When a human being spends eleven years of their lives in the forest, braving the elements and using their bodies to physically fight for the freedom of a nation, you know that this person is a real badass. Especially when she is the only woman to have been given the title Field Marshall. So when you sit at the feet of this warrior, who Dedan Kimathi called the Weaver Bird because of her ability to weave brilliant strategy, you expect the ferocity that stares out from her unflinching steely eyes.
But nothing prepares you for how funny Field Marshall Muthoni is.
It begins with Ngartia’s hair. Before we’ve taken our first sip of the sweet milky chai, she has already thrown shade at the blonde dreads that skulk across one side of his scalp. Only when she chuckles do we allow our own nervous giggles to escape. This isn’t quite what we imagined would happen
Once we’ve sat down, her bodyguard, an 85-year-old man, begins with a prayer. Later on, we learn that he was given to her by Kenyatta after she emerged from the forest in 1963 with an axe, gun and sword tied to her body, and he has stayed by her side ever since. He seems to think we have the ear of the Government, and veers off into a mini-lecture about how it is only right that she too be given a car like Dedan Kimathi’s wife. As he speaks, his dentures threaten to leap out of his mouth, and it strikes me as ironic that anyone would think this female warrior needs a man to protect her, particularly after the war was considered over. He closes the prayer with a request to God that our stomachs don’t hurt from the tea we will drink.
For the next six hours, we sit under the blazing blue sky outside Field Marshall Muthoni’s home in Nyeri, chasing the shade and listening to stories. My ears follow the melody of a language whose vocabulary I don’t know, leaving my eyes free to roam. I try taking a snapshot of her with my brain, this woman with a bullet still hidden in her arm and her legendary dreadlocks wrapped up in a white lace scarf. She tells us she has become old now, so old that even her eyebrows are falling off. And the way she sits, legs apart, hands on her knees and feet wrapped in fluffy blue socks reminds me of my late granny whose eyebrows had also dropped off her face. I exhale deeply to exhume the sharp pangs that come from intensely missing my grandma.
Since I can’t understand what is being said, I follow the dance of the bodies around me. The sighs and deep inhales, the leaning in and wringing of hands, the shoulders relaxing and eyebrows furrowing. By the time an hour has passed, we are all calling her cũcũ.
The bodyguard says something, and realizing that I don’t understand, instructs the gentleman sitting with us to translate for me. I am caught between listening and looking at him to acknowledge his kindness, and watching Field Marshall Muthoni, hypnotized by her expressiveness. She doesn’t wait for him to translate, but just talks, weaving in and out. I can tell I am getting only the bare bones. Every now and then she says something that leaves Ngartia and Owaahh howling in laughter, and when I ask, the translator brushes it off as unimportant. I am jealous. I want the texture of it. I want the masala. I want all the sticky juice from the mango.
She tells us how she worked as a spy for the Mau Mau for two years before her husband joined the movement, after which she was left alone at home. Alone. Alone. Alone. She repeats the word three times. The night he went into the forest, the homeguard came to their house asking after him, ignorant of the fact that she too was Mau Mau. They came the second time. They came the third time. When they came the fourth time and she still didn’t tell them where her husband was, she was beaten up so badly, the house was filled with blood. They left her for dead.
Everybody is silent.
Field Marshall Muthoni’s eyes become glazed. Then she looks around and says something to a middle-aged woman sitting with us, Esther, who has been calling her Mãito. Esther walks over in her rainbow-spangled dress, lowers her face and closes her eyes. Field Marshall Muthoni gently wipes away two pink sparkles from her eyelid. It is a moment of such tenderness. I am reminded of her two miscarriages, possibly as a result of injuries she suffered during her sacrifice in the forest, and how she was never able to have children of her own. My heart hurts. Perhaps it is a misplaced yearning, borne out of my own desire for children and the possibility that I may never be a mother. Still, I recognize something in that gesture.
She continues the story, telling us how after a week, she left the hospital and went straight to the forest, where an antelope led her to a huge tree that sheltered her for the night. That was the first night of the next eleven years that she slept in the forest. She was only in her twenties.
Once again she disappears into a memory, rubbing at her eyes with a white handkerchief as if trying to wipe away the image.
‘My heart still cries when I look back and think of the people we left in the forest, our people whose skulls are eaten by hyenas. We didn’t even bury them. That’s what I think about when I look back.‘
The empty plastic teacups are taken away and a swarm of bees noisily leave their hive. She tells us how the colonials would inject fruit in the forest with poison, and how after eating some toxic pineapples, everyone’s tongues unfurled out of their mouths. You’d never believe how long the tongue actually is, she says gesticulating with her hands, then tells us how she harvested honey and smeared it on everyone’s tongues. After that, the tongues just rolled up and snapped back into place between the lips. She tells us how powerful honey is and points to the cup of amber liquid, which she sips.
