Will Kenya’s First Anti-Colonial Leaders Ever Rest In Peace?

By Katlego Mereko

In African Culture(s), a dignified burial of the departed is an important feature that is thought to secure safe passage to the realm of the living-dead, the ancestors. This is further amplified if the deceased was a chief or a community leader of some kind. 

However, two of Kenya’s anti-colonial heroes, Waiyaki wa Hinga and Koitalel Arap Samoei are yet to be afforded an unencumbered platform of spiritual repose. The two figures enjoy similar accounts of spirited defiance and militancy against British imperialism, and sadly suffer a comparable fate under the might of British forces. 

Muthamaki (Paramount Chief) Waiyaki wa Hinga was a prominent Gikuyu chief of controversial origin. While it has been argued throughout history that Waiyaki hails from Kikuyu, third generation descendents, Waambui Otiena and Njoroge Regeru, have revealed in their recent respective research efforts that their ancestor is of Maasai heritage and was adopted into the Gathecha family in Kikuyu. 

In 1890, when the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) approached Kikuyu land through Captain Frederick Lugard, they encountered Muthamaki Waiyaki wa Hinga, an influential chief with over ten wives and vast hectors of land. On October 10th of the same year, Waiyaki signed a treaty with Lugard, in an understanding that the British troops are to be afforded land and food, while in return they promise no harm to the people of the village. 

It wasn’t long until the British reneged on their promise. After just one month when Lugard had left for further expeditions, the IBEAC, in financial dire straits at the time, had its agents directed to be self-sufficient. This began a wide scale confiscation of crops from the indigenous and sexual molestation of indigenous women, thus breaking the treaty between Lugard and Waiyaki 

Waiyaki retaliated. During one attack in 1891, five people in the garrison were killed. The Gikuyu too, suffered casualties. Waiyaki and his subjects would return to the fort again a few hours later, but found it unoccupied. They proceeded to overrun it and destroy supplies. 

Armed with 200 rifles, the British, in a show of vengeance, attacked Waiyaki’s village during which 30 villagers died, crops destroyed and livestock impounded. An infuriated Waiyaki then stormed Fort Smith, which was erected on his land, but was overwhelmed by the Brits, disarmed him and had his scalp severely wounded. 

Waiyaki was subsequently detained between 1892 and 1893, becoming arguably Kenya’s first political prisoner. During his transportation for a trial in Mombasa, he fell unconscious, allegedly due to his scalp wound and was said to have been buried alive but semi-conscious in an unmarked grave in Kibwezi. Until this day, his grave remains officially unidentified. 

Koitalel Arap Samoei 


Samoei was born at Samoitu Aldai, modern day Nandi county in Kenya, and was the youngest of four sons. His father, Kimyole Arap Turukat was said to have predicted the arrival of the railway and Europeans in Nandi. He is also said to have foretold his own death. 

Samoei was sent to be raised by the Tugen, but after the death of his father was returned to Nandi. After conflict over their father’s throne, Samoei became chief in 1895. 

In 1896 the British began construction of the railway to connect the inner portion of Kenya and Uganda. The Nandi territory was closed off and the Nandi were on guard since they had knowledge of the British arrival and attempt to conquer their people and lands. 

The British attempted to build their railway regardless, and Samoei, then an Orkoiyot, a title given to a Supreme Chief, proceeded to spearhead a decade long Nandi resistance. The resistance also involved the Kalenjins in Nandi. 

British Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen subsequently initiated a ceasefire. A meeting was set for October 19, 1905, at 11:00 a.m. Samoei, sensing that his end was near, instructed the Colonel to bring along five allies with him, while Samoei was to bring 5 oracles himself. Instead the colonel brought an armed ensemble of 80 men, instructing 75 to hide within the vicinity. 

Samoei, who was advised not to shake any hands, did so against better judgement and was shot at point-blank range and died, effectively scuppering the Nandi agitation against imperialism. 

In a display of power, Meinertzhagen decapitated Samoei’s head and took it back to the UK with him.

There have been efforts by Kenya to have Samoei’s head returned for a proper burial in Nandi. His headless body was given a symbolic burial in Nandi Hills. 

The death of these two figures and the politics around their bodies signifies the continued crimes by former colonial forces such as the erstwhile Great Britain. Elsewhere, for instance, it has been reported that the body of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankamun was the subject of auctioneering in Europe. 

Will the continued assault on the legacies of our ancestors ever be put to a halt? Or perhaps more sharply expressed in Bob Marley’s cry 

“How long shall they kill our prophets, while we stand aside and look?” 

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