Log into your member account to listen to this article. Not a member? Join the herd.

I first encountered Professor Micere Mugo in the 1970s through her writings which, in a sense, answered some of the questions I had at the time. As a young man, I had been grappling with questions of socio-economic inequality, exclusion, and abuse of power by the political elites. I wanted to comprehend the role of literature in understanding and shaping society. I was reading Frantz Fanon, Fidel Castro, Amilcar Cabral, Kim Chi Ha, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other writers. On reading Daughter of My People, Sing! I was taken by the accessibility of the poetry and the imperative of the gender lens in the liberation struggle. Then I read The Trials of Dedan Kimathi and noted the power of the female characters. Later, I met Mwalimu Micere at an African Studies Association Conference in the US and we established a connection that saw us work together during the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) period, particularly on the question of the place of culture in the Constitution of Kenya. Her articulation of culture from a rights perspective  was clear and precise; it was embedded in her narrative. Mwalimu Micere was a committed intellectual. She was fully present and shared her knowledge generously. She broke the shackles of containment and engaged varied communities wherever they were located. Her terrain was not confined to the university; it was everywhere in the pursuit of justice.

When I organized an International Conference on Soap Operas in Nairobi in June 2003 I was privileged to host Mwalimu Micere. She gave a powerful keynote speech that I would like to share with you here as we received it then.

This is her voice:

Transcending Colonial and Neo-Colonial Pathological Hangovers to Unleash Creativity
Micere Mugo – Syracuse University

Thank you very much indeed Dr Njogu for that kind introduction. Allow me to also thank Dr Onsongo for a very focused speech, especially in terms of the work that is before us at this summit, and the president of PCI [Population Communications International] for the illustrative remarks following the speech. []

Let me begin by really expressing deep appreciation for the invitation to come to this soap summit as the keynote speaker. When Dr Njogu invited me, I explained that recently I have been cutting down on my speaking engagements for all kinds of reasons — including health concerns. However, in the end there was no way I was going to say no to Dr Njogu as he twisted my hand so hard that I ended up accepting to come. Frankly, were it not for health problems, I would never have needed any arm-twisting to accept an invitation to come to Kenya. Just a mention of the motherland would have definitely done the trick!

So, I am really delighted to be with you all and wish to express gratitude to the PCI for funding my travel here. In particular, I want to thank Lillian Chege for shouldering a lot of work in preparing my itinerary, which was a little problematic. Once more, it is truly a pleasure to be at this summit and to have the opportunity of networking with all of you.

Permit me now to become a bit personal and recognize in our midst here two very special people — my sisters. Mrs Kiereini is a former Chief Nursing Officer in Kenya, currently serving as the Chairperson of the AMREF Board of Directors, and Mrs Marekia, a former secretary/office administrator who is now a businesswoman. Please join me in welcoming  them to this soap summit even though they only came to offer me sisterly solidarity by listening to my address. As for all the many friends that I see here and whom I cannot name  individually, I embrace each one of you and just want to say how delighted I am to see you at this forum.

At this juncture, I would like to comment in quite some detail on the symbolism of this moment when we find ourselves meeting in Kenya. I feel the need to do so for several reasons that will unfold. But do not worry! Even though I was given up to one hour to make my remarks, I am going to do my best to cut down on my text because there are some  people here who need to get away soon. In fact, I am going to speak to my speech rather than read it out and so if it is a little incoherent please understand that it is because I am trying to be sensitive about taking too much space when time is proving to be such an elusive commodity. Moreover, jet lag has been playing tricks on me and I haven’t been sleeping well at all since my arrival. As a result, I am feeling a bit lightheaded.

But, let me move onto symbolism.

The first level of symbolism that I wish to comment on is the tenacity that has made this summit convene at all. Personally, I am quite amazed that it is taking place. Only a week ago, there were e-mail alerts that all international conferences scheduled to take place in Kenya had been cancelled for security reasons. Dr Njogu must have been very vigilant because before I could get onto my computer keyboard to ask him whether the information in circulation was correct, he had sent out an e-mail to all summit participants simply announcing: “The conference is on”. That was how brief and decisive his message was. For me, the symbolism here is not to be missed: we have to design our own agenda and move on with it as opposed to taking our queue from others.

