Mekatilili, prophetess of the 1913 Giriama revolt

Amazing: i found yet another medicine woman who led a revolt against colonial rule, Mekatilili of the Giriama in coastal Kenya. She “was noted as a charismatic speaker who commanded respect.” She convoked the Giriama to take oaths and offer sacrifices to restore their sovereignty.

Mekatilili wa Menza was born in the 1840s,  the only daughter in a poor family of five children. One of her brothers was snatched away by Arab slavers and never seen again. She married but was later widowed, which along with her age gave her more freedom to move as a woman leader. She started by leading a public baraza at Chakama to protest English recruitment of African porters for WWI; they responded by firing on the crowd.

The medicine woman's revolutionary baraza, painted by Zarina Patel

Mekatilili succeeded in blocking British attempts to hire African laborers on the cheap and to collect taxes from all Kenyans in order to force them to work for their companies and into the foreign money economy. “The success of her campaign was in part because she called women together and drew on the tradition of Mepoho, a female prophet who predicted that the land would deteriorate, youth would not respect their elders, and the Giriama would no longer bear healthy children.”

Six months after this baraza, the British arrested Mekatilili, but she wasn’t through. She escaped from the prison camp in western Kenya and walked a thousand kilometers  to return home. “It was unbelievable that she could have walked such a distance through the forest infested with dangerous wild animals,” says Mwarandu. She returned to action, and was arrested again, this time to be sent north to the Somalia border area. Again, a second time, she escaped.

“She likened herself to a mother of chicks in defence of the villagers.” Mekatilili opposed forced labour in British-owned rubber and sisal plantations, the colonial hut tax (forcing every family to give money to the British), land seizure evictions from the fertile Sabaki River Valley and restricted consumption of palm wine (mnazi). “She is a heroine of her and our time also. She advocated freedom and basic human rights for all,” said Mr John Mitsanze.

Modern Memorial to Metakilili of Kenya

Five years after the revolt, the British had failed to gain control of the country, and were compelled to accomodate a Giriama government. Mekatilili returned to head up a women’s council (something that had not existed in the immediately pre-colonial period). She died around 1925 at the age of about 70.

Sources:
“Mekatilili’s brave resistance against British rule,” by Patrick Beja, Oct. 10, 2010
http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/specialreports/InsidePage.php?id=2000020686&cid=259&
Kathleen Sheldon, Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa
http://www.standardmedia.co.ke/specialreports/InsidePage.php?id=2000020686&cid=259&