Reinventing Africa's national heroes: the case of Mekatilili, a Kenyan popular heroine

Neil Carrier, Celia Nyamweru

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

A nation's heroes are rarely fixed and are frequently reassessed and reinterpreted by new generations. In the case of a number of African countries, the very masculine liberation heroes of yesteryear often prove divisive, emerging from very fraught histories. In this context, there are moves to broaden the pantheon of heroes and make history more inclusive. In Kenya, where the contested history of Mau Mau provides several heroes, Mekatilili wa Menza, a female figure from the coast who played a significant role in Giriama resistance against the British in 1913, has emerged as a national heroine. The article introduces this historical figure using published sources, and then traces the historical arc of her memorialization and evocation from post-Independence praise as a feminist icon to her recent elevation to the Kenyan pantheon of national heroes and heroines. In doing so, it illustrates the ways in which her story is being retold on the coast by Giriama organizations that have made her a central figure in local heritage movements. Finally, in the changed context of devolved Kenya since the 2010 constitution came into force after the 2013 election, this article shows how her story gained further salience as coastal politicians claimed her memory for regional goals. It argues that while figures such as Mekatilili may appear less divisive than Mau Mau, how their history is told and used is equally political.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)599-620
Number of pages22
JournalAfrican affairs
Volume115
Issue number461
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2016

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