Below is another of my quests to showcase the wonderful people who have lived and are living on this continent we call Africa. Enjoy.
As a father of four children, three of them girls, I am a staunch believer in Girl Power! My children are all grown up now and have headed away from Kenya to the UK where they are all doing well in their respective careers. I am fiercely proud of all of them. When they were young, I was always concerned about how they would fit into the modern world, especially my girls. To that end, I kept my eyes open for strong role models. Mostly badass women of history who did not allow anything to get in their way.
Mekatilili was the only daughter in a family of five children. I think her dislike of outsiders started when her brother, Mwarandu, was kidnapped by Arab slave traders and was never seen again.
The history of these African Queens is mostly handed down from mother to daughter as the Giriama’s, the tribe Mekatilili belong to, did not use written language. Hence the story was lost for many years but was brought back to life by a Google Doodle on August the 9, 2020 which is a prestigious honour.
Mekatilili became a freedom fighter in the early 1900s when she was about 45 years old. She is celebrated for challenging the oppressive colonial policies of that time. Her anger came to a head when the British, in all its wisdom, decided that it would be a clever idea to take the poor Giriama tribes’ men out of their surroundings and force them to join the British Army and fight in the First World War. Mekatilili was incredibly angry about this, but as she was a woman, with no social standing except the fact she was a widow, she had very few avenues to express her anger. So, she decided to use dance as her medium.
The dancing that Mekatilili performed is called Kifundu, it’s a type of ecstatic dance normally performed at funerals. This meant the sight of an almost naked, elderly woman, performing an erotic jittery dance in town after town soon became known throughout the Giriama region. It wasn’t long before she had a huge following. People would march from town to town just to watch her dance. When the exhausting antics were over, she would stand under a tree and explain to the local Giriama tribes that the British were here to steal their menfolk and ruin their lives. Her following quickly grew. Many of the villages agreed with Mekatilili and would disappear into the bush whenever the British came a calling.
Within months the Giriama colonial systems had all but shut down, mostly due to Mekatilili’s efforts. This earned the attention of the British colonial supervisor, Mr Arthur Champion. Mr Champion came to visit Mekatilili in her home Boma to try to enforce the rule of the British. The myth goes that Mekatilili entertained Champion in her compound. When the discussion about taking the brave tribe members off to war was breached Mekatilili brought out a mother hen with six chicks. She challenged Champion to take one of the chicks. As he did so the mother hen attacked him and pecked his hand fiercely. Mekatilili said, “This is what will happen to you if you try to take our brave men.”
Champion then drew his revolver and shot the hen!
Mekatilili became even more incensed and ramped up her efforts. To help her she enrolled the local medicine men or Magangas as they are known here on the coast. She found one a Wanje wa Madorika who helped her to arrange widely attended meetings in the kayas or traditional forest temples the Giriamas use. She was so convincing that the elders of the villages issued sacred oaths with animal sacrifices that forbid any Giriama from working or helping the colonialists. This caused an uproar in the area as the British used the local tribes as cheap forms of labour.
The British fought back and confiscated 1/5th of the Giriama lands, they also killed over 150 of them and burnt several villages to the ground. They then arrested key elders of the rebellion including Mekatilili and Wanje.
The British thought it would be a good idea to send Mekatilili and Wanje to a prison in the far western area of Kenya some 600 miles from her coastal home. However, this did not stop the intrepid duo, they promptly escaped from the prison and walked the 600 miles back to the coast through treacherous land full of wild animals that no white man would enter. During their long walk, it is said that Mekatilili and Wanje fell in love.
During the following years as Mekatilili continued to create revolt after revolt, and Champion arrested her again and sent her to a prison near Wajir on the Somali border. Again, she escaped and walked along the coast back to her home village.
Gradually Mekatilili was winning, due to the trouble the Giriamas caused, the lack of useful revenue the British earned from the area due to the ever-increasing revolt of the tribes, and the First World War, which was stretching the resources of the British, Champion realised he was fighting a losing battle. In the end, he threw in the towel. The kayas were reinstated, and the tribal elders and councils were reformed. At the head of the council was Wanje, and the head of the newly formed women’s council was Mekatilili.
The Giriama’s it seems enjoyed their isolationism from the rest of Kenya and to this day largely stay away from the towns. They live along the coast of Kenya and are one of the largest coastal tribes alongside the Mijikenda. But they do not involve themselves in our frenetic way of life and mostly still live from subsistence farming and fishing.
Mekatilili is a fantastic role model for our modern life. She was an elderly woman with no social status, even in her own community. But she beat the odds and the might of the British Empire. It just goes to show that if you do not give up then anything is possible.
I have lived and worked with the Giriama people ever since I came to Kenya in 2000. They are wonderful to get to know and are very friendly. Gumbao, one of the main characters in my African Action-Adventure series is based on a Giriama man I knew for many years. He was a fantastic fisherman and we would spend many hours out fishing or travelling along the length of Kenya. When we prepared for a trip along the coast, I would arrive with several rucksacks full of the essentials and must haves for a journey. Gumbao would arrive with a small plastic shopping bag usually containing bait for the fishing. He was amazing at how he looked at life he was a great leveller.
African photographers Rich Allela and Kureng Dapel bring Metatilili back to life in their wonderful picture review here.
If you are interested in the heroes of East Africa, then let me know, just drop me a line at [email protected]