Growing up, The Bold and The Beautiful was a must watch for me. Even though it was not advised for viewers under the age of 16, I still watched it. I sometimes had to struggle to stay awake past nine o’clock to watch it, but I was somehow proud of that; I felt that it gave me an edge over my kindergarten counterparts. But at times, I wonder, did this, and other television shows I watched as a child subliminally programme me to prefer white partners over African and black ones?
My earliest recollection of indirect contact with white men was on this show. Ridge, Thorne, and Eric Forrester, two brothers and their father, were so enamoured by the love of one woman – Brooke Logan – that they were willing to lay everything on the line, including their filial ties, for the sake of her love. They were the definition of crazy in love for me before Jay Z and Beyonce sang about it. They expressed their love for the women they loved unashamedly and unabashedly, suffering heartbreak and humiliation, but never abetting in their quest for everlasting love. It was magical to watch this saga unfold on screen, not in the least because it was the men who made absolute fools of themselves in pursuit of true love. It underscored the ‘difference’ between emotional men and women. An emotional man is ‘passionate’ whereas an emotional woman is ‘hysterical’. These men were surely passionate.
Comparing this to locally produced programmes, it was evident the local fare never stood a chance. From the slapstick comedy stylings of shows like Vioja Mahakamani and Vitimbi, I got my preliminary insight into the contrast between African men and those on American shows. For one, the men on Vioja and Vitimbi seemed to relish lying to their wives, in the process making buffoons of themselves, trying to cover their tracks, and ultimately being discovered to hilarious results. While their intention was to presumably depict a simpler folk with simpler problems, the result was an imprint on a young mind of the untrustworthiness of black men, which was so prominent to their female counterparts that from episode to episode, the ladies on screen sailed from hysteria to hysteria.
As far as programmes verging on serious dramas went, the same pattern held, only these depicted authoritarian who did everything to keep their womenfolk in their place, or lower if they could, while the women constantly tried to find ways to outsmart them. The verdict was in. Kenyan men were unnecessarily bossy and ultimately witless. I mean, if they insinuated that women were lesser than them but still managed to be outsmarted by them at every turn, they must not have been very smart, must they? The aim of these shows, I believe, was to speak to a marginalised generation of women with an aim to subtly empower them to find their own way around patriarchy. But this might have had adverse effects on younger generations such as mine, who were as yet, unable to comprehend the nuances in programming but rather took what was offered at face value.
Regional and international black programming wasn’t any better either. Watching the likes of Egoli and Generations from South Africa, I was exposed to a more violent side of the black/ African man. I knew, as a child in the Kenyan education system, male teachers were certainly more punitive and less understanding than female teachers, and seemed to relish using corporal punishment. The pattern seemed to fit. Black American comedies seemed to patch things up, but only to a certain extent. It seemed, though happy, these depictions of happy black suburban families were constantly on the verge of being broken up by alleged infidelity, sexism and colourism. At a very young age, I knew that my father had a penchant for women. He had several wives and numerous girlfriends. I took this to be the reason why I would go for months, sometimes years, without seeing him. Again, the pattern seemed to fit. So even though I was cognisant of geographical and cultural differences between peoples of colour from Africa and the Diaspora, time and time again, from Nigerian films, to Kenyan and American sitcoms to South African dramas, the patterns were consistent and continually reinforced. This was a community to avoid. But how does one do so when, despite having this knowledge, one still identifies with and shares the same geographical and physical characteristics as the very group he is trying to avoid?
I had even further incentive to distance myself from this seemingly violent group when my sexuality was discovered in my early teens. Teachers both in upper primary and high school, mostly male, made it their mission to make an example of me, taunting me, calling me names, putting me in awkward situations just to prove a simple point – that as far as being a ‘real African man’ was concerned, I didn’t make the cut. But at the time, I had no interest in being a typical African man. I had already had an introduction into the world of ‘the real African man’ by way of my father, and my mother’s colleagues who took advantage of my mother’s single status to constantly try and romance her, despite most of them having wives and children of their own. They lied, drank too much, cheated, were the source of anguish for their families, and in the end, died too soon as a result of their reckless lives. Never more than then did I wish to escape, to have my very own white knight to rescue me from all the madness around me.
In my teens, I turned to online dating apps. In high school I’d had a few friends who were more exposed than I was, and who had been experimenting with their sexualities online for years. I, on the other hand, was still struggling to get the hang of using a computer, which I could only access in school or at cyber cafes in my neighbourhood. By this time I had suffered tremendous abuse and relentless attacks from Kenyan men who wished to change my ‘problematic’ sexuality while secretly trying to take personal advantage of it. It was enough of a motivation to log onto sites recommended by friends. From television shows, and now the Internet, I understood that there were safer spaces for people like me. And importantly, they all lay outside of Africa, in countries that promised nothing but the Ridges and Thornes of the world in abundance. The dating apps, and later Facebook at its infancy, were a sanctuary.
Whenever I met Kenyan men on these platforms, however, they had a few things in common. They would preface the online dating ritual by emphatically saying they were actually married, or say that their foray into same-sex love affairs was just a passing phase, a rest stop on the way to heteronormative marriage and life. I’m not a faggot like you but I think you’re cute, as long as you can keep this a secret, maybe we can have something. Needless to say, this was all quite off-putting. The white ones however, were quick to declare their desire, infatuation and love for me. They loved my physical features, my dark skin, my slender body, where their Kenyan counterparts wished I was a little lighter skinned, had curlier hair and was a littler rounder. There was also the issue of my being effeminate. While for the Kenyan men, this was an absolute turn-off in the larger sense, for the white ones this added to my charm. White men declared their intention of finding none other than Mr. Right, shipping him over to their country and settle down. I got to star as Brooke in my very own digital version of the dark, young, bold and beautiful and it was intoxicating.
