As we collectively mourn one of Kenya’s heroes, ADH’s Muthoni Mwangi tries to unpack what she meant to ‘us’ as women, as people, as memory keepers and dreamers.
A Eulogy in Three Parts:
Field Marshal Muthoni is dead, and I don’t know how to grieve
I read, I weave stories together, I write.
I. Breaking the silence, freedom dreaming
I first heard about Field Marshal Muthoni on July 19th 2019, I was seated in the second or third row of Kenya National Theatre at the last show of Too Early for Birds- ‘Brazen’ edition. I had never heard of this giant, this female ideal of courage made flesh. And on top of that to learn that there were female field marshals- this is really an indictment on our school systems (both national and international) on what is prioritised in curriculums and history recounts.
Since then, I wanted to meet her. I wanted to know this badass woman whose name I share. What does a regular day look like for her? Does she thadura bebe in the sun like my cúcú used to? How is her heart? What is the biggest feeling she has when she thinks about Kenya? I wanted to ask this and so much more; I wanted to sit with her and attempt to communicate in Kikuyu; defending myself by saying that I can hear but I can’t speak.(I’m sure at this point she would make a joke that I wouldn’t understand, smiling slyly- utani). Unfortunately, I was not able to in this lifetime. But thanks to the memory keepers- those who had the fearlessness to look at the horrors and victories of history and transmute it into something beautiful; I have stories in which I can see myself.
In “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Haartman tells us, “The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.” On that day in 2019 at the Brazen show, a hunger struck within me and has only continued to grow since then. I am disappointed-angry-confounded by the silence in the archive; this deafening silence; like a wall that I hit every time I go searching for stories of female freedom fighters. I become cognisant of the intentional erasure of women’s stories from the archive. Anne Moraa puts it best when she says,”Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Erasure makes us forget women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshal Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi.” In this deafening silence, one story stands out- one that satiates the hunger if only for a little bit. Thanks to the story weavers, memory keepers and historians, the story of Field Marshal Muthoni makes it to me (a 20 something year old brimming with freedom dreams). I am eternally grateful to these individuals but this story is not about them.
II. The Weaver Bird
In a reflection about TEFB-Brazen edition, Laura Ekumbo says of her experience writing Field Marshal Muthoni’s Life into the show:
“Her story refused to fit into the mould we had assigned to it. It refused to be confined to what we decided was her story. It refused to fit. So we stopped forcing it to. And eventually it took up space in a way we didn’t know it could, but in a way that liberated us from the confines of form. A way that freed us from confining her story.”
Field Marshal Muthoni’s story is not one that can be told by one person so I look to oral interviews such as the one done in 2020 by the Museum of British Colonialism– a volunteer led organisation intent on highlighting the colonial violence in Kenya especially during the state of emergency and the accounts of those who had the privilege to speak with her before her passing. We must remember and honour the place of oral and communal memory in re-tracing histories such as ours that have been intentionally erased and obfuscated. Taking the auto-ethnographic approach, I began to weave a coherent and reliable picture of Muthoni wa Kirima’s life through her words and those that have been written by others, especially those that loved or respected her. While the newspapers and reports of her death attempt to give us a picture of what her life looked like, here we wish to dig deeper and explore the humanity of this heroine.
Owaahh tells us of his first-hand experience of meeting Field Marshal Muthoni;
“The most renowned 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.”
“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.”
“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.”
Aleya Kassam tells us of Field Marshal Muthoni, the woman:
“When a human being spends eleven years of their lives in the forest, braving the elements and using their bodies to physically fight for the freedom of a nation, you know that this person is a real badass. Especially when she is the only woman to have been given the title Field Marshall. So when you sit at the feet of this warrior, who Dedan Kimathi called the Weaver Bird because of her ability to weave brilliant strategy, you expect the ferocity that stares out from her unflinching steely eyes.
But nothing prepares you for how funny Field Marshall Muthoni is.”
Field Marshal Muthoni is human; she teases just like most cúcús do- they’re very sly in this way, she feels deeply,she remembers.
