by Pumla Dineo Gqola, Loudrastress
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.
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
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
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: http://kennemwikya.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/wambui-otieno-circling-and-scrutinising/#comment-273 as well as Keguro Macharia’s poignant and powerfully political reflection on Gukira (here: http://gukira.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/welcome-mourning/#comment-2458).
My links are acting up, so I have posted the full URLs abov