Muthoni wa Kirima is a retired top-ranking female fighter in the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as Mau Mau Movement in the 1950s. Few Mau Mau women became active fighters and the extraordinary roles of many others are often disregarded in what Professor Micere Githae Mugo refers to as texts of “Silencing, Erasure, and Manipulation of Female Combatants”. The role of Muthoni in the freedom struggle has been recognised on four different fronts, namely: as a Mau Mau stalwart and a spy; as a mobiliser and organizer, as a militant combatant in the forest and as a dominant leader of the Mau Mau Movement.
Muthoni was born in 1930 at Nairutia along Nyeri-Nyahururu road as Muthoni Waihuini. She was named after her maternal grandmother, Waihuini. Her father was Kirima Nguya while her mother was Wanjira Kirima. Muthoni had eleven siblings and grew up in a polygamous family.
Her father worked as a herdsman at a settler’s farm in Nairutia. Muthoni was very young when her father decided to move his family again in search for a better life. This time the family moved to Karing’u near Rurii, about 15km from Nairutia.
Muthoni’s parent s: Kirima Nguyo and Wanjira Kirima Source: Muthoni’s photo album
In her early childhood, Muthoni was a witness to and a victim of the many forms of violence meted out on Africans. These experiences forged in her the resolve to fight for personal freedom and independence for her country. She was quoted saying: “I decided early that I would rather die than live my life under the white man. They would not let us till large pieces of land to grow extra food to sell yet we were in our own country.”
In 1948, while working at the settler farm, Muthoni married Mutungi Gichuhi, a young man who worked as a cook in the same farm. After their marriage, the young couple moved to Ihururu sub-location of Tetu Location on the outskirts of Nyeri town to start their family away from the settler’s farm. After accumulating a little bit of capital from working as casual laborers at nearby farms, Muthoni and her husband started doing business in Nyeri and Nairobi.
When the Mau Mau Movement started recruiting through oathing in the late 1940s, it gained popularity among sections of the Kikuyu community, workers and petty traders in Nairobi. Muthoni was among women who silently supported the cause of the movement long before she took the first oath. As a trader in Nyeri, she had contacts with traders in Nairobi who strongly supported the underground movement. She also remembers contributing money whenever Kikuyu nationalists such as those of KAU needed funds for their operations long before the war broke out.
Shortly after marriage, Muthoni took her first Mau Mau oath in 1952 and her role changed from a mere supporter of the underground movement to a conduit of both information and supplies to the fighters who were by then in the forest preparing for guerilla warfare. From mid-1952, women intensified their intelligence gathering. With oathing for the underground movement then being at its peak, Muthoni would wake up early and head to the forest ostensibly to get goat feed. However in reality she went to deliver information in partnership with other women to the forest fighters. Carrying out this role “was easy because the home guards didn’t suspect we (women) intended any harm.” This was especially the case before the resistance became a full-blown war. After conveying the information, Muthoni would head back home to her unsuspecting husband and continue with household chores. By keeping secrets of her adherence to the Mau Mau, Muthoni went against the conventions of what was expected of an ideal Kikuyu wife.
In 1952 and 1953, Muthoni and her sister in-law, Wanjugu, were Mau Mau operatives who gathered information for those who were already in the forest as well as organized the oathing of other people. She took the oath before her husband but did not inform him. The oath required absolute secrecy. Muthoni’s husband had not taken the oath because he was still undecided about which side to join. According to Muthoni, he was one of the people Chief Muhoya of Nyeri had selected to join Kamatimu (home guards).
For Muthoni, the art of balancing between being a good Kikuyu wife and serving the Mau Mau was not an easy one. As a good Kikuyu wife, she was not supposed to join an underground movement let alone keep secrets from her husband. However, she was so deeply involved with the movement that in early 1952, just before declaration of the Emergency, Chief Muhoya arrested and locked her up at a small house in Kamakwa, Nyeri for the crime of adherence to the Mau Mau movement. She got information from contacts in town and relayed it to the forest fighters through other women supporters of the movement. She continued to play the role as a wife and to run the family business.
Keeping secrets from her husband was never an easy thing. She was so relieved on May 1953 when her husband finally made up his mind to join the forest fighters. He woke up one day and sang, Bururi uyu witu Gikuyu,Ngai niaturathimire na a kiuga tutikauma kuo.
(This country of the Agikuyu God blessed us with it, and said we should never leave it.)