This was also the time when I got to connect with a few returnees and ‘summer bunnies’ – Kenyans who had lived abroad – who shared their dating realities with me. The message was clear. If I wished to be treated right by a man, if I wanted pure unadulterated love and devotion, then I needn’t waste my time with black men. White men were the way to go. Not long after that, I got my shot. By then, the Kenyan programming sphere had been infiltrated by South American shows, depicting the all sensual, mysteriously handsome, athletic and hot tempered (read as passionate) Latin man who would stop at nothing to get the woman (or man) of his dreams, including sweeping gestures and garish declarations. If the Forresters were crazy in love, then these Latin men added a deliciously heightened, even forbidden level of insanity to the love game. And as it happened, I landed myself a Spaniard. He was not, strictly speaking, Latino (Central/ South American), but a pretty good approximation by my estimation; my friends agreed.
But that is where I began to understand the pathology of the broken man rather than the shortfalls of an entire race. For, while he was indeed European, he had very distinct ideas about his and my place in the world. He was the appointed saviour and I was the appointed impoverished African looking to be rescued. He was a racist bigot, who saw nothing wrong in insulting an entire continent simply based off of the actions of a few individuals he had encountered or heard about in Europe. Even though he sought after me, he insinuated that I was only after the almighty European passport as a way to save myself and my family from wretched poverty, which was apparently consuming Africa, my loved ones included. I voiced my concern with those around me about his behaviour towards me, but again, the message was clear. Even at his worst, he was still better than the best Kenyan around. Was it because of the promise of what he could offer me or just by virtue of his nationality? No one could say, but they held firm in the belief.
Even after the end of said relationship, I was questioned constantly about why I would let such a catch get away. Apparently, trauma suffered while in the relationship was not enough to warrant a breakup. Frankly, I was told, Kenyan women and men stick around suffering a lot more at the hands of their Kenyan or African partners, for a lot less in return. I was aware of the changed perception of me held by others. I was now ‘one of those’- The ones that date white men for whatever reason. The ‘whatever’ being a passport, money or status, none of which I was interested in. But public opinions had changed. Subsequent dating experiences proved that. My Kenyan dates would ask whether I was constantly comparing them to my ex, and then bring up the inevitable sexual innuendo that no man can ever satisfy me as well as an African man can.
My Kenyan dates, like I mentioned earlier, were quick to point out the transient nature of our soon to be liaisons, as they were actively hiding their sexual orientation from their families and the women they hoped to marry. In short, it was ‘I’ve got hoes in different area codes’. I was made to understand that I was one of many to be seen and serviced as often as my dates’ schedules and affinity for me allowed, and for this, I had to be grateful. I was also informed that my aesthetic wasn’t exactly to their taste, as I leaned more towards the androgynous-looking, overtly sexually deviant, while they were looking for the regular boy-next-door who could pass for straight in a pinch. For this reason, I would never be granted access into their inner sanctums of family and friends. If I wished to proceed, I would be a lone star orbiting them and their lives while simultaneously having nothing to do with them. Even though at the time I had sworn off white men and what I believed to be their potential for craziness, I felt compelled to reconsider the idea of dipping my toe in the interracial dating pool once more.
By this time I was working in the television industry – a hilarious coincidence that I ended up there after my early formative experiences via television – and I noticed a pattern, particularly among my female colleagues. The more successful, well travelled, educated and financially stable they were, the more likely they were to be dating or be married to a white man. In passing conversations, I asked why this was the case, and they recounted the same horror stories that I had experienced. Shameless infidelity and physical violence, jealousy at their success and admiration by other men, deep-seated insecurities, and lack of emotional maturity. The list was as long as the women were different. But the conclusion was the same. The women said they never suffered this level of horror at the hands of their white partners. Granted, white men were far from perfect. There were the odd cheaters, and jealousy was a natural part of life, but for the most part, they were more supportive, loving and entirely faithful, with a policy of absolute honesty which even went to termination of relationships in the event of incompatibility. Never having to guess what their partners were constantly thinking, trying to read in between the lies for half truths in whole lies, was a freeing experience.
I wondered how many of them were shaped by the early images of the white knight and his willingness (more than ability) to move mountains for his fair maiden. Or did it go deeper to our encounters with the men around us and how we watched them interact with us, our mothers and those around them? Did they all have experiences of their fathers cheating on their mothers? Many admitted to this. Did their fathers subjugate their mothers? Another overwhelming yes. Were they themselves victims of violence and abuse at the hands of men around them? Another overwhelming yes. Were their looks or intelligence called to question by the men around them? Another yes.
I think though, that the long enduring image of the white knight, loyal, faithful and honourable, is a notion that is being disabused from the minds of the Kenyan, and I suspect, African Millennials. Africa’s new economic boom has seen the surge of western infiltration in certain key sectors. The expat is a mainstay in certain cities, especially Nairobi, where they are found grazing on croissants in top tier coffee houses, lunching at five-star hotels, dancing all night at the latest hotspots and jetting down to the coast every weekend or so to unwind from their incredibly strenuous lives in the city and take some sun. With them has come the advent of dating apps like Grindr catering to an exclusively gay clientele, as well as Tinder and Bumble that are more inclusive in preferences. The expats might arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hoping to embark on their own African romances, and find their own African princes and princesses to ride into the sunset with.
But this dream is typically not long lived. For one, they realise that the demand for those with their complexion and nationalities is high, while supply is low. For every white face you see on a dating app somewhere in Africa, are over twenty locals trying, some desperately, to woo the foreigner. Some quickly enter into relationships with locals that also quickly end on allegations of cheating on the part of the local. And after this earth-shattering experience, the expat is lost to the world. Most assume a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude in the dating scene, often having multiple partners and being quite open about it, because they realise, while this might be unacceptable back home, in their host countries, this is not only acceptable but encouraged. Everyone wants a piece. Everyone wants to be seen on the arm of the tall, blonde, blue-eyed stranger while strutting into the club, and as such, is not subject to the demeaning security checks or even worse, being turned back at the door.