We ask about life in the forest, and I am not sure how this comes up, but the translator tells me you were not allowed to play games of love in the forest. He is talking about sex, but I love that phrase, games of love. This was about war. That was the purpose and anybody found to be playing the games of love was punished. Internally, I question how they adhered to that. Being so close to death all the time has to make you want to seduce life, to make life, to feel alive.
The sun has now invaded our space and we move our chairs once more. After peeling off her chunky brown cardigan, she begins another story but is interrupted by her bodyguard who speaks loudly over her. With the wag of a finger, she scolds him ‘Weh, stop putting your name in before I finish the story.’ He retreats. Is that a smile twitching in her eyes? We are here as part of a project that seeks to un-invisible the stories and voices of our female heroes, and I think about the irony of this mansplaining happening in front of us; that a man is inserting himself into this woman’s narrative.
Somebody asks a question and she responds in Kiswahili, ‘Ni wanawake walitushindia uhuru,’ and tells us the ways in which women rallied behind the movement, voluntarily taking on whatever roles they felt most suitable for.
The translator explains that they knew if women were kept out of the struggle, there was no way they would win. Even the colonials understood that. Later when I’m home, I read about just how threatened the colonial government was by women that they set up the first female detention camp near Kamiti prison. Those that were seen as hardcore were tortured as a form of discipline and then labeled crazy. For those considered less radical, they tried to rehabilitate by teaching embroidery and basket masking. I think of how backwards the colonial view of women was in this attempt to force them into boxes, limiting women to certain roles. Even as the colonials tried to civilize the natives, they were revealing how primitive their own attitudes were towards women.
‘The freedom wasn’t easily won,’ Field Marshall Muthoni tells us, talking about how they sacrificed their education, their productive years, even their first-borns to the struggle. She describes the brutality they endured at the hands of the colonials. When she tells the story of how they would steal arms from the colonials, her whole body stiffens and she imitates the nasal British accent,
‘Hapana uwa mimi. Bunduki iko kwa kabati,’
We laugh and she tells us how they likened the mzungu to the colourless frogs that plagued their banana plantations.
I don’t ask, but she says even the Indians helped, with food, money, blankets, shelter; that they supported the war in kind. She says again, that the war was won by many kinds of people supporting one another, everyone playing a role.
Then she starts singing a song.
‘And even now, the flag has been raised, but we haven’t seen real freedom,’ the translator says.
We are all quiet as she tells us about how after independence was declared, with no education, she was forced to sell lemons for a living. Then she began trading in ivory, lugging huge loads on her back as she walked all those miles from the forest.
I’ve never seen a cent from the government, she says, it’s only my own hard work that’s gotten me here. This country I fought for has given me nothing. Not a speck of sand. Not a grain of rice. She brushes her lips as she blows out sharply, three times, to emphasize the nothingness. Her head drops down and she cups her cheeks.
I feel ashamed. We have failed those who fought for us.
I think about this abusive relationship with Kenya so many of us have. We love it with such desperation and yet it will spit you out without a thought.
Then Field Marshall Muthoni tells Ngartia to remove the leaf on his head, before she remembers that’s just his hairstyle and starts laughing again. The bodyguard interrupts again and says she is now tired. He asks if we can give him and his transistor radio a lift to a funeral. When we ask if we can visit again, she says yes, as long as we tell her in advance and make an appointment. She is a busy woman with stuff to do. We say goodbye and the bodyguard ushers us up quickly to the car.
It feels unfinished.
Before I open the car door, I am called back. I had brought Field Marshall Muthoni an Indian shawl, and when I’d wrapped it around her shoulders, it made me smile the way her fingers traced the pink paisley pattern. I had left behind the green and yellow kiondo that Laura had suggested I put the shawl in, and Field Marshall Muthoni insisted that she couldn’t accept it unless I spoke from my own mouth, that it too was a gift. I am embarrassed. It is used. But she seems to really like the colours, and I say that of course it was meant to be a gift.
A phone is taken out and the selfies begin. She makes more jokes.
Then she stands up and starts unraveling the white lace around her head. We hadn’t asked. We all figured she would show us her dreads if she wanted to. They come tumbling out, reaching all the way to her ankles, and she bends her head and starts unknotting them. She waves away any assistance. There is pride in her face as she shows them off, then she holds the end of the fattest one that looks like the palm of a hand and playfully makes as if she is going to smack me with it.
The ends of her dreadlocks are a deep, dark, rich colour, whilst the roots are silvery grey. I think about the memory of hair. You can trace the history of Kenya in her dreads. Of colonialism. Independence. Four presidents.
She tells us she won’t cut them until she sees real freedom.
Before we leave she prays for our journey and I am filled with enormous gratitude for this Kenyan woman who makes me proud to call myself a Kenyan woman.
(With thanks to everyone on twitter who helped us reach Field Marshall Muthoni)