We survived on bamboo shoots, stolen salt during freedom struggle — Field Marshal Muthoni

Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima at her home in Nyeri. [Photo: James Mwangi]

We can finally lift the lid on what happened to General Mathenge, the freedom fighter who fled to Ethiopia in 1955 and has never been traced since.

Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima, the only woman field marshal during Kenya’s freedom struggle, and the only still surviving, told The Nairobian that had General Mathenge wa Mirugi not escaped, fellow fighters would have hanged him for betraying the Mau Mau cause.

This same General Mathenge returned home in 2003 to a heroic welcome by the administration of retired President Mwai Kibaki, before Kenyans realised they had been taken for a ride: The General Mathenge who was reunited with freedom fighters after 48 years at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport was later exposed as a peasant Ethiopian farmer, Ato Lemma Ayanu!

Field Marshal Muthoni now says the real General Mathenge had been sentenced to hang by fellow freedom fighters for betraying the Mau Mau cause, and only escaped to Ethiopia following a pardon.

General Mathenge was the treasurer of the Mau Mau, deputised by Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima. But even with his combat experience from World War II, he turned against them.

Muthoni says it was discovered that General Mathenge held a secret meeting with colonialists, and in late 1954, revealed to them Mau Mau’s secret weapon: the catapult!

Muthoni recalls that, “The colonialists were itching to discover what weapon we used. The catapult was lethal and whenever we used it, they retreated.”

General Mathenge’s actions were deemed a betrayal and a major blow to Mau Mau strategies. Put on trial, he admitted the clandestine meeting, but claimed they were discussing a ceasefire. Earlier, the British, through ‘dead letter drops,’ had attempted to convince the Mau Mau to discuss a truce, but Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi read trickery and snubbed the letters.

General Mathenge was tried while tied to a tree, and was sentenced to hang. But some leaders sympathised with him and he was forgiven. A few days later, he was discovered meeting the enemies in a scheme involving a woman identified as Wangeci. Kimathi ordered his arrest. He was to be hanged if caught, but he escaped to Ethiopia in 1955 with a group of fighters, some of whom reportedly drowned on the way.

“We didn’t know what he was promised by the colonialists, but he was sentenced to die,” says Muthoni, adding that the last thing he left her was a five-cent coin she was to put in their coffer.

General Mathenge disappeared without trace. Through the journalistic efforts of Joseph Karimi, ‘General Mathenge’ reappeared in 2003. So big was the story

— both The Standard and Daily Nation serialised it simultaneously.

Back to Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima.

She told The Nairobian that she could not have been alive as her murder had been planned a week after the last team of Mau Mau fighters emerged from the Aberdare Forest on December 16, 1963. Muthoni was to be killed with a poisoned soda had a young man not intercepted it. 

Muthoni, her late husband General Mutungi, and a few others, had slipped through a team of locals armed to kill her as they emerged from the forest.

“We were aware of plans to kill me, but we beat them at their own game and sneaked out of the jungle unnoticed. But one sip of that soda could have killed me. That is when I realised I was wrong when I thought I had lived with animals in the forest. “The real ‘animals’ were the people,” recalls the 85-year-old who now lives a quiet life in Nyeri County, where she once killed a rhino to save her father’s goats.

Field Marshal Muthoni, nicknamed ‘Weaver Bird’ (thonjo in Kikuyu and the reason she’s still called Nyina wa Thonjo) by Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi for her ability to weave brilliant war strategies, was the highest ranking Mau Mau leader remaining in the forest. Her emergence after 11 years was viewed as a threat to greedy leaders and collaborators eyeing plum positions in the new government.

Back in December 1963, while they were still in the forest and sought-after by the British fighters, she was sent to an office opposite Jevanjee Gardens in Nairobi to enquire from Jomo Kenyatta if, indeed, Kenya had got uhuru or it was just rumours. She was, however, kept waiting for a week as Kenyatta’s men gathered intelligence in Nyeri to ascertain her credentials.

Muthoni says her journey back to the forest and celebrations for independence were paid for by Kenyatta, but when she led a team of fighters from the forest four days later, they encountered hostility. Their reception by then Kasarani MP and Health Permanent Secretary Dr Munyua Waiyaki at Ruring’u Stadium in Nyeri was cold. After they surrendered their weapons, the government abandoned them. They spent two months at the stadium hoping to get back their land, but instead, armed police were sent to forcibly eject them.

“They pointed guns at us and threatened to shoot us. A heavy downpour disrupted their mission,” recalls Muthoni, saying they gave up and started their lives afresh without a place to call home.

Muthoni’s journey as a revolutionary started when she was a girl, saving money to have Kenyatta travel abroad to bring freedom. In her 20s, she was a spy for Mau Mau fighters who had camped in the forest when war broke out in 1952.

“Without my husband’s knowledge, I was delivering reports to the fighters at the edge of the forest,” she told The Nairobian.

Muthoni later drafted her husband Mutungi into Mau Mau, an act that attracted the wrath of the area colonial chief, Muhoya Kagumba. Kagumba, she says, led a group of officers who assaulted her, leaving her for dead. The attack

— meant to teach her a lesson

— left her bleeding from the nose and mouth. She was later locked up in a small cell for a whole week without food. Bedbugs and human waste became her companion.

It was not long before she was released, only to be attacked by a fuming home guard who bit off her finger

— because Muthoni’s husband had allegedly stabbed three home guards.

She would however recover in time to join her compatriots in the forest. She was frightened but determined.

“I ventured into the forest alone. I almost broke into a hell of running after an antelope scared me. I would sleep on top of trees to avoid elephant attacks. Finally, after two weeks in the forest, I was able to meet the other fighters,” she recalls.

What she did not know is that her father John Kirima was tortured for weeks to reveal her whereabouts

— he wold not open his mouth.

Things were tough in the jungle. They survived for a whole month on bamboo shoots, salt stolen from white farmers, and soup prepared from old bones in the forest.

“We suspected the white men had poisoned the rivers as well as the canned foods they dropped inside the forests. They wanted us dead, but we did not  die. The only medication we had was honey,” says Muthoni.

Camping and movement was done with precision

— we were conscious not to leave any trail. When hunger pangs become too much, the Field marshal would steal food from Lord Cole’s heavily guarded farm.

“I would sneak in and out through a hole on the fence unnoticed. Sometimes they would notice, and fire at me, missing me by a whisker,” she remembers. Occasionally, they would also kill animals, cut the carcass into chunks and carry the pieces in sack to conceal trails.

Her braveness earned her the title “General” and later “Field marshal” when she ambushed a white man while armed and took away his rifle and pistol.

The warrior says the colonial army sent infantry soldiers after them and unleashed bombs and machine gun fire on them from the skies. Many Mau Mau were blown up, but the fighters fought back with the only form of warfare they knew

— guerrilla tactics.

“I remember this dark day, when they killed six of us. I escaped with bullet in the arm and crept downstream where I managed to rescue a fellow fighter who had been shot in the thigh. We hid on a fig tree as enemies circled the place,” she recalls, saying it was the time collaborators flew over the mountain ordering the fighters to surrender because self-rule was a delusion.

When the war ended, Muthoni and her husband tried to re-establish their union but he died in 1965 before they had kids. In 1990, Muthoni was nominated as a councillor for Nyeri County Council and is today the national patron of African Independent Pentecostal Church of Kenya.