The expats soon realise that they are social currency and they use it to their advantage, getting their pick of the most intelligent, attractive, wealthy, socially mobile, well educated urbanites in their host country, where back home people with such attributes honestly wouldn’t give him the light of day. It becomes a world of Average Joes dating super models, successful professionals, public figures and personalities while not being expected to be anything other than their regular white/European selves. And even though there have been instances of public outcry, particularly on social media on ‘blancos behaving badly’, society still continues rewarding them by upholding them as the ideal, what to aspire to. Whites can do no wrong. They are only in the wrong places and the wrong time. Secretly, parents continue to wish their children end up with white men, if only for the social recognition and social mobility their new status would afford them. But that is a story for another day.
The truth of the matter is, despite best intentions on either side of the colour and race divide, we Kenyans were groomed on drastically different imagery as compared to our European and North American counterparts. Much like my Alejandro turned wacko; most of the west was raised on the images of starving African, eyes and stomachs bulging, in need of urgent help. If not hunger, then war and genocide – in Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia… Africa, for all its diversity and relatively rapid growth and development, is condensed to handful of desperate situations, which didn’t even last forever.
When Europeans see African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in those flimsy boats, it confirms that long held assertion by the western imagination that justified historical atrocities of colonialism and slave trade. The African is a savage that needs to be saved from himself. He is responsible for his own hell. He has brought hunger, war and death upon himself and it is up to the west, once again, to rise and save him from himself.
How then does a modern white man, who believes he not a racist by virtue of dating, loving, even marrying a person of colour, then reconcile these images of the disenfranchised African with the reality of present day African Millennials? In my experience – not so well. For while the myth of the white knight still beguiles many in Kenya and the African continent, the complex of absolute salvation hangs heavy on the shoulders of the to-be knights. For every white knight, there surely must be a damsel in distress.
Granted, times are and have changed somewhat. With the push for equality, mass education through the media and the emergence of Africa as a new and formidable world player, the perception of Africa, Africans and people of colour around the globe has began to shift. But what has replaced it is the illusion of fantasy. Africa is where it is now hunger campaigns have since been retired, but they have since been replaced with a dramatic presentation of Africa the beautiful, a land where the sun never sets, with ever welcoming natives, curvaceous, sun baked beauties frolicking on white sandy beaches between intermittent dips in the crystal clear waters. Then you have the highland maidens and their complicated coffee customs, or the southern African topless dancing beauties that are unabashed about their sizeable endowments.
A western man, who wishes to be a part of this new world by falling in love with a person from the continent, falls in love with a holiday package fantasy. Standards of beauty have changed, replacing pale with bronzed skins, such that even the people of Africa have become something to acquire and possess. We are shiny new toys sold under the banner of exotic, expressive and smouldering sensuality. All the while, the images being presented to the people of Africa are still aspirational. They continue to advertise the west, and all that emanates from it as the ideal, as a goal to achieve. A convergence of both illusions creates a fertile ground for fetishisation rather than understanding.
The white man is no better placed to explain why he is suddenly looking to Africa and peoples of colour as possible romantic liaisons other than the fact that it being advertised as not only permissible but also highly encouraged in order to be a part of globalisation. The attraction for the European is the African and his or her potential. Africa no longer represents savagery, but rather something interesting to experience and acquire. It is the birthplace of the Chimamandas and the Binyavangas of the world. It is an intellectual powerhouse more connected with the present and the future, while the west stagnates and ossifies. It is the land of potential and holds much the same appeal it held hundreds of years ago when the first Europeans ‘discovered’ its ‘undisturbed’ ‘virgin’ land the bounty it held. Is there anything more intoxicating than the notion of salvation and the notion of potential, mixed together in a heady combustion of cultural fusion? And while the Kenyan woman or man seeks be more accepted in the world via his or her white partner, the white partner seeks to be a part of progress, using his black partner as proof of evolution in a culture in decline.
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Ama Ata Aidoo: A Tribute
Ama Ata Aidoo repositioned women’s writing within a male-dominated canon in African literature during the mid-1960s and her legacy can be seen in the outpouring of African literature in the twenty-first century by women authors who now dominate the field.
Ama Ata Aidoo is Ghana’s foremost woman writer whose distinguished career spans several decades of the post-independence era in Africa. Her literary contribution places her amongst the first generation of African women writers as a leading feminist voice within postcolonial writing. Through a feminist lens, her literary corpus conveys much insight into the complexities of African women’s lives in the colonial and postcolonial landscape of competing and challenging experiences in society. Her fictional works portray women characters who navigate local norms and expectations for women, customs and traditions, and the challenges of race, class, and gender inequalities within transnational spaces in western settings.
For over twenty years, my research, scholarship and teaching has explored the literature of African women writers, including Aidoo’s work, to highlight their experiences in society and to celebrate their remarkable contributions to women’s and gender studies through literary expression.
Aidoo is a pioneering figure of immense significance through the creation of Africa’s first dramatic work in English by an African woman, The Dilemma of a Ghost in 1965, followed by her second play, Anowa in 1970.
As a commanding literary figure, Aidoo repositioned women’s writing within a male-dominated canon in African literature during the mid-1960s. Her novels, Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections of a Black-Eyed Squint (1977) and Changes: A Love Story (1991) disrupted stereotypical portrayals of African women that were common in male-authored African texts written during the twentieth century. In both novels, Aidoo crafted female protagonists who were strong, intelligent, and outspoken as a form of ‘writing back’ to reclaim women’s voices from the margins to centre stage in the African literary world. Important themes in Aidoo’s works include postcolonial perspectives, feminist expression, the interplay of tradition and modernity, and the relationship between Ghana and the African diaspora, among other compelling issues of postcolonial discourse.
