“I knew that once this thing hits, business is going to slow down. My fruits aren’t covered, and every potential customer handles the fruit.”
Early evening on the 25th of March, 23-year-old Moses Njenga, a fruit and vegetable vendor swats dust and flies off his apples. His stand, made of a small, wooden table and covered with canvas, is right across from a bus stop. It is a great place to have a stall, but foot traffic is much lighter than usual today.
Kenyan Government directives restricting movement owing to the quickening spread of the COVID-19 pandemic are beginning to take root at this time, 13 days after the first case of COVID-19 was announced to the public.
Along with these restrictions, public service announcements on the importance of hand-washing with soap, use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers and coughing or sneezing etiquette are very much on the menu of content that Kenyans have been consuming. So, to keep as many customers as possible interested in buying from him, Moses turned a 10-litre container into a small water tank with a tap and bought some soap, which he points the few customers who stop by his stall to use before they begin the ritual of touching and squeezing his fruits to gauge their ripeness.
Moses works in Karen, a rich Nairobi suburb, one which until recently, was not well known as a place where you’d find big informal markets as opposed to large malls, large mansions and some of Kenya’s landed elite. He isn’t out of place here today, though.
The stretch of road from which he sells his fruit is lined with many other informal traders: street food vendors, boda boda operators (“boda boda” is Kenyan slang for motorbike taxi) and charcoal vendors. All of them ply their trade in front of a glossy mall on one side of the road, and a petrol station that also houses a popular coffee house, a pharmacy and a convenience store. The co-existence between formal businesses and informal ones is a very African symbiosis. 75% of Kenyans of working age work informally and a majority of these people depend on daily income to feed themselves and their families. This means that businesses like Moses’s are key to the survival of Kenya’s economy. Catching the virus is a concern, but the harm it will do to their ability to earn looms even largest than the virus itself.
On a good day, Moses will make 30 dollars in sales, but a small percentage of this goes to him.
“This stall doesn’t belong to me. I am an employee. I make 10% of everything I sell. So, if the government makes these restrictions worse, what is going to happen to me?”
Moses’s stall is also an important vantage point for one to stand from, and observe the changes taking place within and between different demographics of Kenyan society because of COVID-19.
There are noticeably fewer cars on the road here; Kenyans who are tapped into the formal economy are making plans to work from home, practice social distancing and wait out the virus. On the street, most informal traders are out, as usual, hoping to make some money before the end of the day. Across from Moses, Johnson Ray Mchama, who sells second-hand clothes, beckons me over to share his experience since COVID-19 landed on Kenyan shores.
“I made one sale today. One. Yesterday I didn’t sell anything. I made one sale the day before. This Corona has really disrupted our flow of business,” he laments.
Spreading faster than the virus this evening are rumours that the Kenyan government will be announcing a total lockdown on movement across the country. Johnson weighs in.
“If the government asks us to stay at home what will we do? Die in our homes? The government needs to think of us even as it plans for lockdowns,” he says.
At 5 pm on this same day, millions tune in to listen to the government’s daily briefing on the spread of the virus. Anxiety builds, and WhatsApp messages ping from inbox to inbox with anonymous opinions about the coming lockdown. A lockdown isn’t announced. Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Health does announce more restrictions. A dusk to dawn curfew beginning March the 27th. Kenyans will have to be in their homes by 7 pm every day, and can only leave after 5 am the following day.
If the government asks us to stay at home what will we do? Die in our homes? The government needs to think of us even as it plans for lockdowns
On the first evening of the curfew, I check in with Moses at 5 pm, two hours before the curfew begins. He is putting away his fruits, preparing to close for the day:
“I have no choice but to obey what the government says, I don’t want to have any run-ins with the police.”
His choice of words is spot on, as just as our brief interview concludes, Kenya’s police force is out across the country, enforcing the curfew with whips, batons and teargas. In Mombasa, a Kenyan city on the coast of the Indian Ocean, crowds of hundreds of people trample upon one another trying to get away from the police. Videos shot by members of the public show a crowd that was lining up to use the ferry being violently dispersed. The following day, a 13-year old boy, Yassin Hussein Moyo, was hit by a stray bullet and killed while standing at the balcony of his home, watching the police enforce the curfew in Kiamaiko, one of Nairobi’s poorer neighbourhoods. Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta would later issue an apology for the violence meted out against members of the public as the quarantine was enforced, but just a week later, as the terms of restrictions were amended, yet another foible would expose the contradictions between policy directives and the reality of the common man’s daily life.
On April the 5th, Kenyatta announced a 21-day restriction of movement in and out of the Nairobi metropolitan area. Like many cities across the continent, millions of people who work in the city don’t live there, their daily travel rituals crossing in and out of the cities that they work in. So it wasn’t surprising that the day after this directive was made, numerous Kenyans were seen trying to evade roadblocks on the main highways in and out of the city in order to get to their jobs. Kenya, it would appear, is caught between the difficulty of what needs to be done to slow the spread of COVID-19, and what its majority must do to survive on a daily basis.
