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