Embu & Mbeere - Fables and Legends


This story, narrated by narrated by Grace Wanjeru - a 70 year-old Mbeere woman from Ishiara - recounts the story of Cierume, a brave woman chief at the time of the British colony, who was finally betrayed by jealous men. Her name is now a by-word for courage, bravery and independence, and is a message of hope for women labouring unfairly under men. From Ciarunji Chesaina's outstanding book "Oral Literature of the Embu and Mbeere" (1997: East African Educational Publishers, PO Box 54314 Nairobi, Kenya). See the copyright notice for textual extracts.

Cierume, narrated by Grace Wanjeru

Cierume was a woman who was very famous because of her perseverance and bravery. This woman known as Cierume was born in Mbeere. By the time the British came to Mbeere and Embu, Cierume had already established herself and become renowned as a leader of her Community and a great warrior.
   Here in Mbeere and also in Embu, there was no woman who could come close to having those attributes which Cierume had. Even among the Kamba, Kikuyu and Meru, it is only two women who can be compared to Cierume. The first of these two women was a woman named Ciokaraine daughter of Barungu from Meru. The second one was a Gikuyu woman named Wangu wa Makeri. These two women are the only ones whose qualities of bravery and leadership can be compared to those of Cierume.
   It is said that the name of Cierume originated from the term mundu murume, meaning "a man". However, my interpretation of this name is that it is a name which alludes to bravery. According to me, its origin is the term urume which means "fierceness" or "courage" because this woman was extremely courageous.
   The first thing that was wonderful about Cierume is that here in Mbeere, no enemy would have dared attack us while Cierume was around. Oh, no! Cierume used to fight in war alongside men. This woman, in fact, did not even fight with a sword or a bow and arrows. Oh, no! She used to fight with a stick, the type of stick which women used when performing traditional dances. That is the stick Cierume used and she used to defeat all the enemies of Mbeere people.
   Cierume's first shield was not made for her by anybody. Oh, no! The first shield Cierume used, she brought back from the battlefield. She fought for it. It was like a prize or a reward for her courage.

It happened like this. There was a Kamba warrior who had troubled Mbeere people very much. Any time this warrior and his battalion invaded Mbeereland, the suffering which Mbeere people experienced!

Mbeere people died in large numbers whenever this warrior invaded our land.

Cierume was a serious person and had a sense of purpose; she killed this Kamba enemy with her stick and with her own hands. This warrior's shield was the prize Cierume got for her brave act. She took it and it was the one she used thereafter whenever she went to war. The shield was the prize Cierume got for killing the enemy who had defeated all the men. This act called for great celebration. The whole land was filled with ululation. Oh, yes!
   Cierume's fame spread far and wide on account of this feat, and many of her actions. Her fame rang through out Mbeere and Embu. She was known even among the Kamba and the Meru. There was nobody who did not come to hear about the character and deeds of Cierume.
   Now, there is one problem which always arises whenever a woman succeeds or becomes a leader among men. This problem arises from jealousy and some people feel unhappy if a woman succeeds where men have failed. As a result of Cierume's victory in the battlefield, succeeding particularly where men had failed, some people were jealous of her. Some people had ill feelings towards her just because of her outstanding qualities of leadership. Others were unhappy to see Cierume talk articulately at meetings whose membership was predominantly male. Don't you know that in this land of ours meetings have always been exclusively for men?
   Now some people started ridiculing Cierume. Others actually started abusing her. One day, a man made fun of Cierume and ridiculed her saying, "Oh! My fellow men, have you ever seen wonders like these?

