94 years since Muthoni Nyanjiru tapped into her badass and paid the ultimate price, her name remains synonymous with one of the greatest acts of courage in Kenyan history.
Political unrest, unlawful arrests and venereal diseases were a problem in Nairobi in 1922.
Heaven knows that every city, nascent or full-blown, needs a constant supply of pleasure to fuel its growth. Young Nairobi was no different. With the end of the First World War, white settlers and adventure seekers were streaming in. Indian businesses had been thriving since the completion of the railway. And Africans were seeking the novelties of town life. Many of them had left their wives behind while seeking employment or had slipped into manhood in the rapidly growing administrative centre’s streets. Dry-spell was an omnipresent throbbing monster that did cartwheels and raised dust wherever it passed. The poor folks just had to seek reprieve. They stumbled right into the soft, welcoming arms of Nairobi’s first generation of prostitutes.
Most of these women were Kikuyu and had been brought along by relatives; moved to the town to escape arranged marriages, marital squabbles, poverty from recently being rendered landless or just saw an entrepreneurial chance and took it. Their reasons did not matter. What mattered were the cheap rooms, abundant customers and the nonexistent pimps and brothel owners. They were answerable to no one. Brewing and selling beer on the side was getting them higher income than men. They would have been laughing all the way to the bank had there been financial institutions serving African women back then. Instead, the cash was secured in land and other investments. More than half of Pangani, the first “African location”, belonged to them for the longest time. It was a great story, except for one thing.
The government was killing their vibe.
The Nairobi Council, which evidently has a long history of being assholes, had forbidden brewing of beer by Africans the previous year. The brewery it set up in Pumwani immediately after was doing well, not well enough though. Someone noted that sneaky Africans seemed to be getting their buzz elsewhere. In characteristic government fashion, this called for crackdowns. Those found still brewing were subjected to extortions and harassment.
There were also talks of controlling the syphilis infections by banishing prostitutes from the city and demolishing their places of business. The disease had already claimed the marriage of Karen Blixen and Baron Bror Blixen in the same year. The ladies weren’t ready to be screwed over without a fight. They were looking for a chance to show their disdain. And they just might have contributed to one of Kenya’s earliest revolutionary incidents as a result.
Two peculiar things happened on the Ides of March, 1922. First, a crowd of about 7,000 people gathered outside Kingsway police station (now Central Police Station) on Kingsway (now Harry Thuku Road) in a demonstration disguised as a prayer meeting. Most of the crowd dispersed calmly after about fifteen minutes of prayer. A considerable number camped outside through the evening. This was when the second oddity took place.
As dusk fell and the Nairobi chill started biting at the campers, over 250 women huddled together. Just beyond the police lines. They ignored the mosquitoes from the nearby swampy river and concentrated on the task at hand. An oathing ceremony. James Njoroge led a section of East African Association members in administering it. Njoroge was an active political figure; Kikuyu Central Association would be formed during a meeting in his house in 1927. Among these women were Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru and, a step daughter she lived with, Elizabeth Wariara. It was strange since, in the Gikuyu custom, women did not take oaths. A male representative in the family usually did.
The next morning was bright and humid. The long rains were nigh, but it was perfect for a demonstration. The crowd gathered again, bigger this time. Over 8,000 Africans sprinkled with a few Indians. They weren’t going to be dismissed so easily this time. They wanted their leader freed.
Harry Thuku, a young, spirited and extremely popular leader of the EAA had been arrested by the colonial government on 14th March. He was detained at the police station along with George Mgekenyi and Waiganjo Wa Ndotono. In response, the EAA had called for a general strike, and since that was before keyboard activists; transport workers, domestic and government employees actually abandoned their places of work and gathered in solidarity.
