A Decade Of Living Dangerously: Wambui Otieno’s Mau Mau


By Elsie Cloete

With her death on 30 August 2011, Wambui Otieno-Mbugua joins the pantheon of African women activists who devoted their lives to struggles against colonial and post-independence political regimes and against systems that favoured and still do favour men over women. Wambui’s activist career began in 1950s Kenya and can be seen to run parallel with those of anti-apartheid activists from southern Africa such as Ellen Kuzwayo, Albertina Sisulu, Miriam Makeba, Emma Mashinini, Helen Joseph and Winnie Madzikela-Mandela. And, like so many of her activist peers from Africa, Wambui also wrote and published her autobiography, ‘Mau Mau’s Daughter’ (1998).

Wambui Otieno
Wambui Otieno

Although she was never elected to parliament, Wambui is one of the few ex-Mau Mau who rose to public prominence in post-independence Kenya. As a young, Christian Kikuyu girl, Wambui, who was distantly related to Jomo Kenyatta, joined the Mau Mau at the start of the Emergency in 1953 as a scout and urban guerrilla, moving through the ranks until she had taken all 15 warrior oaths. In many instances she reported directly to the movement’s War Council. After the Mau Mau effectively lost the war in 1956, Wambui became a member of the resurgent trade union movement and worked closely with Tom Mboya and other trade unionists, becoming notorious for her activism against the colonial government.

In 1960, having being declared an ‘incorrigible’ by the authorities, she was incarcerated for almost a year on Lamu Island. Upon Kenya’s independence in 1963, she was elected head of the women’s wing of Kenya African National Union (KANU) and became deeply involved in Kenyan politics. Dissatisfied with political splits along ethnic lines, increasing corruption and the paucity of attention given to improving the lot of women in Kenya, Wambui was involved with almost every opposition political party over the last 30 years. On a personal level, her battles against a male-dominated society continued into the 1980s with her legal battle to have her husband S.M. Otieno buried on his farm near Nairobi rather than within his traditional clanland. In the first decade of the new millennium she married a man 42 years her junior, defying once again, society’s notion of customary propriety.

From the start she has defied gossip, rumour and open antagonism from a male-dominated society and this will be remembered as her long-term legacy by many women activists. In Kenyan political circles Wambui was nicknamed ‘chuo mon’, the husband of women. It is a nickname that not only referred to her campaigns on behalf of women but perhaps also to a certain level of bossiness – a bossiness that would have translated as ‘leadership’ if it had referred to a man.

This tribute to Wambui looks at her life in the Mau Mau movement. In many respects, apart from being a young girl, she was also an outsider inside the Mau Mau and was certainly not a typical recruit into the movement. Considering her family origins and standing in rural and metropolitan Central Province, her education, gender and relatively speaking, the material plenitude of her family, her involvement in such a movement and political developments thereafter remain truly remarkable. In 1952, while still a schoolgirl, she took her first oath. She declares ingenuously in her autobiography that she had ‘assumed the oath to be associated with the Girl Guide movement’ of which she was a member. The Girl Guide Promise of 1950 promised duty to God and the King, helping other people at all times and obeying the Guide Law. By contrast, the first Mau Mau oath Wambui took involved a ritual passing underneath a sugarcane pole arch, the drinking of a mixture of blood and soil, and an oath of allegiance, which is in singular contrast to the Guide promise of ubiquitous charity and imperial subservience. The comparison with the Girl Guides was either an attempt at humour by Wambui or indicative of her extraordinary incredulity and naïveté – up till then she had certainly lived a sheltered life.

In August 1950 the government had already declared any oathing amongst Kikuyu illegal. Despite this, oathing expanded rapidly throughout the Central Province of Kenya and it is estimated that between 75-90 per cent of Kikuyu adults had taken at least one oath by 1952. Wambui was not exceptional. What made her so exceptional is that unlike most women, by 1956 when the war had effectively ended, she had also taken the Batuni, or warrior, oath. Maloba writes that ‘the Batuni oath demanded high standards of courage. It demanded a complete commitment to militant action and violence, as opposed to mere demonstration of solidarity with the movement’. The Batuni oath gave the oath taker credentials and credibility beyond mere commitment to the movement. Wambui’s loyalty to Mau Mau was never in question.

