MAU-MAU FIGHTER AND WOMEN RIGHTS ACTIVIST
By Shola Adenekan
Thursday, October 13, 2011.
Wambui Otieno Mbugua who has died aged 75, was a leading campaigner for women’s rights, and was also one of the few female Mau Mau leaders during Kenya’s struggle for independence. Her memoir Mau Mau’s Daughter: A Life History, was the first narrative by a female Mau Mau member to detail the roles played by women in the fight against colonial rule, women who had largely been written out by colonial and postcolonial historians.
Wambui was one of the first women to run for political office in postcolonial Kenya, she campaigned far and near on behalf of women and the co-operative movement in Kenya, and she also served as a representative of her constituency in the Jomo Kenyantta government.
Wambui was born on June 21, 1936, in Central Province to a prominent family that had a long history of anti-colonial resistance. Her great grandfather Waiyaki wa Hinga, was a Kikuyu leader who was arrested in August 1892 by the British for ordering an insurgency against the British after the British violently seized Kikuyu land. wa Hinga was exiled to Kibwezi and died in suspicious circumstances less than a month in exile. Wambui’s father Tiras Munyua Waiyaki, was Kenya’s first African inspector of police and it was said that the British gave him this position so as to compensate the Waiyakis for the death of their grandfather.
Wambui was a student at Kikuyu Girls’ Secondary School in 1952, when the colonial government introduced a state of emergency as the struggle for independence led by the Mau Mau intensified. From 1952 to 1954, Wambui witnessed a lot of disruption and violence. She was unable to travel to England for university education, her father was detained and her cousin was killed by the British. She witnessed the assaults on members of her community by colonial officials and some of their Kenyan staff. She ran away from home to be part of Mau Mau insurgency in 1954, two years after secretly swearing an oath of allegiance to the movement.
Now fighting the Mau Mau’s cause, Wambui spied against the British, mobilized women and domestic staff and helped procure arms. As a member of the Jim Crow Action Group, she was also involved in the campaign to eradicate ‘the colour bar’ in public spaces where there were designated areas for Asians, Europeans, Arabs and Africans. She was detained several times for her active involvements in these anti-colonial movements, sometimes with her children. It was at one of these holding centres in Lamu that Wambui said she was raped several times in 1960 by a British official. She said the man told her that impregnating her was a decision of the British government, and that they hope the Mau Mau would either disown her or kill her for having a white man’s child.
Wambui was finally released from detention in 1961, pregnant from the rape. She tried unsuccessfully to sue the colonial government for this brutality.
In August 17, 1963, she married the up and coming barrister Silvano Melea (S.E) Otieno. He was Luo and she was Kikuyu; the marriage across two different ethnic groups did not initially sit well with some family members. Wambui said she selected August 17 because it was the anniversary of her great grandfather’s detention. Normal marital life was not for Wambui, she travelled around Kenya and overseas as a campaigner for women’s right, often leaving her husband to look after the children, which now included the children of relatives she fostered.
Her legacy in Kenya’s postcolonial politics is also significant.
In the early 1960s, she joined the Tom Mboya-led Nairobi People’s Convention Party (NPCP), as the leader of the Women’s Wing and later the Kenya Africa National Union (Kanu). She was also a prominent figure in Kiama Kia Muingi (KKM), of which Mau Mau was the precursor.
After Otieno’s death in December 1986, Wambui was involved in the landmark court battle - the case of Wambui Otieno vs Umira Kager clan. The controversy surrounding Otieno’s burial and the brave fight Wambui put up to secure her rights as a widow against her husband’s family made her notorious in some quarters and at the same time a hero to many Kenyans. The case, dubbed the “trial of the century” by the Kenyan press, was ground breaking because it brought attention to the rights of women, especially widows, under Kenyan constitution.
In 2003, Wambui pushed the social boundaries further and caused a national uproar when at the age of 67 she married her second husband, Peter Mbugua, who was 42 years her junior.
She died on August 30, 2011. She is survived by Peter, several children and grandchildren.