Saturday, September 14, 2013

Memories of Mekatilili: 100 Years Later



The strength of a woman can only be underestimated by an ignorant person. Mekatilili wa Menza is an historical figure, an enigmatic woman famed for her resistance against the British colonial rule in Kenya. In 1913, a hundred years from this year, she led the Mijikenda in rebelling agaings British Colonial Rule. Her descendants and the people of Bungale in Magarini, Kilifi County still recall vividly the resounding slap she once accorded a white man. The gender implications in such a patriarchal setting are an anathema to discuss.  
She is known to have beaten the odds and for having walked all the way from the Rift Valley, albeit on foot, to the Coast where she hailed from. She defied the odds and led the Giriama people in a rebellion against the British Colonial Administration and policies actively in 1913 – 1914.Mekatilili and a male leader of the Giriama resistance, Wanje wa Mwadorikola, were arrested in October 1913 and sentenced to five years detention. They were deported to the far west of Kenya, Mumias, but escaped a few months later and walked back home to continue with the resistance.
Mekatilili’s escapades and the mammoth following that she drew baffled the British. The British were for instance astonished that she could walk such lengths to reclaim freedom. They particularly wondered how she could have walked such a distance through the forest infested with dangerous wild animals. Consequently, she was again arrested, and sent north to the Somalia border area. Mekatilili could not be deterred, she escaped again and went back home.
The Pwani cultural festival that took place in the month of August this year was in honour of this great legendary figure. In fact, the Giriama people were celebrating 100 years of Mekatilili’s greatness. She led the Giriama people in what is referred to as “The Giriama Uprising” (Kondo ya Chembe). Her passions against the labour laws and the abuse of the Giriama people by the British are things that are remembered vividly in Kilifi County. Perhaps she should be there today. Then, she could help unravel the puzzle behind the uprising of the MRC and the slogan “Pwani si Kenya”.
The streets of Malindi were coloured by the marching of men, women and children who were adorned in beautiful Mijikenda traditional regalia. It was a spectacle to behold. Having been party to the celebrations, I have to admit that I was shocked by the systematic marginalisation of the coast region. Now I know why poverty is an intimate partner to coastalians. The Giriama people appear to be physically stunted which aptly illustrates systemic destitution. I believe that if everyone was well fed and they had equal access to health facilities, amongst other necessities, we would all be physically fit not having some people looking emaciated.
The sprawling huts can be mistaken for environmentally friendly shelters but I refuse to believe that the Giriama’s/Mijikenda people don’t like modern houses. Their traditional cultural attire appears to be the only thing that they hold dear to, perhaps an effort to remain dignified in the face of all the poverty. The entrenched fears about witchcraft and the wanton killings of the elderly are not myths. I met a young man who satiated my thirst for such rumours. He confirmed that actually the youth go to any lengths to escape the poverty that has impoverished the people in this region, even sacrificing your parents. You do not want to hear of graphic details of the gory things that people sometimes do in the name of money.
It is not surprising then that young Giriama girls hang onto tourists or get lured into prostitution at a tender age. I mean what options can poverty offer on a platter laid before the helpless? Young men encourage themselves by becoming beach boys and they shamelessly tag along old grannies if only to make their dreams come true. This is partly what has made believe in witchcraft to thrive. Call it brainwashing or whatever other name but believe in the deities, sorcery, and the supernatural forces is one force that coast people will have to grapple with for some years yet to come.
Arguments can be advanced that it is owing to illiteracy or lack of education that witchcraft thrives. I do not refute. But again I ask, what are the options of a poor soul? On the contrary, the Kaya Fungo practices alternative medicine which is healthy, affordable and easily accessible to the Mijikenda people. The herbs which are administered by traditional medicine men and women are highly revered and in a way the practice has contributed to the preservation of the Kaya forests. This is a great cultural heritage of the people of Kilifi. My only concern is that the Mijikenda are so absorbed in their reverence of Mekatilili that they have unconsciously/consciously sidelined themselves from the rest of the country.
I wish the Mijikenda would contextualise their history in the spectrum of the history of the Kenyan nation. We have stories of heroines like Syokimau, Syotune wa Kathukye, Wangu wa Makeri etc from other Kenyan tribes. They may not necessarily have played similar roles but their roles in the lives of their people are significantly remembered. If the Mijikenda were to see their struggle as a microcosm of the struggle of the people of Kenya, then theirs would be one great story of nationhood building. When I listened to the politicians and the Kaya elders, all I heard was the bitterness of the marginalisation of the Mijikenda. I empathised with them but I also saw a people who are likely to be derailed by empty political rhetoric!
Bungale is the gravesite of Mekatilili. It is an historical site that is now recognised by the government as a tourist attraction point. Hence, it adds to the many other great places that one can tour whilst in Malindi. My escapades could not have ended without a visit to the Great Vasco Da Gama pillar. It is on the same coastal stretch that we have the billionaire’s resort. I assure you Malindi – Coast in general – is a land of great contrasts. The beauty of the place is easily marred by the numerous skimpily dressed girls, girls who are extremely young, I am avoiding the term under age, who struggle to eke a living from prostitution.
My nightly sojourns witnessed all these and many more. I could not avoid but have my conscience pricked. Observing the social and economic activities of Malindi can leave one feeling devastated. You revel in the weather, the great ocean shore, the spectacular views BUT you can’t also turn a blind eye to the underbelly of the Coast region. Live sex soliciting is a common thing. Mind you there is a Karumaindo in the middle of the town. The haggard looks, the pained faces and the immaturely aged girls remind you of Meja Mwangi’s novels Going down River Road and The Cockroach Dance. I am not surprised that drug peddling and use is a common thing here. I mean, you need some form of encouragement to engage in the beastly acts, the demeaning chores, the hell on earth..... no need to continue the list.
My misgivings for Kenya’s vision 2030 gained impetus from my participation in the Pwani Cultural Festival. I discovered that the property in Malindi belongs to Italians and a few big shots in Kenya. If we are going to tell the coast guys that they are part of Kenya then we must humanise them. We must act like we know what happens there and stop the charade that we peddle around! It is when people are pushed to such limits that they discover they have nothing to lose because the very life they hang on to is not theirs, it is managed and controlled by political powers. To these people, social revolution is a must even when the government structures decry otherwise! Why lie, Mekatilili wa Menza’s centennial celebrations rattled me!!

1 comment:

  1. Sad, sad story. But powerful as well. The Kenyan status quo doesn't like any history that is about grassroot struggles for freedom. Even the Mau Mau was was kept under cover for a long time. We need to know more about who we are and liberate Kenya's historical narratives from the tyranny of political parties!

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