Wambui saw the inside of almost every prison and holding centre in the Nairobi area during the 1950s. Except for her period of detention on Lamu Island in 1960, she was never detained for very long – being released often enough because of lack of evidence against her, or through the intervention of family contacts. Much of the time a considerable amount of luck was on her side, partly because the Kenyan colonial authorities and military personnel, at the beginning of the Emergency at any rate, failed to recognise the crucial role women played in Mau Mau, and partly because the canny Wambui saw to it that she had effective disguises and maintained tight security with regard to her activities. More than once, close relatives, who undoubtedly were Loyalists, secured her release from detention or facilitated her screening so that she could obtain a coveted Pass.

For Wambui, as it was for so many other people involved in the Mau Mau war and political movements in the 1950s and early 1960s, this was a decade of living very dangerously. Certainly, during the war, proven involvement in Mau Mau, especially if it involved carrying dangerous weapons – firearms, pangas and simis – and consorting with known members of the movement, carried the death penalty. For those Kikuyu who attempted to remain neutral or displayed an affiliation with the Loyalists or joined the Home Guard, life was equally dangerous as they opened themselves up to reprisal actions by Mau Mau supporters.

To all intents and purposes there was very little material incentive for Wambui to join the movement – she was educated and had fairly good employment prospects, her family were land owners and did not suffer the extraordinary deprivations of villagisation, her father enjoyed the protection of a civil service job and her mother was heavily involved in church activities. Admittedly, all around her was evidence of poverty and landlessness. Close by, less fortunate inhabitants of the area sold their labour to settler farmers or were forced to squat on land that had perhaps once belonged to their family. Many of her female peers were circumcised and lived very traditional lives while others straddled colonial and Kikuyu cultures.

In 1953 Wambui was due to join her brothers and a sister who were studying in England but was unable to do so as the colonial government had declared a State of Emergency in October 1952. Wambui had completed the Kenya Preliminary Exam (Form Two) – the highest level of education an African could achieve in Kenya in those years. Any further education had to be undertaken abroad. The Emergency had severely circumscribed possibilities for employment in Nairobi or for further training and her general movements were restricted. In the previous year she had taken the first oath during the school holidays. In her autobiography Wambui is at pains to motivate her allegiance to a movement she admits to not knowing much about: ‘Both [a cousin and a farmworker] were aware of my intense resentment of the brutal treatment my great-grandfather Waiyaki wa Hinga had suffered at the hands of the colonialists, for I had openly said that I was prepared to do anything to avenge him’.

Tiras, her father, was undoubtedly a member of the notorious Home Guard and, except for a few months in detention, a fate that befell almost every male Kikuyu in Kenya, enjoyed the patronage of his employer, the Supreme Court of Kenya. In the Kenya Archives there is a copy of Tiras’ Oath of Allegiance to the colonial government. Not much store can be set by such a declaration of allegiance. After all, this was expected of every Kikuyu employed by the colonial government. However, in several conversations between Wambui and myself she was quick to point out that her father also supplied information and documents to Mau Mau and often turned a blind eye to so-called suspicious activities while he was on guard duty. Wambui’s mother, Elizabeth Wairimu, only became aware of her daughter and her husband’s clandestine Mau Mau involvement after the Emergency had ended.

Her father was apprehended along with almost every other Kikuyu male and sent to detention camps for screening by the security forces the day after Operation Anvil was launched on 23 April 1954. The loss of a regular income hit the family hard. Wambui recalls that during her father’s absence ‘our family suffered many hardships. For lack of money, my brothers in England had to discontinue their education. My mother took risky train trips to Nairobi to collect rent from our house, No. 490 in Pumwani … We also felled wattle trees and sold the wood and bark to Muguga Ginnery to supplement our income’.

Wambui was one of 0.1 per cent of all Kikuyu females who had received sufficient schooling to enable her to sketch and measure, read and copy, competently. In 1954 girls constituted only 26 per cent of the primary school enrolment within the Kikuyu community. Often, female children were removed from school to help with household chores or assist in raising siblings. Wambui herself was withdrawn for almost a year to help her mother with the younger children before returning to primary school. Education, for those girls lucky enough to attend school, was often no more than rudimentary.

