Wambui Otieno, a 'solitary woman who fought against patriarchal values', may have 'struggled against oppression, but her story is simply a struggle for love and dignity,' writes Wandia Njoya.
Any tribute to Wambui Otieno, a great woman of Kenya, is roughly predictable. It is most likely going to be a portrait of a woman who confronted colonial oppression as a member of the Mau Mau, who resisted the oppression of widows through her struggle to bury her husband SM Otieno, and who defied the patriarchal expectation that only men can marry spouses much junior to them.
But the fact that a tribute to this great daughter of Kenya is predictable does not make the tribute any less valid; rather, it affirms that these three aspects of Wambui’s life are so fundamental that they will forever be milestones in Kenya’s political history. We must and will keep repeating these three events for two main reasons.
First, Wambui accomplished the feat of embodying the freedom struggle beyond the stereotypical narrative of Africans versus colonialists that has been cheapened by post-independence dictatorships and political mediocrity. Unlike current politicians who evoke the colonial struggle to clothe their selfishness, cynicism and contempt for us with a cloak of respectability, or worse, who twist the struggle against colonial settlers to dub fellow Africans as the next settlers to be kicked out, Wambui’s legacy of anti-colonial resistance was entrenched and contemporised through her struggles as a mother, a widow and a wife. Her life and struggles have called into question what kind of ‘independence’ we have in Kenya, if women have to experience education, marriage, motherhood, career and widowhood as one burden after another, rather than as cycles of life. They have also called into question the difference between ‘African’ custom and colonialism, if both remain oppressive to living human beings. As such, Wambui’s life echoed the great revolutionary Thomas Sankara, who said, ‘There is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence.’
Also, we must keep reminding ourselves of the three main milestones of Wambui’s life because the struggle continues. Wambui stood out because she was a solitary woman who fought against patriarchal values, which, during the SM Otieno burial saga, were defended by fellow women. In fact, in her autobiography ‘Mau Mau’s daughter: A life history’, Wambui often marvelled at the women who supported the fight against her struggle to bury her husband, and sometimes remarked those women had no idea what was awaiting them. Almost a quarter of a century after the landmark ruling against her, Wambui remains almost as solitary. The majority of Kenya’s women continue to be dispossessed and harassed for the simple reason of being widowed, or worse, for the simple reason that God created them women.
But while milestones are important for memory, narratives are important for understanding. This is because milestones summarise events, but do not explain the people, forces, emotions and philosophy behind those events. We would therefore be doing Wambui and ourselves a disservice, if all we do is evoke the three milestones, but never study and understand Wambui’s thinking and daily struggles which propelled her to the platforms of history where she would confront, in epic form, struggles which other Kenyans confront on a daily basis.
We must resist the temptation to jump to milestones and leave the miles in-between because the lessons we learn and the histories we tell differ not in the landmarks, but in the ordinary – and probably less interesting – life between the landmarks. Right now, the narratives that dominate the interpretation of Wambui’s life are those of resistance: Resistance against the patriarchy embodied in the fight to bury SM in Nyamila, resistance against the expectation of widows to either be inherited or remain single, and the resistance against ethnocentric attitudes symbolised by the so-called Luo-Gikuyu hostility.
I find these narratives missing in what I consider the most powerful tool against oppression: The force of love. Wambui may have struggled AGAINST oppression, but her story is simply a struggle FOR love and dignity.
In ‘Mau Mau’s daughter’, Wambui reveals how women in the anti-colonial struggle loved their country so much that they were willing to give up their bodies in order to steal arms and secrets to pass on to then anti-colonial struggle. In other words, what the women endured was nothing compared to the promise of freedom that would protect them and the people from such indignity. As Wambui was to learn later, that freedom did not arrive after ‘independence.’ Moreover, Wambui would carry the scars from that indignity after going through brutal rape by a colonial officer, which left her with a child whom she had to raise.
But although Kenya did not reciprocate Wambui’s love for us, she did find such love in SM Otieno. SM was a man like few in Kenya, especially at the time. He married a woman who had children by another relationship, and by Wambui’s account, he was the one who encouraged her to raise the child that she so painfully conceived. He financially and morally supported Wambui’s political ambitions, even when the establishment did not. And Wambui loved him just as much. When the political aristocracy urged her to leave SM if she wanted to win parliamentary elections, Wambui sent the message that parliament was not going to be her husband after her five-year term. She also rejected encouragement from her cousin to pretend to file for separation, which she could withdraw after elections. Wambui argued that it would hurt her husband and children.
While there are many marriages that survive the anti-family pressure from relatives, as Wambui’s and SM’s did, there are many other marriages that do not. Contemporary narratives of why divorce is increasing in Kenya typically blame the empowerment of women for divorce, saying that educated and employed women prefer money to their husbands. Not only is that explanation naive, it ignores the reality of how men, in the name of ‘custom’ and pleasing their relatives, marry a second wife or frustrate their wives’ professional development, and how women, out of fear of widowhood and divorce, take the side of their families against their husbands. In other words, we have not yet achieved the balance between the Christian imperative of a man leaving his home to ‘cleave to his wife,’ and the cultural imperative of marriage as the joining of two homes. Wambui tried to achieve it by reaching out to her brother-in-law with the expectation that he would mourn with her and her children and would protect them. Instead, Joash Ochieng’ fought against them.