You see, the government of George Bush seems to be determining national and personal agenda through security coding — red, orange, yellow and green. There is so much drama around this that it is creating more fear than a feeling of safety. Now, according to this security system, Kenya is a security liability — in fact, a country that poses a serious terrorist  threat. So, I am rather surprised to see that many of you are still living here and remain alive. I am happy too to have been here for three days and to be still alive. Seriously, going by the gravity of these alerts, those of you who live here should presumably have packed your bags by now and fled, while the rest of us would never have boarded the planes to come. But we decided to be crazy and come and it seems that there was some sanity in our madness because we would have been foolish not to come. The lesson is that remaining focused on our agenda  and commitments is critical in accomplishing the work that we have mapped out for ourselves.

The second level of symbolism, especially with all these security concerns before us, is that instead of panicking, we should be fired by a sense of urgency to complete the work before us. Speed is critical. It is, in fact, a matter of life and death, particularly when it comes to tackling the AIDS/HIV pandemic, which is more of a source of terror/horror on a day-to-day basis, more devastating than any terrorist attack we could imagine. Please don’t get me wrong, terrorist attacks are lethal and we have already witnessed the extent of their unimaginable terror; but thankfully, in most situations they do not happen every minute of the day. Deaths from AIDS/HIV do. The symbolism of the urgency confronting us becomes  a teaching moment, compelling us as artists, culturalists, journalists, writers, activists, etc. We must move forward with all human speed possible. We have to seize every possible moment to intervene in order to avert this human calamity that has gone out of control.

“Remaining focused on our agenda  and commitments is critical in accomplishing the work that we have mapped out for ourselves.”

The third level of symbolism — that of the larger historical Kenyan scene — calls for a special, prolonged comment. Please allow me to indulge. I am entering this country for the first time since the December elections that toppled the Moi dictatorship and, for once, I am encountering people with a lot of hope. I am thrilled by it, but I am also reminding all of us to remain cautious and vigilant. This is because as we know, we have lived through euphoria before only to experience huge letdowns. However, we do not want to feed on pessimism; we want to say that things will go right — that we will make them go right. Yes, for the first time after so many years, I am seeing and hearing people express confidence in their ability to create positive change. So, I want to suggest that symbolically, we meet in Kenya at the dawn of a new day and depending on what action we take, we can make a difference that will affect tomorrow. We have met here to propel change and to make a difference. Let us not forget, however, that to be of lasting transformation, the change we make must be collective. This is the symbolism that we can draw from Kenya where we are meeting under a new political dispensation created through the collective will of the people. If we forget the collective nature of this victory and its significance, we will have betrayed history all over again. This will be yet another political disaster.

We have met here to find ways of working together collectively in order to address the countless problems facing us in Africa. As we look at these problems, we sometimes become discouraged and do not know where to begin; yet we know that we need to begin somewhere. I don’t know if all of you suffer from this momentary panic, but I do.

The fourth level of symbolism for me is the celebration of people’s potential in changing the oppressive reality facing them. In Kenya and other countries where windows of democracy have opened up, people have every right to bask in the sunshine ushered in by a new dawn, emerging as it does after a long night of terror. We have the right to enter the spaces we have created in order to enjoy the sunshine that we have been a part of the making and to affirm the fact that the sun’s rays will stretch into the future. So, overwhelming as the task is, let us take comfort in the fact that daylight is on our side!

“If we forget the collective nature of this victory and its significance, we will have betrayed history all over again.”

