A tribute to the late Wambui Otieno


When history tides shall silt in the books, they shall in no doubt eulogies the legend of Wambui Otieno Mbugua in careful review not to use words lesser than gutsy and brave. I too here walk on egg shells at the fall of a giant, an empress who renounced her dynasty for a popular nationalistic cause.

Yet what shall history scribe when she already has cast her own on stone with blood and sacrifice? Etched in blood and sweat deep in the blood-spattered Aberdares’ 1950s are accounts that extol Wambui’s virtues as a defiant teenage girl from an elite household (the dynasty of Waiyaki wa Hinga), educated at the best African girls’ school in colonial Kenya (Alliance, you bet it), a practicing progressive Christian, uncircumcised (she refused to), daughter of a police inspector with a Nairobi rental income who gave up the comforts of complacency to join the Mau Mau.

This daughter of a Kikuyu and an Ogiek (her mother) , took oath as a Mau Mau, stole guns and killed for them, fought alongside the men in the forest, and traversed huge distances by foot conducting espionage missions and gathering intelligence from British troops while coordinating a network of female agents who funnelled information to the Mau Mau high command. An ancient legend of Kenyans for Kenyans.

So effective and fatally notorious was Wambui Otieno Mbugua that she was arrested by the British in 1955 but later released thanks to her sassy mouth. In coming years she would be rearrested and ordered to report for weekly interrogations in her home village. Detentions and weekly interrogations only made her stouter in the nationalistic cause with the Mau Mau.

In her nationalism, she joined the Kenya African National Union, and was elected as head of the women’s wing. The British government would have none of it, Wambui was arrested and detained at Lamu Island, where she was brutally raped by Chief Inspector Rudolph Speed and tortured in ways gory that David Cameron would cringe at the account.

She surprised Kenyan women when upon her release in 1961, she complained at pitch of being raped and demanded the prosecution of her rapist. Such was unheard of, some lowly creature, some woman, some native savage going against a God endowed white aristocrat? But trust Wambui to fight like a lioness, like a Mau Mau veteran until Inspector Rudolph resigned and fled jurisdiction to avoid charges.

A reasonable man would think that the torture, the years of detention, would deter one as plucky as the daughter of Waiyaki from hiding guns for the Mau Mau which she did – between her legs as she transported them to River road for repair. Worse still, at the height of imperial apartheid when the inferior lethargic black natives were not allowed to lay step inside the celestial Thorn tree restaurant at the now Stanley Hotel, she did the unthinkable drama that would eventually lead to the opening of the hotel to Blacks; she, with a fellow woman activist, dared to match right into the hotel amidst security protest, proceeded to stand on a table inside the Thorn tree.

As was expected, the white manager in rage struck her face with a slap! The national and international media cameras they had mobilised captured the virulent racist discrimination and attack on the black girls leading to national and international outcry.

In the crowded streets of pre independence downtown Nairobi, Wambui frenzied in demonstrations, deputations, choral and dramatic productions choreographed by Luo activists who Wambui had nothing but love for.

So much was her trans-ethnic strength that Wambui flew loathe of public ethnic biases and married a fine Luo criminal lawyer, SM Otieno, making her a potentially unifying line, an object of fear for Kenya’s divisively ethnocratic rulers. In her thirty years of marriage, she validated the biblical ’till death do we part’ herself being a progressive Christian.

Any student of law worth a bar certificate must nuance and cite Wambui’s court of appeal jurisprudence which threw candle on the problems and position of women in the long and anguished record of imperialism and post-imperialism. Jurisprudence that highlighted the gender discrimination in African countries where contemporary law has often been either ambivalent about traditional law or allows traditional gender discrimination to have precedence.

Sadly, the latter prevailed-but not without a bitter fight to the last court of the land and a visitation by her teenage ghost of defiance when she refused to attend the funeral only to later immortalize her husband and lover with a mausoleum in her matrimonial home in Ngong.

After years of helping shape the women movement in Kenya and at the UN level, years of trashing Moi’s perpetuation of gender discrimination, she found comfort and boundless love in the arms of Samuel Mbugua, more than 40 years younger than herself. By marrying Mbugua, Wambui opened up vast acres for the Kenyan woman’s freedoms and rights.

In particular, she debunked the myth and affirmed that women just like men have a right to choose their own happiness, that they too should enjoy rights and freedoms just like any other person by virtue of being human. This feminist, nationalist and progressive Christian will be sung for reconstructing masculinity at the height of a patrochial order and flinging open iron gates long locked by men. She has unsuccessfully run for political office, unbowed by patriarchal dirty politics on more than three occasions.

When history rests, the SM Brothers from the Umira Kager clan will find nothing but trepidation, ignominy and dishonour for sticking to an era long gone, long fought, long lost. As if the infamous SM Otieno case of appeal was not enough, one Mr Ougo the brother to SM Otieno stated without blinking in self disdain that a woman over 60 years has no right to get married – leave alone the freedom to chose her burial place, that a giant of steel as Wambui should be as dishonoured and her wishes disregarded and be buried in Nyalgunga to please the likes of Mr Ougo… Such men, such words, such clans represent nothing but an analogy of what Wambui called in her autobiography ‘men who back a conveniently divisive tribal, patriarchal `tradition’, instil a fearful toadyism …and do not hesitate to use violence against … uppity women’.

We hope that they will finally heed this wise counsel this time. This once!

The life and times of Wambui represent a courageous struggle for moral agency in the turbulence of modern Kenya. My dirge for this legendary daughter of Kenya affirms of her positive jurisprudence and legacy on issues of gender and ethnicity, past and future, whose agitation was robustly nationalist, progressive, and feministic in visionary ground breaking ways beyond her times and our collective history.

Not a chance that Wambui goes unsung, for I now refer to Mau Mau’s Daughter: a life history of Wambui Otieno and raise my wounded pricked spirit to a soulful mourning of my mother, hero and strength. I wail touting her vintage horn and giving tongue to Wambui’s poetic reference which I now borrow and own as I remember her dreams of her husband’s corpse singing `Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye’ wish me luck Wambui. Earth to you heroine, feminist, Mau Mau veteran and nationalist. Earth to you oh trans-ethnic sister!

(Ann Njogu is the chairperson – Centre for Rights Education and Awareness)

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