Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Harry Thuku (1895–1970), was a Kenyan`s leading anti-colonial figure, intrepid politician and a farmer who was one of the pioneers in the development of modern African nationalism in Kenya. Thuku is the "Father of Kenyan Nationalism" and the first Kenyan to lead the first pan-Kenyan nationalist movement to protest against white-settler dominance. His party, the East African Association, traced its roots to the early Kikuyu political groups, but was the first multi-ethnic political organisation in the East African region. Thuku was arrested by the colonial authorities in 1922 and was exiled for seven years. He was released only after agreeing to cooperate with the colonials, a decision that would undermine his leadership of the Kikuyus. This incident united Kenya's diverse African communities firmly together in their demands for freedom from British colonial rule. (Wepman, 1985:3)
Harry Thuku, the father of Kenyan Nationalism, leading anti-colonial figure and feminist advocate. He led a famous riot in 14 March 1922 composed of mostly women known in Kenyan history as "Thuku Riot."

Thuku, a man who started working as a sweeper and messenger for Standard Bank, a compositor and machine man for the settler newspaper the Leader, and a telephone operator at the government Treasury was the first Kenyan leader to also fight for the rights of Kenyan women against their exploitation and maltreatment by the British imperialist and other white settlers in Kenya. In his autobiography  (Thuku, 1970: 32), he describes a women's communal work project that he apparently stopped.
"There was one place on the journey where I made myself very unpopular with the
administration we had just come to the Kagumo stream near Nyeri. There is a
deep fall there,also an Indian maize-grinder place,and a large pond of reeds near
the road. I saw a large number of young girls and women cutting reeds under the
supervision of tribal police. I called over one of these, the one who seemed to be in
charge, and asked him what the women were doing. He said they had been ordered
to cut reeds to thatch the police-lines in Nyeri. 'Well,'I said, 'whoever told you to
force these women to do this forced labour is acting illegally. Don't you know that
forced labour of this sort has been stopped by the order of Winston Churchill in
the Colonial Office?'( It had been stopped in fact in 1921 in a despatch telegram to
the Kenya Governor and the Colonial Office had ordered a copy to be sent to me.)
I therefore asked him to dismiss the women,and said I would remain there until
they had all gone back home. The policeman made no trouble because he himself was
angry at this forced labour, seeing his sisters going out to work for no reward. But the
administration in Nyeri was very annoyed. However, I did it, knowing that I
would shortly be arrested. [Thuku, 1970: 32;)
Before Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and others would come into Kenyan nationalism struggle scene there was Harry Thuku. A man who is not much revered by Kenyan`s because later in his life he criticized the Mau Mau movement. Though Mzee Jomo Kenyatta also denounced Mau Mau in his speech entitled "The Kenyan African Union is not Mau Mau" at the Kenya African Union Meeting at Nyeri, July 26, 1952 by saying "We do not know this thing Mau Mau....I do not want people to accuse us falsely-that we steal and that we are Mau Mau. I pray to you that we join hands for freedom and freedom means abolishing criminality. Beer harms us and those who drink it do us harm and they may be the so-called Mau Mau." Mzee Kenyatta was never harshly criticized by Kenyan`s or Kikuyus but some self-righteous Kenyans and ignorant kikuyus are quick to damage the reputation of Thuku, the great man who showed Kenyan`s how to fight the colonialists.
It was Thuku who founded the Kenya Africa Union, whose original aim was to support the first African members to be appointed to Legislative Council. He was its first president. but resigned after three months.
Political scientist John Lonsdale writes that in 1959 Thuku was the first African board member of the Kenya Planters Coffee Union (KPCU). After independence, only a street in Nairobi was named after him. But the Kenyatta government largely ignored him until he died in 1970.
Harry Thuku (seated) and his wife Tabitha Wanjiku during their wedding in the 1940s. 

Harry Thuku was probably born in 1895 in the Githun – guri administrative division of the Kiambu District in central Kenya. He traced his descent from one of the most influential Kibuyu families of the region. His father died in 1897, leaving him in the care of his mother and elder brother. He spent his early childhood taking care of his brother’s sheep and goats. However, his fortunes changed dramatically when his subclan, Mbari mya Gatirimu, granted a hun­dred acres of land to the Gospel Missionary Society for the establishment of a mission center at Kambui. In 1907, young Thuku was employed by the missionaries as a herd and house boy. His time at Kambui Mission and interaction with the missionaries enabled him to learn how to read and write. He next went to Nairobi, the headquarters of the colonial administration, in 1911 to seek his fortune. However, he was caught forging a check, and was sentenced to a two-year prison term.
His fortune changed for the better thereafter. The leading colonial newspaper, Leader of British East Africa, employed him as compositor and machine op­erator. This was a unique opportunity for keeping up to date with current affairs. In particular, he learned about the political battles then taking place between the In­dian community and European settlers over the control and future of Kenya.
In 1918, he was employed at the treasury as a tele­phone operator. This was a good job that enabled him to widen his circle of friends and rent living quarters in Pangani among wealthy Africans drawn from different East African tribes.
During this period, several issues were causing ten­sion and controversy. The Kikuyu community was chafing over their alienated land. The Carrier Corps, which took part in World War I, had experienced ap­palling casualties. Influenza was taking its toll, and set­tlers were threatening to reduce African wages by a third. In August 1920, Kikuyu chiefs from Kiambu District formed an organization called the Kikuyu As­sociation (KA). Its purpose was to articulate their grievances, especially concerning land issues. It also joined in the chorus of protestation against the threat­ened wage cut.
These developments were not lost on Thuku. More­over, he interacted with leaders of the East African Indian National Congress an Young Baganda Associa­tion. Barely a month later, he renamed it the East African Association (EAA) in order to embrace the multi-ethnic character of the African population then residing in Nairobi. In short, he was cognizant of the fact that the battle against the colonial system needed a joint effort of the oppressed, irrespective of their ori­gin. He was thus prepared to cooperate with like – minded comrades. For example, he joined the KA leaders when they met with the colonial administration on June 24, 1921, at Dagoretti. Indeed, he played a prominent part in the discussions, having directly for­warded to the Colonial Office the memorandum that KA presented to the Kenyan colonial authorities for transmission on to London. In the cable he used the treasury’s address and singled out missionaries and the Indians as special friends of the African, thereby infu­riating the settlers. Finally, he kept in touch with prominent African Americans, such as Marcus Garvey, whose influence was suspect in colonial circles.

In his tour of Kikuyuland, Nyanza, and Ukambani he denounced the colonial government for its neglect of African welfare. In particular, he encouraged women not to participate in the hated soil conservation projects then in vogue. Women were so grateful for this unexpected support that they named Thuku Munene wa Nyacing’a (leader or chief of the women).

People flocked to Thuku’s meetings in large num­bers, which alarmed the government, chiefs, mission­aries, and settlers. The government mobilized chiefs against him but he outsmarted the officials by employ­ing divide-and-conquer tactics. He, too, mobilized the Nyeri and Murang’ a chiefs against those from Kiambu, who were his main protagonists. Eventually, chiefs and missionaries swore affidavits in order to create the legal grounds for arresting and deporting him. He was arrested on March 14,1922.

Thuku’s supporters viewed the new turn of events with dismay. Consequently, they went on strike as a mark of solidarity with their arrested leader. Moreover, they went to the central police station to demand his re­lease. On March 16, they surged forward toward the sta­tion. The police panicked and opened fire. It is also al­leged that European customers on the veranda of the hotel joined in the skirmish. The official report was that 21 people died, a figure that is disputed by eyewitnesses.

The aftermath of the shooting was that Thuku was im­mediately exiled to Kismayu, where he remained from 1922 to 1925. Thereafter, he was transferred to Lamu, Witu, and finally Marsabit. In Marsabit he struck a rap­port with a Major Sharpe, the local district commis­sioner, and with his assistance was able to while away the time in minor farming activities. This became a lucrative pastime, and Thuku was able to accumulate some funds before he was finally released in December 1930.

The government watched him carefully when it real­ized that he was in touch with members of the Kikuyu Central Association, the successor to his EAA. This did not deter him from becoming its president in 1932. Wrangling within the party, and disagreement over its policies, led him to form Kikuyu Provincial Association (KPA) in 1935. Significantly, he distanced himself from the independent schools and churches movement that was sweeping through central Kenya in the aftermath of the female circumcision crisis of 1929 to 1931. Above all, the constitution of the organization pledged its loy­alty to the British crown and vigorously supported colo­nial policies, such as soil conservation, which were anathema to many rural people. Rightly or wrongly, the political fire in his belly seemed to have been quenched by his detention in the far off and god-forsaken places. His later activities seemed to confirm this view.