Having highlighted these levels of symbolism, let me now celebrate all those who have come to this soap summit as creators of one kind or another: artists, who use their imagination to  fathom and create new worlds while believing in infinite possibilities; journalists, who have  been so vigilant in naming the ills of neo-colonialism; activists, who have been the voice of our collective conscience, especially under silencing; others from various professions who have given their skills to make a difference… Yes, I want to celebrate all of you who are here  in the name of naming ourselves and our reality, and in the spirit of making things happen as we all struggle to introduce sanity in a world gone mad. I salute you, fellow travellers, who have chosen to use action to fight pessimism, for we have witnessed the shedding of too many tears.

I truly celebrate the wealth of imagination represented here and just want to give an inspirational speech to say I believe we can change the oppressive reality before us as well as our people. Yes, we can do it. We must believe that as human beings, we have the capacity to transform our world. In celebrating you as cultural agents, I also celebrate our art and cultural heritages. I say, we have here a harvest of multifarious talents and we saw clear evidence of this earlier on in the morning during the opening session. It really was delightful and instructive listening to the members of the opening panel who covered so many issues with such stunning creativity that they have made my task a lot easier. All I need to do now is fire your enthusiasm rather than advice you on what to do. In fact, I am going to narrow my remarks to address the theme of “Transcending Pathology Created by Colonialism and Neo-colonialism in Order to Unleash Creativity”. My argument is simple, until we recover from colonial and neo-colonial pathological hangovers, we cannot create meaningful soaps to address other health issues. Hopefully, the challenges I pose will provide a framework around which to brainstorm on how to move beyond borrowed solutions in order to emerge with our own inventions.

Let me now invite you to participate in the rest of my delivery, as I happen to be a child of orature and so believe in audience participation. In orature style, when I speak, I don’t take the audience for granted. I like having them accompany me on our joint conversational journey. So I am going to give you a cue, indicating where you are supposed to come in. The one I am going to use employs a South African term, “abantu”, which simply means “people”. When I call upon you: “Abantu!”, you are going to respond, “Ii!”, [Gikuyu term for “yes”] telling me you are there. Then I will ask you, “Shall I go on?”, “Shall I proceed?”,  “Shall I speak?… and/or other such variations. You will respond: “Ii!” or “Yes!”. However, if you say “No!” I will stop. So, any minute really that you feel tired, you know what to do. But please don’t stop me too soon: let me speak for a few minutes at least.

“Shall I begin?”

I want to begin by stressing that as we celebrate life and the possibilities before us, we are also situated amidst poverty, disease and other calamities. We convene here at a moment when there are so many wars — actual and metaphorical — raging in Africa. A lot of our children are dying, while others have been turned into child soldiers in unending ugly wars of hatred, bloodthirsty power-mongering and wanton destruction of lives. In the words of Ambassador Olara Otunnu, the Undersecretary General of the United Nations, our children are being taught to kill while being killed before they have time to grow. This is a tragedy, especially when we think of the AIDS epidemic and other killer diseases such as malaria, cancer and so on that are wiping out our people. So, this is a critical moment for us as artists, culturalists and activists to ask: how can we address these issues? How can we use our imagination to bring creativity to these spaces where there is death and destruction?

“Am I making sense?”

“I was nervous that someone would say “no” there because I am not really sure I am making sense.”

With these serious challenges in view, I suggest that we do all in our power to move beyond symptoms and get to the root of the problems identified. Above all, we need to have a clear   understanding of “where the rain began to beat us”, to borrow the words of Chinua Achebe. I repeat: it is critical that we understand where, when and why our problems started. Important as this question is, it seems that when some of us raise it there are people who become nervous, asking, “Why do we have to dig up these past issues? Why don’t we just forget?” This self-imposed amnesia is another very severe illness that we have suffered from since colonial times. We are afraid to recall what went wrong, partly because the act of remembering forces us to step in and take action to remedy the offending situation. I want us to remember. I want to take you through some painful moments, not for sadistic reasons,  but because they will jack our memories to remember why we are having so many things going wrong scores of years following independence. How can Africa, a continent that had so much hope at independence reek of so much helplessness? I remember the optimism we had when we came out of Makerere in the 1960s. We were so very full of hope. We were so sure we would make things happen. We were full of commitment. We were going to serve the continent as teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, architects, engineers, writers, and  so on. We must ask: “Where did the rain begin to beat us? What went wrong?”

