woman warrior

Kenya: Legendary Mau Mau field marshal Muthoni wa Kirima is dead

By Rachel Ombaka

Posted on September 5, 2023 12:58

The late Field Marshal and freedom fighter Muthoni wa Kirima at her forest home in 2013. (Wikimedia Commons CC)
The late Field Marshal and freedom fighter Muthoni wa Kirima at her forest home in 2013. (Wikimedia Commons CC)

Muthoni wa Kirima was the only female freedom fighter to earn the title of field marshal during the war against British colonialists in Kenya.

Nyeri Governor Mutahi Kahiga told reporters on Tuesday that she was rushed to hospital after developing health complications, but was pronounced dead on arrival.

Several leaders, including President William Ruto and his deputy Rigathi Gachagua, have said her death is a huge loss for Kenya, as she bravely fought for the country’s independence from British colonial rule.

“Deeply saddened by the passing of Field Marshal Muthoni Kirima, a powerful figure of broad influence who fought for our freedom… We honour her heroic contribution to the freedom and development of our country and pray to God that He grants the family strength at this painful time. Rest In Peace, our Shujaa,” Ruto said.

Gitu wa Kahengeri, who served as Mau Mau War Veterans Association secretary-general, described Kirima as unrelenting.

“Muthoni Kirima was a staunch female comrade in [the] liberation struggle. Successive independence regimes left Mau Mau freedom fighters in [the] wilderness. Muthoni continued to fight for their justice,” he told The Africa Report on Tuesday.

The ‘Weaver Bird’

Kirima was born in 1930 in Tetu, Central Kenya, and later became a spy for the liberation fighters in her 20s, reporting to field marshal Dedan Kimathi.

When they [the homeguards] found out I was spying on them they beat me up and left me for dead

The ‘Weaver Bird’ – a nickname that the late Kimathi gave her because of her knack for weaving brilliant strategies – persisted through beatings and torture from the British.

“I spied on the home guards in the villages and informed [Dedan] Kimathi. When they found out I was spying on them they beat me up and left me for dead, but some women found me and took me to a safe place,” she said in an interview.

She had barely been married a year when she followed her husband, Mutungi Gichuhi, to the forest to join the Mau Mau freedom fighters.

“When I regained my strength, I ran into the forest and stayed there. When night came, I would climb on trees to sleep. I looked for the fighters for two weeks because it was challenging to locate them.”

Kirima eventually found the freedom fighters and continued with the fight for independence, staging attacks against the British from within the forest.

She continued living in the forest even after Kenya gained independence, because the Mau Mau movement was outlawed.

State recognition

It was not until 1998 that the Kenyan government recognised her efforts. The late President Daniel arap Moi awarded her a medal for her distinguished service in the fight for independence. In 2014, she received another award – head of state commendation – from then-president Uhuru Kenyatta.

Kirima hit the headlines again in 2022 after Mama Ngina Kenyatta, the wife of Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, shaved her dreadlocks.

Kirima had kept the dreadlocks since the 1950s, when she lived in the forest, as a representation of her rejection of colonialism and connection to Kenya’s freedom. The dreadlocks were synonymous with Mau Mau freedom fighters.

“I have forgiven those who were hunting us down in the Mau Mau struggle because it was a time of war,” Kirima told The Standard newspaper during the ceremony at her home in Nyeri.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.