In 1944, the Kenya African Study Union was formed to support Eliud Mathu, the first African member of the Legislative Council. Thaku joined it for only three months. He even refused to have anything to do with its successor, the Kenya African Union. He reconciled with his nemesis, Chief Waruhiu, the pillar of colonial ad­ministration in Kiambu District. The KPA was reprieved from proscription like the other African political parties that were banned during World War II. He seemed to be only interested in personal and Mbari ya Gathirimu af­fairs. And finally, he denounced Mau Mau, which was spearheading the freedom struggle from 1952. On December 12, 1952 Thuku was given a slot at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation to air his views. Coincidentally, KBC is today located on Harry Thuku Road. Lonsdale records his words on radio: "Today we, the Kikuyu, stand ashamed and looked upon as hopeless people in the eyes of other races and before the government. Why? Because of the crimes perpetrated by Mau Mau and because the Kikuyu have made themselves Mau Mau."

The upshot of this was that he was shunned by his for­mer colleagues, and thus played no role in subsequent political developments. It is very telling that on inde­pendence day he celebrated it privately by planting cof­fee trees to signify his economic liberation. And in good measure, the independent Kenya government could only honor him by bestowing his name on the street that runs along the Norfolk Hotel, the scene of the confrontation between his supporters and the police in 1922.

And yet, Thuku towers over the history of the strug­gle for freedom. He had the courage to challenge the indomitable colonial system when very few would have dared to do so. He sacrificed a lucrative career in the civil service in order to articulate the grievances of his people. He thus became a symbol, an example, and pioneer of the nationalist movement in Kenya.

                                                          Audrey Wipper
African men, like men everywhere, have dominated the public sphere, holding the vast majority of official positions of power and authority. In pre-colonial African societies women were formally subordinate to male
authority and male dominance was buttressed by an ideology of male superiority and a status system where women showed deference to men. But formal systems, ideologies and codes of etiquette are not realities. In some societies women wielded considerable influence and authority, so much in fact that these systems have been characterised as dual-sex political systems with each sex managing its own affairs (Okonjo, 1976). Women were not so much involved in hierarchical orders of relationships as in complementary, mutually dependent relationships.
This article will focus on the collective activity of African women in the Harry Thuku 'Riot' in Kenya, 1922, which involved mass demonstrations, a clash with the authorities, and the loss of lives. It asks: what did the women do, how and why did they do it? I then briefly compare this example of militancy with women's activities in the Women's War in Nigeria, 1929, and the Anlu Uprising in the British Cameroons, 1958-59. Despite their formal subordination to men, in these incidents women challenged not only male but also colonial authority, sometimes successfully. This is not to imply that women in these societies wielded power or authority equal to that of men, but to show that, given certain conditions, institutions and traditions, women did achieve a strong political voice.
Do these manifestations of female militancy throw any light on the general conditions that promote such a voice. Are there any factors common to these three cases? Do they permit us to draw any generalisations, even tentative, about the characteristics of female militancy or about the nature of the societies that produce it? The article concludes by suggesting several uniformities that characterise the women's tactics and the conditions that produce such militancy. Because the data are weak in some areas, these uniformities should be seen as a set of working hypotheses rather than a full-blown explanation.
These examples of female militancy are interesting in themselves since women are not usually seen as playing leading roles in riots and political struggles. Such occasions provide an intriguing view of the clash between
formal and informal roles and of the tactics those occupying subordinate positions employ to deal with those in superordinate positions. It behoves us to know more about situations of friction and conflict in which people break with codes and publicly challenge formal authority.
This study may help to dissipate further the already weakened stereotype of women as bound to home and hearth, submissive to male authority, politically passive and hence politically irrelevant. There was nothing servile about these women, who acted in ways associated more with male than with female behaviour. They took the initiative politically, were aggressive, both verbally and physically, engaged in ribald, vulgar and insulting behaviour, and at times used violence and coercion to obtain their goals.
Only the Thuku Disturbances will be examined in any detail. The other two cases are well known and dealt with in more fully documented papers.
Of the three incidents of militancy, the women's role in the Thuku 'Riot' is the least known, involves by far the smallest number of women, and their activity is the least complex, as they played only a minor part in the overall Thuku movement. Since some of the pertinent data remain in archives and since the events have never before been examined from this perspective, empirical evidence is presented.
Before discussing Thuku's protest, let me point to several research problems. Crowd behaviour is difficult to research. Crowds (demonstrations, riots and panics) tend to be short-lived, volatile collectivities of large numbers of people marked by strong emotions, ephemeral leadership and shifting membership. The Thuku demonstrations had little social structure compared with Anlu or the Women's War, both of which continued for much longer periods of time. Furthermore, at the time women were not seen as political actors by those doing the talking and writing: consequently their political actions received little attention. This has not helped my attempt to explain their behaviour.

