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Reflections

Policing Black Women’s Hair

6 min read.

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school.

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Policing Black Women’s Hair
Photo: Unsplash/Leighann Blackwood
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The thickness and texture of my black hair was under constant scrutiny when I was a child. My aunt used to call me bossiekop (from the Afrikaans, meaning bushy head). The kids at school would use terms like Goema hare (candyfloss hair) and kroeskop  (fuzzy head). My cousin would joke: “You can’t even put a comb through your hair.”

Black women’s hair has been big news in South Africa over the last several years. In 2016, protests at South African schools across the country saw brave young women stand up against racist policies in the various ‘codes of conduct’ enforced in their places of learning. The demonstrations at middle class, Model C (former whites-only public) schools like Pretoria Girls High, Sans Souci in Cape Town and Lawson Girls High School in Nelson Mandela Bay – all schools where the students are mostly black and the teachers mostly white – were about much much more than hair, but these protests spoke to our roots as a site of struggle, and a route for resistance.

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school. I hated when my mother “did” my hair. From a young age I knew the hairdryer wasn’t hot enough and the rollers not tight enough to tame my curls. I knew the brush she was using would never leave me with hair straight enough to flick back, or cut a fringe.

My sister and I would sit between my mothers legs. Her on the couch, us taking turns on the pillow at her feet. Armed with a hairdryer and a brush she would pull and tug at our scalps, trying her best to get it “manageable.” My hair would turn out big. Just big. A huge soft afro that was long enough to tie back for school, but nowhere near “tame” enough to delicately shake off the shoulder.

When my mother was done with my hair I would stand in front of the mirror in the room I shared with my older sister, look at my reflection, and cry. I felt so ugly and so helpless with my afro. I knew that my mother could never make me look like the white women in the shampoo adverts. It was only the aunties at the hairdresser who had all the right tools to “fix” my locks.

I have more memories of the hairdresser down the road than I do of nursery school. I must have been as young as five when the women with the dye-stained apron, hair clips gripped to the bottom of her t-shirt, would stack white plastic chairs at the basin so that my head could reach the sink. My neck would ache in the basin dent, the water would always be either too hot, or too cold and the hairdressers’ vigorous shampoo scrubbing would make me dizzy. The rollers were always too tight, the hair pins would be jabbed into my tender, young scalp and the hour sitting under the hot dryer felt like a lifetime.

No one understands the phrase “pain is beauty” like a young black girl who has just been to the hairdresser. And after all that pain I would indeed feel beautiful. I had long, straight hair that I could leave loose, flick and comb through. But it was temporary. My hair would “last” for a mere two days, more specifically, my hair would “last” until school swimming lessons on a Wednesday.

Throughout primary and high school, the code of conduct stated that hair should be “neat,” and is just one example of the many way these institutions, which have their own roots firmly growing from our colonial history, govern not only children but also parents. The outdated and outright racist rules were something our parents tolerated during term time, but over school holidays our curls were left to grow.

Summer holidays would be spent at my cousins house in Atlantis, about an hour from downtown Cape Town. They had a caravan, a massive garden and a huge swimming pool (our favorite). We would swim until our feet and fingers turned rubbery. Our eyes would turn blood red from the chlorine, and we would lie belly-down on the hot bricks to warm our shaking bodies before jumping back in to the freezing cold water. Those were days of Kreol chips, fizzers and two-rand coins pushed into your palm by an adoring aunty or uncle for a Double O soft drink. Bompies (frozen juice) and sugary bunnylicks (ice lollies) would leave your tongue rainbow green, red or orange. But most importantly, they were days of afros, when parents rarely fought the tangles (there was really no point considering we spent most of our time in the pool) and left our hair to it’s natural state because there was no “code of conduct,” no threat of punishment.

The joy of swimming, and bunnylicks and afros was limited to school holidays. During term time swimming would more often than not be followed by tears. I recall my aunt sitting on the edge of the bath and pulling at my cousin’s long, mousy-brown hair as she sat in a tub of amateur alchemy. Everything from whiskey to egg was sworn by to nourish and soften. Half-used jars and tubs of the latest conditioners, oils and moisturizers would line the windowsill above the bath like ammo, a site of battle between mother, and daughter’s curls, all for the sake of looking “neat.”

