When the final story of Mau Mau is told, the oft-overlooked role of women will emerge as one of the most intriguing.
While so little is known about the role women played, in a war that was dominated by men, there is emerging literature and oral documentation, albeit late, on an ignored topic.
The Mau Mau war not only brought many women into the political and military spheres – but also tossed them into family leadership roles after thousands of Kikuyu men were detained in the crackdown that followed the uprising. Thus, women took over as family providers.
While women did not occupy visible positions in the nationalist movements such as Kikuyu Central Association, a political organization representing African interests, they slowly started taking interest in the politics after they were subjected to forced labour.
In 1922, for instance, when a group of Africans, including women, gathered in front of the then Kingsway (now Central) Police Station and demanded for the release of Harry Thuku, it was the women who are reported to have challenged the men not to back off; a move that finally led to the Kingsway massacre.
Thuku – who was later deported to Kismayu – was a vocal activist and had built his name by moving in the entire Kikuyu region advocating for the abolishment of the hut tax and proper wages for Africans. He was also vocal in pushing for the scrapping of the Kipande System. For that, he was arrested.
Thuku’s supporters, who included many women, marched to Kingsway to demand his release. And as negotiations were going on, a woman named Mary Wanjiru Nyanjiru is claimed to have challenged the men to storm the cells and release Thuku. She accused men of cowardice.
As the crowd charged towards the police station, the police opened fire and killed many demonstrators including Nyanjiru.
Other women-backed protests were also witnessed in 1930s and 1940s. In the late 1940s, when the government instituted a program to combat soil erosion by means of bench terracing, women resisted the forced labour and communal work in Fort Hall, now Muranga County. They staged a demonstration that nearly became a riot.
By this time, the Mau Mau oath was being administered secretly in some parts of the region and whether the oath played a part in bolstering the confidence of the women staging the protests is still unconfirmed.
The colonial government did not believe women could stage such a spirited demonstration without the help from external quarters. And there was only one direction to direct blame for these protests; the activists who were associated with the banned KCA – and who were now in Kenya African Union (KAU).
With the emergence of Mau Mau, some women took the role of cooks, cleaners, scouts and messengers. But as the war intensified, there was a new realization. The war was not a gendered affair and everyone’s involvement was important. Against this backdrop Mau Mau leadership accepted women fighters.
Some of the common names are Colonel Wanjiru Mbogo and ‘Field Marshal’ Muthoni who served under Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi wa Waciuri.
Some Mau Mau veterans like General Wagoco have told Mau Mau Chronicles that “women played a very important role in the forest. Some were better sharp shooters than men.”
Another veteran from Embu, Julia Njura said women “used to ferry weapons under their clothes because they were trained in military tactics.”
Women also made excellent scouts, spies, and messengers as they had greater freedom of movement than men did. According to Paul Mahihu, a Mau Mau leader from Nairobi, Mau Mau had over 200 women whose work was to deliver guns, ammunition, and food to the fighters in the forest.
But not all women fought in the forest. Some were living in the reserves balancing dual lives of Mau Mau adherents and law abiding citizens.
In the reserves, women formed support groups. One of the widely known group was Wangu Group which was a counter strategy to a government sponsored female home guards unit called Hika Hika Group.
Before long, the government realised it could not overlook the involvement of women in the Mau Mau. In a government report in 1953, G. Askwith, an African Affairs Officer in Nairobi, said women had “in many cases, persuaded their husbands to take the Mau Mau oath.”
The report noted that it was “probably more important to rehabilitate women than the men” to save future generations.
As expected, the colonial government stopped extending lenience to women in the war – and women became subjects of arrest and detention. They also faced beatings and sexual abuse from the government officers. In 1958, the government constructed a prison for “hardcore female Mau Mau members.”
According to the Hanslope Park Archives, over 8,000 women were detained between 1954–1960 under emergency powers imposed to suppress the uprising.
When The Maendeleo Ya Wanawake was founded – ostensibly to educate women on childcare, nutrition and hygiene – some leaders such as Florence Wanjiru Kiguru became one of the six delegates sent to the superintendent of police by the African Council to discuss security issues in Nairobi. Florence and two other delegates had taken the Mau Mau oath. She made a name out of her hard stance against police brutality.
All in all, women still broke the glass ceiling of politics, militancy, and leadership and set the stage for today’s women to take up similar if not greater roles.