Mothers in war
Continuing from the previous excerpt of Wangari Maathai’s autobiography, Unbowed: One woman’s story, the mothers wait for their sons. But as they continue their peaceful and contained vigil, the government does not leave them alone. So, the unarmed and defenceless elderly women – in their 60s, 70s, and 80s – face the full and unbridled police brutality and beatings meted on them with the only and most potent weapon they have – a physical manifestation of the courage, conviction and outrage that only a mother can have, deeply and firmly rooted in African tradition and symbolism.
Prof Maathai writes (abridged and adapted: buy the book):
“Throughout Monday, there was still no sign of the sons. by this time, there were several hundred of us at Freedom Corner. The next day, March 3 [a day after ‘JM Day’ on March 2, for those that still remember], we saw groups of paramilitary police, batons and guns at the ready, cordoning off the area to prevent anyone else from reaching us.
Around 3:00 pm that afternoon, the police ordered a member of the Release Political Prisoners campaign to tell us to disperse. There wasn’t enough time to do anything before the police beagn firing tear gas into the camp and charging us from behind and in front, beating us with their batons. Some of the young men who had joined us fought back as the police chased them across the road to Nyayo House and down city streets, as well as through the park.
As the battle continued throughout the afternoon, tear gas and gunshots filled the air. Police reinforcement stormed the tent where I was singing and praying with the mothers. When the police arrived in the tent, the fifty or so people inside were initially defiant, not believing the police would attack them. The protestors linked arms, which meant that when the police began their assault they could not easily take one without taking many. I saw people rise up in groups as police batons rained down… I was knocked unconscious and rushed to hospital with two other women who were badly hurt.
The mothers in the tent refused to be intimidated and they did not run. Instead, they did something very brave. Several of them stripped, some of them completely naked, and showed the police their breasts. One of the most powerful of African traditions concerns the relationship between a woman and a man who could be her son. Every woman old enough to be your mother is considered like your own mother and expects to be treated with considerable respect. As they bared their breasts, what the mothers were saying to the policemen in their anger and frustration as they were being beaten was “By showing you my nakedness, I curse you as I would my son for the way you are abusing me.”
When I was sufficiently recovered, I called a press conference. I was told that the police claimed I had incited them to beat me unconscious and that I had asked to be given a black eye and a ball-sized lump on my head. I informed the press that although after what had happened to me I would stay away from “dangerous ground”, I wouldn’t be silenced or deterred from telling the truth and I wouldn’t go away. “The mothers,” I emphasised “had a right to seek the freedom of their sons.”
The evening of March 3, the police forcibly removed all the women who were still in the park and took them to their homes. As they were being removed, the women cried, “We will only move from this place when the government brings our sons here!” The authorities ordered the women to end their hunger strike and told them not to return to Nairobi. Freedom Corner was cordoned off and we were unable to get to it again. By the time the police left, all our bedding and personal effects, including blankets, lamps and the tent, had disappeared with the Nairobi City Council, never to be seen again.
When I think of what happened, I believe that it was the stories of torture that made the government decide that what we were doing was dangerous. Perhaps we had a false sense of security. We thought that even this government wouldn’t hurt old women – mothers who simply wanted their sons to be released from prisons where they were being held for their political consience(s). But the regime knew neither mercy nor justice and we were accused of threatening “the security of citizens and the nation”. The government had decided that a revolt was brewing and that it could unleash as much venom and violence as it wanted to stop it.
END OF EXCERPT
What happened next? Did the mothers retreat or hold their ground? How long would it be, and what would it take, before their sons tasted freedom? For answers, and the pivotal and pro-freedom role the church would play in concert with the pro-democracy movement and its leaders, buy the book.