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The Battle of the Mind: A Matter of Life or Death

16 min read.

Speaking on the theme of Imperialism in the Third World World Professor Micere Mugo argues that, depending on who ends up having supremacy over our intellect, we shall live or die.



A Tribute to Professor Micere Mugo
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I would like to dedicate this lecture to Maina wa Kinyatti, the well-known historian of the Mau Mau period who is being held in the notorious Kamiti prison — eight or so miles from Nairobi on trumped-up charges. Maina is the editor of Thunder From the Mountain, a volume of Mau Mau patriotic songs, and author of several other significant publications on this period. At the moment he is in danger of going blind because the authorities will not allow him hospitalisation to be operated upon, in spite of several appeals from his doctor. Several days ago, I received a telephone call from Nairobi, asking me to internationalise the appeal to allow him hospitalisation so that he can undergo the necessary surgery because his eyesight can still be saved at the moment.

This lecture is also dedicated to my former students from the University of Nairobi who are in prison on trumped-up charges for opposing foreign domination in Kenya and in particular, the US military bases in Mombasa and elsewhere in the country. It is also dedicated to colleagues in preventive detention without charges: Koigi wa Wamwere, Edward Oyugi, Kamoji Wachira and George Anyona.

The subject of my address tonight is ‘The Battle of the Mind’. WEB Dubois predicted that the problem of the 20th century would be the colour line, and to an extent he was correct. Paulo Freire later argued that the predominant theme of this century and epoch is that of domination vis-à-vis the struggle for liberation from domination. I would like to support Freire in this observation and to add that the heat of the battle, the firing line, has its barrels directed at the human mind in this war between the oppressor and the oppressed.

Genius in Prison: Mediocrity at University

Let me illustrate: At the moment, I am winding up a voluntary prison programme at a place by the name of Ogdensburg, near the St Lawrence Seaway, only one minute away from the Canadian border. The place is in Upstate New York, 20 or so miles from St Lawrence University where I have been Visiting Professor since September 1982. I launched this Black Studies Program as part of both my academic commitment and political activism to offer solidarity to these oppressed brothers whose ages range from 19 to 55. I had learnt that the majority of the jail population at this place was black and that there was a lot of fighting among themselves, as would, of course, occur when people are locked up together for days and months on end.

The men are from downtown New York and other cities in the south of New York State, transported miles away from their homes to depopulate the urban jails. For most of them, the distance of 500 miles or so is as effective as temporary exile, for their low income, at times destitute, families cannot afford to visit them even once in several years. A comrade who knew the awareness and sense of self-worth as well as the collective responsibility towards which these brothers and I have been working once told me: ‘Concentrate on these men uncompromisingly. For some of our most inventive brains are locked up in jails.’ This is something that George Jackson had also observed in the 60s and it remains true up to today. We have some brilliant minds in there. Some of those inmates are so deeply engaged in pursuit of an education relevant to their needs that I am more impressed with them than with many of my white middle-class students at SLU; but the students get angry with me when I tell them that they should exchange places with some of these inmates at Ogdensburg. My leading methodology with them is modelled on Paulo Freire’s theory of dialogical education in which teacher and students are learners. We have a lot of free debate as equals. The debates take persistently ironic lines whenever we touch on the world of academia. They are not impressed with the ‘doctors’, ‘masters’, and as they call them, ‘basters’ from what they refer to as the white man’s universities — men and women who are so burdened with white elephants of book volumes that they walk gazing at their toes and cannot see the ghettos around them.

“Concentrate on these men uncompromisingly. For some of our most inventive brains are locked up in jails.”

These men remind me of Lawino in Okot p’Bitek’s Two Songs, who laments for her assimilado-type husband, Ocol, whose testicles she alleges were smashed by huge books in the colonialist classrooms. In recent years I have come to feel the embarrassment of these medals in the names of ‘basters’, ‘masters’ and ‘doctors’ of Western thought. They become quite a burden, in the face of the harsh realities of economic and political/cultural deprivation facing the majority of my people and other so-called Third World peoples. These medals have often proven meaningless in the service of such people, coming as they do from either the colonialist or neo-colonialist classrooms and, much more so, from the academic factories of the West in which we are but mere workers.

Chasing the Academic Rat

Fellow scholars and colleagues, co-searchers of truth and friends, I do not mean to insult you but rather to challenge us at this conference so that we ask ourselves what we will emerge with from these conference halls to change the oppressive reality confronting the majority of our people. Unless we can face this question fully, and I think from the looks of the programme here that we are meant to, we should not really go around calling ourselves African activists.

