Monday, February 05, 2007

Sarah Sarai

At the final ceremony at the WSF there was a banner with a picture of Sarah Sarai. I found this on the web about her, written in July 2003:

Long before modern non-governmental organisations "invented" and popularised the terms transparency, accountability and affirmative action and gender activism, one woman was already working towards achieving them – in pre-independence days.

She was Sarah Sarai Thara Njomo – the 1913-born founder of the National African Women's League – who died this week at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa Kikuyu Mission Hospital.

The child of Njomo wa Gichanga and his first Maasai wife Berewa, Sarai ran away several times to go to the Church of Scotland Mission school at Thogoto where she educated herself and her younger brother by weaving and selling ciondo (sisal baskets).

She completed "normal school" under the tutelage of the Reverends Musa Gitau and Jackson Njiraine and in April 1928 she was baptised Sarah Sarai by the Rev Dr John William Arthur, who had difficulties navigating the conundrum of biblical, Maasai and Kikuyu names such as Sarah, Selaine, Thara, Tharaine–.

At a time when Africans in general, and women in particular, did not venture beyond their home villages, Sarai was among a small band of educated Africans who broke out.

She started her activism by joining her mentor, Dr Arthur, in his crusade against female circumcision in Kikuyuland, and the Kikuyu morans riposted by ritually blacklisting her by cursing her in their muthirigu songs. Nonetheless, the crusade succeeded in eliminating female genital mutilation (FGM) among Kikuyu who had been converted into Christianity.

In the late '30s and early '40s, Sarai worked in hospitals in far-flung corners of East Africa including Msambweni, deep in the South Coast; the Native Civil Hospital Makadara, (now Coast General Hospital), Mombasa; Kilifi (where she learnt perfect Kiswahili); and Mulago in Uganda (where she learnt Luganda).

She encouraged women to free themselves from traditional practices that affected their reproductive health and self-esteem. In Nairobi, she was the first African woman allowed to perform nursing duties at His Highness The Aga Khan Hospital (then a clinic) and the European Base Hospital (currently State House Road Girls School).

After the Second World War, she joined the Municipal Council of Nairobi as a social welfare assistant and initiated social and child welfare programmes in the low income residential areas of Pumwani, Ziwani, Kaloleni and Shauri Moyo.

She served as the first African woman in the Nairobi African Advisory Council from 1949 to 1951 and worked tirelessly for the rights of African women. Her struggles led to the granting of maternity leave to African women workers in the council.

She agitated for African workers in the council to be allowed to have their families in town as council staff housing in such places as the former Kariokor and Shauri Moyo were constructed in a way to discourage Africans from bringing their families to the city.

Unable to make an impression on this front, she did several things at both personal and public levels, buying herself a bicycle to avoid riding in segregated buses. When she was breast-feeding, she would take her baby’s cot on the bicycle to her office at Social Hall Pumwani, against all regulations.

But Sarai was not only an activist.

A perfect seamstress, she was the epitome of elegance in her day. She impressed upon the Europeans that Africans were also equipped with the "finer sensibilities", and that style need not be the preserve of Europeans. Sarai spearheaded the formation of the African Women’s League, whose mission was to exact more political space for African women and to also support African women leaders to be more effective, transparent and accountable.

Covertly, she was actively involved with other nationalists in organising to bring down the colonial rule; overtly, she intensified petitions and led peaceful demonstrations for improvement of the condition of African women.

Due to her covert operations, she was arrested on the night of October 20, 1952, on the day the women's league was planning a rally in Nairobi and detained at the Governor’s pleasure at Isinya, Kamiti Prison, Gitamaiyu and Kirigiti.

Sarai was "released" in 1960, not back to Nairobi where she lived before the arrest, but into another 12 months of restriction in her home village of Kinoo, where she was required to report to the local chief’s camp every week.

Even under torture, she refused to buy her freedom through confession of the Mau Mau oath, and she almost died from the effects of torture and food poisoning at Kamiti. The extreme hardship only served to deepen her Christian faith and her political engagement.

The authorities, having failed to beat a confession out of her, enlisted her services at the prison dispensary.

Because of her status as a Governor’s prisoner, who could therefore not be permitted to die from the reckless behaviour of her jailers, Sarai was spared the back-breaking labour into which women prisoners were forced, like digging trenches in which hundreds of dead freedom fighters and villagers brought in by truckloads from the forest were buried.

While in prison, she taught fellow inmates about personal hygiene and how to read and write, and treated the warders for sexually transmitted infections. She wrote for them letters that were smuggled out to families and preached the Word of God, strengthening the resolve of the women prisoners politically and spiritually.

She would fire off petitions to the Governor, the British Prime Minister and even the Queen, which probably never passed the prison gates, it seems, because she never received an answer. But she never tired or despaired in her quest for freedom.

Because of her incarceration, she was separated from her children when they were still young.

On the night of her arrest, when the white police officers broke into her house in Ziwani Estate, they found her breast-feeding her fourth child, David Solomon Njuguna. They threw the boy on the bed and handcuffed her. In the first place of incarceration at Athi River, she suffered terrible mastitis.

Her four children (all aged under 10) and older nieces were subsequently thrown out of the council house and were accommodated by family members, institutions and political allies.

Her first and last two sons suffered the brunt of the separation. Aged 9, the first child started a life on the streets and the last one ran off from her when she was released, confused about a new mother.

He grew up on the streets and though he returned home to Kinoo in 1988 after the only sister returned from overseas, he failed to grow into a mature, independent person, preferring to remain near the mother and be cared for as well. The second son grew up in a Salvation Army orphanage.

Earlier after her release, Sarai became deeply involved in the groundswell of multiparty political activity of the early 1960s and was elected to the Governing Council of Kanu Women’s Wing in June 1962.

During this time, Sarai was also recruited by the Moral Rearmament (MRA) - an American-initiated movement whose mission was to destroy Communism but preached love, honesty and forgiveness.

On realising what the mission of the MRA was, she embraced its aspect that was spiritual and ignored the Cold War ideology. The settlers despaired when she proceeded to visit Eastern Europe, USSR and China, observing the socialist model at work Ð especially those aspects related to social and gender justice. She was to enthusiastically use discourse from both convictions to pursue the struggle for social justice and the rights of African women in general and Kenyan in particular.

After independence, Sarai was sidelined in the post-colonial dispensation of office, status and fortunes as it became clear that the politics of personal consolidation, patronage and clientelism, meant jostling for positions in the increasingly male-dominated power structures.

Sarai was a leader who straddled the rural-urban and class divides, with an extraordinarily deep love for her people. So much so that during the student airlifts of the '60s, she broke a trip to the Far East to help Kenyan students stranded in Cairo.

She was active in trying to prevent the Shifta War by persuading Somalia to back down from its expansionist (Greater Somalia) ideology.

Sarah Sarai Thara Njomo, a women's activist, freedom fighter, educationist and nurse passed away on July 14, 2003, aged 90.

She never married and is survived by her daughter and sons Njomo, Gichanga, Berewa and Njuguna, 11 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

For more about Mau Mau women, check out the url by Terisa Turner, who was in Nairobi with Joel and myself at the WSF.


Blogger Nightbrid said...

She was a true hero and I know her daughter too is a true hero and her grand daughter and great grand son. I have met them all and in their quiet way, they transform lives.

8:25 AM  
Blogger onchwati said...

.....this a true hero that i didn't imagine she was existing.....i hope she has a statue in her rememberance

2:46 AM  

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