Harry Thuku, a Kikuyu from Kiambu District, was one of the founders in 1921 of the Young Kikuyu Association (renamed the East African Association a month later in an attempt to suggest and acquire pan-tribal unity). Despite its final name and Thuku's efforts to acquire members from different tribes, its activists were young, urban, self-employed male Kikuyu, the majority of whom were mission-educated with roots in the Fort Hall and Kiambu Districts (Spencer, 1985: 36). Jesse Kariuki, Job Muchuchu, James Njorage, Gideon Mugo, Abdullah Tairara and Mwalimu Hamisu were on its directing committee. Its members were largely domestic servants, employees and labourers (Clayton and Savage, 1974: 120). Weithaga and Kahuhia in the Fort Hall District and Nyeri were areas of strong support (Thuku, 1970: 30; Spencer, 1985: 44-7). Thuku, its secretary, was the driving force. He received a mission education from the Gospel Mission Society, Kambui, an American evangelical sect deeply committed to overseas missionary work (Tignor, 1976: 257).
He held several jobs in Nairobi, working as a sweeper and messenger for Standard Bank, a compositor and machine man for the settler newspaper the Leader, and a telephone operator at the government Treasury (Thuku, 1970: 12-17). It was at the Leader that Thuku became aware of racism:
"I read many of the articles that the settlers wrote to the Leader (the paper was
strongly in favour of white settlers), and when I saw something there about the
treatment of Africans, it entered my head and lay quiet until later on. [Thuku,
1970: 14-15]"
Thuku toured the rural areas speaking to large and enthusiastic gatherings of Kikuyu. He articulated Africans' grievances against the colonial government, mobilised support, and sent cables and resolutions to the colonial secretary and influential and sympathetic people in England. Protest centred on a number of grievances, among them the kipande, the government's doubling of the hut and poll taxes, a reduction in African wages, oppression by tribal police, and forced labour, especially of women and children (Thuku, 1970: 18-20; Bennett, 1963: 451; Leys, 1924: 213, 311-24; Ross, 1927: 108, 153; Mungeam, 1970: 141-2). The last issue, women's labour, shows why women had particular reasons for supporting Thuku.
In his autobiography Thuku explains how he became concerned and how the recruitment of women labourers was implemented through the chiefs.
"It was at the Leader, from about 1915, that I first began to think seriously about
some of our troubles as Africans-especially this question of forced labour. Before
then only men had been made to work, but at about that time women and girls too
were compelled to go out to work. This was what happened: a settler who wanted
labour for his farm would write to the D.C. [district commissioners] saying he
required thirty young men, women or girls for work on his farm. The D.C. sent a
letter to a chief or headman to supply such and such a number, and the chief in
turn had his tribal retainers to carry out this business.They would simply go to the
people's houses-very often where there were beautiful women and daughters and
point out which were to comet o work. Sometimest hey had to worka distance
from home, and the number of girls who got pregnant in this way was very great. But I
shall say later what I tried to do about this. [Thuku, 1970: 16; my italics]"
At a large public meeting at Dagoretti on the outskirts of Nairobi on 24 June 1921 and attended by the Acting Chief Native Commissioner, government officials, chiefs, missionaries, prominent Kikuyu, Thuku and members of the Young Kikuyu Association, a number of issues were raised. Among them were the kipande, increased taxation and the forced labour of women and girls which involved a number of rapes by African employees, on which documentation is provided.
"The young men acted and spoke with a composure and self-confidence that grated
upon the paid chiefs. These young men were partially educated. They had
attended mission schools (the only ones in existence) for the sake of getting some
education.... To the paid chiefs they were anathema. Nobody wanted them or
wanted to meet them. And here they were, forcing a hearing....
They complained of forced labour of girls and young women.Their District
Commissioners (so they reported-and he was present) ordered fathers and elders
to send their girls out to work on European plantations. If objection was made, it
was treated with detention at the Governments station, a fine of goats--and the girls
were taken.In the previous month 60 girls has been taken to a European estate( named).
They were still there.A list was produced of the names of girls who had been violated
while so out at work on farms and were pregnant with the names of their native seducers
in some cases. he native employees at the Government station were apparently
somewhat more licentious than Claver house's dragoons had been among another
far-distant and sullen people. Head men who did not produce the requisite groups
of girls were subjected to public indignities-made to carry loads, for instance....
Harry Thuku was present. He asked pointedly if Government would abstain
from reducing the pay of labourers in its employ.Why could they not be given a s
secure a title to their land as all Europeans demanded and got for theirs? [Ross,
1927: 225-6; my italics]
Sir Edward Northey, Governor of Kenya, ordered an investigation into the charges of rape. He alleged that the girls had been willing accomplices rather than victims, and that, although 'in certain instances Headmen have gone further than the Government would have approved', the complaints were either false or exaggerated (Clayton and Savage, 1974: 157; the original CO 533/264 Northey to Colonial Office, 31 October 1921).
Members of the Young Kikuyu Association called a meeting of Africans on 10 July 1921 to announce the change in name to East African Association (EAA). The resolution passed included statements 'That this meeting strongly protests against the Registration of Natives Ordinance, [the kipande], against the practice of compulsorily taking out of girls and married women to plantations for work which has culminated into immoral practices'. The core activists agreed that these resolutions should be sent to the Colonial Office in London. Later the main ideas from the resolutions were put into a telegram, copies of which were sent to the Prime Minister and other interested people in London. Again the compulsory labour of women and girls 'culminating in immoral practices' was raised.
These activities, especially Thuku's use of the Treasury's address as his own on his mailings, provoked the government into giving him an ultimatum: his job or politics. According to him:
"... Mr. Kemp, the Treasurer, was instructed to tell me that I must choose
between politics and government service.Well, I was a young man, and very quick
to answer.I did not tell him that I would think about it. I told him straight out, 'I
choose politics.' Mr. Kemp was a very kind employer, and when he heard my
answer he laughed and said, 'I'll tell you what you should do. Your three months'
leave is now overdue. Take it, and find out if your people will support you in
politics-because I know you think the Government is doing many injuries to your
people.I f they are behind you, then write me a resignation notice after two months
and I'll accept it. On the other hand, if they don't follow you, finish your leave,
and come back and continue to work here.' I thanked him, left at the end of the
month and found out that the people were very angry-it was not, of course, a
question of whether or not they would follow me; they were fighting for
themselves.A t any rate, I sent in my resignation at the end of two months, and
received a very good certificate of service from Mr. Kemp. I still have it. [Thuku,
1970: 24]
Thuku continued to hold mass meetings and his speeches became increasingly anti-chiefs, anti-missionaries, and anti-government. At a meeting at Fort Hall on 26 February 1922 he told his followers to pay only 3 shillings tax and to discard their kipandes. The next day at Weithaga, where more than 25,000 had assembled, he forbade any communal work (i.e. work on government projects). On 11 March he told a crowd that the 'government officers were nobody. The chiefs are nobody. If I send a letter to the Governor a chief would be dismissed at once.' By this time Thuku's ideas constituted a direct challenge to colonial rule (Tignor, 1976: 232, 234).
Warned that he was likely to be arrested, Thuku made one last tour to northern Kikuyu country in early March accompanied by Job Muchuchu and other committee members. 'Everywhere I gave advice to carry on underground if the Association was stopped and I was arrested' (Thuku, 1970: 32).
He describes a women's communal work project that he apparently stopped.
"There was one place on the journey where I made myself very unpopular with the
administration w:e had just come to the Kagumo stream near Nyeri. There is a
deep fall there,also an Indian maize-grinder place,and a large pond of reeds near
the road. I saw a large number of young girls and women cutting reeds under the
supervision of tribal police. I called over one of these, the one who seemed to be in
charge, and asked him what the women were doing. He said they had been ordered
to cut reeds to thatch the police-lines in Nyeri. 'Well,'I said, 'whoever told you to
force these women to do this forced labour is acting illegally. Don't you know that
forced labour of this sort has been stopped by the order of Winston Churchill in
the Colonial Office?'( It had been stopped in fact in 1921 in a despatch telegram to
the Kenya Governor and the Colonial Office had ordered a copy to be sent to me.)
I therefore asked him to dismiss the women,and said I would remain there until
they had all gone back home. The policeman made no trouble because he himself was
angry at this forced labour, seeing his sisters going out to work for no reward. But the
administration in Nyeri was very annoyed. However, I did it, knowing that I
would shortly be arrested. [Thuku, 1970: 32;)
The government, concerned about Thuku's militancy and growing support, arrested him on 14 March 1922. While detained, he wrote to his friend and adviser, M. A. Desai, the Indian-rights activist and editor-publisher of the radical Indian newspaper the East African Chronicle. In his letter of 2 May 1922 Thuku blamed the chiefs for the forced labour of women and children,
"... as they [Africans] have learnt this from Europeans who are treating them very
badly, especially by the way of compulsory labour among women and children on their
plantations I was against four Native Christians,then Chiefs and Government
headman, namely Chiefs Philipo Karanja James, Chief Koinange wa Mbiu,
Headman Josiah Njonjo and Waruhui wa Kung'u (all are of Kyambu Administration).
These four Government servants are office-bearers of the Kikuyu,and it will
be rather funny to everybody to learnt hat Government servants are taking part in
private association and Chief Native Commissioner doesn't take any notice of that.
These four Kikuyu gentlemen followed the Missionaries lines by going around the
Native Reserve and preaching that I was spoiling the Kikuyu country; but mind
you that they are the best friends of European settlers and were forcing Native girls
and women to work on European plantations before establishment of East African
Association.[ Thuku, 1970:9 1-2;}
This letter explains, in part, why Thuku was in jail. In striking out at James, Koinange, Waruhiu and Njonjo he had boldly, some would say recklessly, taken on the powerful Kikuyu establishment. These men dominated the politics of Kiambu for a generation and their descendants were to help shape independent Kenya. District commissioners sought their advice, since few projects could succeed without their consent. Needless to say, they supported the government's deportation of Thuku (Rosberg and Nottingham, 1966: 83).
                                          'CHIEF OF WOMEN'
Kikuyu women applauded Thuku's efforts on their behalf and he was hailed throughout Kikuyuland as 'chief of women', a title that remained his all his life. A former coffee picker said, 'Harry Thuku is the one who fought for us and stopped us from working like slaves.' He was extolled in popular songs:
"When Harry Thuku left, that is the time I started scratching my buttocks.
When he came back, the scratching stopped.
Let the white man face that,
Because he is the one who forced Harry Thuku to go to Europe."
Buttock-scratching was a gesture Kikuyu women used to insult settlers, colonial officials and their agents (Presley, 1985: 260-61, 271).7 It was an adaptation of the traditional buttock-baring practice discussed below (pp.318-19).
Since the chiefs played a major role in labour recruitment, they were disliked. During Thuku's detention, women sang:
"It is they who have caused to be taken away the chief [Thuku]
of the girls who live in the coffee[ a reference to the coercion of girls and women to
work on coffee farms]."
The government forbade the singing of this song, which ridiculed the chiefs, but a new and similar one was soon composed. Men resented the forced labour of their women (see Thuku's comment on the policeman, p. 304). When Dr Gikongo Kiano (later a prominent minister in Jomo Kenyatta's cabinet) saw Thuku at a political meeting in the 1950s he called out, 'Let me go and shake hands with the old man who stopped my
mother from digging roads.' One reason a number of Embu people joined Thuku's Kikuyu Provincial Association, begun in 1935, was their gratitude for his lifting 'a great burden from their women in 1921' (Thuku, 1970: 61). (The forced labour of women officially ended in 1921.)
In an effort to unite mission students and graduates behind his government, Thuku wrote to Mathew Njorage, a mission-educated Kikuyu with connections to both the Kikuyu Association and the EAA, on 3 December 1921. He called upon the students and graduates not to trust their district commissioners and headmen. This appeal sparked off bitter antagonisms among the Kikuyu. The chiefs were furious and Thuku became a pariah in their eyes. At a public meeting at Karia on 26 and 27 January 1922, attended
by the Chief Native Commissioner, the chiefs and over 1,000 people, Chief Josiah Njonjo read Thuku's letter and reminded those gathered that Kinyanjui not Thuku was the paramount chief. The chiefs called upon all Kikuyu to stop having anything to do with Thuku and threatened to banish anyone who brought him into the district (Tignor, 1976: 232).
The women's support of Thuku, despite the chiefs' admonition, suggests a willingness to defy chiefly orders. Thuku would always consider women's issues important. In his memoirs, written almost half a century after he first raised these issues and only a few months before his death, he discusses the plight of women. Thuku appears to have genuinely respected and admired women. He commended them for being in 'the forefront of Kenya's fight for freedom' (Thuku, 1970: 33). For their part, women were among Thuku's strongest and most loyal supporters. It was they who tried to rescue him from jail. Later, they were concerned
about his long detention (Presley, 1986: 56).
It is interesting to speculate on just why Thuku took up women's issues (though speculating on motives is at best difficult and, when it involves crossing cultural barriers, full of pitfalls). It might simply be that, as a
political animal, he knew a good constituency when he saw one. This explanation, however, is a little facile since neither the British nor the Africans regarded women as politically important (Kenyatta, 1961: chapter
9; Leakey, 1977: 9). Furthermore, if one takes the fines for different offences as indicators of just how seriously Kikuyu society viewed those offences, it would be hard to argue that it viewed the beating or raping of women all that seriously.
Thuku's basic values about women were obviously derived from his family and community. For the Kikuyu, female sexuality was confined to carefully defined areas. Virginity in brides was valued and pregnancy before marriage taboo. In comparison to the penalties for the above offences, the fine for impregnating an unmarried girl was much more severe and the sanctioning process more complex and involving much ritual (Kenyatta, 1961: 160; Leakey, 1977: 1026-9). This problem and forced labour were the women's issues that most concerned Thuku and the EAA.
Early in life Thuku came under the influence of the Knapp family of the Gospel Mission Society, a fundamentalist group that espoused conservative religious values and preached a rigid social code. Thuku's prosperous landowning family had provided the land on which the mission station was built (Tignor, 1976: 228). When Thuku was twelve he spent four years at the mission 'under the constant care of Myrtle Knapp who became a second mother to him' (Wanyoike, 1974: 30). His first job was to tend the calves, his
next to feed the mule, but in a short time he was asked to be a house servant. One of his tasks was to look after the Knapps' small daughter.