Catching the virus is a concern, but the harm it will do to their ability to earn looms even largest than the virus itself.
Like Moses, many of the people who live in Kiamaiko are paid daily wages or earn money directly from an informal trade. Yet for all of the violence and uncertainty that has stalked Kenyans with the spread of the Corona Virus, little has come by the way of relief for those who are part of the informal market.
Tax cuts proposed by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta have been criticised for leaving out members of the informal economy, who at best will be indirect beneficiaries of these measures. In a bid to control the spread of the virus in public spaces, restrictions on the number of people who can use public transport have in turn led to spikes in fares. Directives that Kenyans should wear masks while in public are also difficult to comply with. A surgical mask costs anywhere between USD 1.15 and USD 1.50. For someone like Moses, who earns USD 3 a day, adding masks to his daily budget poses a difficult dilemma.
Measures that have succeeded in countries like South Korea have been dependant on strong public healthcare systems and compliance by the public to government directives. In Kenya and other African countries, compliance with stay-at-home directives has been difficult to enforce. On the one hand, the government has chalked this up to people not taking the virus seriously enough. Ask Moses or Johnson, and they will tell you that it is because people literally can’t afford to stay at home. The numbers of those who have the virus are climbing nonetheless (check our tracker for up to date numbers).
The Ministry of Health is racing to keep the numbers as low as possible, and has scaled up testing of members of the public as the country still is in the containment phase of the pandemic. A majority of those who have been tested by the government are being housed in government-sanctioned quarantine facilities where complaints of ill-treatment and exposure to possible infection with COVID-19 abound.
Ashley Yaro, a 21-year old law student studying in Britain chose to return to Kenya as the numbers of those infected by the virus in Britain rose exponentially. She had planned to self-quarantine, and only learnt about the Kenyan government’s mandatory quarantine notice when she landed in Nairobi.
“When the airports authority officials beckoned us to come closer and tell us about the directive, we were all packed so closely together that I remember commenting to someone that if we didn’t have it before we probably have it by now.”
Her transfer into the quarantine facility she was staying at was fraught with incidents like these, but once safely in her room, there was little to worry about beyond those early moments of her arrival. Ten days into her quarantine, she posted a tweet with a single word:
A lucky escape, because government announcements that would follow confirmed fears that laxity in abiding to quarantine protocols both by the quarantined and government officials overseeing the facilities came out in the numbers of infected.
“51 to 52% of the new cases we have are of people who are in quarantine facilities,” Dr. Patrick Amoth, Kenya’s Director in the Ministry of Health remarked during the government’s daily briefing on April 2nd.
Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, later pointed a finger of blame at those within these facilities.
“Positive cases of people already in our quarantine facilities rank the highest; this poses a risk of more transmission, especially to those who have not taken seriously the distancing requirements”.
Nonetheless, as the quarantines wore on, more and more videos, messages and documents from those in quarantine demonstrated that they were at odds with the government. An April 5th announcement that people in specific facilities where the government had discovered flouting of protocols were to remain in quarantine for a further 14 days caused outrage. People in one facility drafted an official complaint to the Ministry of health. Some posted videos detailing the kind of anguish they underwent during this time.
“Some people think it is punitive but these are public health measures,” Dr Omu Anzala, a virologist and immunologist who is serving on the government taskforce on the COVID-19 pandemic sought to explain the government’s directives. On the horizon is an exponential rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, which threaten to overwhelm Kenya’s public healthcare system.
“We must have an exponential (growth) phase somewhere. My prediction based on everything that we are seeing everywhere else is that it is probably going to happen in four to five weeks from the first case,” says Dr Ahmed Kalebi, who founded and runs Lancet Laboratories, one of the few privately owned laboratories that has been testing the public for COVID-19.
He holds that Kenya is yet to see the worst of the spread. He isn’t wrong. Government projections put the number of COVID-19 cases at 10,000 people by the end of April.
“If you look at the number of people affected by COVID-19, the majority are aged between 30 and 59,” Dr Mercy Mwangangi, Kenya’s Cabinet Administrative Secretary for health said on April 8th as she briefed the country about the spread of the virus. The Ministry of Health has struck an increasingly serious tone as Kenya enters this critical phase in the spread of the virus. Officials have asked Kenyans to brace themselves for tough times ahead.
Fears of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya are shared across numerous borders on the continent owing to decades of under-investment in public healthcare facilities. Millions are also wary of the virus having shared memories of the devastation that past pandemics have wrought on the health of their families.
“So far, people can only be tested in two regions out of eight with not up to five treatment centres for more than 25 people.”
Mimi Mefo, a Cameroonian journalist covering the pandemic notes that the toll that other diseases have taken on the West African country’s public healthcare system have left Cameroon weakened in the face of the novel COVID-19 virus.
“Cameroon has barely been able to keep its healthcare system afloat before the virus struck. Patients with kidney problems do not have health centres and the right medical equipment to treat them. HIV patients were recently complaining about the lack of anti-retroviral drugs, and malaria remains a health challenge to the country,” she adds.
