Resembling the peak of Kenya’s jewel Mount Kenya, are snow-white curly roots that darken to long defined black dreadlocks flowing all the way to the ground. This is the hair of Muthoni wa Kirima, the “field marshal,” a title given to her in the 1950s as she fought in the Mau Mau uprising against British colonial officers in Kenya.
The Mau Mau is credited as being the anti-colonial movement that began the demise of the British Imperial Empire attributing to Kenya’s independence while influencing other similar African revolts. It is the first post – war armed struggle on the African continent. The liberation had only four Field Marshals with Muthoni being the only woman.
Muthoni was born in Central Kenya in 1931 and was a first-hand witness to the colonial injustices committed against Africans. She joined the fight at 20 as a spy like other women whose participation was limited to carriers of information and supplies. She challenged this role by fearlessly executing raids against colonial farms that marked her out to Mau Mau’s revered leader Dedan Kimathi, who made her the only female leader. Even though she was injured on many occasions she was never caught and was nicknamed “Weaver Bird” due to her ability to weave brilliant strategies. Kirima sacrificed motherhood for the struggle and describes Kenya as her only child. The war cost her the ability to have children after she suffered two miscarriages while fighting in the forest. She lived in the forest from the 1950s until December 12, 1963 when Kenya received its independence. Even though the war ended in 1956, the fighters were left isolated and unaware in the forests until the inaugural President Jomo Kenyatta sent a car to pick them up to partake in the independence ceremony where they were forced to lay down their weapons.
Sidelined and forgotten by the country for which she sacrificed so dearly, Muthoni lives in her small home in central Kenya. Visitors are warmly welcomed as she entertains them on threadbare armchairs surrounded by sepia photographs from her twilight years. It is only when she removes her headscarf cascading matted dreadlocks that hint at her extraordinary life. She strongly asserts her hair as her history, “Kenya’s history” and refuses to cut it until the fruits of independence that she fought for are realized.”
During the war, dreadlocks was the hairstyle associated with the Mau Mau. While fighting in the forest, soldiers barely had time to properly groom their hair causing it to lock. The negative stigma behind the hairstyle in Kenya is attributed to the British’s slandering campaign against the Mau Mau as “terrorists, savages, and animals”. The style evolved thereafter from being protective to a symbol of revolt against the colonial government by Kenyans and other Black anti-colonial and imperial movements around the world.
54 years after independence, Muthoni and other veterans remain landless and poor, complaining that African post-colonial governments have been just as unfair to freedom fighters like the British colonial governments.
“There is no justice in Kenya,” she says.
Kenyatta and other post-colonial leaders betrayed Muthoni and her fellow veterans by denouncing the Mau Mau to the extent of banning the movement. It was officially de-classified as a terrorist organization in Kenya 40 yrs after independence in 2003. The erasure of Muthoni and others like her from Kenya’s history books depresses her as she sites how unfortunate it is that “only white people” visit her inquiring about her story.