The Women of Pangani: Unexpected Heroes


Kikuyu woman with her child

History has been known to be quite cruel to women, especially African women. When events have been retold, women tend to be edited out of the narrative. In the few instances that they are included, they are usually made out to be biological cutouts bereft of personality or humanity. Many women in history are unidentifiable from the next.  Within many Kenyan tribes, women were viewed as objects without autonomy to be traded for wealth through bride price. This was a practice that persisted well into the twentieth century. However the tides began to turn towards the end of the nineteenth century when famine and disease took out the livelihoods of several communities. So what did these communities do to recover their losses? They adapted.


Fort Hall(Nyeri) Market, early 20th century



New Opportunities

With their livestock diseased and their crops dead, young Africans sought out to find ways to survive. In the 1890s men went out in search of labor and would wind up working for the colonial europeans or taking up tasks from the Indians along the Uganda railway. The women followed too but found that there were not enough tasks for them to take up. At the time there were camps forming along the railway consisting of the Indian builders and the African labourers. Many were men who also sought the company of women but could not afford the bride price. As such a solution was found whereby a woman would offer up domestic services to the men, and of course sexual intercourse for brief periods of time and in exchange would receive payment from one to three rupees, “almost as much as an artisan in Europe”.

An advertising poster for the Uganda Railway.

These women would then accrue what they had earned and go back to their natal families to help their homesteads recover what they had lost. Over time the practice grew to become an important part of wealth creation in these communities. On the other hand, labouring young men tended to not return to their fathers’ homesteads with their earnings as many were saving up to start their own families and pay bride price.

As the construction of the railway continued, the camps that had sprouted alongside it grew larger into towns.  This attracted more labourers and in turn more women. By 1905 Nairobi had become one of the more notable towns in the region drawing in Nandi, Maasai, Kikuyu and even Somali women, to name a few.


At home, what could I do? Grow crops for my husband or my father. In Nairobi I can earn my own money, for myself.

                                                    -Kayaya Thababu, a working girl in Nairobi in the 1920s

                                                       {The Comforts of Home (Luise W)}


The lifestyle of generating one’s own wealth- and dressing in finery- had become very desirable for many young women. This was especially true of those who were divorced, widowed or had left their natal families for one reason or the other. So instead of subsidising their fathers’ farms back in the rural areas they would save their earnings and purchase their own livestock, land or property in Nairobi.

This is not to say that there were no more women supporting their families through prostitution. Several still did so. However, these women would stay for short periods of time moving from one town to the next then return home with their earnings, unlike their counterparts who were setting down roots in Nairobi.


Nairobi in the early 20th century


At this time, Nairobi’s African population was contained within the Pangani, Kibera(where the majority of the Sudanese lived), Kileleshwa and Kaburini neighbourhoods. The African labor force was also majorly seasonal but by 1914 more and more Africans were arriving from the rural areas for work. There was also pressure on the colonial government from Asian and European communities for more desirable land. As such the colonial government purposed under the guise of sanitation to demolish and evict Africans from their neighbourhoods and pushed them further East. They were then allocated new land without proper sewer systems unlike the European and Asian suburbs.


Sudanese women in Nairobi, early 20th century



On this land the colonial government also created housing for its African work force. Those who could were allowed to purchase portions of land and build houses within the newly allocated portions. A good number of women who had been working as prostitutes had saved up enough to afford to do just that.



Housing, Segregation and Police Harassment

By 1923, the main African settlements were the newly established Pumwani estate and the yet to be demolished Pangani. The African population was robust with youth and the excitement of new opportunities. Besides the government, many of the landlords in these estates were women. It is interesting to note that despite many of these women being known to be prostitutes, they were regarded as good neighbours.



Kenya Breweries, early 20th century



These women would also be seen as Mothers to the new arrivals. In fact, it was common place for these women to “adopt” a young woman as their own and help them settle. The women would feed and shelter the girls and if they wished to start working as prostitutes  would show them the ropes. (This is not to mean that the women or Mothers acted as madams or took any form of payment from the girls that they introduced into prostitution. Other than rent in some cases. Such a thing was unheard of at the time. There is no evidence that pimps and madams existed in Africa in this period.)

Even with the high incomes they were making from their African, Asian and European clients, Nairobi prostitutes faced a myriad of problems, the major one being the police. Throughout the 1920s and 30s prostitutes were being constantly harassed by the police. Arrests with large fines and sexual bribes were commonplace at the time.

The government also enforced laws and housing regulations that not only restricted prostitution but also negatively impacted Africans living in Nairobi by increasing rent prices and restricting the number of people allowed to live in a house. The town was severely segregated so that Africans, men and women, could not move within certain neighbourhoods without proof of employment in said neighbourhoods. Curfews were also enforced in African neighbourhoods. These laws were set up to regulate prostitution as well as to curb the growing population of Africans moving from the rural areas and the spread of nationalism in Nairobi.


A map of early Nairobi

The Women of Pangani and the Norfolk Massacre

On March 14 1922, a young Harry Thuku was arrested on fears of militarisation. A vigil was held the next day at the Kingsway Police Station- now Central Police Station- to pray for his release. By the third day he was still being held without any official charges. Six selected men arrived at the station to inquire about him. They were sent back and asked to calm the crowds of Africans that were growing demanding Thuku’s release. Despite their assurances, the women in the crowds were not convinced.

“Take my dress and give me your trousers! You men are cowards! What are you waiting for? Our leader is in there! Let’s go get him!”

                                                                                           Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru

The women, led by Muthoni Nyanjiru, fired up the crowds that had began to disperse and began charging for the gates of the police station demanding for the release of Harry Thuku. Seeing this, the police fired into the crowd. The police were not the only ones who felled innocent people that day. European civilians at the nearby Norfolk Hotel shot at the protesters as well. It’s good to note that at this time in Kenyan history, Europeans were allowed by the colonial government to carry guns for “protection”. The celebrated American filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson were also at the Norfolk. It is said that while their counterparts rushed with guns to shoot at the protesters, they rushed with their cameras to film it all.


Norfolk Hotel Nairobi 1920-1930s


The number of protesters who died on this day has been rumoured to be between twenty eight and over a hundred. Considering the magnitude of men and women who appeared that day for the protests, the number could be a lot higher. Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru was among the deceased. The March 16 protest remains to be the first recorded political  protest in Nairobi.

Muthoni Nyanjiru and her adopted daughter Elizabeth Waruiru were residents of Pangani in 1922. There is hardly any information about who these women were other than their involvement in the March 16 protests for Harry Thuku’s release.

The demolition of Pangani was finalised in 1939, with all the Africans having been evicted. The land was then allocated to the Asian population.




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