“Ok, Generation Uhuru!” We are tired of waiting; we are tired of you insisting that you can still do this.
The current economic, pandemic and social mess we are in is an indictment of the Uhuru generation. In many ways, the current holders of the political and economic, and therefore social power have not delivered on their inherent promise as the generation to pursue the independence project to battle disease, poverty and ignorance.
We are in the midst of a pandemic.
To be fair to them, no one could have predicted just how much the world would change in the decades following independence. The very essence of society is shifting faster than the structures within can adapt—as it always has—and there are so many ideas in the public sphere but not one stands out.
Passion, and opportunity, marked a similar growth point in the Uhuru generation’s 20s and 30s. That generation grew up in a radically optimistic world, where the traumas of the Second World War and the liberation struggle that their parents were forced to participate in—either directly or indirectly—had led them to want to build a better world for their children, even as they themselves were trying to figure it out. In that space, the priorities of the preceding generation, acquisition by all means, dimmed as societies moved back into their own internal generational wars.
While our history of the 60s and 70s and 80s might appear grim, because of the assassinations and the many other political and economic blunders, they were, in reality, a time of widespread positive change. To be young then was to experiment with the world, with its TV and global culture, a new world where being black, for example, was a positive thing. Public provision of social goods and services was fairly accessible to all and that service which was not free was dirt cheap. Economic opportunities were in plenty.
But by the 80s, with the Uhuru generation now in their 20s and 30s, and more learned than those that held power at the time, and with the passion of youth, it was time for the start of its claim to determine the course of the country. They watched their counterparts—now closer than ever before—bring down empires. So they demanded more political space, before taking away the throne itself. This generational switch was negotiated between the pre-independence generation of the Mois and Kibakis, and the post-independence generation that started rising through the ranks in the 70s and 80s. Just like the political negotiations of the late ‘50s, men and women in their mid-20s and 30s got high-ranking jobs, the social status that came with them, and the support they needed.
While the post-independence generation was in its infancy, the generation in power was walking the tightrope of trying to keep it together while navigating a new world with a governing structure of sorts. They tried everything, from trying not to choose a side to trying to be on each side’s payroll. While understanding the need to play the global tug of war, they also tried to police the kids who were also experiencing this new world. Google miniskirt and hippie hair bans in 60s and 70s and see how far down a wormhole you will go of the things that they banned. In many African countries, young men with guns got rid of old men, before descending into their own wars, coups and counter-coups.
When they crossed into adulthood and became young parents suddenly aware about how the world works, Generation Uhuru began demanding, and taking over, the tools of power. They took over, for example, religious power by simply speaking directly to the people themselves, without going through the traditional, inherited structures. They did the same with political power, forcing Moi to co-opt them into political power and expand the political space for those who were left out or could not be convinced to join his negotiated reality. To not do so at the time would have been to declare a generational war.
To keep society running, Moi and his age-mates had to give in to the independence generation. They did this while also affirming their belief that the Uhuru generation would mess up; telling them that calling for many political platforms would lead to tribalism and a break-up the country they had built. In the ways in which each generation mythologises its wars with the succeeding ones, it might appear as if all Moi and his cronies did was harass them for being young and radical. But the independence generation liberalised the economy and politics in the ways they thought Kenya should work (and that the new global order demanded), and became rich and powerful while at it. Yes, people died, but in the larger scheme of things, Moi lost the generational war, and it was a good and inevitable thing.
Liberalising the economy and politics helped the independence generation directly, by opening up enough chances for them to get jobs now that they had mounting bills to pay, and to live in a society where they did not need to have gray hair to sit on the boards of government institutions. They had the qualifications because their parents had encouraged them to get the education that they themselves hadn’t received, to thrive in a world where education mattered.
But it was the liberalisation of telecoms—as in the rest of the world—that really did it for Generation Uhuru.