For sure a lot of blame goes to our leaders, especially those who have ended up becoming dictators, for, at their hands we have witnessed untold terror and destruction, especially that of human resources. However, as ruthless and pathetic as African leaders have been, the people of Africa must assume collective responsibility for having been largely silent while these destroyers ravaged our countries and resources. Yes, it is a shame that at first only a few people dared to speak out against these crimes. If the entire continent had spoken out loud, do you think these dictators would have had enough jails in which to lock all of us up? That would not have been possible and probably change would have come a lot sooner. Look at the collective psychological trauma this inaction has resulted in! Our countries need  therapy. It is indeed my sincere hope that the soaps we create will address these issues of psychological health. Our collective humanity has been brutalized by what has happened over time. The soaps will have the challenge of indicating ways of giving birth to new human  beings with a vision and mission that seek to humanize the entire world.

“We are afraid to recall what went wrong, partly because the act of remembering forces us to step in and take action to remedy the offending situation.”

Having said that, I want to believe that there is a reason we have gone through so much pain and that, hopefully, we have learnt a lot through our mistakes. In this regard, I must celebrate the people of Kenya and others from all over Africa for deciding to rise up in the end and say, “No! We are not going to allow terror to continue. We are bringing humiliation to a stop in order to move forward!”

“Shall I proceed?”

As we try to understand what went wrong, let us not underestimate the impact of an internalized colonial ethos and how the psyche it created shaped the people that we find in ourselves today. But then, some of you will say to me that this is placing blame on colonial masters, turning them into convenient scapegoats. But let me tell you: to understand ourselves fully, we have to comprehend our past. If we don’t understand colonialism and the way it worked in order to leave us in the neo-colonial mess that we find ourselves in, we are  failing to understand a very important part of our history. Yet, only proper understanding will help us move forward meaningfully into the future.

We are talking of behaviour change at this summit. In my view, there is no way I can deal with this question without revisiting colonialism. For, if former colonial subjects are to employ behaviour change theory to their lives, they must have the courage to go back to colonization and analyse the consequences of a colonial mentality victimology.

This is the only way we can transform the legacy of abuse, self-doubt (even self-hatred), and an incurable pre-occupation with Whiteness as a coveted state of being. Ladies and gentlemen, those of you coming from a colonial background may not want to hear this, but I want to suggest that we are still suffering from a colonial hangover that has been re-enforced under neo-colonialism. We have grown to not only lose confidence in ourselves, but in our history and culture. Thus, as we seek to create change through soap operas, we need to revisit these abandoned sites — not in a spirit of nostalgia — but in active search of culturally homegrown solutions to our specific, local problems. We need to love ourselves, understand ourselves and re-embrace our heritage. Why? Because when a person really understands himself or herself, when a person has the language and words to name herself/himself and her/his world, then s/he is in control. But once you don’t have a language, once you don’t have a past, when you pass a vote of no confidence in yourself, you lose the ground on which to stand in order to be sufficiently grounded to transform your reality as necessary.

Let me give an illustration. In the last three days that I have been here, I have been looking at television and 90% of the time the programs that are on the screen are from the West — Europe, Britain, or North America. I am asking myself, “How is this so on a continent where creativity is in so much abundance that we should not be knowing what to do with it? How do our people see themselves in the faces that are on these screens? How do the exhibited Hollywood scenes and the reality show characters of the Jerry Springer drama, for instance,  reflect Africa’s crying needs? What is going on? For me, there is an obvious problem here, especially for children who are always on the lookout for models. It is as if we are telling our children that they ought to look outside themselves, their societies and their worlds in their struggle to construct their identity.

“We have grown to not only lose confidence in ourselves, but in our history and culture.”