Her creative artistry has woven a tapestry of literature across genres of poetry, drama, novels, short fiction, essays, and literary criticism. Her short fiction includes No Sweetness Here (1970), The Girl Who Can and Other Stories (1997), and Diplomatic Pounds (2012). Her poetry collections include Someone Talking to Sometime (1985), Birds and Other Poems (1987), An Angry Letter in January, and Other Poems (1992), and After the Ceremonies: New and Selected Poems (2017). Like many African writers in the past and the present, Aidoo’s literary style draws heavily upon African oral traditions and a combination of prose and poetry.
Ama Ata Aidoo was born on March 23, 1940, in southern Ghana to a royal family of the Fante ethnic community. Encouraged by her father to pursue a western education, she began writing at the age of fifteen. After completing secondary school at Wesley Girl’s School in Cape Coast, she attended the University of Ghana at Legon, where she majored in English literature. While at University she participated in the Ghana Drama Studio and published her first play, Dilemma of a Ghost in 1965. Her teaching career began in 1970 and lasted for over a decade at the University of Cape Coast but the unfavorable political climate in the country failed to nurture her creative talent. In 1982 she was appointed Minister of Education by the then head of state, J. J. Rawlings. She resigned from her position in less than two years and migrated to Zimbabwe where she resumed writing and teaching. She subsequently taught in the United States, at the University of Richmond and at Brown University, until her retirement in 2012.
Ama Ata Aidoo’s works have received critical acclaim and robust scholarly engagement by writers and literary critics. Among these are Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo (1999), The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Documentary Film (2014), Essays in Honor of Ama Ata Aidoo at 70: a Reader in African Cultural Studies (2012) and The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Polylectics and Reading Against Neocolonialism (1994).
I am fortunate to have experienced a rewarding friendship with Ama Ata Aidoo that began at the African Literature Association annual conference in 2012. I will always cherish the memory of her warmth and hospitality as well as her insightful perspectives on contemporary women’s issues in Ghana and the African diaspora. In the early years of my career as a literary scholar, her fiction inspired my scholarly engagement with victimhood and agency in the work of African women writers as well as my approach to feminist-inspired African texts through critical analysis of her novel Changes: A Love Story, the short story collection No Sweetness Here and the play Anowa. In these iconic fictional works Ama Ata Aidoo presents paradoxical outcomes for women characters as they respond to patriarchy, urbanization, and the conflicting demands of modernity in the colonial and postcolonial landscape of Ghana.
The novel Changes skillfully examines the complexities of Ghanaian women’s difficult choices and responsibility for one’s destiny in life. In the novel, Aidoo interrogates the extent to which a woman who follows her own path ends up better off than the woman who bends to the status quo through obedience to conventional norms in society. The stories in No Sweetness Here portray Ghanaian women faced with choices that challenge conventional norms and expectations as well as realities of the modern world of social flux and changing identities. The setting of Anowa is nineteenth century colonial Ghana where feminist themes emerge through the actions of the female protagonist. Anowa rebels against parental authority and women’s traditional roles by marrying a man her family has rejected, resulting in tragic outcomes. In her role as an outspoken voice for women, Aidoo articulates the impact of social, economic, and political forces on the lives of African women. Aidoo asserts that, “on the whole, African traditional societies seem to have been at odds with themselves as to what exactly to do with women”. This dilemma lies at the crux of Aidoo’s feminist perspectives expressed in her writing and underscores the pressing need for social transformation and women’s equality.
Aidoo interrogates the extent to which a woman who follows her own path ends up better off than the woman who bends to the status quo through obedience to conventional norms in society.
As a consummate storyteller, the corpus of Aidoo’s writings captures the dynamism of Ghanaian and African women’s lives through strong women characters that exhibit intelligence, strength, and agency in the search for happiness and success in their lives. Ama Ata Aidoo’s legacy can be seen in the outpouring of African literature in the twenty-first century by women authors who now dominate the field. A new generation of leading women writers from Africa owe their inspiration to Ama Ata Aidoo and other pioneers like Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and Mariama Ba who broke barriers for women as literary godmothers of feminist expression and innovative ways of telling the African story. Ghana and the world have lost a commanding presence on the literary stage and her works will remain as cherished classics in African and world literature.
Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo: A Mother and a Gardener
In the garden of her home, Mwalimu found a mirror to her own life, where tending to growth required patience, determination, and the willingness to embrace, metaphorically and physically, both sunlight and storms.
“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.”
– Maya Angelou
In the hushed corners of memory, where the tapestries of lives are woven, there lies a figure both fierce and tender – Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo. Hers wasn’t just a name etched in the annals of African literature and orature, a name revered in halls of the ivory tower, or a name heralded by activists. Indeed, she was all those things, and more. But behind closed doors, in the shadows of acclaim and applause, she was a cultivated radiant soul on whose shoulders so much was placed, a soul weighed heavily by unfulfilled dreams, a soul whose essence blossomed in myriad facets, each illuminating the mosaic of her existence. Much has been said and written about her in tribute and commemoration since her demise, all noteworthy. But alongside what is known lies the person as seen through the inner corridors of her life. It is there we find not just the public icon, but the woman, and it is through that lens that I wish to explore the layers of Mwalimu’s life that coloured her world.
