Wangu wa Makeri: the first Woman Kikuyu Chief in Colonial Kenya

updated 18th October 2011


Wangu wa Makeri was the first Kikuyu female leader in living memory. This hub will bring fresh insight in the life of Wangu wa Makeri, the first ever woman Chief in Colonial Kenya.

Some people have the mistaken belief that she ruled the Kikuyu during the legendary era when the Kikuyu were ruled by women. According to the legend, the women, who were also great fighters were tricked and overthrown by men who have continued to take charge of tribal affairs to this day. This is far from the truth. If that were the case, I would not have had the privilege to interview a Grandson. In fact we would be hard put to find any relative. Wangu’s Grandchild is James Makeri Muchiri, a retired teacher living in Nairobi. He was introduced to me by a close relative, but due to our busy schedule, we were not able to meet for over two weeks. When we finally met, I introduced myself as a writer, an artist/Designer and researcher on Kikuyu Culture.

The Interview took place at 4.00 pm East African time on 18th October 2011, at the City Square Restaurant, opp. City Hall.

This is how the interview went:

Kariuki: How are you related to Wangu?

Makeri: She was my grandmother but most of what I know, I have learned from my paternal uncle.

(I am surprised by that. I thought he would be a great great grandson).

Kariuki: People say that Wangu was Chief Karuri’s wife.

Makeri: Wangu was Makeri’s wife.

Kariuki: Makeri? Was Makeri also a chief?

Makeri: No. Karuri had recommended him to Francis Hall to be chief, but Makeri was not interested. He thought that if he became chief, he would not nave time to take care of his animals and he would lose all of them.

Kariuki: So Makeri was a rich man then.

Makeri: Yes, that is why he thought he should not abandon his herd to become a mere chief. You see, Makeri was a great friend of Karuri. So Karuri wanted him to be chief, so that when he was doing his rounds on his horse he could rest at Makeri’s before proceeding on tour of his jurisdiction. And you know Makeri did not have sons who could have chief.

Kariuki: Is’t that unlikely? Well, you know Kikuyu men had more than one wife, especially rich Kikuyu men.

Makeri: Wangu was the ‘ngatha’, and her eldest son was not old enough to be appointed a chief.

Kariuki: A ‘ngatha?’

Makeri: that means the eldest wife. She most often like Wangu, was the favourite one because she chose subsequent wives for him. Makeri had a total of six wives.

Kariuki: Where would Karuri sleep when he visited Makeri. I mean, would he be allowed to sleep in the hut of one of the wives, as people say?

Makeri: No, no, no. An old man had his thingira, where he would spend the night with his friends. In this case, Makeri and Karuri would spend the night in Makeri’s thingira, where Makeri’s wives would bring them food.

Kariuki: You said Karuri had a horse.

Makeri: Francis Hall, whom people called wanyahoro had given him horses to ride so that he could move further and faster.


Kariuki: Karuri was quite westernized then…

Makeri: you know the Kikuyu did not have horses.

Kariuki: But he did not have a carriage for the horses…

Makeri: No. He just rode the horses.

Kariuki: It written in a certain history book that influential Kikuyu’s including Wangu would bribe Karuri so that he would recommend them to Francis Hall as potential Chiefs.

Makeri: That is misrepresenting the facts. For example you have just offered me a drink and I have declined. Were you trying to bribe me?

Kariuki: Oh no! It is just normal for people to talk as they drink something.

Makeri: There you have it. Bribing had not been ingrained in Kikuyu culture. You know Wangu was a Chief by 1910. She is the one who gave the Europeans land on which to put up the Weithaga mission in Koimbi.

Kariuki: Which church was that?

Makeri: Anglican Church. It is called Emmanuel Church today.

Kariuki: Emmanuel! Like me?

Makeri: Are you Emmanuel? I know you as Kariuki. Koimbi is the Sub-location. Weithaga is the Location. And Muranga is the district. Do you know that is where Kiano was buried – in the Weithaga Church compound. Kiano got money to go to University in America from this Church. That is where a ‘harambee’ to raise money was done. Then he came back with an American wife.

Kariuki: I didn’t know where he was buried. I hear she was a tough woman.

Makeri: Kenyatta helped to kick her out by tagging her ‘persona non grata.’ She died just recently, like two years ago. I noticed that she was still using ‘Kiano’ as a surname as many divorced women do.

