27 Oct 2020
#BHM The Seat of Wangu wa Makeri
There are many places to start Wangu wa Makeri’s story. I could begin with her ‘whip and confine’ policy, or her brutal authority, or even maybe her famous dance. Better yet, her public scandalous sex life. But this is a narrative that begins in 1856, so I’ll start at her birth.
Gatuika Macharia and Wakeru of Gitie village in Kangema division, Murangâ, Kenya, may not have thought much of the daughter they brought forth to the world on a cold 1856 morning. But as years passed, Wangu grew into an industrious young woman who spent hours labouring on the family farm. She revered work, and passionately accomplished her duties.
Makeri wa Mbogo eventually caught Wangu’s eye.
Eye, not heart. Makeri was a quiet, reserved, un-opinionated man, unlike Wangu. However, what Wangu brought in fire and passion, Makeri paralleled with wealth and financial stability. It was a pragmatic union which satisfied the basic expectations of both parties. So much so that Wangu still deemed her position as the first wife within a sea of 6 other co-wives, still satisfactory. The marriage birthed six children, which would have resigned Wangu to a life of motherly and wifely duties if not for the attention of a paramount chief from Fort Hall, named Karuri wa Gakure.
Karuri wa Gakure, the paramount Chief was on his way from Tuthu to Muranga to consult the colonial district commissioner. When dusk found him at Weithaga, he made a stop at Makeri’s house. They were age-mates, and tradition demanded that Makeri not only had to host him, but also to provide him entertainment for the night, in the form of his wife. Wangu, obligingly performing her mundane wifely duties, couldn’t believe the fire and passion that came from their bellies that night. This was sex like she had never experienced. And what was expected to be a customary acceptable one-night stand turned into a love affair.
Karuri frequently returned to Wangu’s arms. For being a gracious host for over a year, and for not causing a scandal because of this open affair that was taking place under his roof, in his bed, and with his wife, Karuri offered to reward Makeri with the position of local Chief. Makeri declined.
Wangu, with her unquenchable fire now blazing, staked her claim and convinced Karuri to make her Chief instead. A female chief was unheard of. But that is what she became soon after, the first female colonial Chief in Kenya.
The next seven years saw the peak of Wangu’s political influence. She lorded over the whole location. Even with no formal education, she shrewdly enforced her authority and ruthlessly administered over Weithaga, executing the colonial declarations. She fervently collected the hut tax imposed by the British door to door, and woe unto you if you were a tax evader, for that’s when the full wrath of her power would unleash. After confining evaders to a cell, she would personally whip them, and if she got tired doing so, she would select a prisoner, make him crawl on all fours and sit on his back as she beat the rest. The tax collections from her location were the highest in the district during her reign. This made her notoriously disliked by her people, but Wangu had a job to do. If other male chiefs from different regions were collecting taxes with no qualms, she was determined to do it better than them.
It wasn’t just tax evaders who witnessed her ruthlessness; Chief Wangu also didn’t suffer any drunkards. During community meetings, while people sat on stools, she would send for confined drunkards to be brought from their cell and use their backs as seats. These were people who had been arrested for senselessly drinking muratina the locally brewed gin.
The menfolk, who had earlier scoffed at, and questioned her leadership abilities, now trembled at the mention of her name and fled at her appearance.
As she would march to or from her chiefly duties, barefoot, the villagers would line along her path offering varieties of food, to keep the peace. Respite from her career as a community leader would be taken in the loving arms of either Karuri or Makeri, depending on who was available – an option almost unheard of for a woman at the time.
But, alas, Wangu’s reign was soon to become to an abrupt end. The men of Weithaga location had been plotting against her and were waiting for an opportune time to dethrone her. Soon enough, it came.
On the night of the Kibata dance, which was exclusively for men to join and even moving near a male dancer was prohibited, Wangu saw her lover Karuri on the dance floor. Mesmerised by the enchanting moves, she moved to join him. After all, she had crushed gender expectations by being the first female Chief; she could also break this barrier that stopped women from participating in the dance. As she joined Karuri and started dancing, one of the male elders subtly cut the strings of her skirt, which immediately fell to the ground, exposing her nakedness. A woman had never been seen walking or dancing naked in public before – it was an abomination. She was immediately forced to resign. The men of Weithaga, laughed in satisfaction.
More than a century later, the whispers of Wangu wa Makeri’s dreaded reign is still talked about throughout Kenya. She remains to be the first and only female Chief in colonial Kenya.
Wangu wa Makeri did her best to resist the cultural and social barriers placed on her due to her gender, until the very end efying the Agikuyu tradition
She proved that more than the performance of wifely duties, women could elevate their positions, achieve power, and shrewdly enforce administrative duties. When it comes to political competence, she proved herself equal and even superior to the male chiefs from other districts at the time. She remains a legend to this day.
Written By: Edith K Ochien’g – a Kenyan creative writer whose work has appeared in various magazines and journals. She is a literary interviewer at Africa in Dialogue. Foller her on Twitter @oedithknight
Header Image: Wangu wa Makeri is a painting by Anthony Mwangi