Mekatilili milked it for all it was worth, speaking out against the harsh colonial government, specifically their practices of free labor and over taxation. And she did this by dancing.

Mekatilili utilized a type of energetic, traditional Giriama dance called kifudu usually reserved for funeral ceremonies. This made the sight of an elderly woman excitedly dancing from village to village quite the spectacle—it attracted a crowd of onlookers wherever she went. Her dancing was punctuated by passionate speeches against the British and she gained recognition as a rebellion leader in the area.

In July and August of 1913, she was chosen to lead meetings held by the Giriama people to organize and mobilize in guerilla warfare against the British. The British soon took notice of her and arrested her in October 1913 along with fellow leader Wanje wa Madorika. The two were deported over 500 miles away to the far west of Kenya, but escaped a few months later. They walked the entire way back home during which, the two fell in love and were married. They resumed resistance efforts immediately upon their arrival home, much to the surprise of the British. They described Mekatilili as a “witch” and a “prophetess who gave additional force to the oath in spreading the gospel of violence.” Mekatilili was arrested again soon after and sent north to the Somalian border. Again, she escaped and again, she walked the entire way back home.

In the following years, the Giridama resistance moved towards open revolt. With resources stretched thin due to World War I, the British ceased colonization efforts in the region. Traditional government was reestablished in the region, with the men’s council headed by Wanje and the women’s council headed by Mekatilili.

She died in 1925 but remained an obscure figure until 2010. During the first annual Mashujaa or Heroes Day, a statue of her was unveiled at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi, renamed Mekatilili wa Menza Garden in her honor.