(Kiano was a former minister in Kenyatta’s government. After divorcing the American, he married a Kenyan who went on to lead the Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organistion – a National women’s self help Group).

Kariuki: About how many years do you think Wangu ruled?

Makeri: I don’t know, maybe five. What I know is what my paternal uncle told me and he is not there.

Kariuki: So can I write five?

Makeri: five to seven years. Write seven. Now ask the last question, I need to go before the rush hour.

Kariuki: How did Wangu stop ruling. Was she sacked, or what...

Makeri: Wangu fell ill. Then Ikaya ruled as regent briefly for her son, Muchiri.

Kariuki: Who was Ikaya.

Makeri: He was part of Wangu’s ‘Njama’(Concil of elders). Then when Jacob Muchiri came of age, he took over as Chief. It is this Jacob Muchiri who was my paternal Uncle.

Kariuki: I will use this material on the Internet. I like to post interesting about the Kikuyu. Do I have your permission?

Makeri: By all means use it. People need to know these things. We need to meet again when we have more time.

Kariuki: Thank you very much Bwana Makeri.

Which questions would you like me to ask Makeri? Put your comment below.



What Books say about Wangu wa Makeri

She was born around 1856 in Gĩtie village. Her father’s name was Gatuĩka Macaria and her mother was Wakerũ wa Macaria. A descendant of the Ndorobo by the name Makeri wa Mbogo took Wangu’s hand in Marriage and they were blessed with six children. Makeri proceeded to marry seven more wives – Two of them shared the name Nyambura, while the others were Nyanjiru; WandoimbĨ; Njoki; Wangeci and Kabura.

The following are the names of Wangu’s children’s names:

Nyakimotho, Nyambura, Wanguru, Muciri, Gatuiku and Mwangi. When Miciri joined the mission school for conversion to Christianity and a western education, he was baptised Jacob.

Karuri used to travel from Tuthu to Fort Hall on his administrative duties. He found Makeri’s homestead to be halfway between the two locations. Being friends with Makeri, he would camp there for the night. Karuri, as the Paramount Chief, appointed to that position by the British Administration, had the powers to appoint headmen in his location. According the grandchild interviewed here, Makeri was first offered the chance to be headman, but declined. This post was then offered to his wife, and she accepted. Mary Wanyoike in her book on Wangu has maintained that Wangu was Makeri’s lover and that Karuri was also descended from the Ndorobo like Makeri. Many believe erroneously that Wangu was a chief.

According to Leakey, the Kibata dance was a series of military exercises and not a dance in the real sense. Whenever a major announcement for all the people was to be made, the Kibata was organized as it was a crowd puller. The warriors too orgnazed one when they needed to meet to discuss war plans. It is claimed that Karuri joined a group of men who were dancing the kĩbata. Wangu who was watching from the periphery was overwhelmed and on the spur of the moment, joined Karuri which was against custom. As she was jumping in to the rhythm of the song, her skirt rose up and exposed her thighs, which taboo. People exaggerated and said that Wangu had danced naked.

In June 1909, wangu was summoned by Karuri to answer to charges that she had danced naked. She offered to resign her position. Karuri appointed Ikai wa Gathimba in her place.

References

To be updated

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Comments 31 comments

Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 23 months ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Wangu Macharia - you found your namesake. You must also be as tough - goes with the name haha. Thanks for your comment.


Wangu Macharia 23 months ago

Interesting to know she was once called Wangu Macharia as well


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 2 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Most welcome Charles - that reminds me, I was supposed to have a second interview with Makeri and its long overdue. Apparently the family had some plans for the lasting memory of Wangu. Good to hear that this hub is useful.


Charles Kariuki profile image

Charles Kariuki 2 years ago

Wow just wow!!! This is so informative...Thanks for digging deep into our history. I will share these even with my my grandchildren in the future :)


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Thanks for your contribution. For the benefit of non Kikuyu speakers, here is a translation of Mùrùgù Kìmari’s comment. The words in brackets are mine for clarity.

I do not know many things Kariuki but my gradmother whose ages set was ‘nyarigi’ of metumi (Murang’a) told me that Wangu was Karuri’s concubine. At one time, Karuri attacked the village of Thuita and burnt many homesteads because he learnt that a certain man called Ngunungu Kiriamiti’s Grandfather who was a chief had an affair with Wangu.

