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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.
To be updated