According to Thuku, Myrtle Knapp thought highly of him.
"I think that Mrs. Knapp had an interest in these political matters [alienation of
Kikuyu land]' ... for much later on she showed sympathy for me when I was in
detention; a man told me after my release that Mrs. Knapp was my great friend
during my exile; she would put a map of Kenya up in her class, and pointing at the
dot on it which was Marsabi [where he was transferred to ] she would ask her class,
'Do you know what fearless man is staying in this place?'[ Thuku, 1970:7 -9]
The Knapps, ever on the lookout for talented and devout Africans, had singled him out as a future missionary (though when he did preach it was hardly a religious message!). Be that as it may, Thuku remained a staunch
Christian all his life. 'The teaching of Dr. Henderson [a Gospel Mission missionary] and Mrs. Knapp stood up in my heart. I never changed or dreamt of changing over [to the Muslim faith].' When asked to join the
independent school movement after he had returned from detention, he declined, saying, 'I will remain GMS. Where I started, there will I remain.' After their deaths, Thuku referred to the Knapps as 'two of my oldest friends in Kambui' and later he helped to establish a memorial church to them (Thuku, 1970: 17, 52, 66-7). Thuku's early and close association with the Knapps probably reinforced his Kikuyu values as both Kikuyu and Christians had strict rules about female sexuality.
There were undoubtedly elements of self-interest and inter-generational conflict involved in the EAA's stand on women: young, single, insecure mission converts were pitted against older, powerful chiefs who could afford the bride price for additional wives, whereas many of the young men could not afford the bride price for a single wife. Their own sisters and potential brides were taken as wives (sometimes against their will) by old, rich men. The young Turks relished having an issue that they could zealously and self-righteously pursue, much to the annoyance of the chiefs (see Ross's account of the Dagoretti meeting, p. 302 above). They probably enjoyed seeing themselves as protectors of women and feared that, should women leave the protective environment of the reserve to work on settlers' farms, they would in time disregard tribal ways and male authority. While it was all right for the men themselves to become townsmen, they preferred their
women to live according to traditional values and to remain in the reserve.
Thuku was exceptional in several ways. Not only did he spearhead early Kikuyu protest against colonial authority but he was Kenya's first African politician to take the exploitation of women and children seriously and to articulate their grievances to an international audience. The dominant pattern during the colonial and post-colonial periods was, and still is, one of individual women and women's groups on their own protesting about women's issues, such as inheritance and marriage laws that favour men or support for single mothers and their children.
                                                   THE FEMALE LABOUR ISSUE
By 1914 coffee was Kenya's major export, earning more than all the other temperate farming products taken together. It was to continue to be one of the colony's most lucrative crops (Sorrenson, 1968: 156). Once a large quantity was under cultivation, the settlers were faced with an insufficient labour supply and turned to the colonial government for help. Having been encouraged by the government to settle land and to invest in the Protectorate, the newly arrived Europeans expected it to help them get workers for their plantations, farms and ranches. After the First World War, British soldiers were encouraged to settle and open up new farms. The soldier settlement scheme brought in its wake an even larger demand for agricultural labour.
The settler's problem was how to get large numbers of labourers for seasonal work yet keep wages low in order to maximise profits. The administration also needed labour in rural areas, for example, to build and
maintain roads (Spencer, 1985: 15). Thus there were heavy demands for labour from both settlers and government.
Coffee labourers in 1925-28 were among the four lowest paid categories of workers in Kenya (Presley, 1985: 262), and because the wages were low African men were reluctant to work on coffee estates. The settlers, for this and other reasons, had come increasingly to rely on female and child labour to harvest their crops. Women too, however, were reluctant to work on coffee estates because their help was most needed (for harvesting coffee beans) during a time that coincided with the peak period of the traditional planting
cycle on their own farms.
Faced with both a chronic labour shortage and chronic pressure from the settlers, the government had begun, as early as 1908, to take steps such as increasing hut and poll taxes to induce Africans to take up wage employment (Kilson, 1955: 128). These measures culminated in the Northey Circular, which amounted to compulsory labour for private purposes. Under mounting pressure from the settlers, Governor Northey issued Labour Circular No. 1 on 23 October 1919. It stated under the heading 'Native labour required for
non-native farms and other private undertakings':
1) All Government officials in charge of native areas must exercise every possible
lawful influence to induce able-bodied natives to go into the labour field. Where
farms are situated in the vicinity of a native area,women and children should be
encouraged to go out for such as they can perform....
3) District Commissioners will keep a record of the names of those Chiefs and Headmen
who are helpful and those who are not helpful, and will make reports to me from
time to time for the information of His Excellency.The nature of these reports
will be communicated to the Chiefs. In cases where there is evidence that any
Government Headman is impervious to His Excellency's wishes, the fact
should be reported to me for His Excellency's information together with any
recommendations you may desire to make....
5) Employers or their agents requiring native labour will be invited and encouraged to
enter freely any Native Reserve and there get in touch with the Chiefs, Headmen and
Natives. [Ross, 1927: 104-5;}
The subjugation of Africans probably reached its worst in the years 1919-21 following the issuing of this circular. With the jobs of chiefs and headmen on the line if they did not co-operate, there was a strong incentive for them, together with settlers desperate for workers, to interpret liberally the words 'induce' and 'encourage'. Because the administration exercised little control, this led to coercion and intimidation in the recruiting of workers and to the infliction of many cruelties on men, women and children.
Chiefs and headmen were entrusted with the task of getting an adequate supply of labourers for the settlers and the government's communal work projects. Because of a paucity of government funds, chiefs had to create their own para-administrative and military bodies to solidify their power and to carry out the administration's directives. They surrounded themselves with young men called tribal retainers whose purpose was to implement their will.
Their interpretation of the Northey Circular involved them in forcing people out in a press-gang fashion, first for unpaid, later paid communal labour, and to work on coffee plantations. Communal labour, originally an obligation only of men but extended to women and children for very light tasks, became distorted to severe tasks without benefit to the community (Clayton and Savage, 1974: 119). This communal labour was supposed to fall equally on every member of the community, but in practice did not. Chiefs favoured their own people and those wealthy enough to bribe them. The onerous chores fell on the vulnerable-people not connected to the ruling elite or not wealthy enough to bribe the chiefs. Young people and women lacking in
economic and political power, the poor and the old, were among those who shouldered the heaviest burdens (Tignor, 1971: 354-5). Missionaries constantly complained in the 1920s that some chiefs discriminated against Christian converts by making them do extra roadwork.
The system encouraged bribery and coercion. Labour recruiters worked in varying degrees of collusion with chiefs and with plantation owners who paid them a fee to provide female labourers. The District Commissioner of Kiambu denounced the practice of bakshesh (bribes), called the 'encouragement' of labour by these retainers, as nothing more than extortion and stated that district commissioners must carefully guard against this practice (Presley, 1985: 260; original in Kenya National Archives AR/279, KBO/14 1920: 28).
Although chiefs and their assistants exploited all weak Kikuyu, women (unless rich and powerful) probably suffered most of all since they were also exploited sexually. It is not difficult to see why rural women would support Thuku, since he spoke out about their exploitation. And it is not difficult to understand why the chiefs hated Thuku since he strongly criticised their misgovernment, corruption and illegal use of office.
The colonial government, which had created chiefs in this traditionally chiefless society, was, by extension, unpopular with the Kikuyu.
"Indeed,in African opinion the Government has no redeeming feature.It is always
interfering they think, and it has an insatiable appetite for money.The fact is that
the system of taxation leaves less than nothing over when both what are strictly
necessary to be done-justice, police, tax collection-are provided for and the
demands of the European colony are satisfied.[ Leys, 1924:2 78]
The African area hit first and hardest by European alienation of land was the southern part of Kiambu District (Thuku's home base) where the government, obsessed with the idea of European settlement, allowed incoming Europeans to claim any Kikuyu land whether or not it was occupied. Some 60,000 acres of southern Kiambu, containing around 11,000 Kikuyu, passed into European hands (Spencer, 1985: 12; originally Sorrenson, 1967: 18).
Consequently this district, with its large coffee estates, required many labourers. In 1923 women and children totalled 64 per cent of the harvest labour force on the coffee plantations and in the slack period, April to September, they comprised 40 per cent of the labour force for the fruitbearing trees and 40 per cent of the labour force for maintenance, especially weeding. In total, they numbered 3,089 women and 2,947 children, amounting to nearly half all female wage earners in Kenya and nearly a third of the children working on settlers' farms. Women's and children's wages were the lowest in Kenya (Presley, 1985: 262-3).
Women suffered a variety of abuses. Women labourers were assaulted by male labourers while cutting firewood in the forests. When this abuse was brought to the attention of the district commissioner's office, it recommended that women go in groups with male escorts to get firewood. A former worker on a coffee estate reported, 'They treated us badly, we used to go to work from early morning until afternoon, we were beaten and given hard work. They even refused to give us our wages.' When asked if there was anyone to whom they could complain, she replied, 'No, you couldn't complain. If you did, you were punished again' (ibid.: 260). Wambui Wangarama, a resident of Kiambu District who worked both as a coffee picker and on government projects, said that the girls and their parents considered the work slavery.
"We started asking for our freedom when we were young girls during the war of
1914. We started putting murram and tarmac along the road and were forced to
push the leveller. We made the European feel angry. At that time one girl was
killed on the road; she was beaten in the head and died, they were being led by
Kiyanjui [sic]. Then Harry Thuku was jailed. And our parents said we shouldn't
work on the roads but at that time we were caught again when there was a fight at
Nairobi and the fight was because the women asked for the men's pants [see pp.
315 and 319].
"We were brought to a coffee estate here. We were picking coffee and cultivating,
and after five weeks we were given thirty shillings and no food. There was a man
who was looking after the women and if he saw that you left one part uncultivated
he would beat you. A girl called Mjeri was beaten and her leg was broken. After
that we stopped doing the work of picking coffee and cultivating as well. When
Harry Thuku was sent to Somaliland our parents refused to let us work. We were
doing shaking and scratching (pretended illness) while working on the estates to
annoy the Europeans. We did this so that Harry Thuku could be released. [ibid.:
Presley interprets the 'shaking and scratching' as feigning illness. Although this may be correct for the shaking I think the scratching more likely refers to the buttock-scratching gesture of defiance since it was practised to annoy the Europeans (see p. 305). Presley concludes:
"From 1913 through 1923 physical outrages and intimidation connected with coffee
production reached a level only surpassed by the anti-Kikuyu violence under the
'emergency' situation during the 'Mau Mau' rebellion in the 1950s. Any Kikuyu
family in a sufficiently favorable financial position tried to avoid having its women work
on the coffee plantations because of the demoralizing effects of the labor and the violence
to which the women were often exposed. [Presley, 1985}
I do not have any figures on the number of women involved in compulsory labour or on the number of and kinds of abuses for a particular period. Even if figures were available they would probably be inaccurate (if similar statistics today are any measure) because many cases would go unreported. The following abuses have been noted: beating, rape, harsh living and working conditions, the withholding of wages and food, and being kept away from their homes at night.
As reports of egregious labour abuses grew, the missionaries became concerned and the bishops of Uganda and Mombasa and Dr John Arthur, as the senior representative of the Church of Scotland Mission, wrote a letter to the East African Standard criticising government policy.
"The decision to 'encourage' women and children to labour, bearing in mind the
meaning that will inevitably be read into the word 'encourage,' seems to us a
dangerous policy. The children below a certain age should be at home or at school.
The women work at home; the plantations, the supply of the daily food, the
cooking, the care of the children, and the home depend upon the mothers and the
wives. To 'encourage' as a native headman (with the fear of dismissal behind him)
would 'encourage' the women and girls to go out from their homes into
neighbouring plantations, would be to court disaster, physical and moral.
Whatever labour legislation is introduced the women and children should be left
out of it. [ibid.: 259-60]
A much more radical critic, Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, was furious at the conservative tone of the 'Bishops' Memorandum', and the bishops' acceptance that in East Africa 'some forms of pressure must be exerted' even for private employment. Weston wrote a pamphlet, 'The Serfs of Great Britain', in which he charged the Kenyan government with introducing a new form of slavery that was both anti-Christian and moral and political madness. He argued that recruiting, medical examinations and feeding of labourers were all abused, the medical staff inadequate, the recruiters callous and 'always the lash is used freely' (Clayton and Savage, 1974: 114-15).
The focus of the battle moved to London where Bishop Weston's activities together with letters from individual missionaries, the non-Roman churches, the Anti-Slavery Society, the Labour Party, the New Statesman and Contemporary Review appealed to public opinion. Prominent critics of forced labour included Sir Frederick Lugard, Sir Sydney Oliver, Lord Salisbury, the Bishop of Winchester and Leonard Woolf. Dr J. H. Oldham, the secretary of the International Missionary Council, played an important role in preparing memoranda for various Protestant groups, in corresponding with the Archbishop of Canterbury and in planning a nationwide protest campaign.'
In short, the forced-labour issue caused an uproar in England, was debated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and resulted in several amending circulars and ordinances designed to protect labourers. The Colonial Office issued a new labour circular on 14 July 1920 stating that women and children could go out to work providing they return to their homes each evening and that administrative officers had a duty to check abuse and to make sure that the chiefs did not use favouritism or oppression in sending labourers away to work for wages. Those working on their own plots were not to be pressured to go out to work (Tignor, 1976: 170). The colonial government's subsequent position was clearly stated in the East African Standard of 25 July 1921.