Muthoni organized the oathing ceremony of her husband into the Mau Mau Movement who immediately joined the fighters in the forest. However, Muthoni’s joy of her husband joining the forest fighters was short lived. A day after he left, Chief Muhoya sent his men to check on his potential Kamatimu, Muthoni’s husband. When they enquired about his whereabouts, Muthoni told them that her husband had taken eggs to the market the previous day and had not returned home, after which they left. Three days later, the chief’s men went back to her home. This time they had clues he had joined the Mau Mau guerillas. To extract the truth about his whereabouts they beat her senseless:
“I was beaten up. They kicked me with their boots until I could hardly move. Blood oozed from my nostrils. They left me unconscious.” After they left, her neighbors took her and nursed her for three days. This brutality made Muthoni decide to pursue the Mau Mau cause from the forest rather than from the village. On the fourth day after the ordeal, she took to the forest leaving everything behind. It took her a week to connect with the Mau Mau. She was still recuperating when she took to the forest. One veteran who saw her when she arrived at Mathaini bushi in May 1953 remembered vividly: “She arrived in the morning alone. “From then on, her role changed from that of a spy and mobiliser for the Mau Mau Movement to that of a guerilla.
In the forest, Muthoni first joined the non-combat wing of women. Like other women, she cooked and looked after the welfare of others. She was not stuck in this role for long. After getting well, she began her long journey as a fighter. Assumption of a new role did not mean that she stopped doing the earlier roles. Women multi-tasked in the movement, often offering services as cooks, spies, as well as sourcing guns and other supplies.
Muthoni was among a group of women who broke the patriarchal rules that barred women from fighting alongside their male counterparts. One woman veteran of the Mau Mau Movement remembers her clearly: “There was one woman called Muthoni, I was with her. She feared nothing. She used to go to war with men because she did not fear. She was a dangerous woman; even men feared her.” However, many men who could not accept women as their equal in the battlefield. This was especially so at the initial stages of the war. With time, however, some men came to appreciate the role played by the women in combat.
The outbreak of the Mau Mau war in 1952 gave women an opportunity to join active combat. This was a substantial deviation from the traditional Agikuyu war practices. For the first time in the history of the Agikuyu, women fought alongside men. They went to the forest for similar reasons as men; to fight for land and freedom. They also ran away to get away from the homeguards who constantly harassed them. The women fighting in the Mau Mau Movement had a mammoth task because besides fighting, they also continued with supportive roles such as cooking. Over time, they asserted themselves in the battle as well and participated in both defensive and offensive operations.
Women were part of the expeditions that targeted homeguard posts, their homes as well as settler farms. The search for food outside the forest was considered ‘ going to war’ and with the worsening food situation, hunting for food became an important undertaking in the Mau Mau Movement. This was especially after the government successfully barred village women from supplying food to the guerillas. Women guerrillas were at the heart of searching food for the fighters.
Women were part of the dominant force within the Mau Mau movement. Dominant forces in guerilla movements provide leadership, ideology, strategy and motivation. Involvement of women at the highest level of leadership faced challenges associated with patriarchy. Although women would bear titles such as “General”, they did not enjoy the same power, privileges and responsibilities as their male counterparts in similar ranks. For instance, they were not part of the war council which was made up of “a group of men who never left the forest but were the ones who told us what to do”. Muthoni is quoted saying. It was common for women and men to get ranks from services other than fighting. These services included sourcing food and coming up with ideas that were vital for the survival of their groups.
However, Muthoni is quoted saying there is no need to over-emphasize women’s role in combat. She views combat just as a part of warfare, one that should not be seen in isolation of other aspects. She argues that there were no men or women in the forest, just fellow fighters. What men did, women did too. What a woman did, a man could do. She insists that women went to battle just as men cooked sometimes. Her assertion is reinforced by documented evidence of groups of Mau Mau, including women, attacking various targets.
Muthoni’s claim to the rank of Field Marshal attracts sharp criticism from her contemporaries. Most veterans and scholars of the Mau Mau Movement state categorically that she was not a Field Marshal. This is because, to be a Field Marshal, one must have been an overall leader of many battalions, each under own its general. Many veterans observe that there was only one field marshal, Dedan Kimathi. The next in line of succession for this rank were all male generals led by Stanley Mathenge and Ndungu Gicheru among others. However, ranking in Mau Mau Movement never followed standard military ranking protocols. That is why there are many Generals and few lower ranks. Ideally, generals would be in command of a band of 20-50 fighters (a platoon) or at most 100 – 250 (a company). There would be only one or two Field Marshals in charge of the biggest army unit- the Field Army. But the Mau Mau had its own ranking procedure.
The movement had various ways of motivating the fighters. First, its leaders led through example in the field of war. A leader was supposed to be a jamba (brave and fierce) in battle. Such leaders inspired fighters in the face of danger. Those who offered outstanding services to their colleagues such as obtaining food and treating the injured were given ranks and medals. This way, Muthoni rose to become one of the top female leaders in the Mau Mau movement. Although she does not remember chronologically her rise through the ranks, her accounts indicate that she was promoted from one rank to the next as a result of services other than actual combat. Mau Mau accorded ranks for any achievement to appreciate the particular person and encourage others. When obtaining food became a major problem, anyone who went out of their way and got food for the movement was highly regarded and promoted.