After the Soldier Settlement Scheme of 1919, a horde of WW1 veterans got swathes of land in Kenya but had neither the manpower nor the resources to farm. They appealed to the government for help. It raised hut taxes. Chiefs were ordered to “exercise every possible lawful influence to induce able-bodied natives to go into the labour field”. The already meagre wages they earned had been reduced by a third and would be turned in as a tax.?This gave the chiefs an opportunity to fuck up anyone they did not like. Women would be held, for days on end, till the assigned job was complete. Many would return raped and pregnant.
Thuku was so vocal against forced labour that he came to be known as “Munene wa Nyacing’a” the chief of women. Women adored him. The government was threatened by his growing influence and militancy. Powerful chiefs; the famous Koinange wa Mbiu, the utterly loathed Philips Karanja James and the notorious headmen; Josiah Njonjo (father to Charles Njonjo) and Waruhiu wa Kung’u hated his guts. He had built a reputation touring the country pushing against the Kipande system, low wages, and high taxation.
His embodiment of this indignation had borne remarkable results, Winston Churchill, the new British Secretary Of State for the Colonies bent to the pressure. A new policy forbade government officials from recruiting labour for private benefit. Forced labour decreased dramatically and, with it, sexual abuse. Of course, the arrest of the people’s hero was bound to cause an uproar.
By 9:00 am, the crowd was calm and peaceful, many sitting and going into prayer once in a while. J.C Bentley, the Acting Commissioner of the Kenya Police, with his askaris in the station and some on Government Road (now Moi Avenue) knew the situation was in control. Even patrons at the Norfolk Hotel right behind him felt confident enough to drink, exchange war lore, adventure stories and whatever else white imperialists found amusing in 1922. Bentley asked the protesters to choose six men. They did. The six leaders accompanied him to see Sir Charles Bowring, the colonial secretary to the East African Protectorate. The intention was to negotiate for the release of Thuku. The secretary gave an assurance that Thuku was not in any danger. He was merely being held in preparation for a trial, which was to be open and fair. The delegation was convinced to call off the demonstration.
Meanwhile back at the station, it was almost midday and the unforgiving Nairobi sun was baking the masses. They were getting hungry and impatient. A troop of over two hundred women that had just arrived was being briefed on the situation. Some individuals seized the moment to test their oratory skills. Their speeches riled up the people’s anger to the point of eruption. By the time the delegation returned, the crowd was seething and churning.
Two representatives addressed the crowd. Asking them to disperse after informing them what the government intended to do with Thuku. There are claims that one of these men was a youthful Jomo Kenyatta, which is highly probable, seeing as he had joined the party that same year and was changing his name from Johnstone Kamau.
As the new information spread through the stirring crowd, dissatisfaction reared its head. The representatives were shouted down and accused of taking a bribe. However, a big section of the crowd rose to go home, and for a moment, it seemed as if the worst was over.
But Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru rose to her feet, exasperated. She had been there the previous day, had taken the oath and wasn’t about to give up so easily. She hadn’t come all the way from Weithaga in Murang’a for nothing. Along with the other women in the crowd, she had left her work unattended, had endured the sun’s heat on her bald head, the weight of her hangi pulling down her earlobes, the hunger, the fatigue, the goddamn mosquitoes… And all that for naught? Anger, contempt and resolve in her chest coiled together into determination. Courage was part of her heritage. As was pride. No, she wasn’t about to go back home a failure. She wasn’t about to let the complacent men allow the white man to sit on the population even more. To extinguish every reasonable voice of the people that rose. Muthoni had had enough. She got hold of her calico dress, raised it over her shoulders, and shouted,
“Take my dress and give me your trousers! You men are cowards! What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there! Let’s go get him!!!”
And shit got real.
What she had just unleashed was an old Kikuyu insult. It is considered a curse to see a woman your mother’s age naked. Guturamira ng’ania was a rarely employed last resort after a woman got to a point where she couldn’t deal with the present crap. It usually meant that the male authority was no longer recognised in that situation. It was the ultimate and most powerful symbol of defiance a woman could use against the patriarchal system. The same tactic would be used by Wangari Maathai and her colleagues at Freedom Corner seventy years later.
