Mekatilili wa Menza: The African Heroine who resisted the colonial British with her dance
The story of Mekatilili wa Menza is quite a unique story of female heroism in the era of fighting for independence from the colonial powers, who were threatening the existence of African culture, considering the fact that Africa as a whole, in traditional governance, women were considered weak and were confined to motherhood.
However, this sexist ideology was turned around when Mekatilili wa Menza witnessed the capture of one of her brothers by the Arab slave traders at the local market in Kilifi town. It was during this unfortunate moment that Mekatilili recalled the prophecy of Prophetess Mepoho.
Not so long ago, Prophetess Mepoho had foreseen the coming of the pale ones (Europeans and Arabs), who had hair like sisal fibres and moved in flying vessels as well as those moving on the water and on land. These strangers would push the Giriama tribe’s tradition to almost extinction and enslave its people
The prophesy came true when the Imperial British East African Company (IBEACo) started building the railway and forced natives to work on white settlers’ farms.
Even so, Mepoho did leave some hope behind; that a saviour would arise and fight for their freedom, and the saviour would be a woman.
The Story of Mekatilili wa Menza
Me’Katilili (mother of Katilili), born Mnyazi wa Menza (Mnyazi daughter of Menza) was the only girl among five children, born to poor parents in Mutsara wa Tsatsu, Ganze, a village of the Giriama sometime between 1840 and 1860, in Kilifi County, Kenya.
Just like any Giriama girl in the Mijikenda society, Mekatilili lived a normal life with her four brothers; Nzai, Hare, Kithi and Mwarandu, until one day one of her brothers was captured by Arab slave traders at the market place in old Kilifi town.
The capture of her brother grieved her so much. After the birth of her son, Katilili and understanding Mepoho’s prophesy, Mekatilili became zealous to fight for the Giriama’s independence from the growing influence of the British in the region.
The British were threatening the Giriama’s sacred cultural norms and values, replacing them with British policies and ordinances that had never been witnessed before.
The IBEACo was planning to move them from their land near the Sabaki river as well as force the much hated “hut tax” on them. So it was that Mekatilili used to call meetings with the popular Kifudu dance (a traditional funeral dance), this was a wailing sign of the Giriama culture being pushed to its death. It was at this dance that she got many followers and would encourage her tribe to resist and swear oaths against the British empire.
Mekatilili’s impetus to fight the colonialists was so great that it didn’t matter how superior the British thought they were, or how powerful and great havoc their weapons could cause. She was prepared to be engaged in any kind of war.
Being a widow after the death of her husband Dyeka wa Duka, made her stand on her own and harness the super-woman spirit in her.
She met Wanje wa Mwadori Kola, a notable traditional medicine man who then became her important ally. He helped her organise a large meeting at Kaya Fungo and together they administered the deadliest oaths; the Mukushekushe among the women and Fisi among the men.
These oaths helped them keep sacred creed never to cooperate with the British in any way or die. Together, they would go to war with their courage and trust in the sole course of freedom.
One day Arthur Champion, a British administrator held a meeting at Hawe Wanje’s home in Chakama to encourage the Giriama youth to join the British army in the first world war. Hawe Wanje was one of the significant women in the Giriama affairs.
With a hen and her chicks in her hand, Mekatilili attended the meeting and challenged Arthur Champion to snatch one of the hen’s chick in demonstration of what would happen had he taken away the Giriama youths. The angry mother hen pecked at Champion, humiliating him in the process.
Champion shot dead the mother hen at which Mekatilili responded with a fiery slap. Mekatilili looked at him and said “this is what you get if you try to take one of our sons.” The Administrator’s bodyguard responded by recklessly firing on a group of youths killing them, hence the start of Nyere and Giriama War.
As a result of that occurrence, Mekatilili together with Wanje wa Mwadori, were arrested on 17th October, 1913 and sent to Mumias to be locked in prison. On 14th January, 1914 they escaped and under mysterious circumstances walked for more than seven hundred kilometres from Mumias to Kilifi, through the wild forests without the colonialists having known.
She was again recaptured on August 16, 1914, and this instigated the uprising of October 25, 1914. After much resistance many of her tribe’s people were shot dead, their houses burnt and their sacred Kaya bombed. She was then sent to Kismayu, in Somalia where she again escaped under unknown circumstances.
During this time, the British were so occupied with the first world war and were unable to gain total control and eventually, yielded to the demands of the Giriama people.
Mekatilili later died in the 1920s of natural causes and is buried in a place called Dakatcha Woodland, in Magarini Constituency, Kilifi County.
In her memory, the Mekatilili wa Menza Festival is held every year in Kenya.
During her struggles she was faced with many allegations and accusations; she was caged, abused and discriminated for being black and a woman, but she would never give up.
She was considered a woman of great wisdom and would use her oratory skills and the Kifudu dance to gain massive coverage, and then convey her piercing message.
She is also said to have had mysterious powers that came from the Kaya, the Giriama shrine, which some considered it was a blessing from God.
Even today, the story of Mekatilili has inspired many women in the fight for freedom and equity. Her living spirit represents the strength of womanhood.
Photo and illustration credit: Jei Mundati/Netizen Radar