Just as their parents had, the independence generation encouraged its children to go to school so that they could get jobs in this brave new world it had created. Like the generations before, the independence generation forgot that it would need to give up the things it had fought for in order to nurture a generation that would understand what this world now needed. As it aged, its pointed criticisms of everything millennials were doing led it to miss a critical learning curve that would have allowed it to know when it was time to go. It still tried to police everything based on the lessons it had learnt from its predecessor, and to maintain the power structures it had inherited and built upon.
With one foot firmly in one century and the other in a new one, Generation Uhuru failed to recognise its own obsolescence and mortality. Even with their successors —the millennials- popping kids and carving out their own paths and demanding a kinder world, the independence generation joined its global peers in trying to make the millennials feel that what they had done back in the 80s and 90s was enough for the world. That there was enough, for example, for them to continue stealing and holding onto the reins of power. To continue, for example, defining how millennials should determine their own course, or even understand how the world actually works. To insist to them that what was good or bad in 1980 was still good or bad, even when it was evidently stupid.
What the independence generation failed to realise is that while it had arrived at a critical moment where it was still living in the same world as its successors, they were both experiencing two very different existential crises.
In 2010, an aunt of mine called my mother incessantly to tell her I was a devil worshipper because of the memes I shared on Facebook. She lives in the States, which makes the entire thing even more hilarious when I think about it now. But all I had to do then was unfriend her, and she was as good as dead to me. Not emotionally, at least not in the way the independence generation understands the word, but because I could simply go to her profile and unfriend her. It would save me uncomfortable conversations, with me trying to placate my parents’ generation’s sensibilities, even when I didn’t need to. It is for the same reason that I do not talk with them about my atheism, my radical world view, my refusal to vote, my work, my hair, or my life choices . . . all of which appears alien to them. And I don’t need their approval any more. I do not even feel the need, at this point in this story, to assure you that I love them. That goes without saying.
A few months ago, my father asked me to cosign a loan with him. The bank had told him that he was too old to get one, and he needed someone younger, a lot younger (he is in his 70s) to partner with him. He asked this while I was sitting with him together with one of my siblings, and for a second, we both went quiet. I wasn’t sure which question to answer first, because he had actually asked two questions, one of them unspoken. The first was whether I could. I couldn’t. I’ve been listed with a credit reference bureau for years because of my erratic payment of my student loans. I’ve wanted to pay them for years, but the immediacy of doing so has faded over time, because I’ve never used the degree for the obtention of which I had taken the loans; and if the loans were an investment in a better future, then it was an absolute waste of time.
The second question was harder to answer though, because I wanted to navigate his sensibilities about it. It was the question of why a man with a near-perfect credit record stretching back more than five decades could not get a loan by himself. There were many ways to explain this, but I chose the one he would understand best. The refusal of his generation to give up power progressively had mixed things up, as its ideas were coming up against a world that was on a different path. While I only used the example of the 2016 interest rate cap because he would understand it (he is a Kiambu voter; it is the Kiambu MP who sponsored the law), I could have pushed the timeline back by a decade and found a link to that decision, a point in time where his generation, implicitly or complicitly, had built a world where a social safety net like a cap on the interest rate would eventually hurt them. Had he pointed out that it is not his specific generation that is in power today—he was born in the ’40s —my rebuttal would have been simple; it is, because he voted for Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002, and every time since. He consented to what Uhuru Kenyatta’s generation, his younger siblings, would do even before they did it.
2016 would not be the first time our elite class has tried to tame runaway interest on credit to protect their interests. But this time the tables turned on them because, while they had the power to pass the law, they are at the tail end of the working-age population, and it was always going to hurt them first. And then it would become a cycle because the generation that holds power could not pay their employees, who were mostly millennials, and would have to fire them and still try to grow old in a world where their successors were now old enough, qualified enough, and still young and radical enough to do something about it. A similar scenario played out a few years ago when the desire by the Uhuru generation to take care of their parents by giving them money, ruined rural economies in Kenya because old people no longer needed to work and those who were young enough to take on the jobs wanted to do other things.