"The Chiefs and Elders asserted in strong terms that this practice was still in vogue.
The Chief Native Commissioner replied that the Government was not responsible
for this, and moreover would not countenance it .
The Government had certainly informed Chiefs that it was advisable that their
women and children should work on farms close to their home so that they could return
home to sleep at night.He asked for specific instances of women and children being
forced to work by instructions from the Government.
He [Chief Mukui] further stated that a tribal policeman had recently been
convicted before him of ordering women to work on plantations and had been
severely punished and dismissed.
The Chiefs intimated that they had further instances of this compulsory labour
by women and children....
The District Commissione r stated that any cases of this description brought to
his notice would be fully investigated and the guilty persons punished. [Leys,
1924: 219; }
Criticism continued in England and led Winston Churchill, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, to issue a definitive dispatch in September 1921. Government officials and chiefs were forbidden to recruit labour for private employment, and forced labour for state projects was to be used only in dire emergencies (Tignor, 1976: 173). Further legislation followed in 1923 under the Master and Servants Ordinance, known as the Native Women's Protection Act. No woman worker was to remain on a farm at night unless accompanied by her father or husband, estate owners were to provide proper accommodation for single women, and owners who failed to provide this accommodation were not to employ any woman who had to travel more than 3 miles from her home (Clayton and Savage, 1974: 119).
New laws do not necessarily change old practices, however, though they may be important for establishing ground rules." W. McGregor Ross recounts the following incident as evidence of the kind of practices that
'flourished with the full knowledge of Government in the years 1919 to 1921' despite the issuing of government directives:
"An official and his wife [probably Ross and his wife] on safari by car, roll into a
small Government station in the late afternoon. The Assistant District Commissioner
is away in the Reserve. During a leisurely tea ... they notice a string of
young women and girls passing up the hill upon which the station bungalow
stands. Each girl carries a kibuyu, or gourd, of capacity varying from a pint to half a
gallon. They are carrying water up to a tank at the officer's house. ... The swift
tropical dusk at length settles down and work is discontinued-but the girls do not
return from their last trip up to the bungalow. The visitors go up to inquire, and
find the girls sitting in a huddled group near the servants' quarters behind the
bungalow looking scared. Inquiring from one of the 'station hands' who is in
charge while the Bwana [master] is away, they are told that the girls are to sleep in
one of the outhouses, as the work is to be resumed in the morning, the tank being
not yet full. .. . The visitors ... make for the doctor's bungalow-the only other
European habitation in the station. Ascertaining from him that he knows nothing
about the alleged order for the detention of the girls, the visitors decide to take the
law into their own hands and dismiss them home for the night. On getting back to
the bungalow, it is found that the girls have been locked in one of the outhouses in charge
of a cowed old man who had come with them from their village. The door being opened,
the girls, in their daytime lack of costume, without blankets or food for the night, are
found crouching before a tiny fire. It is the same huddled group-only more scared now.
They are undoubtedly afraid as to what may happen to them before morning.One thing
may be taken as quite certain-that the trembling old man in charge of the party
would have similarly opened the door to any of the station staff, porters or askaris who
might have told him to do so. The girls are ordered out and told to hurry home. After
a moment of apparent incredulity, they tear off down the hill into the darkness to a
diminuendo of joyful cries. (Danger averted for that one night.)
It was satisfactory to be able to relate that, when shown the photograph of this
water-party ... and told of this incident, the Chief Native Commissioner was
incredulous. Was it possible, after the Circulars he had sent out, that these hoary
malpractices were still going on? Where and when was the photograph taken?...
Shortly afterwards, a further definite prohibition of the detention of girls away
from their homes was published for general information in the Official Gazette.
[Government Notice No. 93, OG 1923, p. 294] The particular example that has
been quoted took place at a Government station. Multitudes of girls similarly
experienced forcible detention in these dismal years on plantations and in labour camps,
and few were as fortunate as the 'water-fatigue' at this bush station on the evening
when the touring official with his wife rolled in by car. [Ross, 1927: 110-11; most
italics mine]
The date on the above-mentioned government notice of 1923 indicates that girls were detained on work projects long after the practice had officially been banned. Ross notes that 'old sins die hard'. Compulsory labour, implemented through the chiefs, was still going on and still being debated in 1926, although most officials attempted to put an end to it despite opposition and even harassment from some settlers (Ross, 1927: 112-14; Tignor, 1976: 81).
Protest in Kenya and England appears to have ended the worst abuses. By 1928 the Native Affairs Department was able to report that conditions of work for women and juveniles had improved and that they now willingly worked on coffee estates (Presley, 1985: 261). The department further stated that no abuses of women had occurred since the 1923 Act. This I find hard to believe, particularly in view of the difficulties over policing the new regulations. The chiefs obviously could not be responsible since, although supposedly law enforcers, it was they who were breaking the laws. While district commissioners might attempt to eradicate abuses, it would have been next to impossible for them to police adequately the large areas involved, given their scant staff and the remoteness of many estates.
Clayton and Savage, in discussing the larger labour scene of the 1920s, conclude: 'The age of harshness, involving large numbers of deaths and much suffering, had evolved to one essentially of taut economic exploitation managed paradoxically in an increasingly humane way. ... By the end of the decade the cruelty and abuses of labour agents and recruiters had been checked although professional recruiting continued' (1974: 109, 147)
                                                THE 'RIOT'
After his arrest on 14 March 1922 Thuku was confined in the Nairobi police station. On the following day the EAA called a general strike. A crowd of several thousand workers marched to the police station to secure his release. After fifteen minutes of prayer for his safety, most of the strikers returned home at their leaders' request.
The next morning the gathering at the police station rapidly grew until around noon there were 7,000-8,000 people. A deputation of six African men went to see Sir Charles Bowring, the Colonial Secretary. Sir Charles assured them that Thuku would be given a full hearing by the government before any decision was taken as to what was to be done with him; he was in no danger and was only being detained. He urged them to return to the police station and to disperse the crowd. They tried but failed. Members of the crowd
accused them of being bribed.
The following three accounts of the demonstration were given by administration officials to the subsequent government inquiry and published in Papers Relating to Native Disturbances in Kenya (because the quotations are lengthy, I have emphasised the most relevant sentences). The Governor in a letter to the Secretary of State dated 11 April 1922 wrote:
"The repeated warnings and orders to disperse,not only from Government Officers
but also from their own leaders, had been disregarded and the excitations of
agitators and the taunts of the women had by then raised the ugliest passions... . The
attempt to disperse the mob through their own leaders was undoubtedly the wisest
and most humane method, though it was unhappily frustrated by the inflammatory
speeches of irresponsible natives [one man in particular is mentioned] and jeers of
the women,w ho as always with African troubles prevented a peaceful termination of the
episode. [Kenya Colony and Protectorate, 1922: 7}
The Acting Commissioner of the Kenya Police, J. C. Bentley, reported in a
similar vein:
"the Secretariat, and proceeded there myself, where they were interviewed by Sir
Charles Bowring, who instructed them to inform the crowd to disperse, which they
said they would do. I returned to the lines and found that the crowd had
considerably increased, there being from 7,000 to 8,000 Kikuyu intermixed with a
few Indians, and a large party of native women had arrived, probably 150 .... When
the deputation of six eventually arrived from the Secretariat two of the members
went amongst the crowd and called on them to disperse; after some considerable
talking there was a tendency on the part of the crowd to disperse, but the women present
shouted to the men in aggravating tones which made them apparently change their minds,
and they pressured up to the gates and corrugated iron walls round the lines. ... As far
as I am aware 16 men and 2 women have been killed, and 22 men and women have
been wounded. [ibid.: 10-11]
At the inquest B. A. Crean, the Nairobi Resident Magistrate, testified as follows:
"The Acting Commissioner of Police arrived back at the lines from this interview
with Sir Charles Bowring about 10.45 a.m., and found that the crowd had
considerably increased and that the members of it had changed and become quite
hostile. This change of attitude is attributed to the fact that certain natives were
making inflammatory and seditious speeches to them, and at this time the crowd
was increasing in numbers quickly by the arrival of natives from all directions to
join it. ... After the Commissionesrp oke to themt hreeo f the deputationa ddressedt he
crowda nd called upon themt o disperse.I n responset o this addressa largen umbero f the
crowds toodu p and lookeda s if theyw ereg oing to move off, when, unfortunatelys, ome
women who had been in the crowd all the morning called the men who were going to
move off 'cowards' and some other names, which had apparently the effect of enraging
them. The result of these remarks by the women was that the crowd surged immediately
up to a fence at the South Gate where there were 40 askaris 'at ease;' the askaris were
then ordered by Captain Carey, Superintendent of Police, to bring their rifles to
the 'engage' position, and Captain Lumley, Acting Assistant Commissioner of
Police, immediately put 20 men at the danger point on boxes, so that they could
see over the corrugated iron fence, and he issued to the men 20 more rounds of
ammunition. ... Captain Carey took hold of this person [a male agitator who was
inciting the crowd] and threw him amongst the men, but in doing so Captain Carey
fell, and as he fell the crowd shouted, threw stones, and rushed toward the
corrugated iron fence at the South Gate, and in this rushing by the crowd, a rifle
went off, and it was followed immediately by a fusillade by the askaris guarding the
gate into the oncoming crowd, and the firing was taken up by the askaris at
Government Rd. side. This firing by askaris lasted between one and two
What might seem rather remarkable here is that there is no evidence given that
the askaris were ordered to fire on the crowd by their officers; but when it is
considered that the askaris were on duty for practically 18 hours continuously, that
they were subjected to the taunts and jeers of the crowd the entire morning, and
that the officer in charge of them was on the ground at the time the first shot was
action is not to be wondered at or criticised....
