This African activist is upset. Really upset.

Waking up to the news and image of Field Marshall Muthoni Kirima having her locks cut by Mama Ngina wa Kenyatta, I could not believe my eyes, hot tears fell. They were tears of anger too. As a person who proudly wears her locks, they are a huge part of my identity. This felt like a huge grievance and a grave injustice.

To have her crown shaved off is one mutilation but to have this carried out by Kenya’s first president’s wife left me aghast.

Myself and Dr Christine Muthoni Kahigi, Ndungi Githuku, Wilfred kiumiZion and others paid our respects to Field Marshall Muthoni in visits during 2020 and 2021. During the last visit in December 2021, I will never forget the feeling of her throwing her hair around me and letting it drop over my shoulders as we talked. I cannot forget the texture, weight and sweet smokiness which led to a wide array of emotions welling up in me, whilst I held her locks in my hands, locks that she has been growing for nearly 70 years. These were the locks she wore when she was fighting for the liberation of Kenya from its British colonial masters during the 1950’s. There was so much energy transmitted through this small but powerful gesture. I first read and heard about Field Marshall Muthoni not in Kenya but in a class that was teaching African history in Leeds, West Yorkshire. I followed up on this learning during my own studies and my respect for her grew. There are simply no words to express what it meant to discover a shero online then to be in the presence of her person. 

Currently I am reading for my doctorate at the University of Manchester and have been involved in antiracist movement via the  Racial Justice Network here in the UK for a long while. As part of this I have been researching the anticolonial resistance movement in Kenya and roles of incredible people like the Field Marshal and others –  in my family –  for the past few years. The visit to the Field Marshal in in December was a continuation of my listening to and learning from elders and stage-setters like her. Anyone who has ever listened to the wisdom of Field Marshall Muthoni or had the honour of meeting her like I did, knows that her hair was the symbol of her resistance, defiance and revolutionariness. She emphatically shared with us that she refused to cut her locks because Kenya did not gain at the time and has not since really gained independence. This was joined by the fact that those who sacrificed everything and fought for Independence were neglected by the first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, and at least two of his successors. Freedom fighters, like the Field Marshall  were given a raw deal and this is why she refuses to shave her hair off. I recorded many of these conversations. I have to therefore ask, did Kenyans,  the Kenya Land and Freedom army and Field Marshall Muthoni finally achieve this longed for independence in the few months after we last saw her? 

A further issue which makes it even more painful and will emerge from my thesis is that she said she, and other women freedom fighters, reached out to Mama Ngina in the 1960’s, hoping to appeal to her womanness – in sisterhood – hoping she would influence her husband Jomo Kenyatta. He had been ignoring the necessary reparatory justice because the freedom fighters were not equitably supported and the colonial loyalists seemed to get most of the loot. Their appeal to her through a letter remained unresponded to, leading nowhere. So it felt that much more reprehensible to witness none-other than the same Ngina Kenyatta cutting the Field Marshall’s locks! How dare she do that to her elder!

Those of you reading this who have locks (or know people who do) know how precious they are to us who adorn our heads with them. I cannot speak to the fashion-dreads, but for those of us who hold them for cultural, spiritual or religious reasons, they become a close part of our identity and power. These are my locks and are part of my identity, I would not remove them lightly. If I did, it would probably be a very private affair, not one for the media. To me, this seems to indicate that this de-crowning was probably a display for other reasons, not for our queen, Field Marshal Muthoni. 

In other instances we have witnessed the impact of unconsented cutting of adult, students and Rastafarians’ locks. It affects the individuals concerned and their communities. The outrage that follows the absence of consent and the oppressive nature of the act leads me to my other point.

Was this an act of consent? Who was present to witness that consent? Was it, instead, coerced? 

My conclusive feeling is that this is a clear example of the lengths that the Kenyatta’s will go to maintain their dynasty. The Kenyattas could and should have offered solace and comfort to all the freedom fighters and their descendants (combatants and non-combatants, known and lesser known) by responding to their calls for land redistribution and  other reparatory justice. To have ignored them since independence and only turn to them for votes is highly unjust and warped politics. To pull this act of ‘decrowning’ was a violation, an abuse of power and an example of a reproduction of multiple oppressions, particularly ageism and sexism. To approach a 90 something year old in her home, with what I would imagine would have been an entourage, is preying on her vulnerability and those around her. It must have been intimidating, scary and  disempowering for her and those around her, who are genuinely involved in her care (I have met two of her carers). Now that the crowd and the strangers are no longer there, how will she be? When she is alone – when the cameras stop rolling, how will she be? 

I have been unable to watch the video. I feel it to be an assault and abuse of a national and international icon. She means so much to liberation movements globally. I am unable to watch videos of police brutality, beheadings, and other racist acts. To me, this sits up there with those traumatising videos. 

It might not mean much to Mama Ngina but it is the defacing of a legend, it is defacing a history that some of us are trying to reclaim. Black, Kenyan skins in white masks have ignored and silenced it. It is erasing a history that had been embodied by being embedded deeply in her locks for at least 70 years. I say shame on everyone who participated in this act. I call unto the spirits of our ancestors that have guided and protected the fierce warrior Field Marshal Muthoni during her tenure in the forest to give her strength after this act. To strengthen all of our resolve, to continue to be committed to the cause of true independence and may she, like Samson, yet recover her strength, for the battle is still ahead.

Article by Peninah Wangari, edited by Mama D

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