When Binyavanga Wanaina passed away it felt like the ground on which we walk froze, paralyzed with grief. The sky turned grey, drizzling its tears down on us. When I heard the news, I called up a friend of mine, one who I knew would understand this loss intrinsically because he, like me, had been heavily impacted by Binyavanga in high school, when his memoir, One Day I will Write About This Place first found its way to bookshop shelves. We both talked about how devastated Kenya should be for this Binya-shaped hole that had been left behind. We mourned a man who had been fundamental to the contemporary literary space in our country. We talked about everything from his work to his family to his impact to the sickness that ravaged his wholeness. And somewhere in that conversation this friend said something to me that struck me, “You cannot love Binya if you do not love his queerness.”
Since then I have had a few conversations that have run my blood hot. Red. Fire. In the middle of the conversation, a pause in the room. The silent, accusatory question lingering in the air, “The one who was gay?” An “aha!” moment. A sense of justification. As if that explains his death, as it was what he deserved. He becomes a lesson, in this broken understanding of morality that guides us.
In the same week as Binyavanga’s death, the Kenyan judiciary upheld the penal code sections 162 and 165 that criminalize sexual conduct between two consenting adults of the same sex, both in public and in private. The court cited regulations from other countries in their decision, including sections of the penal code in Botswana, which has itself recently decriminalized homosexuality. Other African countries that have revoked anti-homosexuality laws through penal code reform in recent years include Seychelles, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Lesotho, but more than 30 other countries maintain the laws on their statute books.
In 2015, when then US president Barrack Obama visited Kenya and addressed the issue with President Uhuru Kenyatta, the latter categorically shut the matter down with his (in)famous line, “…For Kenyans today, the issue of gay rights is really a non-issue… it is not… at the foremost minds of Kenyans and that is a fact.”
I see this attitude fuelling a lot of Kenyans’ arguments on the matter. As it simply does not affect them, it can only be considered a non-issue. Part of the collective trauma we have as a country is the inability to deal with anything we do not want to deal with. We simply sweep it under the carpet and pray to God a gust of wind does not come in and blow the dust around, because that will be messy. Messy means confronting our own beliefs and contradictions, and dealing with how that impacts the people we have hurt.
We have reached a point where it is clearly time for us to do some spring-cleaning. We can no longer wish or pray queer people away. Queerness is just as present in our society as heterosexuality. After being pushed and suppressed into the confines of our culture, after being labelled demonic, unnatural, attention-seeking, perverted, and sin, queerness is simply asking to be seen and to be heard. It is asking for conversation. This is not an absurd or unjust demand.
Many of the strident arguments that have been used to foreclose the possibility of queer acceptance, of freedom and love, have been religious ones. This article is my attempt at having this conversation. I will delve into Christian arguments against queerness because first, this is the religious tradition I am most familiar with, and second, because Kenya is a majority, or at least, normatively Christian society – it is our culture’s immediate history, having been colonized by European Christians. I will attempt to have this conversation only being biased to the bend of freedom and love. These two will always guide the words I write.
Religion can be on the wrong side of history
Throughout history, religion has been a tool of good, just as much as it has been a tool of harm and violence. As much as we are taught to defend our religion with every fibre of our being, sometimes it argues for the wrong things. And you cannot honestly defend what you believe in if you have never interrogated the belief itself. Christianity has been used to defend under-education, slavery, colonialism, patriarchy, and racism. To call the religion itself blameless is to counter facts and historical evidence that have proven otherwise. This does not mean that religion is evil. I am in no way invalidating the intention of faith at its core as something beautiful and whole. I am simply stating that when your religion becomes the be all, end all, when there is no room to think, to listen, to learn, or to grow from those outside your worldview, then there is incredible potential for harm.
