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‘In this special issue of Pambazuka News we seek to bring to the fore the layered nature of Wambui’s life and the opportunities it in turn offers to understanding the social, political and economic factors that are contested, influence and shape Kenya … Through these pieces we gain some insight into how the brazen defiance of one woman captured the imagination of a nation, writes Awino Okech. ‘Love or hate her, you could not ignore her.’

What’s in a name? For most of us, our names are signifiers of our heritage and the multiplicity of identities that course through our veins each day. They may be clear indicators of which ‘group’ we ‘belong’ to, our connections with others by birth and through other forms of partnerships. Names tell a story about the circumstances of our birth or offer commentary on a period or a political moment. They may also tell the story of those who birthed us. However, names can also transcend these very important boundaries and on their own generate multiple discourses based on rumour, conjecture, reality and myth. Your reputation precedes you – is a statement that aptly captures what I refer to here.

Wambui Otieno the name (she was also known by many other names) and in turn the person – has captured the imagination of Kenya and the diaspora in diverse ways over decades. While many may not have met her, her name is instantly recognisable and is accompanied by multiple narratives about nation building, gender, sexuality, ethnicity that in and of themselves have generated wide ranging public and academic discourses .[1]

As I combed through reports in the Kenyan media about Wambui’s death, the most featured reports articulated her struggle against the Umira Kager clan for the right to burry her husband SM Otieno and most recently for her marriage to Mbugua, a man decades her junior. It has been easy to therefore downplay her Mau Mau[2] struggle credentials captured in a memoir ‘Mau Mau’s Daughter: The Life History of Wambui Otieno’ (1998), overplay Wambui and dismiss her mixed ethnic heritage, thereby emphasising her connection to both the colonial and Kenya’s flag democracy political class through her father Waiyaki wa Hinga and brother Munyua Wayiaki who served in Jomo Kenyatta’s government. The over-emphasis on her union with Mbugua – a relationship that was no doubt important to her in her final years – exposes the hypocrisy of patriarchy given that across Africa examples abound of men marrying women half their age.

It is not the act of marriage, freedom or choice (which are important) that are at issue here. It is the associated ideas of virility, hyper-sexuality and phallo-centricism that are continuously to linked to certain forms of ruling[3] masculinity and thereby legitimised that interest most scholars who analyse the public’s response to the Wambui–Mbugua union. These responses and the discourse it has generated reveal that expressions of sexuality that do not cohere to ‘acceptable’ femininity and are not performed in relation to dominant masculinities are constrained, surveyed and demonised and not simply because they are transgressions that undermine the social organisation of power. Actions such as Wambui’s especially when ‘performed’ in public destablise ruling forms of masculinity that are critical to sustaining political power bases.

References have been made in the Kenyan media to Wambui as the ‘last moran’, ‘a warrior’, ‘male daughter’[4] suggesting that reconciling Wambui’s public defiance requires a retreat to masculinity and a reliance on stereotypical forms of masculine power as a route to understanding and ‘accepting’ her actions. The corollary is that Wambui was not your ‘typical woman’ – she had more ‘man’ in her that overshadowed her feminine self. Obviously, if Wambui’s actions were an indicator of hyper masculinity in a woman, they did anything but endear her to the ‘boys club’. Instead, her actions re-affirmed her femininity in all its complexity including re-marriage in her sixties, when most women her age are both de-feminised and de-sexualised.

In this special issue of Pambazuka News we seek to bring to the fore the layered nature of Wambui’s life and the opportunities it in turn offers to understanding the social, political and economic factors that are contested, influence and shape Kenya. Taken individually each of Wambui’s ‘public disruptions’ offer a singular narrative, together we have an opportunity to unpack a rich tapestry. It is evident that Wambui’s destabilisation of the heteronorm, consistently re-invigorated public debates on sexuality, gendered norms, culture. These debates revealed the complex ways in which patriarchy re-constitutes itself towards sustenance of an unstable nation-state. Perhaps Wambui’s pursuit of the SM Otieno case is the most visible for its complexity in this regard. In this issue, we want to situate Wambui’s negotiation of motherhood/wifehood/widowhood/comrade and sisterhood within the larger Kenyan context and reflect on the transnational implications.

In the words of a colleague, who whilst commenting on the politically charged funeral of murdered Kenyan scholar Dr. Odhiambo-Mbai[5] in 2003 proclaimed, ‘Mbai belonged to Kenya!’ inferring that in death and in the latter part of his life he had transcended nuclear and extended familial ties. I am struck by the fact that Wambui Otieno’s family is sitting in the same place, holding a different association to her as a member of the family while many of us through these pages view her as an enigma, worthy of scrutiny and theorizing. We claim her for Kenya.

Through Wambui Otieno’s we see the nuances of the colonial struggle against the British, the intricacies of liberation organising and the tensions across gender, class and ethnicity that were evident in Kenya’s flag democracy; narratives that many will find resonance with. Through her life we touch the pulse of Kenya across different periods. We also reveal subversion, agency and a powerful counter discourse to hegemonic narratives designed to prop up patriarchy. Through these pieces we gain some insight into how the brazen defiance of one woman captured the imagination of a nation. Wambui Otieno belonged to Kenya! Love or hate her, you could not ignore her.


We also pay tribute to another illustrious Kenyan , Professor Wangari Maathai who died on 25 September 2011 after a battle with cancer. Professor Maathai was a woman of many firsts in Kenya but is globally known for her work with the Green Belt Movement, the first woman doctorate holder in East Africa her field and the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. She also led a campaign in 1986 as the chair of Maendeleo ya Wanawake (MYWO) in support of Wambui Otieno’s legal case for the right to bury her husband S.M Otieno. Rest in peace.


* Awino Okech is director of research at Fahamu – Networks for Social Justice.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] The SM Otieno case, which is examined in this issue, remains one of the most cited legal cases. It has also generated many publications across different academic disciplines.
[2] One of the many underground movements that gained prominence in the latter period of Kenya’s anti-colonial struggle against the British
[3] I borrow from Kopano Ratele’s use of the term in Ratele, K. 2006. ‘Ruling masculinity and sexuality.’ Feminist Africa 6: 48–64. Madiba, Zuma, Mugabe and Biya come to mind. The irony of these four men being linked in this manner is not lost on me.
[4] A term in Ifi Amadiume’s (1987) Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African Society. A seminal book that contributed to destabilizing normative knowledge/s about the gendered organisation power in pre-colonial African societies through an analysis of the Igbo. Many years later it remains a critical book but can be challenged for it’s over reliance on heteronormativity as a model for situating power. Elsie Cloete’s reference in this issue of Wambui’s nickname as Chwo Mon (Women’s Husband) is also instructive here.
[5] Dr Odhiambo Mbai was at the time of his murder in 2003 was the head of the constitutional review commission’s committee on devolution. He was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.