My white friends hair always looked neat and they didn’t know the amount of time it took, or the pain I had to endure to get my hair looking like theirs. They would plait each others thin, blonde strands while I looked on with envy. After swimming their hair would dry “perfectly” whereas any form of humidity or moisture was my nemesis. Anything from shower steam to a light mist was enough to provide extreme levels of anxiety about whether my hair would “mince” or “go home.”

By that point my curls were long internalized as a mark of shame, and what I was expressing on the outside had much to do with how my hair was managed within the home and at school. A prime example was weekend family gatherings. You see, in my family, Sunday lunch would always be followed by “Sunday hair” in order to get ready for the week ahead.

As the aunties washed the dishes and the uncles read their newspapers waiting for tea at five (I shake my head thinking about the gender norms enforced through mundane family rituals, but that’s for another time), the cousins (all girls), had our own rituals. Relaxer would be followed by curlers, blow drying and a swirlkouse, which would leave the room hot, and smelling like product and burnt hair.

With the money I earned from my first job, for instance, I bought a large hairdryer, rollers and an assortment of round brushes and as a teenager I saw these tools as allies. It was only at university that I threw them all out.

Reuniting with my curls was less a conscious decision to rebel against the system of whiteness that taught me self-hate, and more about being free from the pain of curlers, the dizzying heat from the hairdryer and the hours spent fighting what naturally grew from my head (I would “blow out” my hair almost three times a week, it would take as long as three hours a time).

But of course you’re not free from the arrogance of whiteness once you’ve taken this route. Since going natural I’ve had numerous instances of my hair being touched, patted and pulled at by strangers (mostly white women), who’ve called it “exotic,” have compared it to a pineapple and referred to it as “surprisingly soft.” Hairdressers tell me that they don’t do “ethnic hair” and an Australian tourist once grabbed onto my curls and said “It’s like a sheep” before turning to her husband to say “go on, touch it, she won’t mind.”

To this very day, my grandfather will pass comments before the Rooibos tea has even been poured “Leila, what’s happening to your hair, why don’t you brush your hair?” Why is black hair such a threat?

Thinking back to those Sunday hair sessions, above the hum of the portable hairdryer, we laughed, we shared secrets, we gossiped, we spent time. Isn’t that the real beauty when it comes to black women’s hair? The ritual between sisters, mothers and daughters, spending time and passing down knowledge. Why were we not styling afros and dreads, why not twists and braids, cornrows and locs?

Every black woman has their own stories about their hair, their curls and societies endless need to tame, manage and straighten whether at school, in the home, or both. But the young black women who used their natural hair as a form of protest this month have clearly stated that they will no longer tolerate the racist frameworks, formal and informal, that teach them self-hate.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Reflections

Remembering Shujaa Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, My Sister in the Struggle

As Kenya celebrates Mashujaa Day, Dr Achola Pala Okeyo recalls a friendship and a sistahood built on a shared heritage of parental struggle against colonialism and oppression.

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Shame and Loathing: The Trial of Micere Mugo
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I start my personal testimony by thanking Mĩcere’s family for kelo yuak dala (bringing home the mourning as we say in Dholuo). When we lose a loved one in a faraway land, bringing home the mourning allows us to grieve together and begin the healing process. So after such a momentous loss, I am grateful to Mĩcere for coming back to us as we unite in this community of family and friends to grieve together and celebrate her life.

My  heart goes out to her daughter Mumbi. I always remember what my only daughter, Agunda Okeyo, once told me when I was about to go on an extended trip leaving her behind in New York City where we had lived together for a long time: “Mama you are the ground beneath my feet. When you leave, I have no place to stand.” Then she paused. And with tears streaming down her cheeks, she added, “A mother is such a chunk in a child’s life.” I know Mwalimu was such a chunk in Mumbi’s life and times ahead will not be easy.

When Kenya’s history is fully documented and shared between the people, we will be surprised at how similar were the risks we all took in various parts of the country to liberate ourselves from the colonial yoke. Our lived experiences and contributions to this new nation are integral parts of a large canvas that was painted by a myriad of people in diverse parts of our nation. We are only now piecing it together one story at a time.

