Wangu Wa Makeri
The badass from the hills
1856 - 1915
For those who were drawn to the potent local brew, muratina, Wangu had devised a special treatment to sober them up; she used their backs as her seat as she went about her daily business. The men of Waithega grew tired of being harshly treated by the colonial collaborative chief. She reminded them of a time two centuries prior when the Agikuyu were dominated by women who ruled every aspect of their lives until there was a revolt. So, the men of Waithega plotted and waited.
Her downfall, when it came, was spectacular and sent shockwaves through the entire district. Wangu committed the ultimate insult against tradition and her colonial office after she allegedly danced the kibata dance, an exclusive adult male dance… naked! Various theories have been advanced explaining the circumstances that led to her dancing in the nude. Some, in her defense, claim that it might have been a wardrobe malfunction, but all agree that she had challenged tradition when she joined the male warriors in a dance.
In the scandalous dance, Wangu threw caution to the wind after seeing her hero and lover dancing with youth and vigor, discarded some of her clothing, exposed her breasts as she provocatively danced, clutching Karuri. The disreputable dance made Wangu the subject of ridicule, and a meeting was held in 1909 that forced her to resign, ending her decade-long reign. In her place, Ikai wa Gathimba was appointed, and never again has a provincial administrator from Muranga captured the attention and imagination of an entire region like Wangu did. Her office still stands at Koimbi trading center beside a small cell where she is reputed to have whipped erring men while seated on the backs of other men.
Wangu wa Makeri defined badass before the name ever came into existence. Wangu was the first female leader in living memory – more like the first female leader in the history of our country and was commonly referred to as an “Iron Woman.” In 1901, she was appointed the ‘headman’ of her Location, the first and only female headman of the entire colonial period. It has been 116 years since the woman captured the imagination of generations, and echoes of her power still reverberate in all corners of the country. Wangu was born around 1856 to her parents in Muranga district. For what she lacked in formal education, her bravado and endless energy more than made up for it. She married Makeri, a reserved man of little ambition, and it is unclear whether she had children of her own, or according to Kikuyu customs then, she had to marry other wives who named their children as directed by her.
Wangu’s prominence started in 1901 when Karuri wa Gakure, the paramount Chief, started frequenting Makeri’s homestead on his way to consult the colonial district commissioner. Traditions demanded that since Makeri and Karuri were age mates, whenever he stopped over for a night, he be entertained by one of the hosts' wives for the night. Freaky, right? It was from this customary sanctioned wife-sharing that Gakure and Wangu became inseparable lovers. In 1902, after Karuri declined being made chief, Wangu was made chief.
Once she became chief, her true badass nature pushed through, and never again had the fate of so many depended on the whims of one woman, when village idlers quaked at the mention of her name, and able-bodied men avoided meeting her like the plague. The most threatened men were the tax evaders who faced the brutal power of her forces; they were drugged, whipped, and incarcerated in solitary confinement. The tax evaders' humiliation was total; they acted as stools and donkeys for the high and mighty in society as people cheered.
Along the way, the villagers dotted the pathways, marching barefoot, with calabashes of yams, sweet potatoes, and arrowroots for the consumption of Wangu the chief and her retinue.
Koitalel Arap Samoei
The Supreme Chief
1860 - 1905
Koitalel was a supreme chief, perhaps best known for his prophecy on colonial rule and his brave fight against it. He was born as the last of four sons and was his father’s only son who inherited an ability in understanding prophetic signs. His father, Kimnyole, who is said to have predicted his own death, reportedly summoned his four sons as his time drew near and asked them to consult traditional brews in a pot for a prophetic reading (hey, don’t look at me, that’s how they did it in the 1800s). When Koitalel gazed into the pot, he saw a black snake tearing through their land, spitting fire, and causing chaos. The construction of the railway line was a fulfillment of this prophecy.
Koitalel succeeded his father as the supreme chief shortly after his death. The position of supreme chief, much like royalty, was a birthright. When the Uganda railway, in the process of being built, passed through their land and threatened their mostly peaceful way of life with foreign men integrating into their villages and assuming superiority, Koitalel led an eleven-year revolt against the construction of the railway.