As the crowd at 9 a.m. on the 16th was perfectly quiet the plan of sending six of
the leaders as a deputation to the Governor's deputy appears to me to have been a
well conceived one, in fact, I consider the wisdom of it is proved by the fact that the
crowd had got up to move off after being addressed by the deputation, and I have no
doubt would have done so had it not been for the unfortunate interference by the women
of the crowd. [ibid.: 17-18]
The Director of Public Works, W. McGregor Ross, reported as follows:
"The Director of Public Works had motored to the Secretariat and asked to see Sir
Charles Bowring. It had appeared to him that if complete passivity on the part of
the police forces were ordered, and if they abstained from reprisals, under
exasperation by the few women in the crowd, the bulk of it, as the lunch-hour
approached, would cease to be interested in the situation and would disperse....
The English Chaplain of Nairobi, the Rev. W. J. Wright, had been in the crowd
most of the morning. ... He was convinced that the women were the cause of the
immediate agitation. [Ross, 1927: 231, 233]
And according to the Reverend Wright, Vicar of All Saints Anglican Church, who was in the crowd:
"The crowd was mostly seated in groups and very orderly. He [Wright] walked
through most of the groups and was struck by their apparent peacefulness. It had
reminded him more of a Sunday School treat ... several times they had prayers
... there were fully 200 women collected there. The women made a great noise ... very
slowly the women made towards the corrugated fence. They came to within a yard of the
bayonets. The askaris in front of the actual gate knelt down and appeared to raise
their rifles, probably at what was termed the 'engage'. [Rosberg and Nottingham,
Job Muchuchu, a founding member of the Young Kikuyu Association, a major figure in the EAA and later the long-time secretary of the Kikuyu Central Association (Thuku, 1970: 20, 23), recalled the scene in detail many years later.
"When they [the delegation of six that spoke with the Colonial Secretary] returned
at mid-day, they spoke to the crowd, telling them that the Government had
promised to give Thuku a fair trial and that they should now disperse. But the
temper of the crowd was by now too high. They accused the delegation of having
been bribed, and the women in particular became very excited. Mary Muthoni
Nyanjiru (from Weithaga in Location 10 of Fort Hall District) leapt to her feet, pulled
herdress right up over her shoulders and shouted to the men: 'You take my dress and give
me your trousers. You men are cowards. What are you waiting for? Our leader is in
there. Let's get him.' Hundreds of women trilled their ngemi [a high-pitched cry] in
approbation and from that moment on trouble was probably inevitable. Mary and
the others pushed on until the bayonets of the rifles were pricking at their throats, and
then the firing started. Mary was one of the first to die. My companion, Harun
Mikono, was badly wounded in the right leg. [Rosberg and Nottingham, 1966:
51-2, from an interview with Job Muchuchu, May 1964]
About the riot Thuku wrote:
"On the next morning I could see the Norfolk [the adjacent hotel] through my cell,
and I noticed that a large crowd was building up. ... People were pressing nearer
and nearer to the police lines, and one woman, Mary Nyanjiru, began to shout that
they should get their leader free. The police opened fire from the front, and I heard
that some of the settlers who had gathered on the Norfolk Hotel shot at the
Africans from behind.Many Africans were killed or wounded,and the death of the
woman Mary showed that women were in the forefront of Kenya's fight for freedom.
[Thuku, 1970: 33}
The official casualty figures given at the inquest were twenty-one Africans killed, among them four women, and twenty-eight wounded. An inquiry exonerated the police, who had been on duty for more than twenty-four hours. Under pressure from the missionaries and the chiefs, and concerned about Thuku's increasingly anti-colonial stand, the government shipped him off to remote Kismayu on the coast and detained him without trial until 1931. The administration, the Colonial Office and the settlers were alarmed by the protests. The EAA, though banned, apparently carried on secretly for a while but little more was heard from it. African grievances were given some frank discussion and the tax was redulced from 16 to 12 shillings.
This signalled the end of attempts to coerce more and more Africans into the labour force by increasing their tax rate. Never again were taxes raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs (Clayton and Savage, 1974: 145). Churchill issued his dispatch, which considerably modified labour policy. Already concerned over the forced-labour issue, Churchill's confidence was further weakened in Governor Northey, who was replaced that same year. The worst labour camps were closed 23 (Clayton and Savage, 1974: 121, 145).
Since the women played only a small part in the Thuku movement there is little point in trying to assess the consequences of their action upon the colonial system other than to note that their advance towards the soldiers, culminating in the deaths of twenty-one people, dramatically demonstrated the serious tensions that existed and the urgent need for reform, and probably prodded the authorities in Kenya and England into action. In discussing the evolving processes in the 1930s that were to lead Kenya into a new era of labour relations, Clayton and Savage conclude:
"Perhaps the most significant of the processes was the emergence of an ill
 co-ordinated but clear African protest,part political,part industrial,in the most
densely populated and therefore the largest labour supplying areas of Kenya.
[ibid.: 19]
                                       WOMEN TAKE OVER CROWD 'LEADERSHIP'
What conclusions can be drawn from the various testimonies about the women's behaviour? The African deputation and the British authorities had agreed that it was best for the crowd to disperse and the crowd was about to follow their leaders' orders when the women, defying their own leaders and the colonial authorities, taunted the men and apparently shamed them into staying. The women, it appears, became angry because they felt the men had capitulated to the authorities. Their aim even on the previous day had been to
rescue Thuku. Following Mary Nyanjiru, they pushed their way right up to the police lines. 'Suddenly a section of them made a rush for the prison door' (Leys, 1924: 197). Then the firing started.
Since the Governor, the Acting Commissioner of Police, and Nairobi's Resident Magistrate all blamed the women for preventing 'a peaceful termination of the episode' (see pp. 313-15 above), it is tempting to suggest that they were looking for a scapegoat. The last thing needed by the Kenyan administration, already under fire in England over the forced-labour issue, was a bloody riot. General Northey was in the hot seat. His judgement over the Northey Circular was being questioned and he had tried to patch things up by issuing an amending circular. But criticism had not abated. Now the administration was faced with explaining policies that had led to Nairobi's first political riot and the death and injury of forty-nine people. It would be
convenient if the blame could be shifted from excitable askaris and their commanding officers to excitable women. (The Resident Magistrate had said that there was 'no evidence given that the askaris were ordered to fire', which suggests that they were indeed nervous. See Ross's statement about excitable prostitutes-Ross, 1927: 239).
Research on riots has shown that agents of social control tend to blame the victims rather than the control agents actually responsible for the destruction, and that they tend to believe that irrational rather than rational behaviour prevailed.
The weakness of this hypothesis is that there was unanimity among officials, independent observers and Africans that the women's intervention had changed the course of crowd action and gave it a new direction.
Muchuchu, Wright, Bentley, Crean and Ross, all at the scene, and Thuku, who could see the crowd from his cell, depicted the women as taking the initiative. Ross, one of the administration's harshest critics, whose advice onhow to handle the crowds ('complete passivity on the part of the police forces'-see p. 315 above) had been ignored, could certainly be counted on to maintain his critical stance.
These observations were made by both African and British men in a setting where, if Africans were consulted at all, it was African men getting together with British men about what should be done. It is noteworthy that the Acting Commissioner of Police told the crowd to select six men to form a deputation, that it was the Colonial Secretary and the male deputation who reached agreement that the crowd should disperse, and that all seven men quoted here, important figures in the riot and the inquest, felt that the women were responsible for the crowd's failure to disperse. The fact that African and British men agreed on what the women did suggests that the women must have acted concertedly. Otherwise the dominant perspective that saw only men as political actors would never have been discarded.
Many witnesses at the inquest testified to being very much impressed with the women's unity and courage. That the women were seen as heroines in African eyes is evident from the song, the 'Kanyegenuri', which commemorates their deeds, especially the bravery of Mary Nyanjiru. (Years later during the Mau Mau struggle the 'Kanyegenuri' became an anthem of resistance.)
This interpretation does not deny men a role in the final stage of the demonstration. The majority of demonstrators killed and wounded were men. One male in particular was an effective agitator. But it was the women's actions as a group that were repeatedly mentioned.
The women's ability to change the crowd from one course of action to another and their presence in the front line of demonstrators suggest some.
Elizabeth Waruiru, the stepdaughter of the legendary Mary Nyanjiru, told of taking an EAA oath the night before the demonstration. She named James Njorage, an important member of the EAA and its successor the Kenya Central Association, as the oath-giver and the police station where the crowd had gathered as the place (Spencer, 1985: 43, interview on 11 October 1973).
Since she was then a young girl living with her stepmother Nyanjiru, the latter would have been with her and was probably oathed as well as other women (they were also together at the demonstration, see note 21). Oathing undoubtedly raised the women's level of political consciousness and helped create the discipline and unity required to spearhead the rescue atter.pt. Supposing the women were oathed-and there is no reason to doubt Waruiru's claim since she named not only the oath-giver but also the exact place where the oath was administered-this was a significant innovation, since it violated Kikuyu mores. According to Jomo Kenyatta:
"Women were excluded from taking any of these oaths. Their husband or sons took
the responsibility for the women were not considered fit mentally and bodily to
stand the ordeal which involved not only the individual going through
it but the whole family group. [1961: 225]
The oathing of women was a step in the direction of treating women as equals rather than as juveniles. It suggests a view of women as people of integrity who can be trusted with secrets and who are important enough to oath.
The EAA thus apparently scored a first on two accounts: it was the first political organisation to make use of tribal oaths (Spencer, 1985: 43) and it was the first organisation to oath women. This highlights the interesting
anomaly of an organisation denying membership to women yet oathing them in support of its goals. (Women were not permitted to join any Kikuyu political association until the 1930s. The exact year was probably 1933, when, after forming their own association, the Mumbi Central Association, women returned to the Kikuyu Central Association and increasingly assumed leadership positions in rural politics [Presley, 1986: 56-7].)