Ululations and shouts rent the tense air as hundreds of women recognised the signal and backed Muthoni Nyanjiru. People who had been leaving changed their minds. She pushed forward towards the police lines. The mass followed her, roaring, pertinacity charging through their adrenaline-drenched ranks like electric currents. Captain Carey’s jaw fell in shock. He was the Superintendent of Police and he realized how grossly he and his colleagues had underestimated the population they condescendingly referred to as “the natives”. The thousands who had maintained calmness earlier were now threatening to tear up the aluminium sheet fence.
Immediately, he ordered forty askaris who had been at ease to engage, they fell on one knee and raised their rifles. Nyanjiru and her army advanced still, till the bayonets were pricking at their throats. The Acting Assistant Commissioner of Police, Captain Lumley, who was in a similar state of shock and disbelief, put twenty askaris in raised positions where they had clear shots over the fence and gave them twenty more rounds of ammunition. There was a tense moment of quiet as each side contemplated calling the other’s bluff.
Suddenly, a section of the crowd rushed forward towards the prison door. This was it! Thuku was watching through his cell window. He knew the people regarded him as their saviour and now they were about to save him in return. He crossed his fingers and shut his eyes waiting for the moment the door would burst open and bring freedom with it.
Then the first shot was fired.
They still rushed to break him out, undeterred.
Seeing this, the police went batshit crazy and emptied their guns indiscriminately into the crowd. The other line of policemen who were on the Government Road side took up the firing in turn. This rendered the town centre inaccessible. The crowd, defenceless and confused, had no option but to run down Kingsway. It led to the current Museum Hill. That attempt was deemed futile. The white settlers and bounty hunters at the Norfolk Hotel picked up their weapons and enthusiastically gunned them down in cold blood. Thus sealing their names into one of the biggest pre-Mau Mau massacres.
By the time the smoke cleared and the dust settled, at least, two hundred people lay dead and dying on the field. More sustained life-threatening injuries that some would succumb to in hiding. The official government figure claimed there were 21 fatalities; 17 men and four women all African; and 28 injuries. Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru was among the first to fall, but her badassery would live forever.
Harry Thuku was exiled to Kismayu (part of the Kenyan Frontier District then), and later to Marsabit, Witu and Lamu. He remained in detention without trial till 1931. He came out a broken man. His previous fire had been killed by the British tactics of torture, brainwash and blackmail. He became a loyalist who later spoke against the Mau Mau and denounced Nationalists. Mugekenyi and Waiganjo suffered a similar fate. Waiganjo would be released in 1925 to later rise to be the head of “tribal police”. He would ride on a mule; get into his village in the evening amid trumpet blasts and greet people by touching their heads with the tip of his flywhisk. But that is a story for another day.
After the massacre, the EAA was banned.
Inquiry later exonerated the police who claimed they had been on duty for more than 24 hours, but the sacrifice wasn’t all in futility. The tax was reduced from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and was never again raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs, African grievances were given serious consideration and later that year, Sir Edward Northey was replaced as governor.
Women took over that day and lead one of the most courageous deeds in Kenyan history, paying with their lives. They would do the same 30 years later in the struggle for independence though their roles would be downplayed.
The Nairobi sex workers, who constituted a formidable number in the crowd, were driven out in 1924. They went into Pangani and Pumwani and started their businesses all over again. Others went back to their rural homes.
94 years later; the nation rarely mentions Muthoni Nyanjiru or the hundreds of her compatriots who were present that day. Hopefully, one day, their story will be taught to children in full and a monument erected in their honour.
Ngartia Bryan is a writer, performance artist and aspiring know-it-all. He is a co-founder of?www.storyzetu.com and will be found wandering randomly around the internet whenever he breaks free from narratives.
Cover Image taken by Martin Njuguna at Project Courage Exhibition.
One story is Good,
till Another is told.