The battle of the mind is on and depending on who ends up having supremacy over our intellect, we shall live or die. We have to take positions on either side of the battle front line. Let us not engage in academic polemics when our people are dying out there. Let us not be like Chinua Achebe’s proverbial man who was so busy chasing a rat that was escaping house fire that he forgot to save his own belongings. Let us ask ourselves whether we are ready to engage in dialogical education with our oppressed majorities so that together we can reflect upon our reality and creatively transform it to liberate ourselves from all forms of enslavement. It is unfortunate that to date, the major role of our elites and academicians has been to hijack our peoples’ revolutions, to assume power and to continue sitting on them while wining and dining with foreign collaborating forces.

The battle of the mind is on and depending on who ends up having supremacy over our intellect, we shall live or die.

Those of you who have seen Ousmane Sembène’s Xala know what I am talking about, as do those of you who know the Charles Njonjos of Kenya and the Eugenia Charles’ of the Dominican Republic. Only two years ago did Kamuzu Banda of Malawi launch a school in which the cream of Malawi high school students would be enrolled in a special institute, with posh facilities, of course named Banda Institute. In this institute, students are to primarily learn Greek and Latin, as this will take them to the source of human civilisation. In this school no Africans can be engaged as teachers. White instructors are to be imported if necessary because Africans do not have the necessary brains or skills. This is in the middle of Malawi on the African continent. A project by the head of state himself! Can you blame those inmates at Ogdensburg for making fun of us? Did Ousmane Sembène exaggerate on the assimilado theme as he has been accused of in Xala?

‘Masters’, Doctors’ or ‘Basters’ of Whose Knowledge?

What I am trying to say can only be illustrated through an analysis of education as a political and cultural institution. I want to begin with agreeing with Freire that s the most important political and cultural institution, education is not and cannot be neutral. The political system that nurtures it into being ensures that it exists to serve its interests, to service its cultural programmes. As recipients of degrees from the institutions of either our former colonisers or present-day dominators, this is a truth that we must continuously keep before our eyes. Through education, we internalise the values of a given econo-political system. Through these values we try to unravel our surroundings to reach into ourselves and into each other. We are using, in other words, the defined aesthetic of a specific socio-cultural background, as our point of reference and even more specifically, we are projecting the worldview and ideology of a given class. And, lest we forget it, Karl Marx had a point when he stated that the history of a given epoch is the history of the ruling class. Often, the education institutions that we are part of are nothing but mere servicing departments for the ideas and social values of the current ruling classes.

It is within this context that we must continuously ask ourselves: What kind of doctors are we? Doctors and masters of what? Are we basters? Whose knowledge have we mastered? Whose values are we doctoring? Cabral once said that only in stories is it possible to cross the river on the shoulders of the crocodile’s friend. Some of us have been happily riding on the shoulders of the crocodile himself. Is it any wonder that we have not yet crossed the river to our side of the bank? In Miseducation of the Negro Woodson graphically describes the calibre of most educationists in the Africana world. The book has been correctly summarised by Wesley and Perry as follows:

Miseducation criticizes the system and explains the vicious circle that results from mis-educated individuals graduating, then proceeding to reach and miseducate others (p. vii).

In history, for instance, we date ourselves as pre-colonial or post-colonial as if colonialism was the threshold of our history. As if we never existed from the beginning of things like all other people in the world. When we teach aesthetics, we go as far back as the Greeks. Greek historical records show that the Greeks learnt many of their ethics and aesthetics from the people of Africa’s Nile Valley Civilisation. For our models we go to Europe, the very predator who destroyed and continues to destroy the very initiative, freedom and wholeness that makes men and women human.

When Machines Drink Porridge

Before we continue with our deliberations at this conference which is touching on issues of death and life in the African worlds as well as other related realities, let us seriously ask what credentials we have, to be dealing with the weighty problems before us. De we truly represent the aspirations of these majorities? If we are not on their side, then we should leave to deliberate on the problems and seek for solutions, for, believe me, they have the capability.

I will give you a good example of this. Two and a half years ago, during one of my field research collecting data on ‘Narratives of Kenyan Women Freedom Fighters’, I met an elderly woman of about 85 at Chura, near Nakuru — in the former White Highlands, now integrated highlands like Malcolm X’s creamed coffee. In this area a lot of former freedom fighters have been settled on small patches of land, awaiting proper land allocation — a whole twenty years after Kenya’s independence. Awaiting land allocation, mind you, in a country where Tiny Rowland, Delmonte, Delamere, Moi, Njonjo, the Kenyattas and the rest of them own miles and miles of whole countrysides. Anyhow, this woman gave me one of the most concise, precise and incisive economic analyses I have heard for a long time on Kenya’s Treasury’s idea of what they call the common man’s budget.

