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Why Koinange widow wants K-Street renamed

STORIES by STEPHEN MBURU. PHOTOS by NJENGA GICHEHA
Mama Elizabeth ‗Nyakanini‘ Gathoni, the 112-year-old widow of Ex-Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu, is unhappy with the immoral activities that go on almost every night along the infamous Koinange Street in the heart of Nairobi.

Mama Gathoni says she is always embarrassed when she watches, on the television, half-naked young women captured on camera as they engage in prostitution along what is popularly known simply as the ‗K-Street‘.
Koinange Street is, undoubtedly, Kenya‘s top red light district. The name is so well known countrywide that it is not uncommon for a resident of any other Kenyan town to hear a visitor asking about a ―local Koinange Street‖.
Ironically, one end of Koinange Street touches the Holy Family Basilica, while the other faces the Religious Studies Department of the University of Nairobi.

Koinange Street in Nairobi as seen from the end touching the University Way. Notice the Holy Family Basilica tower at the far end. Right: Ex-Senior Chief Koinange wa Mbiyu, after whom the street is named. MAIN PHOTO: KANIARU NDIRANGU

―That street should be renamed. Mzee was very religious. He was a staunch Christian. A prayerful and a morally-upright person. The things I see on TV embarrass me,‖ Mama Gathoni tells the Metro Advertiser, pointing at the small television set in her modest house in Kiambaa, Kiambu County.
―If the government could listen to me, I would request it to rename that road. Alternatively, the restaurants that, I hear, offer those girls a safe haven to wear such tiny clothes should be closed down or changed into something else, say, offices. The society has the responsibility of helping our children keep their morals,‖ she says.
―If that is not possible, then I am ready and willing to lead in activities to rid the street of bad morals,‖ says the super-centenarian, who is always updated with current social and political issues in the country.
[According to the Wikipedia, a super-centenarian is someone who has reached the age of 110 years. This age is said to be achieved by about one in a thousand centenarians (a person who is or lives between the age of 100 and 109 years. There are estimated to be 300–450 living super-centenarians in the world, though only about 90 individuals have been verified as living supercentenarians.]

Mama Koinange‘s son Leonard, a former employee of the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC), supports his mother‘s sentiments. However, he is aware it would be virtually impossible to rename the street.
―The furthest my mother could go is to help restore the good name of the street,‖ he says.
Mama Gathoni was Koinange‘s fifth wife. Before her were Mariamu Wambui, who was the first wife and mother of Mbiyu Koinange, the man who would become the most influential member of President Jomo Kenyatta‘s kitchen Cabinet. Mariamu was also the mother of Grace Mitundu, who was the third wife of Jomo Kenyatta, the Founding President and father of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Staunch Christian
―Mzee was such a staunch Christian that he fought female circumcision and also refused to take dowry for his daughters,‖ Mama Gathoni says. ―In fact,‖ she adds, ―were it not for him, perhaps I would have remained a pagan. It‘s him who introduced me to Christianity soon after I was married off to him by my brother,‖ she says as she delves into memories of her ―wedding day.‖
―On that day, as Mzee walked me from my home at Muchatha (just a village away from her current home), he took me into a makeshift church and he started praying.‖ The church, built on Koinange‘s land, is today known as the ACK St John Kiambaa.
―Having come from a non-religious family, I was not used to praying. I just stood beside him and watched as he prayed. I could hear him thank God for giving him the gift of a wife, and he would seek His blessings for the whole family,‖ Mama Gathoni says with a smile.
She neither remembers her exact age then nor the year she got married. ―I only remember that Mbiyu (the former Cabinet minister) went abroad for studies the same month I married. I was of his age,‖ She says.
Koinange family records show that Mbiyu, who was born in 1902, left for studies in the US in 1927.
―Soon after I married Mzee, he had me enrolled in church for baptismal classes. I became a born-again Christian in 1944. Mzee was not a born-again Christian, but he followed me years later,‖ Mama Gathoni says, adding that she would learn later from her co-wives that Koinange was born Gatheca wa Mbiyu.


Renowned village break- dancer
―I came to learn that in his youth, Mzee was a renowned village break- dancer. That he would gyrate to the amazement of the girls, and that is why he was nicknamed Koinange,‖ says Mama Gathoni, with a giggle. (The name ―koinange‖ is a Kikuyu term referring to a young and slender person so agile he can twist his body with ease).

Despite her advanced age, Mama Gathoni recalls events that occurred more than 60 years ago as though they had happened just the other day.

She talks of how Koinange was host to many clandestine meetings that partly led to the Mau Mau movement. Many were the times her husband would leave freedom fighters organising meetings at his house and report for duty in Kiambu town, miles away.
The colonial government could not suspect that one of its own could betray the
oppressive regime. She says Koinange, a colonial senior chief in Southern Kiambu, was a loyal civil servant during the day and a key Mau Mau strategist at night.
Those who held secret meetings at his home included Jomo Kenyatta, Kung‘u Karumba and senior chiefs from Kiambu, Murang‘a and Nyeri. They included Makimei wa Kuria, Waruiru wa Mukui and Mbira wa Githehu. Others were Mukoma Njiriri and Muriranja from Murang‘a, Wambugu wa Mathangani and Muhoya wa Kagumba from Nyeri.
―They would arrive at different times and from different directions. None approached the home from the gate. They used to hold meetings from morning to late in the night. Those, like Kenyatta, who could not make it to their homes would convert the office into a bedroom and sleep on matharara (dry banana leaves) spread on the concrete floor. My role was to feed them, and I used to deliver food to them secretly,‖ she says.
Mama Gathoni remembers the time she rebelled, protesting to her husband about being overworked while her co-wives seemed to have been allocated lighter duties such as working on the farm and carrying out businesses.
However, she is now grateful that former President Mwai Kibaki honoured her in recognition of her ―service to the community.‖
―I think it was due to my work during those days that made the President honour me,‖ she says, referring to the Head of State‘s Commendation (Civilian Division) medal, the President Kibaki awarded her on December 12, 2006.
Its citation reads partly: ―"I, the Honourable Mwai Kibaki, desire to record my high appreciation of your distinguished service to the Republic of Kenya. I, therefore, award you, Elizabeth Gathoni Koinange, the Head of State’s Commendation (Civilian Division)"

Mama Gathoni has fond memories of her husband: ―Mzee and I were so close to each other. We used to pray together. We loved each other so much. I miss him. I used to wash his feet. I wish he could come back to life I continue doing the same,‖ she says.
Koinange‘s grave, as well as those of his five wives and many sons, is at the Koinange Shrine just metres from Mama Gathoni‘s house.
―I clean the grave site myself so that I can feel as if I am still serving Mzee,‖ says Mama Gathoni.

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