In 1976, a struggling Cameroonian-Nigerian musician, Prince Nico Mbarga, and his band Rocafil Jazz, released the song Sweet Mother, an upbeat single, sung in Pidgin English, and featuring a West African highlife-infused tempo, with a Congolese Soukous-style fingerpicking guitar lead. Despite having been previously rejected by no less than three major record companies, it went on to become one of the best-selling and most popular Pan-African singles ever released. The lyrics began thus:
Sweet mother I no go forget you
For the suffer wey you suffer for me yeah
It was the quintessential African ode to motherhood. In equal parts full of praise and mention of sacrifice, it symbolised the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and is often played at weddings and other ceremonies far beyond Nigeria and Cameroon. Perhaps more than any other piece of art, this song captures the intimate tri-generational and parallel relationships between Micere Githae Mugo and her mother, and Micere Githae Mugo and her children.
Nothing brought Mwalimu more comfort and joy than her children. For those familiar with her lectures and presentations, nary a single one began without an elaborate acknowledgment of Mumbi and Njeri, replete with all their respective accomplishments (much to their irritation). Even in person, when speaking or referring to either one of them, a sparkle would light up her eyes as immense pride beamed. Every decision she made since their birth was carried out with them in mind, and although she often expressed regret for the effects some of those decisions had on her children, feeling her life’s trajectory had yielded undue hardship on them, Mumbi and Njeri would always reassure their mother of the contrary. It was this precise journey that forged them into the women they became, the daughters she referred to as her “besties” and of whom Mwalimu took immense satisfaction in being the loudest cheerleader and praise singer. If there was a heaven on earth for Mwalimu, it existed when she was beside her children.
Mwalimu’s nurturing soul remained consistent throughout her life, reverberating across distance and geographies, always planting seeds of hope and reassurance in her children’s hearts. For Mũmbi wa Mũgo, and the late Njeri Kũi, their mother’s stories, woven from threads of struggle and strength, ignited in them fires of resilience, reminding them that roots, no matter how bruised and imperfect, are meant to be nourished and celebrated.
Believing, as the African American novelist Toni Morrison often said, that “the function of freedom is to free someone else”, Mwalimu’s essence as a mother, and her sense of family, transcended mere biology. She opened her heart and home to many, becoming a mother and sister to countless regardless of their origin and circumstances. Throughout her life, her homes did not discriminate. They were sites of knowledge, sanctuary, community, and entertainment for people from virtually every walk of life.
Mwalimu was the nurturer of dreams, fostering creativity and independent thinking in all those she embraced as her children, reflecting Bell Hooks’ notion of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. I recall her taking a keen interest in my own professional endeavours. While mine were different in discipline from hers, she recognised the common thread with which we pursued our respective fields, and invested her time and resources, often while battling one or more ailments, in guiding me towards conclusions that would embolden my arguments and position my work through the lens of Africana scholarship. Mwalimu frequently and publicly cheered my accomplishments, delightfully advertising the products of my work to the audiences we shared. When I was commissioned to curate a collective Pan-African architectural exhibition as part of the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennial, her thunderous applause that ricocheted in the longest email I’ve ever received from her – and this is not to say her emails were ever short – contained a critical review of my curatorial statement with appendices to boot, all attached in a multiple-page document that she took the trouble to manually digitise, all the while battling an infection.
She opened her heart and home to many, becoming a mother and sister to countless regardless of their origin and circumstances.
Mwalimu’s spirit was that of a wanderer. She roamed not just through physical landscapes but through the corridors of the human experience, embodying Chinua Achebe’s notion that “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten”. An avid traveller, she so enjoyed encounters with diverse cultures through which she embraced the human experience in its myriad shades, recognising that unity arises from understanding and fostering solidarity with all who are disempowered and disenfranchised. In every place she lived, Mwalimu never stood idle or quiet in the face of oppression, always agitating and mobilising for the issues of the day, be they fighting dictatorship in Kenya, defeating Apartheid in South Africa and Palestine, supporting LBGTQI and immigrant rights globally, resisting White Supremacy and protecting the right to vote in the United States. All these and more she championed, determined to lend her voice to the voiceless, and might to the weak.
The tapestry of Mwalimu’s life extended beyond her family, weaving through communities with the deftness of the Afro-Cuban laureate, Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista’s poetic strokes. She was a bridge builder, a community organiser, an embodiment of Assata Shakur’s vision of revolution as an ongoing process. She recognised that a single thread couldn’t hold the fabric of change; it required collective hands and shared dreams to stitch together a world of equity and compassion.
“Sometimes you take detours to get where you need to go.” So wrote the Haitian-American author Edwidge Dandicat. And accordingly, exile couldn’t extinguish the fire within Mwalimu’s heart. No stranger to betrayal, she lived life looking forward, not forgetting the pains and losses of the past, but not clutching onto them nor clinging to bygone eras, acutely aware that a closed door is also a new beginning. It is an opportunity to resist containment, to evolve, to sow and nurture seeds elsewhere, with the new environment no different from a new blank page in one’s story. That is not to say she forgot about where she was from. Mwalimu was always engaged and connected to Kenya. But exile pushed her towards new horizons, all of which left identifiers on her that were as indelible as her origins.
She was a bridge builder, a community organiser, an embodiment of Assata Shakur’s vision of revolution as an ongoing process.
“How do I survive?” Mwalimu once rhetorically remarked during a 2015 conversation with her biographer Ndirangũ Wachanga. “[I survive through] linking up with struggles wherever I happen to find myself. That lesson really came very powerfully from my mother and is summarised in My Mother’s Poems, this notion of learning as human beings to create spaces, to create new homes, which we have to learn as progressive pan Africanists of what oppressed people, especially what enslaved people did.”