Oh! These days women cultivate seated down like men. They never fail to turn up at men's meetings! What kind of picture is this woman called Cierume showing us? Oh! My goodness! By arguing with men and fighting like a man, she is trying to question our traditions. She is trying to show us that the way we have handled our affairs from time immemorial is wrong. Ah! Let her tell us men to start looking after homes, cooking and even bearing children like women!"
   Cierume never uttered a word. She simply got hold of that man and beat him up until she showed him that his manhood was nothing.
   The beating that man received! Ah! He was only saved by people who were around.
   Now, the news of this incident travelled far and wide in the whole of Mbeereland. From that time, nobody dared tease or ridicule Cierume. The respect people had for her became even greater. Her fame as a strong leader increased.
   While Cierume had already established herself as a leader, the British came to colonise our land. When they arrived in the neighbourhood where Cierume lived and enquired who ruled there, Cierume said she was the ruler. So the British made her the chief. In Mbeere and Embu, there was no woman chief except Cierume. The whole of this land there was no woman chief except Cierume. This was a well-deserved position. She won it because of her unquestionable qualities of leadership and also because of her great concern for the welfare of Mbeere people. This is what made the whole community consent to her being made a colonial chief over them.
   Cierume ruled as chief for a long time. Now, while she was chief, she guarded and helped her people to the best of her ability. She was very outspoken at the meeting of all the chiefs and the District Commissioner. She was always on the side of the people at these meetings.
   One thing that Cierume worked very hard to change was the tendency of the colonial government to enforce laws which undermined her people's welfare. Cierume was very bitter about the way the British used her people as objects or as useless beings. For instance, she was against the system of forced labour whereby Mbeere people were forcibly taken to work in the white settlers' farms, leaving their families with nobody to care for them. Cierume had no fear telling the white District Commissioner that this kind of treatment was wrong. Cierume feared nobody, not even the white man! At one time, she was so indignant that she called the District Commissioner an uncircumcised boy because of instituting laws which were oppressive towards the Mbeere people.
   Now, at one time the District Commissioner invited all the chiefs of Mbeere and Embu to a meeting at Kirimari (literally "up the mountain"; now Embu Town). During this period, some chiefs were getting jealous of Cierume because of the way she towered over them at meetings and yet to them, she was a mere woman. So they plotted on how to get her deposed.
   In their conspiracy, the male chiefs lied to Cierume that the District Commissioner had ordered all the chiefs to attend the meeting naked. They told her that the District Commissioner had decreed that this was a meeting with a difference because it was a meeting in the nude.
   Although Cierume was courageous, she did not engage in acts which indicated lack of self-respect. She would never have done a shameful thing like revealing her nakedness to people. She believed that a person ought to respect herself the way she was respected by other people.

So she told those male chiefs to go to the meeting on their own because there was no way she would attend the meeting nude. She tried to persuade those chiefs to rebel against such a ruling but they refused to listen.

Cierume held her arms akimbo and said, "I have always told you that these white people who colonized us rule us through oppressive laws and that they are very wicked people. Have you ever heard us tell any of our leaders to take off his clothes so that we can see his nudity? Go naked you people if you are uncircumcised boys like that uncircumcised boy who has called this dirty meeting!"
   That is what these male chiefs wanted. They wanted to trick Cierume so that she failed to attend the meeting. They had earlier on planned on how they would accuse Cierume falsely with matters which would anger the District Commissioner so much that he would depose her as chief. Now, when they set off for the two-day journey to Kirimari on foot, they were naked. That is how they tricked Cierume into thinking that it was a meeting of nudes. However, they had sent people ahead carrying their clothes. They travelled until they reached where the clothes were hidden and got dressed.
   When they arrived at the meeting, these chiefs told the District Commissioner that Cierume had said she could not attend a meeting which had been convened by an uncircumcised boy. When the District Commissioner heard that, he was very angry. Now Cierume was not there to refute these allegations or to defend herself. So the District Commissioner immediately stripped Cierume of her chieftaincy.
   This woman known as Cierume, although she was deposed from her colonial chieftaincy, her fame as a leader did not come to an end. She continued being respected and remembered by people. Up to today, people still sing praise songs to Cierume. They sing how she was a well-respected courageous female leader. The name of Cierume and her fame still helps Mbeere and Embu women by inspiring them to manage their affairs fearlessly and with determination.

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