From Kenyan Coffee to a Search for Kikuyu Women Warriors

As those of you who follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram know, one of the delights of my week in the summer is my Thursday morning trip to the farmers’ market. I chat with the vendors about the plums or the tomatoes or the asparagus, I load up on veggies for the coming week, and this year I end my visit with treats from two booths: an asparagus taco from Taylor’s Tacos and a bright acidic cup of Kenyan coffee from Kikwetu Coffee.


For the last couple of weeks I’ve been talking about women warriors, and Women Warriors, with both the taco and the coffee vendors.* And this week I came away with a quest: to track down traditional stories of Kikuya women warriors.

I was already aware of the role Kikuyu women played in the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonialism in Kenya in the 1950s.** Women made up roughly five percent of the forest guerilla forces. Thousands more took part in the civilian wing of the movement, which provided the supplies of information, food, medicine and guns that kept the guerilla forces alive for the seven years of the Mau Mau uprising. Their activities were similar to those of European women who supported the resistance in occupied Europe in the Second World War. And like those women, their contribution is often referred to as “passive resistance.” I prefer the term “soft resistance”, which historian Ronald Rosbottom uses for members of the resistance who do not were not active combatants. They were not passive by any meaningful definition of the term. They operated with the full knowledge that they faced torture and imprisonment by the British if they were captured.

My coffee providers told me an older story of a matriarchal society in the distant past in which women held the political power. Left at home while the women went off to fight, the men plotted to overthrow them by getting them all pregnant at the same time and then seizing power while they were giving birth. I haven’t been able to find more details. If you know more, let me know.

*As one does.
**This is the part of the larger story of women who fought in the anti-colonial wars that followed World War II.

A New History Podcast I’m Excited About

Almost exactly four years ago, I started looking for a history podcast or ten that I could love. (I put out the call for suggestions here on the Margins four years and 29 days ago, to be precise.)

Since then, I’ve reported back twice on history podcasts I’ve enjoyed listening to. (You can find the lists HERE and HERE.)* Since then, more have made it to my list.**

Yesterday I received a heads up that my friend Elizabeth Lundy has a history podcast in the pipeline: The Year That Was. Here’s what she has to say about it:

The thing about history is that everything happens all at once, everywhere, all the time. This podcast attempts to capture the messy reality of history by looking at one year from as many angles as possible. We tell the big headline stories as well as smaller stories of more intimate moments. We learn about all sorts of people—not just old white dudes, but also women and people of color. And we seek out the connections between events. What strands link politics and science, art and international affairs? We learn something different by looking at history this way—something about how life was actually experienced in the past.

In my experience, Elizabeth does good work. I don’t expect this to be any different. The first episode will release on September 3—as in almost immediately. In the meantime, if you want a little taste, you can check out her trailer:

The first season will look at 1919, which was a hell of a year.

This should be Big Fun.

* I inexplicably left off The Dead Prussian podcast, which I’ve been listening to one and off for several years now. I’m particularly interested in how different guests fill in the blank to “War is—” (Not easy.) If you’re interested in military history and theory, this one’s for you.

** Including The Exploress, The Dead Ladies Show ,and Overheard at National Geographic (which is not exactly history, but is certainly history adjacent.)

A Glimpse of War Through the Camera Lens of a Female War Correspondent

When I picked up John Garofolo’s Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First Female War Correspondent Killed in Action at the Harold Washington Library yesterday morning, I intended to rifle through it quickly, grab what I needed, and move on.(1) It was simply one in a large stack of books that I wanted to get through, and one that wasn’t entirely on point for the project at hand. Best laid plans, etc. I was immediately sucked in. I had just enough self-discipline to take it home and read it later instead of squandering my treasured library day. (2)

In case it’s not clear from the title, Dickey Chapelle Under Fire is primarily a picture book. Chapelle reported on war with her camera. The photographs are powerful, painful, and heartbreaking. But it was the brief biography and the quotations from her autobiography, What’s A Woman Doing Here?, published in 1962(3), that caught my attention. She worked as a photojournalist in World War II, including the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa— a stint that cost her her credentials as a war correspondent because she knowingly disobeyed orders not to go ashore. She reported on the reconstruction of Europe after the war. Once again accredited as a war correspondent, she covered more than 30 conflicts between 1956 and 1959. She followed freedom fighters in Hungary—where she was imprisoned for two months and came close to being executed as a spy. She followed Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution and Algerian rebels in the war against France. In 1961, she took the first of four assignments in Vietnam, where she was killed by a grenade while on patrol with a Marine unit in 1965—the first American female war correspondent killed in action.

The Marines dedicated a field hospital in her honor, with a plaque that read “She was one of us and we will miss her.”

Chapelle’s personality jumps off the page with every quotation and every life choice. A book well worth tracking down.

(1) A process I think of as scholarly pillaging.
(2) You would think that it would be easy for someone who writes full time to arrange a full day at the library whenever she wanted. And you would be wrong.
(3) Now on my reading list.

* * *

With thanks to friend and reader Joy McGinnis, who recommended Dickey Chapelle Under Fire in response to my request for non-fiction books about female journalists published in the last five years or so. I’d love add a few more to the stack, so if you have a recommendation send it on over.