To buttress herself against the torment of being separated from all that was loved and familiar, Mwalimu immersed herself in the everyday lives of the people in the places she lived. Following the principles of Utu and Ubuntu, she embraced their concerns as her own, their fights as new battlegrounds. Like the Guyanese academic and activist Walter Rodney’s unwavering commitment to truth, she stood firm against injustice, transforming her longing for home into an unyielding struggle for justice. Mwalimu bore the weight of people’s hopes as she fought for a world where words, like South African singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba’s melodies, knew no boundaries.
In 1982, while addressing a Malcom X weekend lecture at Harvard University, the African American feminist philosopher Audre Lorde observed, “Revolution is not a one-time event.” This Mwalimu understood well; she once chuckled with absolute glee at my calling out her lifelong affinity for mischief. Defiant to a fault, no nemesis was too big, too powerful, for her to oppose. Resistance, she felt, was as important as joy. And her defiance spread across facets. She abhorred, for example, the brandishing of titles and displays of social stratification – hallmarks, she believed, of the insecure. There she was, sitting quietly in a waiting room for one of her medical appointments, her body weakened from the effects of aggressive chemotherapy, proudly flaunting a tote bag brightly emblazoned with the words “Fight the Power!”
To buttress herself against the torment of being separated from all that was loved and familiar, Mwalimu immersed herself in the everyday lives of the people in the places she lived.
In the front and rear gardens of her home in Syracuse, there Mwalimu found solace. An avid gardener, the cold of winter was kept at bay by her anticipation of spring, when the loosening soils and warmer temperatures would draw her outside, along with both willing and unwilling accomplices, gardening paraphernalia in tow, to till the loosening soil. This, even when it was against Mumbi’s ever-vigilant advice, was her happy place. Basking under the sun, caring for the kaleidoscopic hues of the blooming canvas that was her vegetable and floral ensemble, Mwalimu found a mirror to her own life – where tending to growth required patience, determination, and the willingness to embrace, metaphorically and physically, both sunlight and storms. And it was under her sun hat, and in her gardening gloves and gumboots that some of her most devoted time was spent.
The months from April to October were focused on, among other things, planting, weeding, and harvesting. The discipline put in the effort that went into producing organic vegetables was second only to that which drove her writing, and always released a dose of energy that no medication could substitute. Every year, without fail, Mwalimu fastidiously planted a range of vegetables including heirloom tomatoes and kale, a headless leafy green cabbage similar to sukuma wiki that was also favourite of the neighbourhood gopher – a stubborn rodent of a creature that often, and quite successfully, claimed exclusive domain over this plant; Kunde, also known as cowpea leaves; and a plethora of herbs. Harvests were multiple throughout the summer, bringing her immense satisfaction and the luxury of consuming home-grown produce year round.
At the front of the house, bees pollinated her assembly of annuals and perennials, flowers that were also a delicacy for the local deer. “Pirates!” She called them. Each flower petal, each vegetable harvest, was a testament to her resilience, a reflection of her understanding that life’s beauty lies in its imperfections and in the sum of its parts.
Between the pages of books, Mwalimu embarked on a ceaseless voyage of intellectual discovery as she consumed literature with voracious hunger. She knew that the most profound journeys were those of the mind, and through every word devoured, she collected fragments of wisdom to sew into the tapestry of her own life, and the lives of others.
In 2018, I gifted Mwalimu the book Barracoon: The Story of the “Last Black Cargo”, a small title by the African American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. “What a read!” she exclaimed, and went on to discuss how the author’s insistence on claiming and establishing African American Orature as a site of knowledge was nothing short of a revolutionary act. We would later share thoughts on the legitimacy of marginalized languages like Caribbean Patois or Kenyan Sheng, loathed by the elites but nonetheless authentic as linguistic systems, capable of literary rigour, and worthy of celebration. Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid asks in her book A Small Place, “For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?” Drawing from that, Mwalimu recognized that linguistic colonialism was as brutal and unjust as all other forms of dominance, and that language, in whatever form, is above all the heartbeat of a community.
But perhaps what she enjoyed reading the most was personal correspondence from those in her orbit. Every sentence in a personal email was carefully and diligently referred to or responded to. And those responses were ever so lyrical, so elaborate, so engaging that one would immediately feel the weight of the world in their attempts to write back in kind – an exercise quite often futile. And God help you if you did not respond!
Each flower petal, each vegetable harvest, was a testament to her resilience, a reflection of her understanding that life’s beauty lies in its imperfections and in the sum of its parts.
A deeply spiritual being, Mwalimu prayed to God, often. But she also meditated daily, believing that reflecting and thinking about the nature of, and occurrences on, those dear to her was aligned with and inseparable from her own circumstances. She did not, however, subscribe to a singular organized system of belief and worship, and was always sceptical about seeing God through an externally programmed lens. Mwalimu’s spirituality was more personalized, and centred on providing her with peace and purpose. She was aware, as Professor Jacob Olupona states, that African “deities, spirits, gods, ancestors, and personal and impersonal forces are regarded as active agents in the created world…”, and ancestral tradition, the veneration of parents and forbears was central to an honest and unfiltered understanding of our world, rooted in indigenous African knowledge systems. She called out to the ancestors often, seeking their guidance and comfort, believing that the suppression of these systems remained a critical component in the unfinished process of African liberation.
At the core of her being, Mwalimu was human, embracing and being open about her vulnerabilities with the grace of James Baldwin’s reflections on authenticity. Her honesty, like a mirror reflecting truth, resonated with the essence of what it meant to be complete. In a world fraught with façades, she dared to bare her soul, displaying to us how authenticity is not only rare, but is a revolution in itself. Hers is a tapestry woven with threads of love, struggle, growth, and ultimately truth. This is what set her apart from many. Ever conscious of social relationships that are of equal status, intellectual openness and possibilities for critique and creative engagement, Mwalimu’s encounters with the world followed her fervent belief in an old Gĩkũyũ adage, kwaaranĩria nĩ kwendana, meaning “to hold dialogue is to love.”