For our models we go to Europe, the very predator who destroyed and continues to destroy the very initiative, freedom and wholeness that makes men and women human.

I loved debating with this elder and she was a solid debater. I often found her seated outside her hut on a sack or on a stool. She has swollen leges inherited from a torture spell in colonialist cells during the Mau Mau war. This day I taunted her: ‘Grandmother, I see that you are smiling today. Is it the news of the common man’s budget?’ She shifted on her stool as if to sit more solidly, as was her habit, gave me one dismissive look and then said: ‘Will you sit down those ndigiris (Kikuyu mock word for “degrees”) of yours and listen to me again.’ She was on the war path. Explain the donkeys: ‘They say it is the common man’s budget, that because we don’t drive cars we will not spend money on petrol. Look at this patch of land out there. The tractor comes to turn the soil for me. Does it drink porridge? In that case, I will make some and have my patch all ready for planting at very little cost. And the matatus [public transport vehicles] on which I risk my life every day riding between here and Nakuru to sell my products, does it drink porridge too? Go away with your poor man’s budget. It is your budget. When it is mine, they will increase the price of maize and beans so that I can make a profit. They will give me some land on which they grow tea, coffee and wheat which are highly priced. You hear me?’ I said, ‘very clearly’ and shut up.

Believe me, we do not have to speak for these people. They know who is sitting on them, they feel the weight, they know how to throw it off. It is the power and the means of accomplishing this that they lack. We can only speak with them, not for them. We can offer our skills to service their needs; we do not need to tell what they need. If we can do this, that is, work in solidarity with them, then like Malcolm X said in the ’60s, ours will stop being sitting down action in the classrooms, libraries and these conference rooms. We will go out there and struggle with them.

The pity of it is that only very few of us are committed to the kind of action and involvement that I have in mind. In The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin White Masks, Fanon does a ruthless analysis of what the so-called intellectual class represents among the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie. They stand for parroting and are very faithful interpreters of the ‘master’s’ intellect.

Under colonialist, neo-colonialist and imperialist education we end up denying our world and what it represents. We end up craving for the very systems that dominate us. Through an analysis of language alone, as one of the weapons that this mental invasion uses to dominate oppressed peoples, Fanon shows that the very tool through which we name ourselves, our surroundings, articulate the depths of our existence — language — is robbed from us. We assume our conqueror’s tongue, dialects, thought patterns … to the level that we completely internalise the values of his system. He says:

To speak means to be in a position to use certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a certain culture, to support the weight of a civilisation… A man who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language.

Domestic Neo-Colonial Nigger

This then is our dilemma. The dilemma of our assimilado-types. Malcolm X spoke of this character in terms of being a house nigger who he said ate well, in the kitchen, what master left over. This creature, Malcolm says, loved his master more than master loved himself. When Master fell sick, he would ask, ‘What’s the matter boss? We sick?’ When master’s house caught fire, he worked harder than master to put out the fire. And when the field nigger asked him to take flight with him and escape, he thought him crazy: ‘What, separate? What do you mean separate?’ Slavery was domesticated in him. The field nigger was the opposite of this. When master ‘s house caught fire, he prayed for a wind to fan it even more. He hated the master and wished him dead… As was the case in the sixties, today there are two kinds of oppressed peoples: those who condone or accept and those who fight resolutely against it. Right here among us scholars are many, condoning the physical and mental destruction through which Europe has enslaved us for centuries.

Under colonialist, neo-colonialist and imperialist education we end up denying our world and what it represents.

Ten days ago, on this very campus, I had a scholar take me to task for challenging Euro-centred philosophical thinking and suggesting that we needed to be African-centred in our analysis of African rural areas. He called the African philosophy that I described something like ‘the primordial state of our psyche’ — something that would not operate today. When I insisted that I spoke of a philosophy of life that lives today and that 80% of our rural masses adhere to, he took me back to Plato. By the way, Plato was a by-product of our mystery schools in the Nile Valley African Civilisation of Antiquity! Now, what do you say to this kind of scholar from the so-called Third World? Paulo Frere describes his position brilliantly in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I read from the section entitled ‘Cultural Invasion’ and at length, because the statement is important:

Cultural conquest leads to the cultural inauthenticity of those who are invaded; they begin to respond to the values, the standards, and the goals of the invaders. In their passion to indoctrinate, to mould others to their patterns and their way of life, the invaders desire to know how those they have invaded apprehend reality — but only so that they can dominate the latter more effectively. In cultural invasion it is essential that those invaded come to see their reality with the outlook of the invaders rather than their own. For the more they mimic the invaders, the more stable the position of the latter becomes… For cultural invasion to succeed, it is essential that those invaded become convinced of their intrinsic inferiority. Since everything has its opposite, if those who are invaded consider themselves inferior, they must necessarily recognise the superiority of the invaders. The values of the latter thereby become the pattern of the former. The more invasion is accentuated and those invaded are alienated from the spirit of their own culture and from themselves, the more the latter want to be like the invaders: to walk like them, dress like them, talk like them.

Freire is quite right to argue that education from the oppressors’ institutions can only end up controlling our thinking and actions, leading us to adjust to his world, inhibiting our creative powers, indoctrinating us to adapt to the world of oppression to the point where complete domestication of oppression makes us happily deny ourselves, accepting manipulation. I quote Frere again on this:

Manipulation, like the conquest whose objectives it serves, attempts to anaesthetise the people so they will not think. For if the people join to their presence in the historical process critical thinking about that process, the threat of their emergence materialises in revolution (sic).

Ousmane Sembène gives a good example of this kind of mind which is so monitored, so dependent on the conqueror’s viewpoint that to solve a problem under the nose, he/she has to go to W stern books for foreign aid.

I refer to Tiémoko in God’s Bits of Wood who is one of the strikers during the famous railroad workers strike. There is a debate on what is to be done to a co-worker who has crossed the picket line and instead of creatively thinking for an opinion of his own, Tiémoko has to spend an entire day and night looking for something to say about a situation in Dakar, Senegal, from French academic authorities.

And the next day he didn’t leave his house. His wife, a pretty little woman with high cheekbones and slender features told everyone who came to the door, ‘He spent the night with a book.’

I can just visualise this Lawino-type African woman vividly and the contempt/defiance with which she must have uttered these indicting words.

I use this example to direct my address to Amilcar Cabral’s theory on the need for us to return to the source of our being. By the source, I understand Cabral meaning the reality of a colonised people’s history that is still very authentic. He argues that the masses of our people have always remained at the source of our history and culture and that it is the Western educated elite who needs not only to re-authenticate himself/herself, but to learn from the source. I think that to Cabral, the source he asks us to return to is not a past that will involve moving backwards in time or engaging in hind cultural motion, for this is not possible.

History and culture are dynamic and they change as we count hours, days, months and years. Cabral speaks of a reality that is physically, intellectually and emotionally there. He is challenging us to know our villages, our towns, our slums, our rivers, our mountains, our climate and the rhythms that they dance to. To know our societies, ourselves, re-construct our personality. He is asking us to look around ourselves and assert our being, before looking out there. He is saying that if we seriously examine the Afrocentric-world — physically, intellectually and soulfully, we will become ourselves during this painful search. It is in his spirit that I would like to urge this conference to put the theories that we use here into relevant focus and to address our reality in our own dialects, as it were.

As was the case in the sixties, today there are two kinds of oppressed peoples: those who condone or accept and those who fight resolutely against it.

Let me now briefly address the Africana background that I know well to illustrate some of the sources that we could draw upon for our theories, philosophies, ideologies and models.

I would like to draw your attention to published sources that discuss the African philosophy of life, even though their analysis may have ideological biases that we might disagree with. There are many, but I will, for the present purpose, refer you to Cheikh Anta Diop, The Origin of African Civilisation; John Mbiti, African Philosophy and Religion and Janheinz Jahn, Muntu. They analyse the African world that has shaped a lot of our minds over history and deserve serious study even though one may not go with the theories all the way.

Onion-Layered Afro-Centric Philosophy

At the risk of over-generalising. I am prepared to say that there is a distinct Afro-centric philosophy that is practised indigenously by most African societies, especially outside Feudalism and Capitalism. Its authenticity changes with history, African peoples’ movements and with their dispersal under slavery in the Diaspora. But even among non-Continental Africana peoples, real traces of the Afro-centric view of life persist.

What do I mean by an Afro-centric philosophy? It is best exemplified by comparing it to an onion structure. The onion has many layers: layers upon layers, with inner and outer curves, which maintain perpetual contact with each other harmoniously, making one whole. If you peel off one layer, the onion does not remain the same whole. Like the onion, the African world is in interrelated layers of co-existence. There is the individual, the co-operate personality (the group). There is the family and the extended family. There is the inner world (the soul, the heart, the intellect, etc.) and there is the outer world — the physical form, physical reality, the material culture world that people create outside themselves.

