Before the British landed in Kenya in the 1800s, a young medicine woman in the present day town of Machakos had predicted their arrival.
Her name was Syokimau.
Legend has it that she had sprung out of a tree as not anyone knew of her parents and close relatives. People wondered whether she was sent from heaven or if she was the chosen one.
The Kamba people believed that her ability to prophecy came when she was attacked by a maimu- a benevolent spirit when she was just a young girl.
With her gift, she was able to predict attacks from neighbouring communities – the Kikuyu and the Maasai.
The Akamba warriors listened to her and prepared for the battle well in advance, increasing their chances of victory against the community.
She also had the ability to prophesy which community will win a war. She conducted prayers for the warriors under a designated tree that acted as a shrine, called the ithembo, where she would also make sacrifices for the warriors to come home unhurt.
Mwatu Wa Ngoma, then the leader of the community, heeded her counsel before battle and when he was facing a challenge in ruling over the people.
It was not long before Syokimau predicted the coming of the British. Her prophecy indicated the arrival of a long snake producing fire and smoke, and in it were ‘people with skin like meat who spoke unintelligibly like birds and carried fire in their pockets.’
She also predicted colonisation, telling the Akamba people that the ‘people with funny skin’ will beat them mercilessly and take over their land. She also added that the Europeans will also force the natives to discard their gods and worship their (British) God.
The prophecy of Syokimau came to pass in 1844 when the Europeans led by German missionaries, Johannes Rebmann, and Johann Ludwig Krapf arrived in Kenya’s interior to spread the gospel.
In 1985, the British Empire established the East African Protectorate, known as the Kenya Colony in 1920. The reports of cruelty and killing of native Kenyans by the British colonisers was just what Syokimau had predicted.
The snake in the prophecy referred to the ‘lunatic express’ (the Kenya-Uganda railway), which was constructed in 1896.
Just like she lived, Syokimau had an interesting death.
One random morning, the villagers of Iveti, where she used to stay, found her dead in her hut. As per traditions, they disposed of her body in the forest after waiting two days to confirm that she was really dead.
The second day after they had disposed of her body, an interesting phenomenon happened.
A crying voice could be heard in the forest, leading the villagers straight to where they had placed her body.
And there was Syokimau. She was praying and shouting and once she glanced at the baffled neighbours, she cried out that it was really her.
Oral literature has it that Syokimau lived for two more seasons before dying and resurrecting again, this time as an old woman appearing before young girls who had gone to collect firewood. She went back to her hut and even talked to a few people who had come to see her.
She was found the next morning, dead, but this time for real. She had died with her mouth open and facing upwards, what people believed was the posture she had when she was speaking to the ancestors.
Syokimau is a legend not only for the Kamba community but for Kenya as a country. A township, a few kilometres from Nairobi is named after her. A prophetess from the area, Syonguu, who was impressed by the works of Syokimau decided to name a village in her territory after the great prophetess.
She has also been honoured by the Kenyan government, which named one of the train stations after her. In the station is a statue of Syokimau in her greatness.