“For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?”
From Kariria, Kirinyaga County in Central Kenya on the southern slopes of the great mountain, to the revered halls of Makerere University perched on the hilltops of Kampala, Uganda, to the maritime province of New Brunswick on the Atlantic coast of Canada, to the then politically active University of Nairobi in Kenya’s bustling capital, to the blooming Jacaranda tree-laden avenues of Harare, Zimbabwe, and finally to her home in Syracuse, nestled in the heart of Onondaga County in Central New York, Mwalimu’s legacy beckons us to embrace life’s journey with modesty and fervour. These two qualities, along with courage, guided and grounded her throughout her life. They were, however, not qualities gained as she navigated through the world, but rather qualities that were already in place, and instilled in her as a child by her mother, a woman who had walked her own path before her, experienced and overcome her own share of turmoil and in the process found her own voice. Mwalimu remained anchored to her mother, her metaphorical North Star, and grateful for the sacrifices that were made, and the pain that was endured, to allow for the becoming of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo.
If i no sleep, my mother no go sleep
If i no chop, my mother no go chop
She no dey tire ooo
Sweet mother i no go forget dey suffer wey you suffer for me yeh yeh
Sweet mother yeeeeh
Sweet mother oh, oh oh
And so ends Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother, so aptly describing the bonds between a woman in the central highlands of Kenya who despite losing it all, would persevere to nurture Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, bequeathing to her the fortitude to stay the course, a foundation that would one day take Micere to previously unimaginable heights. The daughter would herself become a mother, passing onto the next generation what would take Mwalimu’s legacy even further. Grace.
Micere Githae Mugo: Creating Liberated Zones
Was it during her years at Limuru Girls School that Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo developed a lifelong passion for “creating liberated zones” in educational institutions?
It was the dawn of a new decade. The Kenya Colony was in the frenzy of transition. Behind it lay the trauma of the State of Emergency; ahead, the tantalising promise of Uhuru. In February 1961, the excitement rose to fever pitch: an African majority was elected for the first time in the colony’s Legislative Council, an important political development making manifest the reality of the “wind of change” sweeping not only across the rapidly diminishing British Empire but also right at home in the Kenya Colony itself. Everywhere, there was change in the air – euphoria for the majority, trepidation for others, as preparations were made in earnest for the birth of Kenya as a brand new independent nation.
On all fronts, the changes were happening; sometimes faster than the guardians and facilitators of the old colonial order were ready for. And so it is that change came to a little school, tucked in the heart of what was then called the White Highlands, where, according to school lore, a progressive headteacher, Veronica Owen, tabled a daring proposal. It was time, she said, for the school, which had begun as a small family initiative in 1922, to take the big step away from racial exclusion to integration. It was time for Limuru Girls School – as it celebrated 40 years as an educational institution that had served to this point an exclusively European student body – to transition into a multiracial institution.
To the school community, this was as momentous as the idea of independence was to many in the country. True, it wouldn’t be the very first time in the colony that students of different races would sit together in a classroom. In 1949, John and Joan Karmali, an interracial couple, had officially pioneered the first “non-racial” classes in the colony. With no other premises available, these had been held in the official residence of the Indian High Commissioner and in their own home. Later, as interest caught on amongst a tiny community of willing parents, the then Governor Phillip Mitchell facilitated the acquisition of the premises bequeathing it the name that it would become known by: Hospital Hill School. Thus began the first “brave, successful and doomed” experiment in instiling colour blindness in Kenya through racially integrated schooling – also noteworthy in that it was the first primary school in Nairobi to offer access to African pupils.
Up until that time, the assumption had been that African children were absent in the city. That the school had survived its first rocky decade despite the heightened political tensions of the fifties and the general disapproval of many in the settler elite, was possibly a source of inspiration to those at Limuru Girls School enthusiastic about the idea. Possibly, they were also aware of another initiative in the pipeline at the time: to set up a similar experiment in the form of an all-boys Sixth Form college – what ultimately became Strathmore. If this was the case, they must also have been very conscious that for their own school community, there were very important differences. Unlike Hospital Hill or the proposed Strathmore, the benefit of a committed and supportive school community united in the express vision of racial integration was not guaranteed. Then, there was also the fact that these other institutions were day schools, meaning that the children attending them would be living at home, making it possible for the parents to be constantly involved, on a day-to-day basis, in closely monitoring and offering daily support to guarantee their well-being. This would not be possible in a residential school. And finally, the student populations of both the Hospital Hill School and Strathmore College were racially integrated from the get-go, while in the case of Limuru Girls School, this would mean bringing in the bare minimum number of non-White students into one class on an experimental basis. It would not be exaggerating to consider those students as guinea pigs whose survival was a matter of optimistic conjecture, rather than as privileged winners of an educational jackpot.
It is safe to assume that support for the proposal was not unanimous and one can only imagine how vehement the reactions to the proposal must have been. Still, the advocates for the idea would not be deterred. The school was a Christian school, they pointed out. Would it not be the Christian thing to do? Finally, however, the decision was taken: two students only – one African, one Asian – would be given the opportunity for two years to prove the intellectual and social worth of their respective races to the school community.
Facts as foundation…
And so it was that in early 1961, Limuru Girls School embarked on its great experiment. Two pioneer students were invited to join the incoming Higher Certificate level class. The African student selected, Madeleine Mĩcere Gĩthae, had just excelled in her School Certificate examinations after four happy years at the African (later Alliance) Girls High School, where she had also been a popular head girl and active participant in a range of “extra” curricula activities. That school was also looking forward to a historic new class, 1961 being the seminal year when it would offer its pioneer Higher Certificate class. Either way, Madeleine Gĩthae, should she return to her former school or move on to this new opportunity, was set to be an educational pioneer in Kenya. The choice to join Kirpal Singh as the other pioneer non-European student in an entire school meant she would take the harder, lonelier path to engraving her name in the annals of the country.
