On this day in colonial Nairobi in 1922, women led one of the daring deeds in Kenyan history when they rallied together to secure the release of an activist who had been vocal against forced labor and the injustices being meted against locals. Alas, these women had to pay with their lives on the day of March 16, 1922, as their protest to get their ‘favorite man’ released turned violent when askaris (soldiers or police officers in East Africa) opened fire on the charging crowd.
Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru was among the first to die after having rallied thousands including men, who were initially hesitant.
Months before the protest, Nairobi was then a young city containing people who had come from somewhere else to seek better opportunities. Segregation was commonplace in the bustling city as Africans, Indians and Europeans were only seen together during trading activities and taxes. Africans (or locals) were forced to pay the “hut tax”, demanding them to pay for the right to live in their own land. Many ended up working as laborers to pay for this tax. Others moved to Nairobi to make money for the 1901 hut tax.
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To add insult to injury, the colonial government raised the tax rate for Africans, infuriating many including Kenyan activist Harry Thuku. A member of the East African Association (EAA), Thuku strongly opposed the hut tax, arguing against the forced labor scores of Africans had to go through in order to make payment. Thuku, who became known as “chief of women”, particularly spoke against how women were being forced to pick coffee on European farms to be able to make money for the tax, a report said.
Threatened by his growing influence, the government got Thuku arrested on March 14, 1922, and was jailed at the Nairobi Police Station. When news of his arrest spread, the EAA urged African men and women in the city to lay down their tools. The following day, March 15, hundreds of them marched to the Nairobi Police Station where Thuku was being held to demand his release. By night, many of the women who had gathered outside the police station, including Nyanjiru and a stepdaughter she lived with, Elizabeth Wariara, underwent a traditional oathing ceremony that was reserved for men. The ceremony was to bind themselves to the cause of freedom for Thuku, a report noted.
The following day, March 16, the crowd, bigger this time, was really charged up. Numbering about 8,000 Africans with a few Indians, all they wanted at that particular moment was to have Thuku freed. Soon, the crowd was informed by six of its members who had been called to meet the colonial administration that Thuku would be given a fair trial by the government; that he was only being held ahead of the trial and was in no danger. The six then called on the crowd to disperse. Some of the protesters, mostly men, got ready to leave while many others, largely women, accused the delegation of being bribed.
Confusion ensued, and Nyanjiru, who had left her business just like her fellow women, and had come all the way to the police station for a purpose, wasn’t going to give up so easily. Shunning any male authority at that instant, she moved to the front of the crowd, lifted her dress over her head, and demanded: “Take my dress and give me your trousers! You men are cowards! What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there! Let’s go get him!!!”
Those gathered knew there and then that she had just utilized a traditional Kikuyu insult known as guturamira ng’ania — the ultimate symbol of defiance a woman could use against the patriarchal system. Locals considered it a curse to see a woman their mother’s age naked. And perhaps out of shame, dozens of people, particularly men, who were leaving the scene changed their minds and followed Nyanjiru and the many women who were now pushing forward towards the police lines. At that moment, the askaris opened fire on them. The Europeans who had been watching the events from the nearby Norfolk Hotel also started firing into the crowd.
At the end of the day, 21 people died; 17 men and four women, all African; and 28 injuries, according to official government figures. Locals said the figure was more than that. Nyanjiru was among the fatalities, but she did not die in vain. Following the incident, the government reduced the tax from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and began listening to the concerns of Africans. Most importantly, her defiance would fuel the struggle for Kenyan independence decades later.
Nyanjiru is remembered as a heroine in folklore, poetry and the famous Kanyegenuri song sang by the Mau Mau. Still, only a few know her name.