As such, a major driving force behind Wambui’s confrontation with her in-laws over her husband’s burial was that of a woman simply seeking to honour the wishes of the man she loved and who loved her, and to have her children bury their father in dignity. In fact, she says that what hurt her most during the court dispute was having her children watch her being insulted and humiliated both by the Umira Kager clan and by the court. I found it heart-wrenching to read about the visit her son Jairus paid to his uncle immediately after arriving from the US. Jairus sneaked out of home to go and persuade his uncle to remember his father’s wishes for burial because he was disturbed to see his mother and uncle in disagreement. Later on, Wambui would say that the most hurtful statement in Judge Bosire’s ruling in the clan’s favour was his criticism of her son.
Wambui’s courage shows that the bottom line of any nation, and also of any custom, is the extent to which living human beings are able to protect and nourish the dignity of those we love. Umira Kager – and particularly Joash Ougo, SM’s brother – contradicted that love when they failed to support Wambui and her children in their time of grief, and further subjected them to the humiliation of not honouring the wishes of SM and of seeing their mother being insulted by those who were supposed to support her.
That is why the difference between Wambui Otieno and the Umira Kager clan, led by Ochieng’, is more than just about burial and the importance of custom. It is about fundamental values that protect and nurture life. While Wambui sought to honour the life of SM, the clan chose to reify SM in death. In fact, what I found shocking is not so much the clan’s fight to bury SM as much as the hostility it showed to SM’s family. The foundation of the importance of customary law in modern times is the importance most African communities ascribe to children in maintaining a community’s legacy. Ironically, the clan attempted to symbolically cut off SM from his children by refusing to honour SM’s wishes. It essentially buried the legacy that it claimed it was protecting.
The treatment of SM by the clan also has important questions with regards to African masculinity. Even though we praise men who have departed through eulogies about their professional accomplishments and about the families they raised, the fact of the matter is that we nullify a man’s life when we cut off his widow and his children from material inheritance and from the husband’s and father’s legacy. We nullify his life if we justify behaviour that he would not have accepted when he was alive, such as invading a man’s home as Joash Ochieng’ and his family did in the days following SM’s death. When the judgment on SM’s burial affirmed that a man’s wishes were irrelevant to those of the clan, it affirmed the negation of SM’s life. And if all a man does while he was alive can mean nothing after he is dead, is he really a man in the first place? As Mugambi Kiai has noted in one of his tributes to Wambui, Wambui’s legacy is not only for women; it is also for men in the control of their ‘choices, destiny and fortunes.’
And in this sense, Wambui ended up winning the war that she fought even though she lost the burial battle in court. Through her children, and through her memoir, we learn who SM was in life. And I suspect that even the Umira Kager clan sensed that they did not really win anything, and that is why it sought to extend an empty victory by claiming that Wambui should be buried next to her husband.
Wambui’s life is also a story of parental love. Together with SM, Wambui loved and raised 15 children and foster children born in relationships and to people outside their marriage. For me, it is this family – and their resilience – which are the striking character in the SM burial saga. And the Otieno children put to test not only the customary claim to children as a legacy, but also our leaders’ ability to put the rights of children at the centre of our nation. As Wambui notes in her memoir, the children put to test Moi’s persistent declaration of his love for children when, in a letter they signed off as ‘Your obedient children,’ they appealed to him to intervene in the burial dispute. Although Wambui was sceptical about the outcome of that letter, she says that the least Moi owed her children was to reply to their letter, ‘if only to console them.’
So unlike the Western narrative that treats children primarily as individuals with rights, Wambui’s family showed the intertwining of children’s rights with parental rights. And we know that they are not alone in the struggle for parents to be able to protect their children in life and in death. We saw women at strip at Freedom Corner because they were tired of their sons and daughters being in detention. Every now and then we hear of how corrupt politicians steal billions of shillings earmarked for children’s education, for drugs and immunisation. Like Moi, these thieves that call themselves leaders ignore the plight of children and the adults who raise them, and seek to pacify us with a ministry that deals specifically with women and children.
And finally, who could forget the striking story of Wambui and Peter Mbugua? Their marriage is not simply a story of love; it is one of hope. Many women who are unfortunate to be widowed early find that they have to leave the rest of their lives in singlehood (levirate marriage is still singlehood for the woman) out of fear of in-laws. The marriage also affirmed women as human beings who also get lonely and who fall in love. Wambui has disproved the myths about African love as non-existent and about African women marrying just because they want to get children.
Wambui Otieno was a true revolutionary in Kenya. She is the true embodiment of Che Guevara’s assertion that ‘the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity is transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.’ May that force with which Wambui opened the doors for so many of us also help us to complete the struggle for freedom to which she gave her life.
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* Wandia Njoya teaches literature and French at Daystar University, Kenya. She has published a number of academic articles related to gender and politics. She also runs a blog at The Zeleza Post.
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