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Leadership Lessons From Africa’s Great Leaders: Mekatilili Wa Menza

Kenya was declared a part of the East Africa Protectorate in the early 1900s. To start “developing” the territory and entice settlers, railway lines were being laid all across the fertile lands. All along, communities were losing their land by force and trickery. 

The people who were losing their lands to these newcomers grumbled at the idea of being hired to work in their own farms under new masters. Where leaders rose and organized communities, these misgivings would be fired into full-blown resistance.

One of the most remarkable leaders of this era was the Mekatilili wa Menza. She rose to fame as an instigator and leader of the Giriama rebellion.

As a young girl, she was called Mnyazi. She only became MeKatilili Wa Menza after becoming Mama Katilili wife of Menza (Me’Katilili Wa Menza). She grew up at a time when European exploration and scramble for Africa was heating up. 

Taxation, compulsory labor, and land alienation were altering entire cultures. The people were worried and outraged. As native resistance continued to slow down the colonist agenda, more and more force would be applied to beat them into compliance. 

In the meantime, the Arab slave trade continued. Raids were common in secluded areas and along trade routes. Mekatilili’s own brother Kithi was kidnapped by Arab slave traders while on a market trip. Life went on, because life always goes on. The girl Mnyazi was wed to Menza and had her baby, becoming Me’Katilili Wa Menza. But she was widowed soon after and lived as a widow for the rest of her life.

Mekatilili wa Menza became the leader of the Giriama resistance movement at the beginning of colonial rule in Kenya. She mobilized a community and defeated the colonial agenda through sheer organization and charisma.  Here are some enduring leadership lessons that we can learn from one of Kenya’s first and most celebrated activists. 

Great leadership is determined by capability, not gender

Compared to their share of the population, women still remain underrepresented at virtually all levels of elected office the world over. This fact makes Mekatilili wa Menza’s achievements even more admirable when you consider that she did it all at a time when women rarely held leadership positions.  She may not have been elected but she won the hearts of her followers and provided able leadership at a time when her community called for it.

Mekatilili wa Menza’s achievements lent testament to the fact that great leadership is determined, not by gender but by capability.

The ability to bounce back is critical for good leadership

The phoenix spirit is the power to re-invent yourself and keep fighting in spite of the setbacks you go through. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Mekatilili the widow transformed herself into Mekatilili wa Menza the freedom agitator. And this fierce woman was a formidable foe for newly established colonial administration. She galvanized the people into action and made resistance the prerogative of every person. 

In spite of what she had been throughout her life; losing her brother to slave traders, losing her husband, witnessing the loss of the Giriama way of life – Mekatilili continued to reinvent herself and use the bad experiences to strengthen her resolve. Mekatilili wa Menza continued fighting for what she believed in even after she was imprisoned. She always found her way back to the frontline, trekking from Kisii and later Kismayu to rejoin the resistance. 

Mekatilili’s ability to rise against her own harrowing experiences and fuel herself to accomplish her potential is an important leadership skill we can all learn. Oftentimes, these experiences turn out to be the very motivation we need to succeed.  

Great leaders are resourceful 

In Giriama culture women did not speak to crowds much less get involved in politics. Widows, on the other hand, were given a somewhat higher social standing and could address crowds during the Kifudu dance, a funeral dance performed by women with male percussionists. 

Having recently been widowed, she was obligated to perform the dance for her late husband. But Mekatilili used it for something even greater – bringing the community together, driving out the white man. 

She used the end of her Kifudu dance shows to talk directly to the people and often to administer oaths. And because she expressed the discontent that the people were feeling towards the colonists, she became a beloved figure. But above all else, Me’Katilili was a charismatic public leader who made use of the resources she had. 

Good leaders must be able to use what they have to get what they want. They know that complaining about their problems does not help, so they set off to do something about it.

Effective communication creates devoted followers

Good communication is a keystone of good leadership. A good leader must know how to motivate their team to consistently work towards the group objectives. Mekatilili wa Menza was a natural performer and a great orator. Her kifudu attracted crowd of onlookers wherever she went, and soon the onlookers became devoted followers.

She was an outspoken woman who expressed her mind, but she also worked hard for what she believed in.  

Mekatilili was a captivating communicator. She often found creative ways to put her point across. To demonstrate to a British administrator who was recruiting for the British army among the Giriama youths, Mekatilili dared him to touch a chick guarded by a mother hen. The hen delivered a vicious peck that humiliated the administrator, but ultimately, delivered the message. 

Leading from the front

A good leader leads his or her team from the front. Mekatilili wa Menza stood out from the tens of other Giriama resistance leaders in that she stood up to the administration face to face. While many preferred staying off the radar, Mekatilili did not back down until she had made her point. 

Mekatilili was arrested alongside Wanje wa Mwadorikola and transported to jail in Kisii. But she did not stay there long. On January 14th 1914, she escaped under mysterious circumstances and returned to Sabaki. The rebellion, already caving under a repressive British regime, was rejuvenated. Continued resistance had gained the movement even more political power and the government feared a full-blown rebellion.

The colonial government sent a mission to arrest the leaders of the movement on August 16th. Even though she and her people put up a spirited fight, MeKatilili was re-arrested along with other leaders. This time around, she was incarcerated at Kismayu.

But even the walls of Kismayu prison could not hold her. MeKatilili escaped once again. This time around, she managed to stay out of prison.

Meanwhile, the Giriama Movement won a few concessions from the Brits who were hastening to join African battleground as the first world war picked up. 

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