                                           USE OF A TRADITIONAL INSULT
There has been no explanation of how women took over crowd leadership at the riot other than Ross's contention that they were mainly excitable Nairobi prostitutes who aroused the crowd and that the police hoses should have been turned on them in order to relieve the mounting tension (Ross, 1927: 239).
Nor has there been any explanation of Nyanjiru's strange behaviour in pulling her skirt up above her shoulders while at the same time heaping scorn on the men and suggesting that the women would do what the men should have done.
Her action bears a striking resemblance to the strongest insult-a form of curse-at the disposal of Kikuyu women, the guturamira ng' ania, the displaying of one's genitals to the person or thing cursed. Quarrelling women might use it when they were furious with each other. It was also used as a group curse by all the women in a community. For example, women of one ridge showed their disapproval of women of another ridge or of some domineering person who had aroused their ire by removing their undergarments, standing in a line with their backs toward the offender, bending forward and lifting their skirts in unison.25 That gesture indicated the end of social intercourse with the person or persons thus insulted, or, in the case of a man, the women's refusal any longer to recognise his authority. Only on rare occasions when extremely provoked did women use this curse and Kikuyu generally found it disgusting (Lambert, 1956: 99).
Nyanjiru's offer to exchange attire with the men was a well-understood insult. One of the verses of the 'Muthirigu', a hymn of resistance that was sung during the female circumcision controversy, went as follows:
"When Johnstone[ Kenyattain England]s hall
With the King of Kikuyu [Thuku in restriction]
Philip and Koinange
Will don women's robes.
[Rosberga nd Nottingham,1 966:1 22]
The words 'Philip and Koinange' refer to chiefs named by Thuku as responsible for recruiting women labourers.
At the demonstration the women did not form a line and raise their skirts in unison, but, given the circumstances, that would hardly have been possible. Nyanjiru's gesture together with her taunt signalled a repudiation of male authority, at least temporarily, and women taking the lead. The women's behaviour, far from being idiosyncratic, appears to have followed a traditional practice and, from the fact that the women trilled their battle cry and followed Nyanjiru's lead as she advanced toward the police guarding the
station, to have had group backing.
                                      WHO WERE THESE WOMEN?
The only woman at the demonstration whose name we know is Mary Nyanjiru. At the time of the 'riot' she was living in Nairobi (Spencer, 1985: 53) although she came from Weithaga in Location 10 of the Fort Hall
District. This was an area where Thuku had strong support, especially among the young Christian converts who were solidly behind him (Thuku, 1970: 30).6 She was probably a member of the Church Mission Society at Weithaga.
The women at the riot were in all likelihood Kikuyu. The EAA had called the demonstration and general strike, and although it sought a trans-tribal membership, its members were predominantly Kikuyu. Furthermore, the majority of women who came to Nairobi in the first two decades of the century were either Kikuyu, whose homeland adjoins Nairobi, or Kalenjin, whose homeland lies some 100-150 miles away. They came to escape wife-beating, arranged marriages, parental and marital quarrels, or because of childlessness, widowhood, elopements that failed to work out, or being orphaned. Some women were brought by female relatives already living on their own in the city. The motives of many seem inspired by the old maxim 'Town air makes free' (Bujra, 1975: 217-20). By migrating to Nairobi they had escaped from the orbit of customary law and were no longer subject to male authority.These women were willing to accept both the risks and the challenges the city offered.
Ross, an astute observer of the Kenyan scene, refers to the women as 'mostly town prostitutes'. There were few other jobs for African women at that time in Nairobi and prostitution flourished, so there is no reason to
doubt the broad accuracy of his observation (Bujra, 1975; White, 1980). We can assume at least that some of the women at the demonstration were prostitutes.
In this early period the law of supply and demand worked in the prostitute's favour. There was an abundance of customers, rooms were cheap, and she could rely on the goodwill of the community in which she was
an active participant for protection against violent customers. There was no need for middlemen, the pimps and brothel-owners who so often exploit prostitutes. Each woman organised her own business and lived on her own (Bujra, 1975: 221-2).
The women achieved high incomes from prostitution and some made extra money by brewing beer. They invested their money in building and buying homes; quite a few owned two houses. Some bought urban property outside Nairobi but not in their village of birth, and some branched out into other enterprises. Their money-making ability equalled or surpassed that of men and even today women own almost half the houses in Pumwani, Nairobi's oldest existing 'African location' (Bujra, 1975: 213).
Nairobi prostitutes were responsible only to themselves. They married when and whom they chose, and since they could not rely on men, they took full responsibility for the raising of their children. Prostitution 'within the limits of an exploitive colonial context [allowed women] to gain an unusual measure of equality with men' (Bujra, 1975: 215).
The women's issues that Thuku championed were of little concern to urban women. But two other issues were of vital concern. The brewing and selling of beer, usually an adjunct of prostitution rather than a separate occupation, was a profitable part of some women's income. In 1921 the Nairobi Council forbade beer-brewing by Africans. It set up a municipal brewery in Pumwani and was soon doing a thriving business though it was noted that 'drunken natives' were getting beer from 'other sources' (Bujra, 1975: 222-3). Women continued to brew and sell beer though now they were subjected to harassment, arrest, fines and imprisonment. Many resorted to bribing the police to turn a blind eye to their activities, at the cost of money
and probably sexual favours. Hence beer-brewing in 1922 was not nearly as attractive as it had previously been.
The other issue that probably angered the prostitutes was the city's plan to demolish their homes and banish them from the city's streets. One European argument in support of the plan to demolish 'native villages' and build a new, sanitary municipal location for Africans was that venereal disease was becoming a serious problem in Nairobi. Pumwani was built in 1921-2 on the outskirts of Nairobi, and one of the first buildings erected was a venereal disease clinic (Bujra, 1975: 220). The campaign to rid Nairobi proper of prostitutes was probably well underway in 1921 and early 1922 when the Thuku disturbances occurred; if not, rumours about the impending dislocation were probably rampant.
"Their [prostitutes] appearance in Nairobi's streets was short-lived because their
residency in Asian areas coincided with the Medical Department's stated purpose
of 'taking action against unsanitary premises,'and demolitions were commonplace.
In late 1923 the medical officer of health wrote to the chief native
commissioner about brothels and prostitutes in Nairobi announcing the transformation
his office had brought about in Canal Rd.: 'You will note that there
would appear to be no longer brothels in Canal Rd., which, owing now to the
improvement which have been carried out ... to many premises,has become a
desirable residential area.'[ White, 1980:8 ]
By 1924 the prostitutes had been driven off Nairobi's streets into Pumwani and Pangani locations or had returned to their homelands (idem). Prostitutes then had two reasons, both important to their livelihood, to be
disgruntled with the authorities. And those living in Pangani, where the EAA had its public meetings on Sunday afternoons at the sports grounds (Clayton and Savage, 1974: 120), were probably well acquainted with its anti-government stand. The Thuku demonstrations provided them with an opportunity to show their dislike of the authorities and the police. Since they had already broken with customary law they would feel little compunction about defying male authority at the demonstration. It was entirely in keeping with their independent life style.
We are told that 150 women arrived as a party at the demonstration (Kenya Colony and Protectorate, 1922: 10-11). There is no mention in contemporary accounts, however, of specific women's groups or of any delegation of women from the Fort Hall District.29 Given the little interest there was in women's groups at the time, this is not at all surprising. What in all likelihood occurred was that women from the same areas, be it town or country, met to walk together to the demonstration.
H. E. Lambert, writing about female social and political institutions, is exceptional even if vague:
"Whether there are formally constituted women's lodges it is impossible at present
to say with any certainty. Men sometimes talk of a kiama kia aka ('women's
lodge'), but generally mean undundu ya atumia( 'secret meeting of dames') in
reference to some particular subject....
Men say they do not know for certain whether such gatherings of women are
merely called for specific purposes or whether they are ad hoc committees of
permanent and organized chiama...."
He concludes:
"Whether or not the women have lodges they certainly have the means and will to
mobilize themselves with speed over a wide area for concerted action when they
feel that their rights have been disregarded or their sphere invaded. [Lambert,
1956: 95-6, 100]
Only recently has this lack of knowledge about women's groups been partly remedied. Research has shown that women's organisations with social, economic and judicial functions did indeed exist (Stamp, 1975-76: 25; Kershaw, 1973: 55; Clark, 1980: 363-8). Certainly the many co-operative ventures organised by Kikuyu women in post-colonial Kenya, some based on traditional modes of co-operation, suggest that collective activity was well understood and practised (Wachtel, 1975-76: 69-80).
Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female MilitancyAuthor(s): Audrey WipperReviewed work(s):Source: Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 59, No. 3 (1989), pp. 300-337Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of the International African InstituteStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1160230

