Mekatilili wa Menza

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Born around 1840 in Giriamaland, Mekatilili wa Menza came of age just as the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA) was pitching tent in Kaloleni on the Kenyan coast. IBEA’s arrival coincided with the abolition of slave trade. Mekatilili, who had established herself as a fearless defender of her people, had a mortal suspicion of strangers as she had lost a brother to Arab slave traders.


Her fears were confirmed when the white merchants at the IBEA started eyeing the land near the Sabaki River, where they planned to establish cotton and rubber plantations. They also compelled the locals to abandon their land and conscripted the youth to work for them.


When the locals refused to comply, the British colonial administration introduced levies, such as the hut tax that was surcharged on every household. Mekatilili mobilised the community to reject the new tax. She also protested against the recruitment of the Giriama youth into the British Carrier corps to fight the Germans in the First World War, or labourers for serval wages.


Mekatilili used the kifudu dance (dirge) to administer oaths to mobilise the masses to resist their conscription into the service of the British. On August 13, 1913, during a recruitment meeting at Chakama kwa Hawe Wanje by the British administrator, Arthur Champion, which aimed at drafting the youth to join the British army, Mekatilili slapped the white administrator, sparking what would grow into a full-blown rebellion.


The British troops fired at a group of youths, killing many. In the ensuing chaos, 250 people were killed, 400 Giriama bomas razed, and a fine of 50 rupees imposed on every adult in the vanquished villages of Bungale, Garashi, Chakama and Marekebuni.


In the meantime, Mekatilili and a kaya elder, Wanje, were arrested and exiled in Kisii – 700kms away from their home and support base – where they were held without trial. Six months later, the two escaped on January 14, 1914 and trekked back to Kilifi.


Upon their arrival in Giriamaland, Me Katilili commanded a band of fighters who persistently harassed the British.  She and Wanje were recaptured and dispatched to the remote Kismayu, in present-day Somalia, where they escaped yet again. The heroine died in 1914 at her home in Bungale, where her remains were buried.

In 2009, human rights activists in Malindi organised a street procession and cultural fete to celebrate Mekatilili’s life.