During the colonial period, many new forms of leadership and organizing emerged around the country and many acts of resistance and rebellion were birthed by individual persons and communities. However, not everyone became aware of them because we were separated from one another by colonial forces. So now when we hear about each other’s lived experience, we are inspired to add our pieces to the tapestry of courage that has been buried and silenced by the conspiracy of domination. With that realization, we shall discover our common purpose as one people, one Kenya.

As we pay tribute to our fallen sister, Mwalimu Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo and reflect on how she was gripped all her life by the spirit of resistance, I want to add my personal testimony here as well. Her passing and personal stories have made my own even more poignant when I realize how similar were the circumstances in which we grew up, she in Baricho, Kirinyaga County, and I in Seme, Kisumu County.

Mĩcere  and I go a long way back. We are close in age, her rika and mine are separated by only three years. I call her Nyiwuodha.   In Dholuo language, Nyiwuodha means the person with whom you share similar experiences – separately and together – in the journey of life. This is not only about being in the exact same physical spaces at the same time, but also about shared moments, experiences and circumstances that make your lives resonate with one another.

We share many crucial experiences both in Kenya and globally. Our friendship and sistahood was built on a shared heritage which we were to discover only after we first met in the University of Nairobi in 1973. Our identities as women and our professional calling as academics and activists were shaped by the history of the times in which we grew up.

Both of us were children of resisters, human rights defenders and change makers who realised early that the colonial system, as Walter Rodney taught us in his book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, was a façade that was sold as development while its real purpose was to deprive folk of development opportunity.

As very young children we witnessed our own parents fight for freedom with the tools they had, in the spaces in which they found themselves.

Mĩcere’s father was a Senior Chief and Administrator in Central Province. My father was a Teacher, Schools Supervisor and Church Lay Reader in Nyanza Province. Mĩcere’s mother taught class. My mother was also a teacher/trainer of women in community development. Both our mothers worked alongside our fathers for the liberation and empowerment of women and girls in our communities.

Both of us were children of resisters, human rights defenders and change makers.

Our parents worked in the colonial system and had the opportunity to see, firsthand, the insidious nature of the system, its method of subjugating and disempowering our people and communities. Our parents, hers and mine, became fully aware that the system was inimical to the interests of the people and had to be fought by all means necessary. And they took risks at all times to sabotage and overturn the conditions that oppressed our people.

As Mĩcere’s father refused to be the tool for stamping out Gĩkũyũ Mau Mau freedom fighters, and as he was being thrown in jail for refusing to persecute the freedom fighters, my father and mother were running a clandestine, underground operation for detainees who were escaping from the colonial detention and labour camp on Mageta Island – a small mosquito- and tsetse fly-infested island on Lake Victoria where they had been sent to suffer ignominy and even die.

As my father was a teacher, he risked being fired from his job or jailed if found to be a sympathiser with the detainees who were rebelling and escaping from the long arm of the colonial system. Both Father and Mother took on the task to rescue, shelter, feed and hide several Kenyan freedom fighters. Many of the escapees were from as far afield as Mount Kenya, Ukambani and the coastal region who had been forcibly placed under arrest and confined on Mageta Island.

In our teens, we both found ourselves at the heart of desegregation of education in Kenya. By the time Mĩcere joined high school, like all former all-white schools, Limuru Girls School was now forced to admit children of all backgrounds. Mĩcere entered Limuru Girls School some two years ahead of me at A-Level, excelled there and went on to Makerere University – then a constituent college of the University of East Africa – where she studied English Literature. Two years later, in 1965, I joined the same Limuru Girls School, excelled and went on to the University of Dar es Salaam, then also a constituent college of the University of East Africa.

Mĩcere had gone before me and paved the way for us. Her motto was to excel and come top of her class. She demonstrated that Black African girls were capable of learning, taking leadership and winning in a multiracial setting. In those heady days, and as young teenagers, we found ourselves in the midst of white racism in our own country and suffered from it but went on undaunted to beat our classmates in all subjects hands down. As a result of our experiences in the school, we developed an intense dislike for any system in Kenya and elsewhere which weaponised difference to deny development opportunity.