People, there is a crisis here — a big crisis —  and I am calling upon all of us to speed up the production of locally generated and oriented soaps in order to speak to Africa’s needs. Where urgency is concerned, I am in agreement with the donors. We need to make those soaps happen today: we needed to have done so yesterday. On the other hand, however, and this is critical, the work must not be done at the cost of cultural authenticity. We must be careful, even as we rush production, to ascertain that whatever is done is rooted in and mirrors the cultural understanding and self-reflection of our people. I am agreeing that there’s urgency and the struggle is at a phase when we really need to speed up action, but not at a cost to our integrity.

“Shall I proceed?”

With your permission, I will revamp my theorization further and take you back to the question of the urgency in rooting out colonial mentality. I insist that to address Africa’s ills we have to begin with attacking the psychological block that undermines our self-confidence, making us always want to look for answers from the outside. Until we learn to trust the strength, the imagination, the will and the creativity within ourselves, to have abundant faith that we can make things happen, we will continue to helplessly gaze outwards. You see, as agents of change we have to be creative, we have to move from the colonial mentality of self-mutilation, self-destruction and self-doubt, erase from our psyche the culture of self-contempt and even self-hatred, a malady that makes us imagine that whatever we have is inadequate and inferior to things Western. We have to work towards the rehabilitation of our mutilated, dismembered personal and collective self-imaging and come to trust that we have within ourselves the human potential for determining our lives. The inculcation of an inferiority complex among the colonized was a clear goal in colonial education. It happened in India, it happened here, it happened everywhere colonials set foot  and it continues to take place under neo-colonialism. We cannot afford to delay the process  of creating soaps that will undo this psychological damage/mischief even as we campaign against other visible medical illnesses and health concerns.

“It is as if we are telling our children that they ought to look outside themselves, their societies and their worlds in their struggle to construct their identity.”

There’s a very revealing documentary entitled In the White Man’s Image that narrates the tragic story of North American Indians and the way they were colonized through the elimination of their identity as well as culture. In the documentary, there is a ruthless White educator who makes it his mission to not just educate Indian children but to actually change them, mentally and physically. There is a very chilling recurring line in which the colonizer constantly speaks of the need to “kill the Indian and save the man” — obviously meaning there is a need to erase the Indian in the children by turning them into Whites. This processor of “killing” the Indian is equivalent to exorcising the “native” out of colonized Africans. Within this context, the victims had to be given new names when they entered government or missionary schools under colonialism. In my case I ceased to be Njiru or Micere and became “Madeleine”, acquiring a French name that I could not even pronounce then! So, at  one point in my primary school life I was known as “Madeleine Richards”. This would be my name at school and on returning home I would revert to my African name — pick up my identity. In this bizarre situation, some people ended up having double personalities and developed a rather schizophrenic relationship with themselves, their homes, their culture and  their identity. Serious stuff!

All of this partly explains why an identity crisis persists among our youth, including those who have never left their homes —  yet experience a deep craving for wanting to be either American, or British, or anything that is not African. We have passed on the confusion to them under neo-colonialism. It always surprises me when I hear the older generation accusing the youth of losing their culture and identity. Rather than blame them, we should be laying the responsibility on the collective social ethos of self-devaluation that has emerged over historical times. I say, when we begin with a lack of self-knowledge, we are not in a position to become agents of change. The situation is not getting any better, much as we may pretend it is. As we speak, there is a project of re-colonization afoot, which comes as a part of the globalization package. We need to be fully aware of what the process is all about in real practical terms. Namely, that there is now a single power — America —  supported  by the international corporate world and dominating the rest of the globe, with poor nations   at the bottom of the rubble. Let us not mince words: President Bush of America is out to conquer the rest of the world and to colonize weak states. I am cautioning that this culture of dominating others militarily, economically, politically and culturally is the philosophy behind globalization. We need to be keenly conscious of this.

