“We are not to fear the Europeans!” – Mekatilili
Mekatilili Wa Menza was a fearless Kenyan heroine of Giriama extraction who led her people to challenge the British on the exploitation in the colonial times.
Born in Mutsara wa Tsatsu, a village of the Giriama sometime between 1840 and 1860, Mekatilili was the only girl among five children and was named Mnyazi wa Menza (Mnyazi daughter of Menza) by her poor parents. She became known as Mekatilili following the birth of her son Katilili.
As a young girl growing up, Mekatilili was regaled by tales from her grandmother about the coming of the white men, which were foretold by a Midzi-Chenda (Mijikenda) prophetess named Mepoho. She learnt according to the prophecy how the foreigners would attempt to oppress her people and attempt to destroy their culture, but that a woman will withstand them.
Mekatilili came in contact with Arabs and later British in Malindi town and at the great market near Kilifi town where she used to come to trade. Her resentment of the foreigners was triggered off by a personal tragedy which has been attributed as being responsible for her strong feelings toward forced labor and oppression.
On one of her trading visits, Mekatilili witnessed one of her brothers called Mwarandu taken captive by Arab slave merchants, which left a deep psychological scar on her.
Traditionally married to Dyeka wa Duka in Bungale, Mekatilili was an active and prominent member of traditional women groups in the community such as Hifudu and Makushekushe which she rose to head later on. Following the death of her husband, she had more freedom as a woman leader to move around and rally the people.
Mekatilili had great oratory skills and along with her charisma and bravery she led public meetings called baraza, mobilizing the men to take oaths and make sacrifices to restore their sovereignty. At a baraza in August 1913, Mekatilili got into a heated argument with the British administrator, Arthur Champion who she slapped!
Swiftly, the Giriama men rallied to defend their heroine and were ready to deal with the British official who was taken away. The British responded by firing shots at the gathering crowd. Realizing their initial miscalculation in underestimating Mekatilili’s influence, the British plotted and succeeded in arresting her along with Wanje wa Mwadorikola on October 17, 1913.
Mekatilili and Wanje, a male activist were sentenced to five years imprisonment and were taken to Kisii, about 1,000km away. However in April 1914, the pair escaped and found their way back home, which was a big shock to the British who could not understand how a woman could have walked the distance and through a thick forest and survived the wild animals.
Mekatilili continued where she had left off and this ultimately led to the Giriama uprising of October 25, 1914 where many Giriama people were killed by the British who also burnt Kaya Fuongo, the spiritual capital of the Giriama. Mekatilili was re-arrested and sent this time up north near the border area with Somalia.
Although the British had the upper hand, they were unable to gain total control and eventually, yielded to the demands of the Giriama people. Mekatilili returned five years after the revolt. She died at around 1925. However, it was not until October 20, 2010 at the celebration of the first Mashujaa (Heroes) Day that the legendary woman was honored and recognized among Kenya’s freedom fighters!
Did You Know?
- Mekatilili was the only female child amongst five children born to her parents.
- Her given name at birth was Mnyazi.
- Her actual date of birth is unknown and said to be between 1840 and 1860.
- She used to come to Malindi to trade.
- One of her brothers was captured by Arab slave traders before her eyes.
- Her first son was named Katilili, after which she was referred to as Mekatilili (Mother of Katilili).
- The British referred to her as a mad woman, and called her a witch…
- Mekatilili once slapped the British administrator after a heated exchange of words between them.
- She got the people to undertake the fisi (hyena) oath which was the most dreaded of oaths among the people. It was believed that any traitor who took the oath would die.
- She died around 1925 and was buried in Bugale where her husband hailed from and was also buried.
- A festival which was named after her was instituted in her honor by the Malindi District Cultural Association (MADCA) in 2004.
- Mekatilili was not recognized among the freedom fighters in Kenya, until 2010.
- The government erected her statue at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi which was renamed Mekatilili wa Menza Gardens.
Afro Tourism salutes the memory of a legendary woman, national hero and city icon, Mekatilili wa Menza!
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