Eric Mwiine Mugaju continues a new series looking at African women who resisted colonial oppression.
The 20th century marked a continuation in the voice of female resistance to colonialism and the patriarchy. Mekatilili wa Menza, prophetess, warrior and activist rallied a movement against male domination and colonialism with a dedicated following that could compete with today’s Insta stars.
As with our last figure, Muhumza, we know little detail about Mekatili’s life. In local and colonial cultures, men predominated. In terms of written records from the time (almost exclusively the product of the colonial powers), women are almost entirely absent- only men mattered to the imperialists. Where resisters like Kabaka Mwanga were smeared with claims of homosexuality, women were simply written out of history. However, oral tradition remains a rich source of historical record. Depending on the form and means of transmission, it can be relied upon as a source of information: even the Qur’an was initially narrated orally.
What we know from such sourced is that Mekatili was a beautiful Queen, mother, inspiring orator and spiritual leader who vehemently opposed conscription. She was born in eastern Kenya, near Kilifi among the Giriama people. At the time of her birth, the East African coast had experienced barbaric colonialism and slave trade for centuries. The social setting alone could be enough to inspire her to action, but when one of her brothers was kidnapped and sold as a slave, she realised she could no longer be passive.
She fought against the forced conscription of African men into the British army during WW1, by travelling across the region, holding baraza where she would deliver impassioned speeches and debating with young men. She also targeted the prohibition of mnazi wine (introduced to increase productivity of the free labour forces) and policies which apportioned the most fertile land to British Imperialists at the expense of local people. She was quick to draw connections between individual policies and the oppressive effect they would have on communities as a whole. Her message was simple: do not cooperate with British rule.
She was an inspirational organiser and used various tactics to inspire her followers and elevate her support to cult-like status. She would encourage dissidents to take oaths of obedience to her and swear to uphold the duty to to defend their ancestral land. Her influence was felt during Kenya’s Mau Mau war, where she was reflected upon as an inspirational organiser and rebel.
She intertwined song and dance into her resistance, further building on the semi-mystic air that surrounds her legacy. Specifically, she used the kifudu dance, a frenzied and ecstatic dance, to draw crowds wherever she went- to whom she could then preach her message of resistance.
The cult-like, spiritual element of her resistance frightened the colonial authorities, as ideas and religion is difficult to imprison or whip. Mediums and mystics leading rebellions had been a thorn in the side of authorities for decades, and eventually culminated in the passing of the The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951- over 300 years after a similar law (The Witchcraft Act) entered the British Penal Code as a means of sidelining women and quashing threats to the dominant religious ideas at the time and their attendant power structures.
Her efforts to resist soon attracted the attention of the authorities, and on 7th October 1913, Mekatili was exiled to Mumias in Western Kenya, where a different environment and culture would have helped to isolate her. After 5 years in exile, like Muhumza and Mwanga, she too escaped and walked over 1000 miles to return home and continue her campaign against the British. She led another revolt shortly after arriving back at the coast.
Embarrassed and infuriated, the British decided that this time, enough was enough, and imprisoned her again- this time in the north of the country on the border with Somalia. Yet, again she escaped and returned home, where she remained as a community leader until she died in 1925, around age 70.
Even today her resilience and spirit is celebrated- along with a statue in dedication to her, there is an annual festival held in her honor close to Kilifi, upholding her as an inspiring figure for women and resistance to oppression.