It is important to note that Muthoni does not make claim to any military responsibility related to the title of the Field Marshal. She does not claim to have led any group of Mau Mau generals or any platoon of her own, whether made of women or of mixed gender. Most accounts of her promotions are premised on acts of bravery and resourcefulness during times of dire material needs, especially food. Her understanding of a Field Marshal is that of a true hero, one who never wavered in the fight for freedom and land. Her true heroes did not give up the fight after 1956 when the Mau Mau war was officially declared over. They remained in the forest with the hope of rebuilding the movement to drive white men out of the country once and for all. These were the last Mau Mau. In this respect, Muthoni is not the only one of Mau Mau remnants to claim the rank of field marshal or general. Others who adopted the rank included Musa Mwariama, Mutungi Gichuhi (Muthoni’s husband), and General Karangi Munene, among others. Muthoni and husband Mutungi were the last to leave the forest where they had lived for about eleven years.
“Anyone who will not surrender, get arrested or killed in the forest will become a Field Marshal.” These words were attributed to Kimathi, implying a figurative impression that a true Mau Mau hero is the one who would fight to the end; one who would never surrender to the authorities or get arrested. If the words are anything to go by, they would vindicate Muthoni’s claim to the title of field marshal. In one interview, she is quoted asking “Between those of us who stayed up to 1963 and those leaders who were killed or turned against us, who is better? Who is the jamba (hero)?” Since she could not become a Field Marshal by commanding the movement and its generals, this statement allows her free usage of the title. This is more so as women leaders played no part in giving the ranks and medals as this was a preserve of the top male leadership of the movement. The fact that women went to war alongside men was a challenge enough for some men who had long considered women weak and therefore unable to fight. Muthoni was present during the ceremony to confer Kimathi the rank of Field Marshal in August 1953 near River Mwathe in what came to be known as the Mwathe conference. She was also among the few women who were included in Mau Mau forest court. Not many women, even those with ranks, were trusted enough to sit in the court.
When Muthoni left her village for guerilla life in 1953, she had no idea what it entailed. She had no prior training or experience in warfare. Despite this, she survived to become the only woman among the last group of Mau Mau who did not leave the forest until 1963. She was one of the “Last Mau Mau” who laid down their arms at the flag of free Kenya at Ruringu Stadium in Nyeri County on 16 December 1963.
When Muthoni was asked why people like her participated in the War for Independence, she replied:
“To fight, of course. My father worked for a settler. I was brought up on a settler’s farm. Once you lived with them, you knew you had to fight. We felt it was better to die in the forest fighting them, rather than live without our freedom. We wanted our land, and we wanted our freedom, that is what we wanted.”
“We were in the forest fighting for our freedom. Our fellow black man was not our enemy, not even those who collaborated with the white man. Those who collaborated did so because of their ignorance. The white man was not our enemy because of the colour of his skin. No. It was because of what he had done. He had come and taken our land and was oppressing us in our own land. This is what we fought for: our land and our freedom.”
After the war ended in 1956 Muthoni and other Mau Mau fighters had a very hard time getting back into society. As the Mau Mau group was still seen as a radical organization and after the war, they were put in detention camps and beat as others tried to create their new life. Muthoni was one of those who tried to create a new life, but she was struggling. She and her husband had no money or capital and although they were part of the people who fought for independence, they did not get any of the benefits of the new government. People forgot and didn’t care about them, so they had to struggle begging for food on the street and sleeping next to toilets.
Trade in ivory
Field Marshal Muthoni got a license to trade in ivory in 1966, recovering and selling tusks the Mau Mau had buried around Mount Kenya, having hunted elephants for food and ivory during the uprising. Her permission to collect and sell “wild” ivory ended in 1976 when trade in ivory was banned.
In 1990, she served as a nominated councilor in Nyeri County Council.
In 1998, President Daniel arap Moi awarded her a medal for distinguished service, and in 2014, President Uhuru Kenyatta awarded her the Head of State Commendation.
Currently, Muthoni wa Kirima, now aged 91 years lives in a suburb of Nyeri town.
“Kenya is my only child,” she told the Daily Nation in an interview in 2012, referencing a miscarriage during her time in the forest which left her unable to conceive. To date, Muthoni still has hair in the long dreadlocks that she had grown while she was hiding from the British. She says that she will not cut her hair until she sees the benefit of independence.
Durrani, S. (2018) Kenya’s War of Independence: Mau and its Legacy of Resistance and Imperialism, 1948
– 1990. Nairobi: Vita Books
Kiragu, Patrick. K (2016) A Biography Of “Field Marshal” Muthoni Kirima of The Mau Mau Movement,
1930- 2015. Unpublished MA Thesis. Egerton University.
Mugo, Micere, G. (2004) Muthoni Wa Kirima, Mau Mau Woman Field Marshal: Interrogation of Silencing,
Erasure, and Manipulation of Female Combatants’ Texts. Harare: SAPES Books
Njagi, David. (1993) The last Mau Mau Field Marshals (Kenya’s Freedom War 1952 – 1963 and Beyond):
Their Own Story. Meru: Ngwataniro Self Help Group