In her time, Wangu wa Makeri was a wondrous woman in both charm and might. She was respected by not only women but also men of great strength. As a ruler during a time when it was forbidden for women to exercise authority over men, Wangu accomplished the unimaginable.
Though it is not known exactly when Wangu was born, it is believed to be somewhere around the 1850’s. She was born in the hills at the heart of Kenya.
One day, when Wangu returned home from an errand, she found her father lying motionless, face down on the ground. His fingers still clenched onto the jar of wine he had been consuming. But it was no ordinary wine; it was a killer alcoholic beverage that according to some women, the white settlers had introduced to weaken the local men and gain control of the land. Though no one truly knew who was behind the invention of the brew, the popular theory was that is was the invading British settlers.
Because prior to their entry, people seldom died from consuming alcohol. The beverage was being sold by one Mr. Johnson, a highly secretive black man who had a huge moustache and an obnoxious look on his face. He had “betrayed” his clansmen by working as a guard for the white men.
After Wangu’s father was buried, something mysterious happened. Mr. Johnson showed up at their home with a letter in his hand that gave him custody over Wangu’s home. It even had a signature, which Mr. Johnson claimed belonged to Wangu’s father. Wangu and her mother took the matter to the local chief, and even though they explained that Wangu’s father could not read or write, the chief sided with Mr. Johnson. So, having no other option, they left their home. They were not allowed to take anything; not even their clothes, as Mr. Johnson claimed everything belonged to him.
Dejected, Wangu and her mother and siblings left the village and went to live in the caves at the foot of Mt. Kenya. They relied on wild fruits and game meat, particularly antelopes for food, and used the animals’ skins to keep warm. But Wangu knew she had to go back and get justice for her family through any means possible.
From time to time, Wangu would meet up with the son of the local chief at a bush near her former village, and he’d teach him what he had learned at school. He taught her everything from mathematics to English and science, and being a naturally bright girl, Wangu grasped it all. He also supplied her with firearms that he stole from his father’s store.
Thus, Wangu grew in body and mind. Living on hunted food, she developed strength and dexterity of the muscles. There are those who believe that she even killed a lion using only a stick when it attacked her family in the caves.
When Wangu was around 20 years old, she got news that there was trouble in the village. Men were dying in larger numbers than had ever been witnessed, and the killer brew was to blame. Wangu decided that enough was enough. She had to return and save her people and reclaim her land.
Wearing a lion’s hide in her head, and carrying a rifle, Wangu marched to the village and stormed Mr. Johnson’s compound, which happened to be Wangu’s former home. By then, Mr. Johnson, had constructed a sort of mini factory for the brew, and was selling it in gallons all over central Kenya. Even though men knew it was dangerous, they still took it, partly because they wanted to be less perceptive of the British invasion, which made them feel helpless, and partly because they got addicted to whatever stuff Mr. Johnson put in there.
So, Wangu had to exchange fire with Mr. Johnson’s gang of thugs who branded themselves “guards of the drink”. She defeated them single-handedly. Mr. Johnson almost managed to shoot down Wangu, but digging a dagger in the huge man’s belly, Wangu was able to take him down, spilling his bowels on the ground.
Wangu did not need to tell Mr. Johnson’s family to leave her home. They left on their own accord, leaving Wangu and her family to repossess what belonged to them. All the money and possessions that Mr. Johnson had accumulated from the sale of the brew now belonged to Wangu’s family.
Observing that a few more brew making units had been opened around the land, Wangu decided she had to take matters into her own hands. She had to save the land’s people as the chief was clearly unable to deal with the killer brew problem.
Wangu would raid the production joints, seize all the possessions, and ride on sellers’ backs as a warning to the rest. And so, she was dubbed “she who rides on the backs of mighty men”.
Her efforts bore fruits, as the horror of death from alcohol poisoning gradually faded away. The fertility of the men was no longer at peril. Birth rates that had declined to almost zero slowly started rising, and the people were assured of a future generation. And as the men regained their strength, farms and businesses flourished, and the land was able to sustain itself.
For over a century, Wangu wa Makeri has been the epitome of the strength of an African woman. Her story continues to inspire African women everywhere to rise and stand for themselves and those they love.