We first met at the University of Nairobi 1973. Mĩcere was a lecturer in the Department of Literature and I was just joining the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) as a Junior Research Fellow. We both saw a sista in one another and from there we have shared much in our careers of knowledge building and teaching, and in our acts of rebellion against all forms of oppression. We discovered that, as college students, we were both deeply involved in the global anti-apartheid movement fighting for the freedom of South Africa. We were also deeply engaged in student movements for the liberation of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau and Cabo Verde.

Mĩcere demonstrated that Black African girls were capable of learning, taking leadership and winning in a multiracial setting.

This was followed by a long engagement in the women’s movement both in Africa and globally. This latter engagement was to bring us together for the greater part of our adult lives. In the year we met, 1973, I presented my first seminar paper on women in rural development at the IDS. Anticipating challenge, Mwalimu Mĩcere, then a young lecturer in the Department of Literature, came along to listen and see how my paper would be received in an all-male and mostly white IDS at the time. Other women who came included Phoebe Asiyo, Eddah Gachukia, Esther Ondipo Jonathan, Damaris Ayodo, Julia Ojiambo, Serah Lukalo, Margaret Mwangola and Terry Kantai. They all came to the seminar to hear me out and give me support in sistahood.

The debate was hot and not without controversy. Mĩcere spoke firmly in support. This seminar ensured that we launched the topic of Women and Development – irrevocably – as a legitimate area of study in the University of Nairobi. Professor Dharam Ghai, a Kenyan economist who was Director of IDS at the time, lent firm impartial support to this effort and authorised the revision and publication of the seminar working paper as a first Discussion Paper on Women at the IDS in 1974.

In 1973, Mĩcere and I collaborated in organising a conversation between women academics, researchers and rural women from around the country. The premise was that women needed to think together in order to act together to address social inequalities. Although only in the beginning stages of our theorising on women and society, our aim was to bring research and activism together to show how research could be used as a tool for bringing attention to the burdens of inequality borne by rural women. Key among them were: limited access to productive land, technical training, credit and finance, and inadequate agricultural research on the crops grown by women that formed the bulk of the country’s food security. Such was the interest drawn by the seminar that the late Professor James Kagia of Tigoni, Limuru and a University of Nairobi lecturer in Paediatrics, offered to be our interpreter from English to Kikuyu and vice versa during several sessions. We had a strong input from the Nyakĩnywa and Mabati Women from Nyeri as well as women from rural communities in the Coast, Nyanza and Western provinces whom we had invited to the seminar.

We both saw a sista in one another and from there we have shared much in our careers of knowledge building and teaching, and in our acts of rebellion against all forms of oppression.

Mĩcere earned her undergraduate degree in literature from Makerere University in 1966 and I earned mine in literature and sociology from Dar es Salaam University in 1970. Both of us received our Masters and PhD degrees in North America and in later years we both worked in the US.

From the 1990s onwards, our paths crossed many times in the course of our international careers. During this time, we had plenty of opportunities to exchange ideas on how to articulate and make more visible an African feminist epistemology based on our roots and understanding of the circumstances that disadvantage women in our continent. To frame the debate and call for action on African feminist epistemology, Mĩcere drew from African orature and literary material while I worked from the angle of the social sciences, policy analysis and research. Later, while she was Professor at Syracuse University and I Chief of the Africa Section in the United Nations Women’s Fund, Mĩcere took the time to find me in 1995 and interviewed me on how we as African women were engaging in the global feminist discourse on the empowerment of women within the framework of the United Nations and the Beijing Conference process.

This is just a glimpse of our mortal journey together. There is much more as many of you will read in our published works.

My sister Mĩcere was steeped in indigenous orature, so I will end with a little song from Luo folklore. The song comes from a story of defiance and strategy and it goes like this.

Song:

Wala   Tinda, Wala wala Tinda

Silwal majanyiero okelo nyamin nene

Wala   Wala Tinda, Wala wala Tinda

Silwal majanyiero okelo nyamin nene

Yuora mielie, wala wala Tinda

Maro mielka walawala tinda

Maro mielie otenga maudhili 

Ti wanacham

Nyaktiari

Adapted from a tribute by Dr Achola Okeyo at the Kenya National Theatre, Nairobi, August 9, 2023.

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Reflections

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.

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Ama Ata Aidoo: A Tribute
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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.

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Reflections

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.

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Professor Micere Githae Mugo: The Zimbabwe Experience
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“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.

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