In ‘Mau Mau’s Daughter’ Wambui writes that ‘it was sometimes very difficult to explain things verbally’ when scouting and that it was necessary ‘to draw them [locations, layouts] on a piece of paper’. Geography and mathematics, subjects she had not had much time for at school, became vitally important as the lay of the land, distances and building plans had to be conveyed to the fighters. As a young woman, and part of a very small percentage of Kikuyu females whose literacy and numeracy could be considered adequate for some of the tasks enjoined by Mau Mau, Wambui was able to negotiate her status and elevate herself from mother’s helper into a sphere more potent than those who were illiterate could. Education, above the level of merely knowing one’s letters, was of vital importance to Mau Mau leaders. And, as a relatively literate woman, Wambui was thrust into roles of enormous responsibility by Mau Mau.

Almost every Kikuyu male was detained or under suspicion of subversive activities, and it was therefore up to the women to obtain documents and information relating to Mau Mau either by sneaking into government offices and officials’ houses or by inveigling clerks and servants to do so on their behalf. An unknown male Kikuyu found hanging around servants’ quarters or government offices was more than likely to be reported and picked up by the security forces.

There were no photocopying machines in the 1950s, so all documents had to be perused for their usefulness, and accurately copied out by hand or on a typewriter before being returned to the desk or briefcase. Wambui often wielded a camera in poor light to take photographs of documents and building entrances and exits as well. Often, the assignment had to be completed in a couple of hours and this required an ability to distinguish between documents whose contents were of a standard, insignificant nature and those which could be used against the authorities or refuted in the press. Copying out a document under pressure also required a sure hand. If there was no time, a reader had to accurately relate the contents of a document to the leadership. Since very few could do this, it is not surprising that Wambui became close to the inner circle of Mau Mau and was assigned tasks of increasing danger that also required organisational abilities.

One of Wambui’s greatest successes was her role as a scout for the Great Battle of Naivasha in 1953. In early March Wambui took a bus and train to Naivasha and went into the police post where she asked to see a certain police officer, whom she knew had been transferred elsewhere. She took in the location of the series of buildings and what she thought was the arms store, suggested the best direction for attack and the ideal place to regroup afterwards. Later that month General (later Field Marshal) Dedan Kimathi and a number of fighters drove up to the Naivasha Police Station in two lorries and overpowered the guard, broke into the armoury and released all the prisoners. The colonial government was badly shaken and humiliated and this battle stands out as one of the principal Mau Mau victories.

Wambui’s participation in the planning of a raid that was spectacularly successful would not have gone unnoted by the War Council. Together with her higher than average educational level, her commitment and her involvement in this exercise ensured Wambui’s rise to prominence. In urban Nairobi Wambui was given greater responsibility for a group that had to obtain firearms, pass along vital information, and carry food and weapons. She divided the women she enlisted into cells. Many of these women posed as prostitutes and entertained newly arrived battalion soldiers from Britain in their barracks obtaining information about troop movements and nicking the odd firearm or radio. Thousands of male Kikuyu were killed in the course of the actual war and in the exceedingly repressive counter-insurgency actions but the colonial authorities were fairly oblivious to the roles played by women.

One of Wambui’s continuing regrets was that female Mau Mau veterans had been conspicuously neglected by the post-independence governments of Kenya. Jomo Kenyatta’s government paid no allowances to families and orphans of the war and they received almost no educational benefits. The male Kikuyus who benefited most were those loyal to the colonial authorities and those who had some education and were able to move into bureaucratic structures, the army and private companies where there was a shortage of literate, skilled workers once the colonial government had handed over control. The women warriors were completely neglected and abandoned and it was left to Wambui to persistently raise consciousness in Kenya that the Mau Mau had not only been a men’s war.

Farewell Wambui.

Elsie Cloete is professor of Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She was born and raised in Kenya and conducted her doctoral research on Wambui Otieno’s life and times.

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