Two students only – one African, one Asian – would be given the opportunity for two years to prove the intellectual and social worth of their respective races to the school community.
One could simply skip through the next couple of years by saying that the rest is history. The record does show that Madeleine Gĩthae did indeed go on to not only survive, but also to excel during her time at Limuru, passing every test set for her both in and out of the classroom. In her studies, she made nonsense of the notion of the alleged intellectual inferiority of the African, on the sports field she earned the grudging admiration of her peers by earning glory for the school. Throughout the six long terms that she was a student at the school, she gave those searching for reasons to bolster the case for continuing racial segregation in Kenyan schools nothing to point triumphantly to. By the time she left in 1962, she had flung wide open the doors of schools such as this one for the myriads of girls – and boys – of all races and classes who would come after her. She also graduated at the top of her class, earning a coveted scholarship to the University of Oxford. She turned this down – preferring instead to go to the University of East Africa at Makerere where … but that is a story for another time.
Facts as foundation,
In some ways, this is the end of the story of those two years at Limuru Girls School… but in other ways, this is just the frame. To fill it out, I invite you to switch places with me as you become the storyteller and take the lead in a journey of imagination. Step back into that place, that time, step, for a moment, into the school shoes of a teenager facing the challenge of having such enormous responsibility placed on your shoulders. Ta imagini – to echo her older self – what it must have been like to leave home, a place where you were loved and cherished and affirmed, to go to boarding school for several weeks at a time. Ta imagini looking around you, once your parents had left, not at girls whose smiling faces promised the possibility of making new friends to set off with on an exciting adventure, but rather facing up to settling into this new environment, where the majority saw you as a lesser being, and deeply resented your presence. Ta imagini having to be in this lonely space for weeks on end with no respite; with even the handful of fellow students who might be a little sympathetic to your plight, careful not to cross the invisible boundaries of becoming too closely associated with you. Yes, ta imagini the direct personal experience of being on the frontline of the ugly racism that was at the core of the colonial education system.
And sure, one might argue, the success or failure of one schoolgirl would definitely not have been the end of the world. Kenya would have continued its inexorable march towards independence. Sooner rather than later, African and Asian students would have been welcomed at this school and many others as, indeed, racial exclusion died a timely death in Kenya – at least officially. But just for a moment, think about what it meant for this child facing the unknown to take a deep breath as the realisation set in of how utterly on her own she would be in the weeks to come, and most especially when immersed in the crowd of girls amongst whom she would never truly belong.
Yes, ta imagini the direct personal experience of being on the frontline of the ugly racism that was at the core of the colonial education system.
Limuru Girls School has a simple motto: In Fide Vade – in Faith We Go. I think of it as a reminder that schools are spaces that do more than prepare students for exams; they are important agents of socialisation, facilitating the future into being by nurturing the children that will live as adults in it. As I reflect on these two critical years of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo’s childhood, in relation to the person she became, I find myself wondering what influence they might have had on her. In the discourse that pervades Kenya at the present time, as we tussle with the logistics of engineering the school structure and debate and discuss the ins and outs of the new curricula, I ask myself what exactly it is that we envision these critical spaces to be for and how far we have travelled from the challenges that six decades ago those in charge of the system were grappling with. What kind of impact will these critical years of their lives have on the students who are passing through our school institutions today?
With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if it was during these years at Limuru Girls School that Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo developed a lifelong passion for “creating liberated zones” in educational institutions. If it was here that, having experienced the lifeline of companionship through the books that she clung to during the loneliest of times written by artists such as James Baldwin (whom she would later meet and become close friends with), that she determined that art could not be relegated to the margins of society. Was it here that she first deepened her appreciation of Orature not simply as part of the everyday experience of life that she had experienced it to be since she was a child, but also as a necessary weapon in the struggle for liberation and the attainment of the vision of a holistic and healed society? Was it in this space, during these years threaded through with the implicit questioning of her own humanity and her right to be treated as equal to her peers, that she commenced her “tireless pursuit of utu” as lifelong praxis? Was it in this period that she consciously embraced the responsibility of being “the first” – and this could be counted as the seminal of the many other “firsts” in her life – not as exclusive privilege to flaunt, or guarantor of special benefits and recognition, but as the opportunity to burst open spaces of exclusion to create access for others? Perhaps. Whether consciousness of all – or any – of these crystallised during this period, or whether these experiences formed into coherent praxis during the decades to follow, with the benefit of hindsight, these years settle into a metaphor for the legacy she challenges us to reflect on.
What kind of impact will these critical years of their lives have on the students who are passing through our school institutions today?
How tempting to bring this rumination to a close as a triumphant account of victory over all odds! In a way, this would be true to the facts and the spirit of this sharing, and yet … a lingering thought: If indeed the Limuru Girls School of 1961–1962 played a role in influencing Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo to become what so many today are testifying to as worthy of emulation, it wasn’t because the school set out to achieve that, but rather in spite of the many obstacles she encountered that might have resulted in a very different ending. With that in mind, how can this story end without sparing a thought for the many other children broken or deeply wounded from being on the frontline of different sites of the liberation struggle, in spaces and circumstances that have shaped the terrain we have inherited today? And for every one that has emerged scarred but victorious in their battle, how many more have been martyred? Would it be too much to ask that we honour the memory of each one of them, even as we remember the contributions of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, with unwavering commitment to creating liberated zones in our educational institutions, in whatever way “aluta continua” rings true in our lives?
And so the story ends, the story passes on,
This story weaves in, this story weaves out:
Facts as foundation
Mix and marinate!
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