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Kilifi County plaque

Global histories of anti-colonial rebellion are laden with male leaders. Across Africa, leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Jomo Kenyatta steered resistance against their colonial overlords in Ghana, Congo and Kenya. Thankfully, recently the contribution of women within such movements has also emerged from the shadows of history. Mekatilili wa Menza is one such activist who deserves recognition for her anti-colonial defiance in Kenya. 

Believed to have been born in the 1840s in Kilifi County, Mekatilili wa Menza became politically active between 1912 and 1915, leading the Giriama people against British colonial forces.[1] Most of Mekatilili’s activism therefore began when she was in her seventies. Around that time, the British authorities began to increase economic pressures on the Giriama people by implementing ‘hut taxes’ and by attempting to control the palm wine and ivory trade. They also attempted to recruit as workforce young Giriama men, taking them away from the land near the Sabaki river.[2]

In the early years of empire, there was little contact between the Giriama and the British. It is against this backdrop of laissez-faire colonialism that Giriama resistance to heightened British control emerged in 1913. In May of that year, British administrator Arthur Champion established headmen and councils to preside over 28 newly established locations which encapsulated Giriama communities. C.W Hobley, the district commissioner of Seyidie Province was determined to convert the Giriama into a well-organised community dedicated to the colonial machine.[3]

However, traditionally, the Giriama had no central political authority. Elders Councils controlled the political affairs of Giriama societies, however, they did not act as chiefs. The emergence of British-appointed chiefs catapulted Giriama society into a New World autocracy.

This new situation partially led to the increasing Giriama’s defiance to the demands of the British, while Mekatilili’s presence within the movement also grew. She spoke at meetings in July and August 1913 in the kaya fungo, the ritual center of the Giriama. These meetings often concluded with the swearing of anti-British oaths promising to resist colonial rule. 

Visiting villages across the Giriama area, Mekatilili gave rousing speeches and, most famously, used the sacred KifuduGiriama funeral dance to encourage rebellion.[4] The dance is still performed today and seeks to bring communities together to transport the spirits of loved ones to the realms of the ancestors. The second part of the dance calls for the involvement of everyone present cultivating a sense of community spirit in a time of sadness.

One of Mekatilili’s most famous acts of rebellion saw her attend a meeting held on 13 August 1913 by British administrator Arthur Champion, who was attempting to recruit the Giriama youth for service in the First World War. Mekatilili entered the meeting with a hen and chicks in her hand, challenging Champion to take one of the chicks from her. When he reached out, the mother hen then pecked at the administrator’s hand, humiliating him in public. As the hen pecked Champion, Mekatilili told him: ‘This is what you will get if you try to take one of our sons.’[5]  

In his tour of inspection through Giriama areas in 1913, Champion discovered that Mekatilili and her son-in-law Wanje wa Mwadorikola had arrived before him and had been administering anti-British oaths. The two were arrested on 17 October 1913 and sentenced to five years imprisonment.[6] Champion documented the impact of Mekatilili’s campaign in his October report where he conceded that ‘every Giriama is much more afraid of the kiraho (oath) than of the government’.[7] Mekatilili’s activism had single-handedly undermined British authority amongst the Giriama people.  

While in prison, Mekatilili addressed Arthur Champion over her concerns about the cultural changes in Giriama society. She complained about the introduction of currency in cents, and rupees, the short skirts now being worn by Giriama women, as well as the resulting ‘immorality’ and inconsistent prices charged by Giriama women (possibly for sex). 

Mekatilili also called for the return to the traditional Giriama governance system by rejecting the British colonial government’s preferred tactic of indirect rule through government-appointed ‘headmen’ or chiefs. Soon after she made this statement, Mekatilili and Wanje were deported to a prison in Kisii. According to oral histories, on 14 January 1914, the two were released and trekked more than 700 kilometers back to Kilifi.[8] However, Mekatilili was recaptured just two days after her arrival back home.

The Giriama War broke out twelve days before Mekatilili’s second Arrest, when the British authorities partly destroyed the kaya fugo with dynamite.[9] Open hostilities began in Northern Giriama settlements on 16 August 1913 when the Giriama attacked a group of British policemen. Twenty police officers then broke up a crowd of Giriama and raised a nearby village to seize suspected rioters and an assortment of weapons.[10] On 19 August Arthur Champion’s temporary camp was set alight, and in retaliation he called upon the local police to destroy nearby villages and decimate Giriama crop. All these incidents increased pressure on the British at a time when they faced substantial threat from German forces in Tanganyika. 

