The news of Wambui Otieno came at the end of August 2011, as South Africans wrapped up Women’s Month, and a particularly horrid women’s month it had been too, with backlash and misogyny in public spaces like we had not seen in a long time.
I have loved Wambui Otieno, Mau Mau, feminist, unbowed woman ever since I have known about her. Although I never met her personally, I followed her life – backwards and forwards – first, as the African feminist universe buzzed when she lost the legal battle to bury her husband where she wanted, then reading a borrowed copy of her memoir, and afterwards “stalking” her online.
If it were not such a phallic metaphor, I would speak of Wambui as a tower, like a lighthouse of sorts, casting her light all around her at a dazzling world-changing pace, standing unbowed no matter the waves, weather, standing steadfast as volcanoes and earthquakes shook the world beneath her feet.
That might well be someone else’s Wambui Otieno. But I imagine she would have frowned at the limits of my imagination.
So, I think of her more like a galaxy of possibilities. As she lived her life through increasingly unpredictable, but powerful choices, Wambui changed not just the world, but who we are in it too. When she joined Mau Mau as a teenager, and in later writing about this in ways that challenge expectations, she drove home the importance of living our convictions. Although she could have settled into a life cushioned by class in colonial Kenya, she chose radical politics rather than complicity or “safer” forms of resistance.
After independence, her principles often brought her into a collision path with her former comrades. Wambui spoke her truth regardless of the consequences. She stared danger in the face and not only spoke truth to power, but retained her revolutionary subjectivity in action. Consistently.
She epitomised the personal is political and loved who she wanted to, shamelessly and irregardless. Bless her. Ethnicity, class, age are all boundaries used to police who we may love on this continent, repeatedly. They are often ways of reminding women what our place is. These tools are sjamboks (whips) used to remind our spirits when we dare transgress the narrow limits of who society says we are.
Wambui loved in independent Kenya as freely as she had scouted, spied, negotiated and carried arms for Mau Mau in colonial Kenya. She stood by her decisions and refused to be intimidated, no matter who stood against her. She survived her fiance’s betrayal and the imprisonment, attempted to sue her rapist as a way of holding him accountable in a world that said colonisers mattered and African women did not, loved her comrade and husband even though he was the “wrong” ethnicity, fought his family in the legal and public courts to bury him where the couple had decided, and married a man she loved even though he was from a lower class and more than four decades younger.
And in video clips, Wambui looks not only defiant, but joyful. She lived her life on her own terms. And she inspired many of us to do the same: to live our truth, be unapologetic, and defend our revolutionary selves irregardless.
I still need her to be alive in the world. I want her back. I am not ready to “get over it”.
And so it is that in the week since Wambui Otieno died, I have been struck by an overwhelming sense of grief. Although I have thought about her daily, revisited why she was so important to me as an African, feminist, Pan-Africanist, stubborn woman, etc, I have been paralysed and able to articulate my grief only in short, brief bursts.
For someone who feels and thinks deeply through words, their reading and their writing, this is quite startling. I do not know what to make of myself when I am being like this.
For, while people often mourn and feel closer to their heroes than makes sense, I have always observed such stated loss at a figure admired from a distance with some skepticism. Although fascinated by the world’s responses to Michael Jackson or Princess Diana before him, or even more recently Amy Winehouse, etc, I took it to mean that the loss was part recognition of the genius and part marking of the passing as necessary ritual.
As I battled to make sense of it all, I realised I was looking at the “wrong” places for explanation. Perhaps, looking at the meanings and experiences of loss closer to Wambui’s politics would help me out. I had remarked that the death of Albertina Sisulu marked the end of an era, so too Fatima Meer, Albertina Sisulu’s comrade and life partner, Walter Sisulu before that. The death of beloved revolutionaries is a bizarre experience. Watching them remembered afterwards, in ways that do not quite seem enough, just reinforces this feeling.
Then it hit me in the pit of my stomach. News of Wambui Otieno’s death felt like hearing news of Chris Hani’s death. While I had someone to direct my anger at – a system, and a series of faces – when Hani was brutally murdered, a similar rage was unleashed at the universe when Wambui died. But, without a clear target, for she died in hospital.
I am angry at her loss. It is too soon, for I still needed her in the world, and I am not ready to “get over it”. But, it has helped me enormously to have a community that loved and mourned her with me. See Kenne Mwikya’s beautiful blog post here:
as well as Keguro Macharia’s poignant and powerfully political reflection on Gukira (here:
My links are acting up, so I have posted the full URLs above.
Born 12 August 1928, in Durban, the courageous, inspiring and energetic activist-academic-icon, Fatima Meer passed away on 12 March 2010. She has been a staunch feminist, having co-founded both the Durban Disticts Women’s League (1949) and The Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) anti-apartheid activist who was banned repeatedly in the 1950s, 1970s, detained without trial, and otherwise tormented by the apartheid state. Fatima Meer was also a prolific writer in various capacities – biography, academic research, history with various books.
I met her only a few times, in gatherings where I spoke to her as one among various other women. The last time was at a South African Women’s Press Inititative (SAWPI) workshop in the Western Cape many years ago. But her words, her work, her life have been as important for me as they have been for a generation of Southern Africans. I am sad, and short of words, somewhat. Thankfully, I can turn around and borrow a sistah’s words, instead. Below, the insanely gifted poet, Bernedette Muthien’s ‘necessary grief’:
since dying is a wedding with the divine
why am i not deaf to the sounds of grief
wrenched from the very hearts of those left behind
blind to their vacant salted eyes
souls wrinkled brittle in suffering & loss
we are the stained
by life’s exigencies
like made-up wallflowers without dance partners
dried up wombs & hollow testicles
trees without fruit
not even worthy of harvests
whipping boys on treadmills without red emergency buttons
seldom bowled over
often fucked over
the ugly sister dimwit uncle
at divine weddings
is my sorrow sacred too?!!
take then the remnants of this carcass
and eat that too
as i rip the skin from my flesh
that some jews
still tear the clothes
from their own bodies
in simple grief
and thus i live