By 1900, virtually the entire tribe was united behind Koitalel, frustrating the determined efforts of the foreign constructors in charge of the railway line. At their wits' end with the decade-long resistance, the Colonel in charge of the construction of the railway line called Koitalel in for a meeting to negotiate a truce. Despite their superior weaponry and tactics, the locals had numbers on their side, and they fought fiercely under the strategic leadership of Koitalel arap Samoei. The meeting turned out to be a guise; the Colonel shot Koitalel and twenty-three of his family and comrades. One survivor managed to escape and give an account of the harrowing events that ensued. His son, Barsirian arap Manyei, was a tribal leader who was detained for close to four decades, making him the longest-serving political prisoner in Kenyan history.
The Great Ruler
1849 - 1949
Nabongo Mumia Shiundu is widely regarded as the last great ruler of the Wanga Kingdom in Western Kenya. Nabongo was the title given to the head of the legislative and executive bodies of the Wanga Kingdom. You cannot talk about the Abawanga people without recognizing the magnitude of the role of Nabongo Mumia, who ruled the Wanga Kingdom at a time when Africa was making contact with colonial powers.
Upon the arrival of the colonialists in Western Kenya in 1883, they found the Wanga Kingdom as the only organized state with a centralized hereditary monarch in what later became known as our country, Kenya. When a distraught queen mother, Wamanya, lost her five babies soon after their birth, she defiantly challenged fate by throwing her newborn baby in 1849 into a rubbish bin. This is how Mumia, one of 18 princes, almost lost his silver spoon.
The traditions of the Wanga Kingdom, whose origin is traced by oral history to Egypt, dictated that the eldest son of the Nabongo was the automatic heir. However, this was not always the case, as mothers and elders at times plotted palace coups, and Wamanya was intent on having her son Mumia proclaimed as king. His father Nabongo Shiundu, however, had a different opinion on who should succeed him, preferring his brother Luta. Folklore has it that although Mumia was a pretty ordinary young man, he is alleged to have killed a lion on his own, a feat that endeared him to his father’s subjects.
Wamanya tricked Mumia’s brother Luta to dress in the traditional Likutusi made of leopard skin and colobus monkey skins that belonged to his father, King Shiundu. She convinced him that their ailing father would not mind since he barely ventured out. Wit and trickery prevailed.
As soon as Luta donned the royal regalia, word quickly spread that he had declared himself king. Nabongo Shiundu swiftly disinherited Luta, and the council of elders prevailed upon the king to appoint Mumia, who they argued was immensely brave.
The colonialists, upon arrival, were in awe of Mumia’s rule over his Kingdom and were greatly intrigued by his royal regalia, which included a copper bracelet that they thought was superstitious and contained all sorts of powers that could destroy his enemies. They also noticed the royal spears, which were of great age and had a peculiar pattern and workmanship unlike any other they had encountered in Africa. They claimed that when the spears were taken outside the house and pointed in certain directions, they could cause strife in neighboring communities. But Mumia was a lot more strategic than that; he enlisted the services of Arab traders whose shrewd ways he admired, even when it cost him. He also surrounded himself with Nubian mercenaries who were dreaded for their military prowess.
Nabongo Mumia made three major decisions that greatly affected his reign and the destiny of the AbaWanga to this day. He allowed the establishment of educational institutions that gave his subjects a leg to stand on as front runners for new opportunities in vocation, business, and political positioning in post-colonial Kenya. He enabled the establishment of Islam amongst the AbaWanga and only permitted Islamic proselytizing as a means to establish a political buffer against the colonialists, as he was reluctant to allow the spread of Islam amongst his people. He was invited to the coronation of King Edward VII in London in the year 1902 but failed to attend due to ill advice, resulting in a falter in relations with the British. The AbaWanga have been involved in agriculture, specifically sugarcane, and most of the sugar consumed in Kenya is produced in the AbaWanga region, named Mumias, after their great king, Nabongo Mumia.