However, as hostilities increased between Britain and Germany, the British had little choice but to negotiate for peace, as the King’s African Rifles (KAR) had to be withdrawn for service in German East Africa.[11] On 4 October terms for peace were arranged and the Giriama were ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 Rupees or goats at 3 rupees each, raise 1,000 labourers, surrender all arms, move from the Northern bank of the Sabaki river and surrender all heads of the tribe and leaders of the rebellion. All of this was to be done within ten days.[12]

Shortly after the peace agreement was reached, the Giriama resumed the offensive and refused to pay the funds to the British. However, the Governor of Kenya had instructed the KAR to remain on Giriama land to end all hostilities towards the British and to ensure reparations were paid. As a result, most of the fighting had ended by the end of 1914 and the Giriama paid the fine, supplied labourers and evacuated the Northern Bank of the Sabaki.[13]

This latter situation did not last, and a number of the Giriama soon returned. In 1917, C.W Hobley, the Provincial Commissioner, ruled that the Giriama could re-occupy the North Bank asserting that ‘if injustice has been done it is our duty to repair it.’[14] In 1919, the Giriama were also able to reclaim the kaya fungo.

The uprising forced the British colonial authorities to relax their control of Giriama land. As support crystallised around Mekatilili and her call to action, the British were forced to yield to their demands for the return of the kaya fungo.[15] In 1919, Mekatilili and Wanje were released from prison and were allowed to move back into the kaya, holding positions as leaders of the women’s and men’s councils respectively.[16]

The monument at Uhuru Gardens. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government 

Mekatilili wa Menza died of natural causes in 1924. She is buried in the Dakatcha Woodland and is memorialised every year by the Mekatilili wa Menza festival. Larger commemorative efforts have been made in recent years to mark her pivotal role in fighting British colonial oppression. During the first annual Mashujaa or Heroes Day on 9 September 2012, a statue of Mekatilili was unveiled at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi, renamed Mekatilili wa Menza Garden in her honour. 

The crowd at the 2014 Mekatilili festival. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government

Mekatilili’s acts of defiance have established her as a key figure in the early Kenyan anti-colonial struggle. It is justified that she is recognised and celebrated alongside the male activists who followed in her defiant footsteps. 

Lauren Brown has a masters degree (MA and MLitt) in History from the University of Dundee. She has published various articles on Kenyan history, and in particular on the Mau Mau rebellion. She is currently the assistant editor for Scottish Financial News and Scottish Housing News. She tweets: @LaurenBroon

Cover Image: A plaque beside the monument of Mekatalili. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government


[1] David K Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, African Historical Studies, Vol. 3, No.1, 1970, p.89

[2] Carrier, Nyamweru, Reinventing Africa’s National Heroes: The Case of Mekatalili, A Kenyan Popular Heroine p.605.

[3] Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, p.90.

[4] Ibid, p.605. 

[5] Museum of Kenya, Google Arts & Culture, Mekatalili Wa Menza: The Story of The Giriama Wonder Woman, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/mekatilili-wa-menza-the-story-of-the-giriama-wonder-woman/uQJiyBBzmBOAKg

[6] Carrier, Nyamweru, Reinventing Africa’s National Heroes: The Case of Mekatalili, A Kenyan Popular Heroine, p.606.

[7] Cynthia Brantle, The Giriama and Colonial Resistance in Kenya, 1800-1920 (University of California Press: Berkeley,1981) p.89.

[8] Museum of Kenya, Google Arts & Culture, Mekatalili Wa Menza: The Story of The Giriama Wonder Woman, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/mekatilili-wa-menza-the-story-of-the-giriama-wonder-woman/uQJiyBBzmBOAKg

[9] Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, p.94.

[10] A.J Temu, The Giriama War 1914-1915, Journal of Eastern African Research & Development, Vol. 1, No.2 (Gideon Were Publications: Nairobi, 1971), p.169.

[11] Ibid, p.171.

[12] Temu, The Giriama War 1914-1915, p.171.

[13] Ibid, p.171

[14] Ibid, p.183.

[15] Ibid, p.93.

[16] Ibid, p.95.

Lauren Brown

The author Lauren Brown

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