The refusal of the independence generation to give up the reins of power, or even actually acknowledge that their watch is ended, means that we actually can’t afford, and nor do we have the emotional or physical space to take care of them when they age. And more importantly for them and for us right now, we can’t afford it.
For millennials, the 2010s were a fast-paced journey that will define this next decade in ways we do not yet realise. Now parents to a younger generation looking to us for direction, elder siblings to a Generation Z that is walking out into a broken world, and with an ageing generation of parents that we now realise doesn’t actually know or have the capacity to deal with what we need, there is a glitch in the matrix.
In the last decade and a half, we the millennial generation have built a new world by our sheer numbers and we are constantly aware of what is good or bad for us. While our joining Facebook, for example, was mainly due to the fear of missing out that is probably experienced by every generation, our use of it has made us acutely aware of just how creaky the world the independence generation built actually is. Since they can no longer afford to pay us, because their priorities are not ours, nor their dreams nor language, we are now seeking for direction among ourselves. We are also realising that the words that drove them, such as “development” and “corruption” and even “economy” have a different meaning for us because they are impacting our pockets in real time. And they are words from a different time and context.
One good thing about how nature works is that while it abhors a vacuum, and will fill it to maintain the balance, it does so slowly such that it only makes sense in retrospect. Where we have allowed the independence generation to continue beating the “corruption” drum, for example, our sense of fatigue and individual economic awareness, have blunted the fangs of the war on corruption. It is not our war, because we do not even have the opportunity to join in. Our war is different. And it is one rooted in a context we are slowly understanding; that we are in fact the adults now, and we need to determine which war is ours and go into it without apologies to our parents.
For previous generations identity was still rooted within geographical borders, which could be claimed, fought over, and even cut off from the world. To us, identity is increasingly physically individual, such that we can actually run our entire lives, from the social to the economic, without ever having to breathe the same air with more people than we want to. And for a time, we were made to feel like we were doing this life thing wrong, that we do not read newspapers, that we spend too much time on our phones and laptops (which the independence generation gave us, in many ways) not connecting with actual blood-and-bone humans. But to us, a person in our physical space is no different from someone a world away, and literacy, the ability to read and write, is no longer novel or even attractive. It is part of our language, from love to fights to work to our very existence. We do not need to suffer uncomfortable spaces because we can afford, both economically and socially, to work with each other without actually wanting or needing to meet and shake hands. Even banks, brick-and-mortar businesses that thrived in Kenya under the independence generation, no longer need to actually exist in a physical space. Coronavirus will teach this generation hard lessons that they gleefully ignored.
And geographical borders no longer mean what they once did, because the world they built has made protecting them a dying idea especially with regards to their cultural significance. Not only can you take a virtual tour of practically any place in the world, but you can also learn about where people are thriving without it being a class thing. Anyone can Google whether there is (still) work and racism in the West or the UAE, or we know someone we can trust to do it. You can apply for a passport even while checking whether whatever little money you’ve saved can pay for a flight, all without moving from your bed. These things are no longer novel, they are part of our world, and they are not what is wrong with the world. The independence generation understands, for example, that to switch off the internet in Kenya today is far riskier to their idea of national security than stealing money or jailing and killing people. It would not even be those of us who have been on Twitter for a decade who would form the core of the ensuing revolt, but literally everyone because now everything depends on our ability to be online. The internet might as well be the fifth element at this point.
Many of the decisions the Kenyan elites have made in the last two decades and especially now—BBI included—are simply outdated for the country and trying to steal ideas from their forebears and also learn from the generation they have to hand over power to eventually isn’t working. So they are experimenting, grappling to balance between sticking to their decisions and their waning ability to keep up with young men and women who are on a completely different plane. They are understandably afraid of the fact that millennials are now not only old enough to vote and drink, but they are parents themselves and can actually decide things for themselves with none of the consequences parents threaten their kids with. And millennials are realising that none of what they have been told is true; what they say about tribes is actually about identity, and our generation’s tribes need new names that do not weaponise a history we haven’t lived.