Wangu used to make porridge for Karuri when he spent the night on his way to Mbiri. Karuri at the time, would be transported on the shoulders of men (perhaps on a palanquin like some settlers). When Wangu was appointed chief, she took to Karuri’s mannerisms of travelling on the shoulders of men, and to sit on a man when sipping beer from a beer horn. People saw her nakedness and got very offended.

We shall talk more later.

This is a good addition to our knowledge of Wangu. It is claimed that her ‘nakedness’ was seen when she decided to join Karuri in a men only dance, and in the process of jumping like the men, her skirt rose up and exposed her.

Karuri has been described by Muriuki as a tin God. His stature rose from a mere ‘Muthamaki wa Kiama’ – head of the council of elders, to a paramount chief when the British colonized his territory. With the power of the crown behind him, he collected taxes for both the government and himself, took over whatever land he desired and levied sheep and goats the most minor offence. Any village that defied him was reduced to ashes as Mùrùgù Kìmari’s testimony shows. I wish we get more insights from more contributors.


Mùrùgù Kìmari 4 years ago

Niì ndìùì maùndù maingì Kariuki no cùcù waciarìtwo na rika rì nyarìgì kùria metumi anjìrire wangù arì thuria ya karùri na kwì hìndì karùri atharìkìire itùra rìa thùita na agìcinithia manyùmba tondù nìamenyire wangù nìombìtwo nì mùthuri wetagwo ngùnùngù(gukawe wa kiriamiti) na arì cibù.

Wangù nìakiagìra karùri ùcùrù agìthiì mbiri na akararìrìra gwake.karùri hìndì ìyo athiaga akuìtwo na ciande nì arùme.Wangù rìrìa nake aheìrwo wìra wa cibù akìoerera gùkuo nì arùme na ciande na kùmaikaragìra akìnyua rùhìa.Akìonia andù njaga makìrakara muno…..

nìtùkwaria


mikeydcarroll67 4 years ago

That is a pretty cool interview!


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Thanks for your comment Mungai,

This interview's objective was to get the family's point of view besides what is in the National archives.


Mungai Kimani 4 years ago

If you were to interview me about my grandparent,you know only too well that i wouldn't tell much of the dark side. Visiting the National archives would be the best idea. The British Government is also holding very important history of the Kenyan colony.Guys like Francis Hall were among the first Europeans to settle in Kenya,the history is well documented. Wangu was not a simple woman as the above interview portrays, Neither was Chief Karuri wa Gakure. The mention of any one of the two would send shivers thro. the spine,the other thing is that the two were lovers.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

high Gerald,

It is likely that Wangu did sit on one man, an offender. This is what has been blown out of proportion.

Regarding the pregnancy issue, people mix up the legend of when men were ruled by women, which is hundreds years earlier, with the recent story of Wangu. What is likely is the version that she got excited and joined a men only dance which involved jumping high the way Maasai do. In the process, her thighs were seen by the public, a thing that was frowned upon by Kikuyu society. Word went round that Wangu had danced the kibaata naked, and she opted to resign.


gerald gachoya 4 years ago

is it true that wangu used to sit on men like a chair and used to be carried shoulder high?Also did men overthrow her when she became preg like I once heard


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Attention has been drawn by Makeri whom I interviewed here to a Nespaper in Kenya called MT. KENYA TIMES. They have reproduced this page (copy and paste) without prior permission. I have acquired the offending isue no. 004 of January 2012. It is such disrespect that makes my respondent have little to do with the print media. I have emailed them in protest (mtkenyatimes@gmail.com) box 70375 -00400 Nairobi. I would wish that my readers write protest notes too so that this blatent plagiarism is put to a stop.


soumentheanimater 4 years ago

Definitely Wangu wa Makeri is the first ever woman Chief in Kenya. She is a real legend and a great fighter. I love this post and as well the interview.

http://www.prowessweb.in


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Thanks, perfectperception, John, Nyambega and Geraldnduru.

I will meet Makeri soon and will ask him the questions on John's and Nyambega's minds and hopefully we shall have answers. I will specifically ask him if he is interested in meeting the press.


Geraldnduru profile image

Geraldnduru 4 years ago from Kenya

your hub is quite informative.