“For the next six hours, we sit under the blazing blue sky outside Field Marshall Muthoni’s home in Nyeri, chasing the shade and listening to stories. My ears follow the melody of a language whose vocabulary I don’t know, leaving my eyes free to roam. I try taking a snapshot of her with my brain, this woman with a bullet still hidden in her arm and her legendary dreadlocks wrapped up in a white lace scarf. She tells us she has become old now, so old that even her eyebrows are falling off. And the way she sits, legs apart, hands on her knees and feet wrapped in fluffy blue socks reminds me of my late granny whose eyebrows had also dropped off her face. I exhale deeply to exhume the sharp pangs that come from intensely missing my grandma.”
Field Marshal Muthoni is human; she tells stories, she holds histories within her, she is a living and breathing archive, she is a cúcú- she reminds me of my cúcú.
“She tells us how she worked as a spy for the Mau Mau for two years before her husband joined the movement, after which she was left alone at home. Alone. Alone. Alone. She repeats the word three times. The night he went into the forest, the home guard came to their house asking after him, ignorant of the fact that she too was Mau Mau. They came the second time. They came the third time. When they came the fourth time, and she still didn’t tell them where her husband was, she was beaten up so badly, the house was filled with blood. They left her for dead”
Field Marshal Muthoni is human; she bears bruises on her body, she feels fear, she fled.
“She continues the story, telling us how after a week, she left the hospital and went straight to the forest, where an antelope led her to a huge tree that sheltered her for the night. That was the first night of the next eleven years that she slept in the forest. She was only in her twenties.
Once again she disappears into a memory, rubbing at her eyes with a white handkerchief as if trying to wipe away the image.”
Field Marshal Muthoni is human; she seeks, she searches, she sees, she remembers.
“Somebody asks a question and she responds in Kiswahili, ‘Ni wanawake walitushindia uhuru,’ and tells us the ways in which women rallied behind the movement, voluntarily taking on whatever roles they felt most suitable for.
‘The freedom wasn’t easily won,’ Field Marshall Muthoni tells us, talking about how they sacrificed their education, their productive years, even their first-borns to the struggle. She describes the brutality they endured at the hands of the colonials. When she tells the story of how they would steal arms from the colonials, her whole body stiffens..”
Field Marshal Muthoni is human; she is a woman; she is a fighter; she is a chest of memories and oral history. She feels, she remembers, she is brave, she bore the price of freedom fighting.
Standing here, at this point in history, witnessing her life, her sacrifices; celebrating her life I can’t help but wonder, what was it all for? What now?
III. What now?
“On Field Marshall Muthoni’s body, she wore the history of Kenya- the scars, the wounds, the trauma, the hope, the beauty”
“What hurts Field Marshal Muthoni the most is that we’ve not done our part” – Laura Ekumbo
In an interview with Mau Mau Chronicles she tells us of her life. She was born in 1930 in Tetu Constituency in Nyeri. She worked as a child labourer on a pyrethrum farm with her father. She did not join the Mau Mau without a good reason;
“I said yes because freedom is priceless.”
She tells us of strategic organising, gathering and disseminating information. She tells us of ranks and discipline in the forest. She tells us of communal living and collective decision-making. She tells us of vigilance and strategy. But mostly, she speaks about solidarity in rallying against colonial violence and exploitation. The strong bonds that held them together, the unspeakable sacrifices for this country.
“It’s a story that’s hard to tell, but we have really suffered for this country.”
Anne Moraa writes, “remembering women in many ways is remembering yourself.” In that auditorium in 2019, I remember myself, I remember the dreams of a young girl folded and moulded to fit into a good mutumia- one with her lips sealed. I remember that fearlessness and bravery flow in my veins. As I witness the silenced stories, I remember my silence. At that moment, I made vows to myself. Vows of freedom dreaming and freedom living; vows that would change my life. Vows that would completely change the trajectory of my life. Field Marshal Muthoni’s story calls us to speak up and be brave, to fearlessly pursue freedom. It reminds me, as Chao says, that history is a living breathing project. Right now, at this point in history, I get to choose which paths to follow; which threads that tug at my chest and move me to freedom.
Field Marshal Muthoni’s story calls me to work; put my hands in the dirt and work. Unearth stories that have been intentionally erased and obfuscated. It is because of her story and any others that I find myself on this path as a historian and memory seeker.
All I can say, at this point in time, with the grief weighing heavy on my chest is Thank you, Thank you for your sacrifices, the work is ours now. We will water the seeds you planted.
Koma na thaayu Field Marshal.