The Women Who Went to War

Field Marshal Muthoni’s eyebrows are falling off.

The few locks she still has are even longer now, and graying slower than the rest of her hair. Her gait, once springy, is now slow and deliberate. She can laugh and cry in the same sentence, and some memories seem to physically pain her. But when she hugs me, I don’t see it coming. No one does.

One second she’s narrating a story, and the next she’s sprung from her seat and is hugging me. It’s part of the story, but the energy with which she moves catches us all unawares. As she sits down again, she looks at me conspiratorially and says “you should have stood up!”

Since she left the forests in December 1963, Field Marshal Muthoni Kirima has embodied the women who went to war, and the fighters who kept on fighting until after independence. She’s been a kink in a narrative that erased the contribution of women in the actual fighting. Yes, the core role of women in the Mau Mau war was the support wings. They were the spies and supply lines. They were the nurses and cooks and aides. But they were also soldiers. A good number of them took up arms and joined in the mayhem.

“We weren’t many,” Muthoni admits, “but it is women who won wiyathi.” But then, a while later, she gazes at the table with a forlorn look and says “tutire twagia wiyathi uria twaruiiri.”

That’s poignant because independence was not just about a new black elite. It was about fixing a broken system, and here is a woman, well in her late ‘80s, saying it never happened. That her sacrifice, and that of everyone who contributed to the war effort, was lost.  

The hardest question on the list is about the time she was most afraid. I know the words, but I am unsure how to ask. But then she starts talking about the time she got shot, and I realize I don’t have to. Of the 7 people who walked into an ambush that day, she was the only one who made it alive. Her luck was that the bullet hit her left shoulder and flung her some distance away, from where she crawled to safety. She looks dejected when she says it, like she struggling to remember the faces of the comrades she lost that day. Struggling to understand why she was the lucky one. And one of the few.

“Every time we went to look for food, we paid with a life.” That statement sticks with me, because she constantly says “We left very many people in the forests.” She speaks of them in the way we speak about people who die in foreign lands, or who get lost forever, and we never get to honor with a proper burial.

The amount of laughs Field Marshal Muthoni had at the expense of Ngartia’s hair deserve an entire post on their own.

***

The most renown female fighters were Muthoni Kirima, who rose the ranks to Field Marshal, Cinda Reri (Wamuyu Gakuru), Grace Nyaguthii, Wanjugu Gituku, and Njoki Waicere. They were not alone in the actual fighting, but they are the few we know about. Cinda Reri was involved in the Battle of Ruiru River, where she was mistaken for the leader because of her expert handling of the gun. She led an all-female unit of 200 of whose exploits we know even less. She started out as a gun runner, hence her nom de guerre, because she worked contacts in the railway service to deliver weapons.

Muthoni, the most famous of them all, only quit her post after independence. She had lived and fought in the forests for a decade by then, and her story would embody the small group of women who actually wielded weapons and fought in some of the most defining battles. But today, as we sit outside her home and roam through the stories of her life, it’s clear she also embodies the brunt of the erasure and tokenism that followed. It is through her eyes today that the exploits of the badass women of the war become clear, and sad. 

Most of what we know about these cadres of women is from the little research and records available, scattered mentions in memoirs, and anecdotal evidence. One of the most authoritative works is “The Role of Kikuyu Women in the Mau Mau”, [PDF] a 1986 Masters Thesis by Margaret Wangui. Wangui explores multiple angles of this question, and how it was processed after the guns had gone quiet. There are three main memoirs by female authors: Daughter of Mumbi by Charity Waciuma; Passbook Number F.47927 by Muthoni Likimani; and Mau Mau’s Daughter by Wambui Otieno. None of the authors were in the military units, which partially explains the missing pieces of history. There are biographies as well, such as Field Marshal Muthoni: Mau Mau Heroine by Ruth W. Karani.

But even from those a few things are clear. While women fought and died in the decade-long war, their involvement was controversial, ignored even, from the start of the war. It made them some of the most effective players in the conflict, forcing both sides to change tactics several times. The first hint of this is a 1952 press release in an issue of the East African Standard. It read in part

Mau Mau women terrorists struck for the first time in Fort Hall [Murang’a] reserve when a gang, of which they were members, killed three men, five children and a woman in a night raid in Muriani. We have known for sometime that there were women terrorists just as bad as the men, operating with some gangs. They are the real hardcore Mau Mau fanatics. This is the first time however we can definitely state that they have killed.” 

In another case, women burnt down a camp and destroyed a bridge to help a platoon escape.

Colonial thinking, itself patriarchal, had a hard time believing women were doing more than support a male-versus-male war. Even after the intelligence units had evidence that there were women in the military units, it still took a single event with several witnesses to acknowledge it. In part, it was because it would change the propaganda war that this was not just an internal and destructive civil war, but that ‘women and children’ could no longer be seen as malleable. In fact, both demographics had been in the struggle all along, playing core roles within supply and military units.

But the problem of active erasure wasn’t just outside the Mau Mau, but also within.

A few months after the press release, fifty-six Mau Mau leaders held the most defining war summit of their cause. There were many things on the agenda, including ranks, the name of the organization, as well as how to coordinate their individual efforts. This was the meeting where the Kenya Defense Council was formed with Kimathi as president, and the fighting forces were divided into eight formal armies.