Mekatilili Wa Menza
The dancing activist
1860 - 1925
The year is 1913, and the setting is the Coastal region of Kenya. The Giriama people had several grievances against the British colonial administration:
Enforced labor imposed after the outlawing of slavery.
Disruption of tribal systems of government, with collaborators installed in charge.
Involuntary conscription of locals into World War I.
Over-taxation and excessive regulations posing a threat to the local economy.
Mekatilili wa Menza, a Giriama widow, navigated the challenges of her daily life amidst constant European interruptions. What set her apart was her unusual involvement in political matters, a rarity among Giriama women. Leveraging her status as a widow, she vocalized her discontent, advocating an end to forced labor, over taxation, and the British-installed leaders. She expressed her grievances through a dance form known as kifudu, typically reserved for funeral ceremonies. Mekatilili's spirited kifudu drew crowds wherever she went, garnering devoted followers. Within weeks, her efforts led to a near shutdown of the Giriama colonial system.
This uproar attracted the attention of the British authorities. With the assistance of a medicine man, particularly Wanje wa Madorika, Mekatilili organized a significant meeting at a kaya, one of the traditional Giriama forest temples. At this gathering, elders administered sacred oaths, pledging non-cooperation with the British. The Giriama left the meeting with a renewed sense of rebellion. In response, the British intensified their efforts, confiscating 1/5th of Giriama land, ordering relocation, causing casualties, destroying homes, and arresting key rebellion leaders, including Mekatilili and Wanje.
Although imprisoned briefly, Mekatilili and Wanje faced a larger challenge – the significant distance between the prison and home. Despite the perilous journey through wild, animal-infested areas, they embarked on a remarkable feat, covering nearly 1,000 kilometers. By the time they reached home, they had not only successfully returned but had also fallen in love and became a married couple.
In the subsequent years, as open revolt seemed imminent, the British District Commissioner, Arthur Champion, realized the futility of his efforts. With World War I straining British resources and realizing the disproportionate cost of suppressing unrest in Kenya, Champion conceded. The traditional kayas and tribal councils were reinstated, with Wanje leading the council, and Mekatilili heading the newly-established women's council.
The story of Luanda Magere, a formidable war hero from the Luo community, is rich with legendary feats and tragic turns. Luanda, a member of the Sidho clan in Kano, possessed an extraordinary superpower – his flesh was as hard as cold stone, rendering him impervious to arrows, spears, and clubs. This invincibility made him a crucial asset in battles against their traditional enemies, the Lang’o (Nandi).
In times of peace, Luanda Magere would be found leisurely seated under the shade of his home, enjoying a tobacco pipe. However, when the Nandi posed a threat, he would take up his spear and shield, entering the battlefield where he would single-handedly defeat numerous Nandi warriors, forcing them to retreat in fear. The Nandi soon became so afraid of Luanda Magere that they would retreat at the mere mention of his presence in battle. His dominance allowed him to raid Nandi land and take their valuables without much resistance.
To end the conflict, the Nandi offered a peace offering – the hand of their most beautiful girl in marriage. Luanda Magere, captivated by her beauty, accepted the proposal despite warnings from Luo advisers. Unbeknownst to him, the girl's purpose was to discover his weakness. When Luanda fell ill, he instructed his Nandi wife to administer medicine by cutting his shadow with a knife. To her surprise, his shadow bled, revealing his vulnerability.
Taking advantage of this knowledge, the Nandi wife betrayed Luanda Magere. In the middle of the night, the Nandi attacked the Luo, catching them off guard. Despite a fierce battle, Luanda's weakness was exploited when a Nandi warrior threw a spear at his shadow, causing him to fall and die. After being stabbed, Luanda's body mysteriously disappeared from the battlefield.
Luanda Magere's death led to profound mourning among his people, marked by loud wailing. A strong wind blew over both Kano and Nandi, and a thick cloud covered the sky. The region suffered a two-year drought before Luanda appeared in a dream to an elder, revealing the location of his body. His remains were found on the banks of River Nyando, and upon the discovery, rain fell for two consecutive days. The community paid sacrifices to honor and respect the fallen hero.