Celebrating Giriama heroine who dared fight the British
Prophecies had already been given in Giriamaland, and other parts of Kenya, about the arrival of the British, and the oppression that would come with it.
Mutara wa Tsatsu, a wee village in Baya, Kilifi county, received another prophesy, too: that a female saviour would arise from amongst them and will stand against the British. Little did they know their saviour would be Mnyazi wa Menza, the only girl in a family of five.
Mnyanzi was born to poor parents in 1860. She later married Dyeka and gave birth to a son they named Katilili. It was from here that her popular name Me Katilili wa Menza came. In Giriama, ‘Me’ means ‘mother of’ and ‘wa’ means ‘of’, so she became Me Katilili daughter of Menza (Mekatilili wa Menza).
Me Katilili’s rebellion against the colonial powers was borne of a nasty experience. Arab slave traders forcibly took one of her brothers, Mwarandu, never to be seen again, leaving the family in pain and anguish.
“She was with her brothers at a place called Mtsanganyiko. This is where River Rare drains into the Indian Ocean. And this is where they were ambushed and one of her brothers was taken aaway. This act instantly made her grow an irritation and hate towards the British and the rebellion was born,” says Kaya elder, Kazungu wa Hawe Risa.
Kifudu songs Bearded
Besides the loss, she also could not stand how the British made their way into the Giriama sacred lifestyle, changing or replacing the community’s identity. This threat to the Giriama culture and people was unacceptable in her eyes.
It didn’t matter who towered over her, she was ready to fight and snatch her people from the jaws of the British colonials. Mekatilili swore to fight back no matter what. Even her husband had to accept that she was not an ordinary woman and chose to fully support her in her endeavour.
At this time, it was difficult for the Giriama to accept a woman leader. So she decided to use the kifudu dance, which was performed during funerals. Whenever the Mijikenda heard kifudu songs, they knew someone had died, and they gathered to find out who it was and to grieve with the family.
Mekatilili gathered good female dancers who would easily attract a crowd. Once she saw the crowd was big enough, and that the song had a huge impact on their emotions, she came forward to speak to them about what the British were doing to them, killing their culture and stealing what rightfully belonged to them. She won the hearts of the men slowly, and rose to become a symbol of courage, a voice that refused to be silenced. And when the war, now known a the Giriama uprising or warfare came, she was at the frontline.
However, it was not smooth sailing, and the British tried to keep her in check.
“Mekatilili had supernatural powers, too. The British arrested her frequently, but could not keep her in their custody. She would walk past them right back to her people and continue the fight. She was arrested amongst other warriors and taken to Kisii, but they walked back home by foot. It was a very dangerous time. She was arrested again and taken to Meru, and she walked right back home and continued with the fight. The Giriama were winning, but as usual, there is always a betrayer. In this case, it was Wanje wa Mugaya, who sold out their strategies to the British soldiers, who beat them down eventually and forced Mekatilili to retire to Kali ya Papo, where she lived with her husband and children until her death,” explains Kaya elder Vincent Mwachiro.
Today, the Giriama remember Mekatilili wa Menza with an elaborate festival every August. Started 19 years ago, the festival not only celebrates the heroine, but also acts as a platform to unify or the Mijikenda people, through dance, cuisine, interactive forums and reviving Giriama history.
This year’s festival, which was organised by the Malindi District Cultural festival (MADCA), was held at numerous venues such as the Alaskan grounds in Malindi town to Vitengeni and Shakahola, Chakama, where a wall has been erected at a spot where Mekatilili had slapped a British colonial officer.
Mekatilili was not just a human rights activist, but also a role model to many youth from the young Agiriama men and women.
Maitha Masha, a pro-culture and presenter at Msenangu radio, says the heroine is an icon to the Agiriama culture.
“Her story is great because it shows how the Giriama people were a part and parcel of the fight for freedom. She is a role model for young people in Kenya on just how strongly they need to protect their land and not to give way to bullies who want to take over and replace even what is more than physical. Don’t accept to be manipulated. Mekatilili is a story of courage,” he says.