Heroines: A tale of 5 bold Kenyan women with nerves of steel who inspired change at a great personal cost

Change is not easy, change is not pretty and yes! Change is hell painful.


The day calls for raising the glass for all heroines who with their genius minds, killer beauty, irresistible charm, rock hard muscles and fearless attitude have pushed women’s agenda a notch higher.

Change is not easy, change is not pretty and yes! Change is hell painful.

Being bold requires nerves of steel and a thick skin to weather all manner of insults and filth thrown your way.

The good news though is that Kenya has no shortage of bold rebellious and proud women whose bold actions and voices brought down unpopular governments and sent cold shivers down spines of entire institutions.

Here are five bold Kenyan women with nerves of steel who inspired change at a great personal cost.

Muthoni wa Kirima

Muthoni is the only woman to have rose through the Mau Mau ranks and achieve the rank of field marshal. During the struggle of independence she led other women in giving the British colonists sleepless nights.

She and a group of 162 women were described as “thugs” and “witches” by the colonial government for their undying support for Mau Mau.

For her boldness she was subjected to physiological, physical and sexual abuse by the colonial government. Lesson here being; you must be ready to sacrifice and suffer in order to bring change.

After independence on December 12, 1963, President Jomo Kenyatta sent a car to pick up a Mau Mau fighter from the forest to take part in a ceremony where freedom fighters would lay down their weapons.

She refused, not convinced the war was over, and demanded instead to first see the Kenyan flag.

She has remained bold and steadfast in her commitment to Mau Mau veterans, and even criticized the post-colonial government for mistreating the Mau Mau Veterans.

“The fruits of independence have not been enjoyed by the people who sacrificed most, Most of us were hoping for compensation from the government, but we are still waiting. After all this effort – what have we got?

She refused to cut her long dreadlocks until Mau Mau veterans were adequately compensated.

Wangari Maathai

It is hard to describe the Nobel laureate, Maathai other than a true heroine whose achievements’ will be remembered long after her sad demise.

Her conviction for environment and women rights is unrivalled, no woman in Kenyan history faced a strong government and paid the ultimate price like she did, all over the world her deeds are treasured and admired.

In 1977, Maathai founded the Green belt movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation and women’s rights.

She is bold and from 1970, 80, and 90s she faced head on the then dreaded Moi government and almost brought it to its knees.

In October 1989, Maathai learned of a plan to construct the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust Complex in Uhuru Park she opposed the move and wrote several protest letters. The government refused to respond to her inquiries and protests, instead responding through the media that Maathai was "a crazy woman".

The government was so incensed with her bold protest that it sought to ban the Green Belt Movement terming it a bogus organization and its members "a bunch of divorcees".

On 28 February 1992, Maathai again led tens of wives and mothers of detained political detainees to Freedom corner at Uhuru Park where they proceeded to stage a hunger strike to pressure the government to release the political prisoners.

After four days of hunger strike, on 3 March 1992, the police forcibly removed the protesters. Maathai and three others were knocked unconscious by police and hospitalized.The then president Moi called her "a mad woman" and "a threat to the order and security of the country".

Her latest and famous bold move which is forever hitched on Kenyan minds is the Karura forest protest in 1998, together with Greenbelt movement she bravely protested the government plan to privatize the only ‘green lungs of Nairobi’.

For her bold actions to inspire change, In 1984, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award and in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Price for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace".

Charity Kaluki Ngilu

No other woman in Kenya best exemplifies l'earning your craft and owning it like a boss' than Ngilu.

Born in 1952 in Mbooni, she first got into politics during Kenya's second ever multiparty elections held in 1992, where she pulled off a big surprise by capturing the Kitui central constituency seat, running on the Democratic Party ticket.

Known for her boldness, Ngilu made history again in 1997, when she ran for the presidency, along with Wangari Maathai becoming the first ever female presidential candidate in Kenya.

Ngilu vied for the presidency using the Social Democratic of Kenya and emerged fifth.

Since then she has served as Member of Parliament and cabinet minister under different portfolio and continues to agitate for change until today.

Wambui Otieno-Mbugua

A freedom fighter, a crusader for women’s rights, a bold pioneer who was not willing to be bound by the straitjacket of ethnic nationalism are just but a few nouns that can best describe this incredible woman. Wambui shattered numerous glass ceilings that allowed generations of women after her to reach for heights they never before thought they could scale.

Wambui went through an 18-month court battle with her late husband’s Umira Kager clan over the burial location.

The clan insisted that the prominent advocate Silvano Melea (SM) Otieno be buried in Siaya according to Luo customs and tradition and she contested this in court requesting that Otieno be buried in their Upper Matasia Home in Ngong according to his wishes.

Wambui was born Virginia Wambui Waiyaki in 1936 in a family that had a long history of anti-colonial resistance from her great grandfather Waiyaki wa Hinga, who was killed by the British in 1892.

After running away from home in 1954 to join Mau Mau, Wambui spied against the British, mobilised women and domestic staff and helped procure arms.

She was later arrested in 1960 and sent to Lamu where she was repeatedly raped by a British official while in Jail.

Her spell bounding autobiography Mau Mau’s Daughter: The Life History of Wambui Waiyaki Otieno, is a must read for all woman out there. She exposes the complex family traditions she inherited of mixed ethnicity, resistance and later Christianity and how they shaped her.

Orie Rogo Manduli

A former model and rally driver, she has done what most women would consider taboo and what many men term as too aggressive, coming from a woman.Ambassador Orie Rogo Manduli got married at the tender age of 16 years old and at only 19 she was already a divorced mother of three.

She has no apologies to make, and hopes her story remains symbolic in the continued fight for gender equality.

“I’m bold and speak my mind without fear. I’m fastidious and never boring. I do not apologise for who I am”

Orie Rogo Manduli first came to the public limelight while in high school after was crowned Miss Kenya at an early age of 16. In 1974 she became the very first black African woman in Kenya to compete in the world circuit Safari Rally.

Additionally she is the first woman to head the Kenya Non Governmental Organization council (NGO council).

Female pioneers who shaped Kenya


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