Many centuries ago, Copernicus discovered that the sun, and not the earth, was the centre of our solar system. The clergy of the day used Scripture to condemn this ‘outrageous’ argument. Even the Protestant radicals, who were breaking away from the orthodoxy of the Catholic church in other ways, opposed him. Martin Luther called him a fool, John Calvin implied it was blasphemy, and Melanchthon, a theologian of the Protestant Reformation, quoted Ecclesiastes 1:4-5 suggesting that, “severe measures be taken to silence” all those who agreed with Copernicus in order to “preserve the truth as revealed by God.” Obviously since then, science and evidence to the contrary have proved Copernicus right.
For many early Europeans – and even for many Christians today – the Bible was infallible. Yet, somehow, every interpretation always directly or indirectly privileged them. I find this very curious. The fact that slavery existed in the Bible was reason enough to have slaves. The fact that Africans were assumed to be descendants of Ham, the cursed son of Abraham – referring to a passage in Genesis 9 – was used as a further justification to enslave Africans, supposedly because this was their destiny and proper station in life. In fact, slavery was supposed to be a favour to the Africans, rescuing them from their heathen ways. This argument was later modified and repurposed in the interest of colonization, not only in Africa but in the Americas, New Zealand, and Australia where Native Americans, Maoris, and Aborigines were massacred, ran out, and for the longest time, by law, considered less human.
Examples from history have proven that religion in the hands of the oppressor has been used as a tool to validate the oppression. In Germany, church leaders and theologians provided arguments and preached sermons in support of Hitler, in so doing aiding and abetting the Holocaust. In the Jim Crow era of the US, white families would picnic after church on Sundays to watch lynched black bodies hanging from trees. During the women’s rights movement, patriarchy justified denying women the right to vote because men, in all situations were meant to be the heads.
Still, in all these scenarios, the courage of the oppressed to fight back has proven the ‘sensible’ and ‘infallible’ arguments that were supposedly supported by the religion itself, wrong. Acknowledging these aspects of religion that have been heavily problematic in history can open us up to the possibility that the today’s general accepted interpretation of Scripture may not always be the right, or the moral one. Ask Jesus about the multiple times he questioned the Pharisees, who were the custodians of the law, and the moral compasses of the time.
Scripture is not literal
Texts are written for a specific audience, time period, purpose, and context. As much as its wisdom can and has spoken throughout generations to guide and inspire hearts and minds, Scripture is still a text. That means it is injustice to not read Scripture without understanding its original intention. Reading the background and the whole context – whether it is poetry or song or theory or parable or history – informs your ability to interpret it as intended. There are several scriptures that we do not read or apply literally now, yet they are in the Bible! Kathy Vestal in her brilliant article, Sexual Orientation: It’s not a Sin shares several examples.
Exodus 13:14-15. Whoever desecrates the Sabbath day by doing any work on it must be put to death. (Harsh… also remember that time Jesus healed a man during the Sabbath and broke this rule?)
Leviticus 3:17, 11:6-7. Do not eat fat or blood or pig. (So bacon and sausages are technically a sin).
Leviticus 15:19-26. When a woman has a monthly period she is unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her is also unclean. Everything she touches is also unclean. (I guess women can’t be touched for around seven days every month.)
Deuteronomy 21:18-21. If you have a son who is rebellious and stubborn, take him to the elders of the town and have him stoned to death. (Dear parents, here is a solution to your rebellious teenager.)
Leviticus 24:20. A fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. (Jesus later contradicted this with his “turn the other cheek” sermon)
These are just a few of the verses that exemplify how context, audience, and purpose are essential to interpretation of Scripture. During this time when the Israelites had no centralized government and were wandering around the wilderness with no written direction, God gave them laws. These laws were not merely a moral compass but also civil laws to guide the Israelites as an autonomous nation and to give them their own specific identity, setting them apart from the nations around them. They were extremely specific, covering everything from food to hygiene to idolatry and cleanliness.
