Women and Resistance : Learning from our African Heroines

Leonida Odongo
Posted September 6, 2020 from Kenya
Prof. Wangari Maathai

Slave trade and colonialism brought with it a lot of evils in Africa. From massive land dispossession, forced labour, introduction of Hut tax and restricted movement using pass systems, locally known as Kipande in Kenya at the time. Colonialism also resulted into underdevelopment of African land labour deprived African of time till their own land, in fact with colonialism and the resultant land dispossession, Africans never had land left. For example, in Kenya, described as settler colony, the White Highlands, a highly productive area was set aside for colonial masters. As described by Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa when colonial governments seized African land , they achieved two things; satisfied their own citizens  who wanted mining concessions or farming land and they created conditions  whereby settler  landless Africans had to work not just to pay taxes but also to survive .In countries such as Kenya and Rhodesia( modern day Zimbabwe) ,the colonial government  prevented Africans from growing cash crops so that their labour would be recently available for the whites. Despite independence, today ordinary Africans continue to suffer. The political class has taken over countries and concentrated power on the hands of a few. Electoral processes have become very competitive and if one doesn’t have financial muscle winning an election is a mirage.

The role of women in resistance during colonialism was never celebrated, many a times even scholars concentrated more on men, relegating women resistance to the periphery. For example, for freedom fighters in Kenya known as the Mau Mau, women played a role in the resistance, in providing food to the men fighting the British as well as being conduits for information. To date, African women continue to resist neo-colonialism which has brought with it various forms of oppressions including climate injustice, extra-judicial killings, land grabs among other injustices, bad governance, natural resource theft, militarism and gender based violence among others.

African women and the world at large can learn a lot from the resistance put up by African heroines during colonialism. For example, South Africa’s Winnie Mandela, is an icon who despite being arrested under the Suppression of Terrorism Act and spending over a year in confinement and being subjected to torture, did not relent her activism upon release, in fact she became more vocal and was jailed more times[1].Winnie was also kept under the government radar, thus her actions and utterances were being monitored by the then apartheid government.[2]

Closer home, in Kenya, we have in Kenya’s coastal region, Mekatilili wa Menza was a queen, a mother, inspiring orator and spiritual leader who opposed conscription. Her activism arose because one of the brothers was kidnapped and sold as a slave[3] she could not sit back. She fought against the forced conscription of African men into the British army during WW1, by travelling across the region, holding barazas[4] where she would deliver impassioned speeches and debating with young men. She also targeted the prohibition of mnazi[5] wine) and policies which apportioned the most fertile land to British Imperialists at the expense of local people. She was quick to draw connections between individual policies and the oppressive effect they would have on communities as a whole. Her message was simple: do not cooperate with British rule.[6] As an inspirational organiser, Mekatilili utilised tactics to inspire her followers, she encouraged dissidents to take oaths of obedience to her and swear to uphold the duty to defend their ancestral land.[7]Mekatilili also intertwined song and dance into her resistance, she used kifudu dance, a frenzied and ecstatic dance to draw crowds wherever she went, she then preached to these crowds[8].

The use of cult-like spiritual elements of resistance frightened the colonial authorities, this is because ideas and religion are difficult to imprison or whip[9].This resulted into the passing of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 in an attempt to deter cult like influence on resistance. The British exiled her to Mumias in Western Kenya after five years she escaped walked over 1000 miles and returned home to continue her campaign against the British, she was imprisoned again in the northern part of Kenya, escaped again and returned home, remaining a community leader until her demise in 1925[10].To date, Mekatilili’s resilience and spirit is celebrated with an annual festival held in the coastal region of Kilifi in her honour.

Muthoni Nyanjiru’s legacy began in Nairobi in 1922, many Kenyans at the time moved to Nairobi in search of jobs to be able to pay hut tax.Muthoni’s resistance commenced with the  arrest of Harry Thuku, a vocal Kenyan trade unionist who was a staunch oppose of the Hut Tax[11] which in essence created forced labour where Africans had to sell their labour to be able to pay the mandatory colonial taxation.The arrest of Thuku pulled crowds of loyal supporters who came to camp out at the Kingsway Police Station (now Central Police Station) where he was held. There were hundreds of people present all peacefully demanding the release of Thuku[12].Muthoni Nyanjiru together with 200 women underwent a traditional oathing that was a reserve for men, at the protest for Harry Thuku’s release. She moved to the front of the crowd and utilised a traditional Kikuyu insult by lifting her dress over her head and demanding[13]:

"You take my dress and give me your trousers. You men are cowards. Our leader is in there. Let's get him!" 

Her cries reignited the crowd, especially the women, who rushed forward to challenge the officers standing guard. The men who had retracted were shamed into returning and joined the charged women. A fire was opened on the charging crowd, resulting in multiple casualties and injuries[14] .Nyanjiru  was among those killed on that day.

The Nobel Laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai celebrated globally for her fight on environmental protection. Wangari was instrumental in the protection of Karura forest and was outspoken on issues of human rights specifically bad governance’s founded the Green Belt Movement which has gone to embrace social, economic and political change. Veteran environmental activist, Maathai was known for her steadfast efforts to protect forests in the country that saw her whipped, tear-gassed and threatened with death. Through Wangari Maathai, Kenyans and the world at large appreciated the beauty of a cool climate, the importance of trees and forests and the vengeance of nature. She taught us to look at environment in a futuristic lens.

