The 96-year-old widow of freedom fighter, Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi, Mama Mukami Kimathi died while receiving treatment at a hospital in Nairobi, after developing breathing difficulties, on Thursday 4th May 2023.
Mukami was among the Mau Mau freedom fighters detained at the Kamiti Maximum Prison during the struggle for independence.
She was instrumental in the push that helped Kenya gain its independence from the colonialists.
Her husband, Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi is known for his war exploits in Mt. Kenya and Aberdare forests, yet little is known of his zeal and dedication as a father and dotting husband – or his close relationship with his wife, Mukami.
There’s stranger than fiction stories of an intimidating fighter. Sometimes, erratic and impulsive. He’d often stare leopards out of their caves. He’d plan and execute tactical missions on British camps.
While fellow fighters would be searching the forest for their commander, he’d stagger back into their forest hide out at dawn.
Sometimes, he’d bring a captive along – an hapless home guard – heavily laden with food and ammunition. The home guards were a despised lot, and taken as traitors.
For all the Macho bravery, the hulky fighter with a menacing stare would become a mouse in the presence of his wife – Mukami. He’d calmly listen when she spoke, and follow her suggestions. She’d juggle her roles as wife, mother – she’d beget him 2 sons and 8 daughters – and, fighter.
However, it’s largely unknown that Mukami was instrumental in all the three stages of the Mau Mau Uprising.
In the first stage – recruitment and induction – Mukami was key in the successful planning of tribal dances, targeting young men and women. At this time, most men had taken refuge in the forest, or in detention camps. It’s only women that were allowed free movement.
Mukami’s dances would have a love theme, but would turn political or patriotic – in a bid to prepare people for a major war in the offing.
The second stage was the secretive binding oaths. Again, Mukami was a key strategist.
The third stage was the repositioning of the rebels in terms of forest fighters, the combatants – the guerillas for which Mukami’s husband Kimathi was a member. This stage had Mukami organizing a daring band of women.
She ran the show with the women, when it came to positioning spies, oath administrators, resource mobilisers, and food suppliers to fighters in the forest.
As the war progressed and Kimathi rose through the ranks, Mukami would increasingly become his grounding critic. She lived in the village, making frequent forays into the forest to deliver news, intel or critical supplies.
It’s said that she would walk in, unannounced, into tense, volatile meetings held by her husband – in which, she’d be a thorn in his backside.
She would be the only one bold enough to criticise him. He’d be seething with anger, eyes flashing – but, he’d pause long enough to listen to her. The fighters adored her, and called her ‘The Wasp’. Small, fast and quick to sting.
Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi adored her – and, would confess to ‘hate and love this little woman’. Mukami wasn’t petite by regular standards, but Kimathi’s towering figure easily dwarfed her.
On a chilly, early morning of February 18, 1957, Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi’s date with the hang man dawned. He was executed by hanging, at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison gallows.
Customarily, condemned prisoners are granted a last wish before they die. Kimathi’s wish was a meeting with his wife, Mukami. She drove to the prison two hours to his execution. They had a long private meeting.
After they finally met, Mukami delivered her husband’s final message to the people still in the cause, and defined his legacy.
He said: “I have no doubt in my mind that the British are determined to execute me. I have committed no crime. My only crime is that I am a Kenyan revolutionary who led a liberation army… Now If I must leave you and my family, I have nothing to regret about…”
Post independence, of all freedom fighters, Mukami Kimathi was not Mau Mau’s face of neglect. But she fought not to be sidelined.
As various politicos and some historians closed ranks to depict Mau Mau as a Kikuyu civil war, Mukami fought back — not only for her recognition as a freedom fighter but also for the recognition of others who died in the struggle against white hegemony.
When she died on Thursday, an era ended. And one of the public faces of the Mau Mau struggle was gone.
She was a detainee at Kamiti Prison at some point. And Mukami always fought for her space and never grew tired of demanding that Mau Mau be celebrated as heroes of the freedom struggle. As a result, Mukami was both in the forest and in jail.
When some regimes opted to ignore the Mau Mau, she would appear at the national celebrations in a personal effort to have the government recognise efforts made by freedom fighters — either as revolutionaries or as moderates. Finally, she won.
In the early 1960s, Mukami emerged as a firebrand during Kanu rallies and worked up the crowds. She was also one of the few Mau Mau veterans recognised in the elite circles of JM Kariuki, Achieng Oneko, and General China.
In July 1990, when Nelson Mandela made his debut visit to Kenya, the government was embarrassed after he inquired into the whereabouts of Mukami Kimathi. Nobody had an idea. The Daniel Moi government had erased her from memory.
Mukami used Mandela’s reference to her husband to spring back and seek the reburial of her husband from Kamiti.
Mandela had regretted the fact that he was not in a position to pay homage to Kimathi’s window after he was told that Mukami was “out of town”.
Years later, Mukami would meet Mandela at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport courtesy of activist Kang’ethe Mungai (he duped police that Mukami had an appointment) and Prof Anyang Nyong’o, who was waiting for Mandela and Graca Machel for a Nepad meeting.
In Mukami’s lifetime, her struggle to have Dedan Kimathi’s remains exhumed from Kamiti kept the debate going. But no government has been willing to trace the grave despite modern technology.
In the 1960s, the Minister of State, Mbiyu Koinange, admitted in Parliament that the government knew where Kimathi was buried and promised to have the body exhumed and buried at another site.
However, that matter was soon forgotten with fear by some insiders that a Kimathi tomb would become a revolutionary shrine.
Mukami had met Dedan Kimathi when he was teaching at Karuna-ini Primary School. The two were married in 1948.
For many years, she stood as the face of struggle. So when Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi opened at the Kenya National Theatre, Mukami attended as a guest.
The thread of fighting spirit lived throughout her life. She was one Mau Mau veteran who demanded her rights and recognition. As a result, she was not boxed into oblivion by the government or history.