Some of the laws such as the laws on cleanliness were for the specific purpose of good hygiene in a world before indoor plumbing and the scientific germ theory of disease. These were God’s rules for Israel, in the land of Palestine, at a particular time in history. Furthermore, the Jewish rabbis themselves have always tried to interpret the Torah for the day and age they were living in. They were sometimes actually unwilling to implement the laws that they read in the Torah, putting up technical and procedural barriers to their implementation without necessarily rejecting the Torah in principle. For example, laws that called for a death penalty could go years without ever being implemented – one passage in the Talmudic literature said that if the governing council of the rabbis (the Sanhedrin) went seventy years without implementing a death penalty, then that was a good Sanhedrin. It was obvious to them that killing every rebellious son, for example, would lead to a breakdown in society, and forecloses the possibility of reform, repentance, and even growth. Teenagers are not teenagers forever.
Trying to apply some of these laws in the 21st century is ridiculous to say the least. And in an evolving time, it is impossible to not have an understanding of Scripture that is willing to evolve as well. With this understanding, we can then delve into what Scripture says about sexuality with the willingness to unlearn, question, and reimagine.
Scripture on homosexuality
First, it might be important to note that the word homosexuality did not even show up in English translations of the Bible until 1946. Secondly, there are six portions of Scripture that refer to same-sex relationships directly in the whole Bible. Let that sink in. Only six places in the whole of Scripture. And yet, today’s Christianity makes it seem as if the conversation on sexuality and gender is the biggest evil in the Christian church that there has ever been. Furthermore, the Bible has over 2,000 references to the relationships between the rich and the poor, the inequity that accompanies marginalization and the call to justice. Six against 2,000. This statistic alone should be a compelling argument to re-evaluate the priorities of the gospel in today’s faith spaces. Still it is necessary to analyse the Scriptures in question in the entirety of their context.
Genesis 19. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The history of this story has been so often used as an argument against homosexuality that the term “sodomy” was drawn from the destruction of this city. If we read the whole story we see the unfolding of an interesting string of events. Lot hosts two messengers of the Lord (often referred to as angels). Some men in the city, upon seeing the foreigners, knock on Lot’s front door wanting to rape them. Lot, being reasonable, obviously tells them no. He then offers them his two virgin daughters to be gang raped instead (in my view, the mortal sin committed in the story is the intention to rape, but let us continue.) God, understandably, gets angry at the whole situation and tells the messengers that the whole city will be destroyed the following day.
This is not the end to the referencing to Sodom and Gomorrah. Several other points in Scripture describe it as a city with no morals, full of decay, injustice, and oppression – vices that have nothing to do with homosexuality. As is very clearly stated in Ezekiel 16:49-50 “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13. The Exodus laws. These are verses that state very clearly, “If a man lies with a man as he does with a woman, both of them shall be put to death. It is an abomination.” My argument here relies on the unattainable Leviticus scriptures used as references above. Specifically, as the article Leviticus and the Holiness Code shares, for many centuries before Israel entered the land of Palestine, ancient Canaanite fertility cults used same-sex rituals to worship their gods. God prohibited Israel from adopting the cultic sexual fertility goddess worship of Egypt and Canaan. God’s biggest problem here seemed to be the correlation between same-sex ceremonies and shrine prostitution in relation to pagan worship of ‘false’ gods, which was a very specific situation.
If we choose to believe this law applies today then we must chose to believe that any person who touches a woman on her period is unclean and any man who shaves his side burns has committed a sin and anyone who has tattoos is heading for damnation (I say as I have three tattoos) and anyone who wears fabric of two different materials has committed an abomination and everyone who cheats must be put death and rebellious sons must be stoned to death and… you get the point. We can’t pick and choose which rules from Leviticus to follow and which ones to leave behind – if we do, then surely the 2,000 verses against economic exploitation and social injustice should be the ones we fall on. Ultimately, to do justice to the Scripture is to understand that these rules were written in a specific time for a specific people in a specific context.
