She’s not a witch, she’s just a very naughty woman:
Embodied resistance in the Colony of Kenya and the case of Mekatilili
seminar presented by Christina Kenny, PhD candidate, Australian National University
2pm Tuesday 19th May 2015
Oorala Lecture Theatre, UNE
The East Africa Protectorate, declared in 1895, was annexed to the British Dominions under the name Colony of Kenya in 1920. African resistance to British colonisation began at contact, culminating in the sustained Mau Mau campaign in 1952 - 1960.
Mekatilili was one of the few recorded African women during this early period of colonial occupation to organise and lead a resistance effort within her tribe, waGiriama (the Giriama people). Variously described as a prophetess, diviner and a witch, Mekatilili’s role in the Giriama uprising 1913 – 1914 slowed the British expansion into the Kenya coastal region, and hampered colonial infrastructure development in the region. MeKatilili and her compatriot, the male elder Wanje, were tenacious activists for Giriama independence, and were arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment and exile in Nyanza province in 1913.
Managing to escape incarceration several times only to be recaptured, Mekatilili and Wanje became symbols of the British failure to literally and metaphorically contain African resistance to direct rule. As Shreya Bhattacharji argues, “the body-scape of the woman … remains [the] most strategic and problematic site [of the colonial frontier].” * This inability to control the physical body of Mekatilili, combined with her rumoured mystical powers of divination, offer unique insights into the ways in which the political and cultural power of African women is located by both community and coloniser within their sexed, physical bodies.
* Tamale, S. 2008 ‘The Right to culture and the culture of rights: A critical perspective on women’s sexual rights in Africa’, Feminist Legal Studies No. 16, pg 53 quoting Bhattacharji 2004, pg 1