Mums with fight

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In 1991, Section 2a of the constitution had been repealed and now the mothers of Kenyan political prisoners had a point to make: if their sons had been imprisoned for pushing for multi-party democracy, then they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

Note: This post is part of #CuminWrites366, my year-long attempt to write a post a day. Find the rest over at readability.com/cuminwrites/

Questions, comments, suggestions or stories about women in history to share? Send them to cuminwrites@gmail.com








Lady Democracy

The first time I encountered Chelagat Mutai, it was in the pages of Coming to Birth by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye. The most recent was when her photo floated down my Twitter timeline as part of the Courage exhibition outside the Kenya Archives.

I am curious about how her story has disappeared from the public conscience. If this post is anything to go by, it makes some sense that she never really featured.

Chelagat Mutai is an alumna of what is now Moi Girls School Eldoret, a fact I gleaned from reading a profile of Nyeri MP Esther Murugi. Is there an award or  scholarship fund dedicated to her memory there?

In the 70s, Chelagat was arrested for her efforts to make sure there was fair land distribution. With that in mind, it’s a tragedy that over the three decades that followed, Kenyans would go at each other’s throats over land-related issues.

What inspired a young leader, a woman in a time less liberal than this, to run for the Eldoret North seat? How is it she was able to win a seat at 24 (24! Imagine that!) and yet had to flee from the country?

Somehow, between her time associating with the bearded sisters and the rise of the NDP and other opposition parties, our lady disappeared from the political scene. This makes, to me, no sense. There was more freedom in the early days of the Kibaki administration, it seemed, yet it took Raila’s ‘rescuing’ for her to get  much-needed medical care.

I’d like to know why she disappeared for decades, why on her return she lay so low, why she yields more questions than answers. For a woman whose legacy is so rich to have such a remarkably sad end beggars belief.

Note: This post is part of#CuminWrites366, my year-long attempt to write a post a day. Find the rest over at readability.com/cuminwrites/

Questions, comments, suggestions or Chelagat Mutai stories to share? Send them to cuminwrites@gmail.com 🙂


Introducing Women’s Kenyan History

My friend Roo put me to task last week when I complained about the male-centric looks at Kenyan history that litter the internet. My argument was that even highlights in history are experienced differently and that some things that are a blip in the radars of men are major events for women. We have had a variation of this conversation more than once but this time, there was a twist: Do it yourself, he said.

Why not, I thought? I am interested in Kenyan history, I am a woman, and I listen to women’s tales in my family in the context of history. It would be interesting, I agreed, to tell stories about Kenya and say, “Hey, Kenyan women went through this period like this.”

In what could be interpreted as a message from the universe, I met the interesting Cera Njagi of Kenyan Feminist and we had a wonderful conversation around this. I see interesting conversations and writing coming of it.

Where do you come in? Please send me stories, leads, ideas, questions or books. If there’s a time in history you are particularly knowledgeable about and want to talk about it with a writer or a book that you’ve read that was particularly illuminating, shoot me that message.

I intend to make it a fortnightly event, starting this Wednesday. Here’s to the first instalment this Wednesday!

Note: This post is part of #CuminWrites366, my year-long attempt to write a post a day. Find the rest over at readability.com/cuminwrites/

Questions, comments, suggestions or thoughts on privacy? Send them to cuminwrites@gmail.com 🙂