Nyambega Gisesa 4 years ago

I like the story and i could like to contact the grandson or any relative of this great woman.I write for Sunday Nation. Kindly email me at engisesa@gmail.com or reach me through 0725 001 058 we talk.Thank you


perfectperception profile image

perfectperception 4 years ago from USA

Very interesting. Thank you


john 4 years ago

I've liked your story, however i have a question. my maternal grandfather was called Waiharo wa makeri. I need to know is there any connection? He was also known by other names like Njuguna, Njogu and the like. My mother is Ngatha. please let me know if it is possible to get the answers.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 4 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Agnes, Women from Central were have a toughness streak that borders on the criminal especially when dealing with their spouses. It has to do with the 'heads of clans' being women right from the beginning of time. They have never accepted male domination. And they work hard, while the male has some magnetism with beer. When a good man meets a good woman from Central, the family has no choice but to develop and flourish.


agnes 4 years ago

it is interesting to se that such people are remembered but the questions is. could be the toughness of central kenya wemen came from har????????????


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Great people always have some falsehoods that often become intertwined with the truth. This makes it difficult to get the whole truth. I hope that our next meeting with Makeri will shed even more light on this great woman.


Eunice Stuhlhofer profile image

Eunice Stuhlhofer 5 years ago

Thanks for shedding light on this important story of the Kikuyu people. Like others, I was taught that Wangu was a tough and oppressive woman to men until she became pregnant and lost her power.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Mr. Makeri is willing to talk. I am the one who has delayed fixing an interview due to other pressures. I will try to find out what she achieved during her reign. Giving land for the building of the Weithaga church was a great philanthropic achievement that long ago. She actually needs to be celebrated.


joyce 5 years ago

wow' i think that interview was interesting,i have always heard about that story and thought it can't be anything but a fairy tale or someone just made it up,could the family be willing to talk more about her leadership during those five or seven years she was chief?anyway i think its good history.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Thanks Mburu for that Njoro lead. I will take it up with Makeri when we next meet. I have also been told by a professor at the School of African Studies that there are several MA Thesis on Wangu. I intend to have a look at them. Unfortunately the Museum only has what is in the History books. The National Archives might have what the colonial administrators wrote on her so that calls for more research. I will get there too.


mburu 5 years ago

This a great story. I have also heard that some relatives of Wangu Wa Makeri are in Njoro.Sometime back in 2001 I met an artist who was also teaching at Larmudiac High School near Kihingo in Njoro.He had Wangu's drawing.From his story,some relatives of wangu are in Njoro.How true this is I don't know.But all in all,Wangu must have been a big Legend,or a matriarch of the day.It wasn't any easy for a woman to make any leadership mark in those days.We have many people who masquarade as relatives of great people.But Emmanuel,you have started.I believe the Kenyan Museums and the National archives have something to say of this.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

The way I understood it, Makeri declined and suggested her name as his favourite wife, since his eldest son at was too young. I believe James knows exactly where Wangu is buried since he claimed that her land is still owned by the family. I will clarify that and find out about gazzetement. He told me the family has certain plans which are not to be disclosed just yet.


betty karanja 5 years ago

is it known for sure where she was buried and would they as a family be interested in having it gazetted? kariuki, it is also not very clear how Wangu became chief, is it that when Makeri refused to take up the position he seconded her or what? But as usual, interesting read.


Emmanuel Kariuki profile image

Emmanuel Kariuki 5 years ago from Nairobi, Kenya Author

Waruru, hardly any living person knows about the Gichandi. Everything I know about it I read in 'Routledge; Life with a pre-historic people.' Even then (1910) he said that people did not seem to remember the meanings of the inscriptions. The script had been lost, but we must keep the search going. See my post on Kikuyu scripts here on hubpages for what I know.

Mwangi, my deduction in this first meeting is that people have created a myth around the woman. She had five other co-wives and had Makeri as head of the house in spite of her being a chief. Right now I am persuaded that Karuri was the senior chief and she was a minor chief in the same district, meaning that she would take instructions from Karuri. I will ask my respondent that question.


Mwangi 5 years ago

Is it merely a legend that Wangu wa Makeri used to sit on men's backs instead of stools? We were taught this in history class!


waruru ndegwa 5 years ago

thanks for that post, i think you and i need to meet. AM very much interested in gichandi and very little is documented on gichandi what do you know of gichandi?

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