Some people have been as bold as to openly advocate the re-colonization of Africa. There was a very revealing article in the New York Times around the mid-1990s in which a scholar by the name of Johnson was proposing that Africa was better off under its former masters and that it was high time ex-colonial powers returned to re-colonize the African continent. Now, nobody is disputing the fact that neo-colonial African leaders have turned the continent  into a basket case. There is indeed a sense in which the dictatorships we have survived —  not to mention the general mismanagement of our resources —  have dragged Africa many years back. In Kirinyaga, for instance, where I come from, roads that were in excellent functioning   order during the 1960s and 1970s are no longer passable. There was a road between Kutus and Kibirigwi on which I used to drive at about 40-50 m.p.h. in my little Volkswagen beetle, travelling from Kabare High School to Nyeri, but now that road cannot even carry a donkey cart. This state of things is unacceptable. Yet, in the midst of all this, some African rulers have been known to boast of how much they own. You no doubt know the story of the late  Mobutu Sese Seko who became furious and insulted when a journalist asked him if it was true   that he was the tenth (or some such rank) richest man in the world while he was actually much richer than that. Mobutu nearly swallowed the poor journalist alive! Oh the nerve! Some thief is here, having impoverished his country and having grabbed everything that there is to grab and he is boasting about being a better thief than estimated! Friends, I am saying that there’s a lot of work to be done because to a certain extent we have called upon ourselves the contempt with which we are being treated. But, even with all of this granted, who is Mr Johnson to decide to choose the future for Africa! How does what has happened under neo-colonialism make colonialism right given all the dehumanization and suffering it unleashed on African people?

“When we begin with a lack of self-knowledge, we are not in a position to become agents of change.”

The above reminds us that soap operas have a role to play in filling in the gaps that exist and in exposing the ills that Africa ails from today. If we do not do this, someone else will step in and fill the gap. In cultural terms, this is already happening. At the levels of television, film and media alone, for instance, re-colonization is a real threat.

Let me give you an example. Go to any part of the world, be it in Africa, Latin America, Japan, the Caribbean, etc., and you will find that one of the clearest television stations is CNN. The whole world is being brought up on CNN. Now, I have nothing against CNN, nor cross-cultural convergence of resources for that matter. In fact I was watching CNN only this morning when I lost sleep! What I am saying is that when you go to a country and cannot access programs on the local station because CNN has the clearest beam, then there is a problem. What we are witnessing is the equation of globalization with mainstream “Americanization” and this, in essence, constitutes global colonization. I am arguing that there is something dangerously wrong when the world falls under the superpowership of one country. We need independent film and media to provide an alternative, especially for Africa’s and the world’s poor. This new imaging created by independent media must strive to gather together all cultures and all people — irrespective of race, class and gender —  making them a part of global humanity.

There’s a problem here and it is among the root causes that we are needing to address in our  artistic products if we are going to make headway.

“Are you tired?”
“Don’t say yes, just yet.  I promise I am coming to an end!”

So, what is the way forward? As we struggle to wean ourselves of the colonial and neo-colonial hangovers that I have talked about, we must simultaneously work on creating alternatives. Soap operas have a very special role to play in this task, as already intimated. Only such alternatives will bring about an alternative form of development — one that focuses  on entire human populations rather than on a few privileged individuals. We must move beyond self and realize that without collective development, no given country can make the mark. In the prophetic words of JM Kariuki — a popular politician assassinated in the 1970s  [speaking in reference to Kenya]: “We do not want a [country] with ten millionaires and twenty million beggars.” Those of us who are socially privileged ought to seriously take heed of these words. Africa today has armies of poor people while a small elite wallows in obnoxious wealth. This will take us nowhere. Sometimes you wonder how most people live from day to day — how they survive.

Last night I went to bed very humbled and deeply pensive. I had sat next to a young man at dinner —  I hope he is here — who told me his story of survival and human triumph. He was born in Mathare Valley, where he grew up — largely in the streets — living on an empty stomach most days. I don’t know how he survived, but today he is here as one of our participating artists and community activists. I was simply amazed by his story and even more so, by the determination with which he emerged out of a human pit where so many others  of our children have gone down.