In 1989, Maathai led a one woman-charge against the autocratic government of arap Moi when he wanted to build a skyscraper and six-story statue of himself in gritty Nairobi's only public green space.[15] Today , Uhuru Park in Nairobi –Kenya is symbolic with struggle against oppression.Freedom Corner is a site where activists convene before and after a demonstration.It is a site that reminds Kenyans that the struggle continues .It is a site that reminds activists the oppression must be fought .The intimidation against Wangari Maathai continued with beatings meted by police because of her protests , but she never gave up.

In 1992, Wangari Maathai was among a group of women who stripped naked in downtown Nairobi to protest police torture. The police had beaten them to disperse their demonstration and, as she later said, the women "resorted to something they knew traditionally would act on the men. They stripped to show their nakedness to their sons. It is a curse to see your mother naked."[16] In 1999 Maathai got hospitalised after being clubbed by guards hired by developers while she and her followers tried to plant trees in Karura forest. Despite what she went through , Wangari Maathai remained steadfast to her cause for environmental protection, she did not give up but instead inspired the world .

Across the border in neighbouring Uganda , Dr. Stella Nyanzi embodies the power of resistance. She uses speech, writing  and intellect  to speak out against oppression , some people deem her vulgar but her message passes across. She had been in and out of Uganda’s Luzira maximum prison, but this has not deterred her spirit of resistance, she continues to be vocal and speak out against social injustices in her country.

What we can learn from the powerful women mentioned above is their resilience, their selflessness, their dedication, their undying spirit and their visionary nature. These are women who cannot afford to sit back and watch as citizens are trampled and governments abuse rights. From them we learn about the innate power, the drive to change the world.

As Thomas Sankara aptly put it While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas” and that “You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future[17]”.

Yes, we all need some degree of madness to bring change! because non-resistance is to conform and to keep quiet in a situation of oppression, you are on the side of the oppressor.


Cover Photo- Prof. Wangari Maathai Photo Credit @ The Nobel Foundation https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2004/maathai/biographical/[1]


[2] ibid

[3] https://www.msomi.net/post/2017/12/14/women-in-resistance-2-mekatilili-w...

[4] Barraza is a Kiswahili word for public gathering

[5] Mnazi is a Kiswahili word for coconut

[6] https://www.msomi.net/post/2017/12/14/women-in-resistance-2-mekatilili-w...

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] https://www.kenyans.co.ke/news/49558-muthoni-nyanjirus-forgotten-bravery

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] https://hivisasa.com/posts/42458949-day-wangari-maathai-led-women-in-str...

[17] https://thisisafrica.me/politics-and-society/10-quotes-capt-thomas-sankara/

This story was submitted in response to Stronger Together.

Comments 8

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Jensine Larsen
Sep 06, 2020
Sep 06, 2020

This is brilliant. You are pulling back the curtains on our minds to show the true force of women heroines in Africa and Kenya, this is a rich summary - thank you!

Leonida Odongo
Sep 08, 2020
Sep 08, 2020

Dear Jensine,

Thank you for the comments.Much appreciated.

Tamarack Verrall
Sep 06, 2020
Sep 06, 2020

Dear Leonida,
The British colonialism that caused such profound and ongoing damage in your country and other you have mentioned is so similar to what the same colonialists did to Indigenous peoples here in my country. "neo-colonialism which has brought with it various forms of oppressions including climate injustice, extra-judicial killings, land grabs among other injustices, bad governance, natural resource theft, militarism and gender based violence among others".
It fills my heart to see you honour these great women leaders, so often hidden from the stories told of the past. Thank you for documenting these women leaders for us all.

Leonida Odongo
Sep 08, 2020
Sep 08, 2020

Dear Tam,

Thank you for the comments .In remembering the heroines and their contributions , we honour them.

Nini Mappo
Sep 06, 2020
Sep 06, 2020

Hello Leonida,
It is lovely to revisit the history of my country, to see the courage and power of our Kenyan heroines, and they a force to reckon with, even against the brutality of colonisation.
Thank you for sharing. May we continue emboldened by their example to keep pushing against injustice and inequalities.

Leonida Odongo
Sep 08, 2020
Sep 08, 2020

Dear Nini,

You are most welcome.We have a lot to learn from their resilience.

Karen Quiñones-Axalan
Sep 08, 2020
Sep 08, 2020

Hello, sister-Professor Leonida,

Wow! You did a great job of compiling the women SHE-roes of Kenya and Africa. That's inspiring and empowering. We need more stories like this. Thank you for doing such a diligent work in each of your posts. We honor these women, and may the next generation of women honor you, too!

Sep 11, 2020
Sep 11, 2020

Dear Leonida,
This is a beautiful recap of the heroism of women often carefully left aside history.
Thank you for helping us see women had just as much fight in the resistant movement as men.
A worthy historical read. There powerful women who blazed the trail for others to now thread.