Other strong African womens wovement
The Women's War or Aba Riots, as the British called them, took place in south-eastern
Nigeria in 1929. Thousands of Igbo and Ibibio women, convinced that they were to be taxed and
angry at corrupt warrant chiefs for implementing disliked government policies, rebelled against
colonial authority by demonstrating, destroying government buildings and harassing, even
assaulting, government agents, primarily the warrant chiefs. More than a hundred women were
killed or wounded in the clashes and property damage was estimated at more than ?60,000. See
Nigerian Government Publications, 1930a, 1930b; Perham, 1937; Leith-Ross, 1939; Green,
1964; Gailey, 1970; Van Allen, 1972; Ifeka-Moller, 1975; Mba, 1982.
In the Anlu Uprising some 7,000 Kom women staged a series of mass demonstrations to
protest against their rumoured taxation, the contour terracing of their farms to prevent soil
erosion, and the actions of unpopular government agents. They seized control of tribal affairs in
Bamenda Province of the British Cameroons, now Cameroon. By mid-1958 the women were
strong enough to take the political initiative. Using anlu, a sanctioning device traditionally used
by women to punish rule-breakers but for this occasion revamped into a tightly organised,
well-disciplined association, they rendered the paramount chief and his executive council
powerless, unseated the ruling party, the Kamerun National Congress, in the 1959 election, and
helped to get the Kamerun National Democratic Party into power. See Ritzenthaler, 1972;
Ardener, 1975; Nkwi, 1976.
Another Kenyan tribe, the Pokot, employs the kilapat or shaming party for gross violations
of important norms. Although men employ it against their wives or one wife against a co-wife,
kilapat, especially in its extreme forms, is more commonly used by women against husbands who
have repeatedly and flagrantly misbehaved. Some shaming parties, though far more drastic than
the guturamiran g' ania are similar in content to the Kom's anlu and the Igbo's 'sitting on a man'
(Edgerton and Conant, 1964: 404-18).
Yoruba women also used such tactics. After petitions, court cases and publicity had failed to
redress their grievances, more than 10,000 women maintained an all-night vigil on 29 and 30
November 1947 outside the alake's (king's) palace where they sang abusive songs with blatant
sexual references (Johnson, 1985: 251).

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