I am trying to say that there is something grossly wrong when we have armies of children in the streets, when so many are homeless and hungry, when sprawling ghettos become eyesores and yet we remain surrounded by so much wealth. There’s clearly something wrong when we are plagued by so much illiteracy — having to deal with people who cannot decipher an iota on paper — while there are so many of us who are educated. It is in view of all this that I am persuaded there is no other way outside collective development. I am positing that,  for those of us who are privileged, our privilege is also a responsibility. On this score, Mwalimu Njogu, I celebrate you for having organized this gathering to remind us that we owe the world a responsibility by putting us to work on doing something concrete to change the status quo.

“I am saying that there’s a lot of work to be done because to a certain extent we have called upon ourselves the contempt with which we are being treated.”

“I am because you are, and since you are, therefore I am.” This is a rough quotation from John Mbiti’s African Philosophy and Religion and teaching that we find in most African orature heritages. I subscribe to it — heavily! I tell you, don’t you listen to anyone who suggests to you that this kind of thinking belongs to “primitive” and/or “communist” societies. Every human being should have this as a life motto.

Allow me to belabour the point and ask that we remember we did not make it to where we are  alone; that in actual fact we are products and extensions of our communities and that, above  all, we are products of the years of historical struggles waged by people before us. Sacrifices  liberated a lot of the spaces that we occupy to day. The soaps we create must, therefore, address the dangers of individualistic development. Our soaps must never get tired of naming the dangers of poverty and disease. Indeed, they must make a connection between poverty and insecurity, between impoverishment and disease, etc. They must ask harsh questions regarding the role of the World Bank, IMF and imperialist domination — all of which create an indebtedness that makes the poor of the world even poorer. Above all, acknowledging the importance of collective development, please I beg us all to leave behind  existing divisions based on all petty nonsense related to tribalism, ethnicity and other socially created barriers such as gender inequity and discrimination against those with disability, etc. We must never ever forget the tragedy of the Rwanda genocide, of Burundi, the DRC, Sierra Leone, Kenya’s Rift valley massacres and so on. While on this point, let me say that I can  never understand how/why — with all our problems in Africa, including the scourge of killer diseases — we succumb to the madness of sharpening machetes, pangas, arrows, spears and loading guns for killing other people simply because some lunatic of a power-hungry warlord  convinced us they should die since they don’t come from the same group as us!

“I am because you are, and since you are, therefore I am.”

Sometimes I have wondered, what happened to our psyche? Why have African lives been rendered so cheap… so easily dispensable? Look at this morning’s newspaper and see what happened in Mathare Valley yesterday! Why would a landlord exploit unemployed youth to go and evict tenants by beating them, just to get them and others killed in the process? Where  is this kind of individualized greed and thuggery going to take us? These are all serious questions that our soaps must pose. To quote Chinua Achebe, “The house is on fire!”. I am referring to the analogy he gave in one of his essays regarding a man whose house was ablaze   and as it was burning down, he saw a rat running away to escape the fire. And you know what the stupid man did? Instead of focusing on rescuing his belongings, he took a huge stick and began chasing after the escaping rat. I recount this story and have done so several   times before to suggest, ladies and gentlemen, that Africa — our “house” — is on fire. Please do not let us go chasing rats that are intelligent enough to escape the fire. There are far too many “rats” that we keep chasing even as our house burns: petty “tribalism”, ethnicity, political war games, idle consumerism, competitive parading of wealth, and so on.