Romans 1:24-32. Paul’s two cents. Many Christians use this portion of the New Testament where Paul talks about a specific group of the church that have fallen into wickedness and immorality as a case against homosexuality. Paul says specifically, “Because of this God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even the women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones… men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves due penalty for their error.” The text then goes on to talk about the other things that this group of people were doing wrong, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.”
Reading into the context of this time, as with Leviticus, expounds on the message of Paul. During this period there was a flood of Roman fertility cults and shrine prostitution. This was influenced by popular religions at the time that were devout to the god Apollo and the goddesses Aphrodite and Cybele. According to a historical article by St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church, “One of the many practices of both of these cults was drunken, frenzied revelry that involved wanton sexual abandon. The temple of Aphrodite employed free (non-slave) boys and girls from the ages of about 9 to age 13 whose job was to be used in sexually servicing the men and women who came to the temple. The cult of Apollo hired boys from the age of 11 to 15 for the entertainment and pleasure of older men.”
These were the stories and the actual events that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Roman church. He was boycotting a religion and space that made it acceptable for little boys to be prostituted to older men and little girls to older more powerful men and women. Same-sex relationships in that context had been attached to something more exploitive and dark. It is also good to note that the verse addressed several other problematic tendencies of the time, including corruption, deceit, idolatry, greed, and hate. When you read this Scripture from this perspective, it is honestly hard to find any correlation to a whole loving relationship between two consensual adults.
1st Corinthians 6:9; 1st Timothy 1:10 Lost in translation? I consider these verses together because they use the same Greek word, arsenokoitai. Paul includes the arsenokoitai when referring to a group of sinners and those who won’t enter the Kingdom of God. The interesting thing about this word is that it so rarely appears in ancient text, that the correct translation has been debated for centuries. As Justin Lee points out in his side of the great debate, The NIV translation could not even decide on one definition so they used two. In 1st Corinthians it is translated as ‘homosexual offenders’ and in 1st Timothy it is translated as ‘perverts.’
And yet, as Adam Nicholas Phillips argues in this article, when arsenokoitai is used elsewhere in ancient Greek literature, it references the abuse of the poor (an example being the Sibylline Oracles) or economic exploitation and power abuses (such as a 2nd century text called the Acts of John).
Linking the two interpretations of the word – that is, homosexual offenders and exploitation – brings about an interesting theory. As Justin Lee argues, “The extramarital relationships of men with boys in ancient Greece are infamous even today. Archaeological and literary evidence prove that these relationships were common for centuries in Greece, though they were frowned upon by many even while they were publicly practised… The most likely explanation then for this text in context would be that Paul was referring to a practice that was fairly common in the Greek culture of his day – married men who had sex with male youths on the side.” Paul’s letters would then be interpreted as condemnation of sexual exploitation, which again does not correlate to a whole healthy loving relationship between two consensual adults.
Where does that leave us?
After going through these Scriptures, there is a lot that is still left up in the air. There is a lot that can be and has been debated. As with so much else in life we simply pray for guidance and wisdom to understand wholly and interpret honestly. But for me it simply comes down to what I believe about God. I believe God exudes, exists in, and embodies love. I believe where there is no love there is no God and that God does not create any of us to live in a constant state of shame or fear, because that is the opposite of love.
I have had enough friends from conservative Christian evangelical backgrounds coming to me broken from beating themselves up as abomination and afraid because coming out as gay means experiencing rejection, discrimination, judgement, and condemnation. Hearing these journeys make you want to weep. The call of the church is to fight for freedom, love, and justice. I fall back on this Scripture in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
If, as a religion, we are not speaking to these spaces that then we need to rethink the religion. If as a country we are not even attempting to reflect on these principles then there is something deeply wrong with the state in which we are existing. Revolution is love, and love is love.
Romans and Shrine Prostitution
Roman Cult Practices
The Great Debate: Justin’s View
The Bible Does not condemn Homosexuality… Seriously it doesn’t
Candice Czubernat’s Blog on being Queer and Christian
James Brownson — Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships
Justin Lee, Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate
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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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