The looming generational change will not be kind, or polite, or even decent. It was once supposed to be a “youth revolt”, a point in time where young Kenyans born after the 80s would rise up and protest. But we are now adults, with bills and kids, so a decision to go out into the streets is existential. Our revolt may not even be physical, because it does not need to happen there for it to matter for the generation. Revolutions are fundamentally about language, and we can speak a language using a single hashtag the same way Generation Uhuru built their revolts around gathering in a common physical space. At the time, the world allowed them not to have to gather in the bushes with guns, as their parents had, because they spoke a language that only they understood. We are at that point in time too, where they have sullied the joys of existing in a common physical space by threatening to kill, maim and jail, and actually doing so. We do not even need to take the risk of working together simply because we exist in the same spaces and speak our own language in so many spaces online, since to know what we are doing online, independently and together, you must be part of the generational in-group.
It is impossible to predict the 2020s, because to imagine what a generation will do when it realises its predecessor/parents are just normal people who don’t know as much as they claim to, is impossible. Will we vote for whoever we decide, and support them with the skills they so generously made sure that we obtained, in such significant ways that the power of money and land the independence generation has been so obsessed with stealing and acquiring will be blunted by the same sheer force of numbers and skills with which we have defined our lives so far. Or will we simply decide to relook at everything we know about business and life, and build our own structures if the independence generation insists on imagining that it has the time to wait and rectify its mistakes.
With millennials, the independence generation needs to know that it is no longer dealing with compliant children or young adults who still need them, or their approval, to exist. It is dealing with fully-fledged adults who are slowly realising they have everything they need to demand their space, and feel a glitch in the matrix so profound that we need to explain what’s happening to each other in a language and on platforms that we understand.
This looming generational change will not even be defined by the rules that Generation Uhuru has demanded the millennials live by because we no longer care much for those rules. We have stopped trying to separate how we live online and how we live offline, because both are part of who we are, and we have grown weary of being shamed for it, and coronavirus has affirmed our point of view. We’ve lived online long enough to see our younger siblings and kids join in, and it is scary to think of any subsequent generation trying to make sense of the world as it is now. This world needs us to claim our space, loudly and unashamedly, and to take it by force if necessary. The independence generation, both the elites and the others, doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore, as it tries to shout across the generational negotiating table in a language only it understands. Millennials are progressively realising that their inheritance is not negotiable, and the independence generation is not ready for what’s coming.
As the current “owners” of nearly all that matters to keep a society together—Generation Uhuru—has a choice, either to give up the reins of power in the same way they themselves demanded and got them, progressively and for each other, or they can watch the world they built burn, as we build city-states by our rules. Negotiating only works if each side gives the other all, or some, of what they want. So far, we have given them time. They have given us stasis and a society that is now dealing with a looming food crisis because of locusts among other things, a global pandemic, a place in time where it is cheaper to die than to be sick, and nothing of value in the future that we are staring at.
Our goal as millennials is to build a kinder world so that our younger siblings and our kids can build a better one. And we have to start from there, looking at everything as it is now, and bringing down anything that is unkind to us and others; because the Uhuru generation forgot the basics of a working society that they learnt from its parents. They wanted to build a new one, only tapping into the old ways when it suited them (such as weaponising ethnicity).
But they inherited the trauma properly, and have since tried to force-feed it—together with the fears such individual and collective traumas carry—to us. And now, as they feel the walls closing in on them, they would rather not ask for help from us but continue shuffling among themselves and those of their parents that are still alive, looking for solutions. What they should be doing is progressively handing over everything they fought for, bought, and stole, to the people who need them now.
We will build them retirement homes they can afford to die in, and for some, better prisons than the ones they inherited and never improved, so that we can focus on the job of bringing this world back to its senses. The alternatives to negotiating this transition are simple, not just in Kenya but the world over. I doubt that the post-World War II generation wants to be known as the generation that inherited a world traumatised by war, racism, pandemic and colonialism, and bequeathed that same inheritance after enjoying one of the most peaceful periods in recorded history.
But what do I know about how the world works? I am a millennial, after all. An eternal child.
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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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