In this regard, let us vow to make the soaps we create focus on the core issues that affect the  lives and health of our Africa’s majorities most. In creating the soaps, we should engage the question of local languages and involve the masses in the creation of the pieces. Let the people speak for themselves by telling their own stories wherever possible. We cannot possibly replace their voices, however talented or skilful we may be artistically. I keep emphasizing that until we network with the masses in the production of knowledge and other   cultural products, intellectual output is going to remain the monopoly of the elites. In this respect, we should recognize the criticality of orature. In African orature we have an incredibly rich heritage that we should truly be proud of. It has an abundant reservoir of stories, allegories, epics, songs, etc., that will greatly enhance our creativity. I remember how at the height of political repression here in Kenya, one of the dramatists (I forget what his name was) used animal character types to populate his political satires. These characters represented real people on the Kenyan political scene — roaming the stage as hyenas, elephants, ogres and so on. Once, a senior government minister that I will not name lavishly praised this use of African culture, little knowing that he was one of the undesirable animal characters on the stage that day. We sniggered all the way from the National Theatre to the Norfolk hotel where we enjoyed tea and jokes at his expense! Orature is a goldmine and a powerful artistic tool at our disposal whether we are operating from the rural areas or urban   set-ups. This was ably illustrated during the opening panel to day.

The application of orature in creating soaps and other artistic products will serve a useful purpose in bringing out the interdependence between ethical and aesthetical concerns and this foregrounds the old-time debate regarding “art for art’s sake” and functional creativity. In orature conceptualization, there is no contradiction for it is not a question of either/or, but rather a matter of complementariness. This is to say that in orature, while art is by and large utilitarian, its aesthetic appeal also matters. The orature heritage perceives art as an aspect of human productivity that has a functional purpose, but one that is also meant to express beauty while it entertains the audience. Thus, when we describe soaps as edutainment, we are at one with the orate tradition in which teaching, education and entertainment converge to define a desirable piece of art.

“Until we network with the masses in the production of knowledge and other   cultural products, intellectual output is going to remain the monopoly of the elites.”

As we compose, script and produce our soap operas, let us not forget to incorporate the youth as a target audience. If we are not careful, the marginalization of youth in many of our undertakings is going to cost us heavily somewhere along the way. There is an illustrative story that reinforces the aspect of behaviour change theory that posits that habits inculcated early in life are likely to have a more lasting effect on a growing child. The story has it that a Catholic priest was asked by his Anglican counterpart: “How come the Roman Catholic has such a huge, loyal following?” The Catholic priest replied, “Aah! We catch them when they are young!” Please, let us catch them when they are young and if well done, the messages we pass through the soaps we create will rub on, becoming life lessons. Returning to orature yet again, the heritage has genres that naturally attract the attention of young people, especially song and dance. Look at the phenomenal role the two have played all over Africa, especially in liberation struggles!

Only last December, the Kenyan political landscape was a theatre using orature popular art forms to mobilize the people. There is a song that I became so addicted to after my nephew played it in the car for hours that I seem to be constantly singing it in America six months later. I am referring to “Yote yawezekana…”, ”Everything is possible…” without you know whom — no need to mention names! The notion of people embracing their self-empowerment and declaring that they are capable of creating any type of change without dictatorial blocks is most refreshing after so many years of silencing. Soaps should exploit  the orature genres of dance and song as they naturally appeal to young people and tend to unleash their creativity while enlisting participation without too much of an effort.

“Orature is a goldmine and a powerful artistic tool at our disposal whether we are operating from the rural areas or urban   set-ups.”

In conclusion, let me echo the spirit of this song and say that in the work before us, having shed off colonial and neo-colonial hangovers and then fortified ourselves with self-knowledge and determination, “Yote yawezekana!” So, next time you wake up feeling defeated and tempted to remain between those sheets, just throw off the blanket and tell yourself, “I am unbwogable!” —  to evoke another popular election song in which the opposition was vouching, “We shall not be moved!” Let us harvest this field of fertile imagination all around us and get on with creating those overdue soaps and other popular art forms that we need for moving our work forward.

Let us remind ourselves time and again: We can do it! We will do it!



I will stop now. Thank you very much.

This speech speaks to who Mwalimu Micere was: she was a revolutionary; she was a pan-Africanist; she was an intellectual activist; she was a powerful voice in the liberation struggle. She will always be present. May Mwalimu Micere Mugo’s soul rest in peace.