Then there was the question of women. Specifically, what role they would play in the war. This was already a year in and everything had escalated beyond what anyone had imagined. The rules needed to be changed. But the issue was being discussed by a committee of men. While most felt the work of women should be domestic, one of the strongest voices against such separation of duties was Stanley Mathenge. The leadership tussle between him and Dedan Kimathi was at an all time high, and this meeting would only worsen it. But to Mathenge, and a few others there, anyone who could contribute to the war effort should have been allowed to do whatever they were assigned.

They were outvoted, but platoon leaders were given leeway to decide by themselves. The fate of women who actually wanted to fight thus went to the all-male leadership even though just a few months before, an all-female battalion had changed how the colonial government viewed the war. In one of the earliest memoirs after the war ended, a former fighter said they collectively saw women as a liability in the forests. The implication is that they were weak and cowardly, and couldn’t possibly contribute to the war effort.

By then, every senior leader had at least one female aide known as Kabatuni. There are two ways to interpret this word: one is of it as the diminutive form of Batuni, the other is to see it as “belongs to the Batuni.” The most important oath in the war was the third “Muuma wa Ngero”, known colloquially as the Batuni Oath, which allowed oath takers to use violence. We know of at least one, Wanjiru, who was Kimathi’s aide and eventually climbed the ranks to Colonel, although she doesn’t appear in most records of the fluid ranking. It is from her-through a secondary source-that we know Kimathi had Mathenge killed (or did it himself) then made up the Ethiopia story.

Two things happened in the next few years. The Homeguards formed a female-unit in 1955, led by white soldiers. It was staffed with female cops as well as the widows of slain loyalists, who were all equipped with swords “to hack to pieces any Mau Mau they found”, according to HK Wachanga in The Swords of Kirinyaga. The name of the unit is unclear, although some accounts have it as “Hika Hika”-which others claim was the name of one of the Mau Mau battalions.

As the war escalated, the all-female Mau Mau unit that had struck in 1954 most likely grew or inspired other units to form their own. One was called the Wangu Group; the extent of its exploits is unknown. It makes sense that as the war claimed senior leaders and its male leadership, women quickly rose through the ranks. The original opposition to their contribution was fading away, but only for a time. 

The reaction was brutal. In 1954, Kamiti Prison added a female-only wing for the most hardcore women. These were the fighters who had taken the highest oath and swore to do violence. Even there, their rehabilitation was markedly different from that of their male colleagues. It encouraged them to be wives and mothers, trying everything from home science to religion. The thinking, and this is from an actual report, is that women were “far less knowledgeable than men and have been easily swayed by the Mau Mau.” But even here, according to HK Wachanga, it wasn’t rosy at all. The female warders in charge were ‘particularly cruel to the detainees because many of them were the wives of slain homeguards.’ The only ‘comfort’ was that in Kamiti, unlike other detention centers, prisoners were shot, not hanged.

But even that didn’t last long. In 1958, a different wing, at Gitamaiyu had to be built specifically to hold 162 female detainees who refused to be broken. They were labelled insane and witches-which might sound as familiar putdowns today against strong-willed women. It had all the hallmarks of the other such extreme prisons, including torture and hard labor. At least one letter about the torture leaked out, but the Colonial Office covered it up. Their courage, even in the dying years of the war, was unbreakable.

***

When Field Marshal Muthoni left her post in December 1963, she was the last woman still fighting. She was one of the two highest-ranking leaders who had never been caught or killed, the other being Musa Mwariama. Her fate, like his, would be quickly forgotten after an initial raft of promises to surrender. But first, someone would try lace her soda with poison. Then, after six months of living at Ruring’u Stadium, the cops came and tried to evict them. 

Post-conflict societies heal in three main ways: commemoration, economic development, and restraint. Kenya chose the last two, in part because there wasn’t just the 50s conflicts to deal with, but also others like the Pokot resistance and gulags of the 1940s and 1950s. But the bigger reason for the restraint was that it was not the male elite who took over had not seen a day of war, although a small number had been detained. To acknowledge the resistance would be to acknowledge the wounds of the conflict.

Among former fighters, the idea of economic development and black rule was bittersweet. They tried to build new lives from the little they had, and in their social structures, slowly reverted to the patriarchal structure that had first begun to thaw during World War 2. They cut their locks, or like Muthoni, learnt to tuck them neatly under a headscarf. In all these, female fighters faded to the background of the history of the war. In the post-conflict social order, the ideals that had driven the war itself became taboo to speak about. The wounds were left to fester.

Of the women who went to war, Muthoni says “they kept leaving the forest. Most of them got married.” They became businesswomen and mums, and tried to leave the war they had fought behind them. Even today, getting veterans to talk about actual violence they engaged in is hard, if not impossible.

Field Marshal Muthoni’s eyebrows are falling off. Her eyes still glow when she talks about how they stole guns, and how she left the forests with a gun, a sword, and axe, like a true badass. But the scars of the war are still raw; their pain still fresh. The reasons for them should never be forgotten.

Read Aleya Kassam’s account of our visit to Field Marshal Muthoni here [Link].

Owaahh, 2018

One Story is good, 

till Another is told.