Almost 11 months. That’s how long the mothers of political prisoners demonstrated for the release of their sons from detention by Moi’s government.
In 1991, Section 2a of the constitution had been repealed and now the mothers of Kenyan political prisoners had a point to make: if their sons had been imprisoned for pushing for multi-party democracy, then they should be free. On February 28, 1992 they congregated at Uhuru Park to make their demands known by means of a hunger strike after they unsuccessfully petitioned the AG Amos Wako for their release.
Among these mothers were Monica Wangu Wamwere, Gladys Thiitu wa Kariuki, Milka Wanjiku Kinuthia, Ruth Wangari Thungu, Leah Wanjiru Mungai and Priscilla Mwara Kariuki. Wangari Maathai was part of the group that made it possible to keep up the pressure and she demonstrated alongside them. These were not women with college degrees and fancy words but they were keenly aware of the injustice at hand.
The Moi government was under pressure from Western aid donors who had put a moratorium on aid until there were democratic reforms and they might have been on edge. I don’t quite know what explains their actions on March 3, 1992 when they beat up the prisoners’ mothers and disbanded the protest. Some of the women stripped, an ominous thing in African culture, and the violence was remarkable.
The Moi government, faced with the backlash from local and international voices, was quick to point out the criminality of the men who the mothers were defending. Tellingly, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake had been so co-opted into the edifice that was KANU that its chair, Wilkista Onsando, publicly castigated the women’s strippping.
Yet there were allies: Archbishop Manasses Kuria of the Anglican Church (then called Church of the Province of Kenya – CPK) offered the mothers refuge at the All Saints Cathedral. While they were there, they spoke to the friends of the cause, their supporters, people who were curious about what it was they were up to. In April, after the police had tried to raid the area they were holed up in, he was quick to mention that it was “…a sanctuary for the mothers of the political prisoners.”
By April 1, 1993 when the police raided the Cathedral grounds, the mothers had resumed eating from around March 21 and were continuing to agitate for the release of their sons. On April 2, a lawyer named Martha Njoka sought to see the mothers and was assaulted by the police; you’ve probably heard of her: Martha Karua. It was not a great time to be a woman standing up for democracy.
Kuria kicked them off the premises on April 12 by which point the mothers had began the process of putting out leaflets to let people know what the issues their sons stood for were. Over the next 11 months, the mothers held daily meetings outside the cathedral to speak with their growing numbers of supporters. They held open forums and spoke about democratic procedures and citizens’ rights. This wasn’t just about freeing their children, it was about making a difference in the country.
On June 24, 1992, four of the political prisoners were released. The mothers held on to the hope of being reunited even as the country geared up for the 1992 election. As you can imagine, there were more pressing issues in the national imagination but they stayed on till January 19, 1993 when they were all reunited with their sons.
I am amazed by how encompassing their work was, how tireless and fearless they were. Care and reform can be of a kind, they so clearly showed; what a valuable lesson.
**Here are a few places to read up: Stepping Forward: Black Women in Africa and the Americas by Catherine Higgs, Kenyan mothers win release of political prisoners and press for democratic reform, 1992-1993, and
Mamas Fighting for Freedom in Kenya by Alexandra Tibbetts in Africa Today
Vol. 41, No. 4, Kenyan Politics: What Role for Civil Society? (4th Qtr., 1994), pp. 27-48
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