Inasmuch as Africa’s population is young and should be better able to cope with the virus, co-morbidities like those described by Mefo loom large with their ability to further complicate the management of the disease.
With over 750 total cases as at April 10th, Cameroon has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in Sub-Saharan Africa. Complicating the fight even further is the raging war between government troops and pro-secessionist troops. Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, has reportedly not been seen in public to address the impact of this conflict on the fight to contain the Coronavirus, nor has he addressed the public regarding the virus itself since the first case was announced in early March. The country’s struggle with a leadership crisis only compounds the problems it is facing and set to face.
“Pro-independence leaders have called for a ceasefire, and the world including Cameroon are engaged in the coronavirus fight. Unfortunately, my platform continues to have daily reports of gun battles and killings indicating that the violence has continued unabated,” says Mefo.
The Economic Commission for Africa had in March forecasted that Africa could lose half its GDP.
Oil exporting nations stand to lose up to 65 billion dollars in lost revenues as trade slows down and global oil prices tumble. East African countries will have to be especially vigilant with the measures that they are taking to cushion themselves at this time, given that they were already reeling from the impact of a massive locust infestation that swept through farmlands from Ethiopia to Uganda. When crises such as the one posed by the spread of COVID-19 hit, the citizens of many African states vacate cities for their family homes in the rural countryside, opting to depend on the social welfare of community after their ability to earn a living is disrupted. Restrictions on movement in and out of capitals across Africa will disrupt this, and test African populations even further.
Striking a more hopeful tone for the continent are measures taken by some African countries on fighting the spread of COVID-19 that if held on to could see them recover faster than expected. Uganda’s decision in the opening exchanges in this fight to suspend international flights and restrict movement internally seems to be working, as the number of new cases of the pandemic trail Kenya and Rwanda’s. Having faced the spread of infectious diseases like Ebola and the Marburg virus, protocols and people ready to implement them were in place more readily than in other countries. President Yoweri Museveni announced a food distribution program targeting 1.5 million people from vulnerable communities.
Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo announced that up to 400,000 Ghanaians in regions most affected by the virus had begun receiving food support, as Ghana entered its second week since restrictions on movement within the greater Accra region, Kumasi, Tema and Kasowa were announced. Addo also announced that the government would absorb water bills for all Ghanaians for the next three months and that there would be no disconnections of utilities. Micro, small and medium businesses were also the focus of Addo’s address, with a 100 million dollar soft loan scheme set up to tide these businesses over. Botswana also set up a 168 million dollar scheme to assist businesses pay their workers’ salaries.
Guinea’s government has declared that its citizens would not pay rent until December, and that public transport and access to some pharmaceuticals and basic necessities would also be free.
Kenya is caught between the difficulty of what needs to be done to slow the spread of COVID-19, and what its majority must do to survive on a daily basis.
It is the story of the people though that continues to inspire hope where government catches up to the challenges posed during this time. Kenyan political analyst and author Nanjala Nyabola says that the initiatives being taken by members of the public to fight the virus give her hope that, despite its challenges, Africa can beat COVID-19.
“What gives me hope is communities rallying around each other. In Kenya, we reacted to the fact that the disease would hit the poor harder than the rich. We have had food drives, with people doing as much as they can to help within the community. We don’t have the facilities, but we (the people) have a long history of responding to crises, mobilizing around public health. The public is trying to believe and act communally.”
She cites the work of the coalition of human rights defenders who are working in some of Nairobi’s informal settlements. They have fund-raised for water and soap bars which they are delivering door to door in these communities, and hope to scale up to the delivery of masks in these areas.
“It is creating a template for action but just needs to be scaled up. That’s the thing, people are freaked out by the threat and saying that they are screwed. They are looking at it and saying let it find us doing something.”
Back on the street that Moses and Johnson operate from, informal traders are quickly adjusting to the changes thrust upon them by COVID-19.
“I will come and sell again, but I won’t increase my stock”, Moses says, keenly aware about how much more perishable a day of work, and his fruit has become. A 7 pm start to the curfew means that he has to shut down two hours early in order to get home in time. Moses and the millions of people who work informally have to, by necessity, act fast, travel light and adapt to survive.
Days are fading fast too for governments to rein in the pandemic. Nyabola warns that this isn’t just a health crisis, but a phenomenon that will impact governance for a long time to come.
“It is a moment of reckoning and a moment of better decision making. That’s the fork in the road for African governments.”
This article was originally published by Africa Uncensored.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
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!
Op-Eds5 days ago
Tigray Atrocities: Extending ICHREE Mandate Crucial for Accountability
Culture2 weeks ago
From Harry Kĩmani to Kwame Rĩgĩi, the Rise and Rise of Kikuyu Soul Music
Politics2 weeks ago
Is Somalia’s Quest for Membership of the EAC Premature?
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Decoding India’s Move to Include Africa as Permanent G20 Member
Op-Eds5 days ago
Climate Change and the Injustice of Environmental Globalism
Data Stories7 days ago
Sex Education: Are We Doing Enough?
Reflections5 days ago
Ama Ata Aidoo: A Tribute
Reflections5 days ago
Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo: A Mother and a Gardener