I met Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima on February 19th 2018, at the Dedan Kimathi memorial held at the Nyeri National Stadium. It was a research trip that the co-creators of Brazen (Aleya Kassam, Anne Moraa, and myself) and Too Early For Birds (Ngatia and Abu Sense) took in preparation for our theatre production later in the year. Earlier that day, had walked through the forest, and had gotten lost in people’s shambas trying to trace the dreams of our freedom fighters. Trying to map out the route The Kenya Land And Freedom Army would have traversed hiding from, defending against, and attacking the enemy.
We had gone to speak to Field Marshall Muthoni Wa Kirima. I remember feeling ashamed for all the ways I hadn’t come to know myself, and the ways we were – are – connected. Ashamed that she is, in many ways, my kin, but we are so very far removed, not only in blood, but in culture, in expectation of the world, in thinking about the world. In knowing of this country. In knowing of our people.
I remember feeling so incredibly like a traitor in her presence. Like a homeguard. Like a surrenderer. I was a 22 year old girl who had gone to a British curriculum school, learned from the very oppressors she fought to kick out, and off our lands. There I was, having given my entire education to them, having invested my mind in their teachings, having given of myself to their learnings. There I was, standing before the only female Field Marshal, the last surviving Field Marshal, the same rank as Dedan Kimathi, and I found myself feeling ashamed of all the things and ways I hadn’t been. All the ways I let down.
And there I was, attempting to extract her story. She had the grace to invite us to visit her home. We visited the next month accompanied by two men. They were here to interpret for me, to speak to me the language she spoke. The barrier between us hurt. I had not yet dreamed her dreams.
We wanted to feature her story in a theatre production we were putting together later in the year. It was called Brazen, amix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six brazen, badass, fearless women in Kenya’s history. And who was more Brazen than Field Marshall Muthoni?
On Field Marshall Muthoni’s body, she wore the history of Kenya the scars the wounds the trauma the hope the beauty
We did it. With the love, support, and giving of many, many, many women, we pulled it off. The Brazen show happened a year ago. Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima’s story was intended to take up more space in the production. It was meant to be monologued, storytold, theatred, and reenacted, and it was not. It was not because it refused. Her story refused to fit into the mould we had assigned to it. It refused to be confined to what we decided was her story. It refused to fit. So we stopped forcing it to. And eventually it took up space in a way we didn’t know it could, but in a way that liberated us from the confines of form. A way that freed us from confining her story. We (The LAM Sisterhood – L being me, A being Aleya Kassam, and M being Anne Moraa) put words on a page. Anne Moraa took the lead in one of the most other worldly collaborative writing experiences I’ve ever had, and out of that, the tribute poem that closed The Brazen Edition was written – snippets of which are interspersed in this article.
For a little over a year now, The LAM Sisterhood with Wanja Wohoro, have been writing a musical based on Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima’s story. Our musical is being workshopped through The Nairobi Musical Theatre Initiative at The Elephant. One of the songs we’ve written for the show is an extended sequence where women from multiple generations imagine a world where (they) we can sit the way we want to, wear what we want to, dance the way we want to, a world where we’re seen, heard, a world where we matter. I found myself, a few weeks ago, going back to a moment where we were trying to explain to our workshop facilitator how terrifying it is to dream those dreams. Terrifying because of the aftermath of dreaming. It is an unpleasantness you don’t anticipate. Dreaming freedom dreams.
I love you, but [expletive] you.
You are one of the most powerful things I might encounter in my life, but dammit you are a stubborn woman. You have reached into parts of me I didn’t know existed and unearthed a yearning for love and life and becoming. A yearning that I did not know I could house in my body. A yearning I still can’t figure out how to contain. You have refused to fit into boxes that I made for you, and I am not sure how you think I can handle the spill over.
If you can reach into the past, speak to little old me and prepare her for all the things that are happening in my life:
Prepare her for a whirlwind of feelings, and things.
Wrap her in your arms and tell her that it’s about to get real, and she better buckle up, because she will not be okay. She will feel wrong things, funny things, things that will challenge her morality. Morality might get thrown out the window. It will be confusing.
There will be unrequited love, unrealised dreams, loss – deep and painful loss.
Tell her that this, all of it, may very well break her. Over, and over again.
Whisper in her ear, that there is an art, dedicated to mending broken things. It mends broken things by filling the cracks and spaces with gold, silver, or platinum. The Japanese have two names for it; Kintsugi (“golden joinery”), and Kintsukuroi (“golden repair”).
Whisper in her ear, that you will mend her pottery heart and clay dreams with brass; fill the gaps with Brazen.
Do this one thing, for me, for little old me. Make me Brazen in every life.
I wrote that letter a year ago. It is every bit as true then, as it continues to be now.
Brazen undid me. Creating the production undid me, and many of the women who came into contact with it. Brazen was an act of dreaming into existence a way of living that could only exist in our minds, our dreams. We made manifest our dreams with deep and determined intentionality. And it was everythinged by women. Brazen gave us a type of freedom that was only an imagining, until that moment on stage. And the effects of taking part in the production of Brazen is written in and on all of us.
Our turmoil, our struggle to readjust to and relearn the mess we dreamed away, and our recovery in the months following the July 2018 staging of Brazen, was not coincidental. We had a taste of freedom. We lived freedom loudly, as women, and said (and this is not tongue in cheek) “fuck you” to the patriarchy. And survived.
We’ve all tasted freedom and our bodies are unsatisfied with the status quo. We did the work of dreaming. And we’re living the aftermath.
What hurts Field Marshal Muthoni the most is that we’ve not done our part
Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima’s hair is a museum of dreams. The weight of her hair carries the weight of her dreams, our dreams, my dreams – fulfilled and unfulfilled. And this reflection had me realising how impossible it is to measure freedom before you experience it. But even then, how do you measure it? Is dreaming a freedom? Or does dreaming forever tie us to our hope for better, for different, for reality?
The last time I saw Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima’s hair, we were outside the Kenya National Theatre, in the parking lot. It was July 28th 2018, Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima had watched the matinée performance of Brazen. Outside, after the show, surrounded by a group of emotionally overwhelmed women, dreadlocks tickling her ankles, eyebrows falling off, Zarina Patel standing beside her, Field Marshal Muthoni Wa Kirima said:
“I will not cut my hair until I see freedom. And when I do, it will be in the presence of these women.”
We are those women. Living the aftermath.
this is bigger than you,
you are bigger than this