Mekatilili wa Menza is a woman whose exploits are amazing. Many became familiar with her when learning history in school. Let us reacquaint ourselves with her as we celebrate International Women’s Day.
Mekatilili was from the Giriama community and was born sometime between the 1840s and 1860s in Mutsara wa Tsatsu in Bamba, Kilifi county. She was the only girl in a family of 5 children.
She experienced tragedy early on in her life when one of her brothers, Mwarandu, was snatched by Arab slave traders and never seen again.
She was later on married to Dyeka at Lango Baya, but widowed, which along with her age, gave her more freedom to move as a female leader.
She got her name Mekatilili after giving birth to her son Katilili. The prefix ‘me’ in Mijikenda languages stands for ‘mother of’.
One of her main issues with colonisers was that her traditional culture was being eroded by the colonialists, principally that of following their own religion.
Their religion involved praying in sacred dwelling places called Kayas, located in forested areas. For the Mijikenda people, it was considered an intrinsic source of ritual power and the origin of cultural identity.
She also had issues with British attempts to hire African labourers cheaply and their efforts to collect taxes from the locals.
The Giriamas, as with most African communities, were patrilineal but due to her widowhood, she had an elevated status. The women also had certain privileges, like being able to speak before the elders, which she used to great effect.
Her success in drawing women was also predicated on the tradition of Mepoho, a female prophet who predicted that the land would deteriorate, youth would not respect their elders, and the Giriama would no longer bear healthy children.
She also gained a large audience through her performance of the kifudu dance, a dance that was reserved for funeral ceremonies.
She nonetheless performed it constantly from town to town, attracting a large following that followed her wherever she went.
She used her status to mobilise her community in support of traditional religions. Her cause was also helped by traditional medicineman Wanje wa Mwadori Kola.
The struggle begins
She led a public baraza at Chakama to protest English recruitment of African porters for WWI; they responded by firing at the crowd.
On 13 August 1913, British colonial administrator for the region, Arthur Champion, held a public meeting with the community.
He set out his demands to them, which the heroine rejected. The two then got into a heated exchange with the Giriama prophetess, eventually slapping him.
Mekatilili and Mwadori organised a large meeting at Kaya Fungo, were they administered the mukushekushe oath among the women and men.
The vow was for them to never cooperate with the British in any way, shape or form. The British who were utterly ruthless in their dealings with people they colonised, responded by seizing large tracts of Giriama land, burning their homes and dynamiting Kaya Fungo.
This led to the Giriama Uprising, known locally as kondo ya chembe.
Six months later, the British on October 17, 1913 arrested the arbiter of hope and freedom was exiled her to Mumias in Western Province.
British colonial records state that five years later, she returned to her native area where she continued to oppose the imposition of Colonial policies and ordinances.
However, some narratives say that she escaped from the prison in Mumias and walked over 1,000 kilometers back home to Giriama. Others say that she was released.
She returned to action, and was arrested again, this time she was sent north to the Somalia border area. Again, a second time, she escaped.
Five years after the revolt, the British had failed to gain control of the country, and were compelled to accomodate a Giriama government.
Mekatilili Wa Menza returned to head up a women’s council (something that had not existed in the immediately pre-colonial period).
She died in 1925, and was buried in Bungale, in Magarini Constituency, Malindi. A woman of worth who encapsulated the word, greatness.