History and culture are dynamic and they change as we count hours, days, months and years.

This African world also represents life in cyclic motions: the seasons rhythmically dance in and out of existence with planting time, harvesting time, resting time, rainy weather, dry weather and so on. It represents the rhythmical milestones of life that individuals and societies live through from birth, through second birth, initiation, marriage, elder status, into the sphere of ancestral spirits and deities. The deities, in turn, are modelled after the world that the humans wrestle with: Natural phenomena and people, as well as mysteries. They can be men or women or things. They can be benevolent or mischievous and for this reason, society will address them both reverently and cynically since they can at times be as whimsical as the human beings themselves. An individual can only be if he/she is part of the collective group. All the layers of the onion structure must harmonise or the world will step out of measured rhythm and cause chaos. Thus in some communities, when people greet one another, monosyllables are not acceptable. The greeting extends over time, going into elaborate detail to ensure that the person addressed is harmoniously wholesome with himself/herself, society and the surrounding world.

There is a distinct Afro-centric philosophy that is practised indigenously by most African societies, especially outside Feudalism and Capitalism.

How are you? Are you well? And your own? How are your children? And your wife? How are her people? What about your mother, is she well? And your neighbour, is he still there? How are your goats? And the chickens? And the plants? etc., etc.

Ideology of Collectivity

In this world, you become your brother’s keeper. Among the Baganda people of Uganda, the ceremony of greetings can last a whole ten minutes. People seek contact, feeling, understanding, communication. They attempt to break the barriers that silences can create between one person and another. We are dealing with a world that emphasises the ideology of collectivity, groupness, interrelatedness, interdependence and cooperation. This ideology is antithetical to individualism, isolationism, alienation and cut-throat competition. If only we could return to the source and make this philosophy/ideology work relevantly, concurrently with our dynamically changing culture! We would go a lot further than we will using Western models. But we also remember Cabral’s warning in this connection, with this proposed return. I quote him:

… the ‘return to the source’ is not and cannot in itself be an act of struggle against foreign domination (colonialist and racist) and it no longer necessarily means a return to the traditions. It is denial, by the petite bourgeoisie, of the pretended supremacy of the culture of the dominant power over that of the dominated people with which it must identify itself. The ‘return to the source’ is therefore not a voluntary step, but the only possible reply to the demand of concrete need, historically determined, and enforced by the inescapable contradiction between the colonised society and the colonial power, the mass of the people exploited and the foreign exploitative class, a contradiction in the light of which each social stratum or indigenous class must define in position … the ‘return to source’ is of no historical importance unless it brings not only the real involvement in the struggle for independence but also complete and absolute identification with the hopes of the mass of the people, who contest not only the foreign culture but also the foreign domination as a whole. Otherwise, ‘the return to the source” is nothing more than an attempt to find short-term benefits — knowingly or unknowingly a kind of political opportunism.

I would like to close by emphasising that this is the challenge before us today. We must assume sides. The battle of the mind is on and real. A few scholars have already chosen to identify with the hope of the mass of the people to contest foreign domination. I hope that some of us here tonight are in that camp and that if we are not, we truly question who and what our knowledge serves.

Lecture presented at the Fifth Annual Conference of the African Activist Association on the theme of Imperialism in the Third World, held at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, 23-25 May 1984.

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Professor Micere Githae Mugo was a Kenyan playwright, author, activist, instructor and poet. She was a literary critic and professor of literature in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University.


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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wala   Tinda, Wala wala Tinda

Silwal majanyiero okelo nyamin nene

Wala   Wala Tinda, Wala wala Tinda

Silwal majanyiero okelo nyamin nene

Yuora mielie, wala wala Tinda

Maro mielka walawala tinda

Maro mielie otenga maudhili 

Ti wanacham


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

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Ama Ata Aidoo: A Tribute

Ama Ata Aidoo repositioned women’s writing within a male-dominated canon in African literature during the mid-1960s and her legacy can be seen in the outpouring of African literature in the twenty-first century by women authors who now dominate the field.



Ama Ata Aidoo: A Tribute
Photo: Flickr/RAS News & Events
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Ama Ata Aidoo is Ghana’s foremost woman writer whose distinguished career spans several decades of the post-independence era in Africa. Her literary contribution places her amongst the first generation of African women writers as a leading feminist voice within postcolonial writing. Through a feminist lens, her literary corpus conveys much insight into the complexities of African women’s lives in the colonial and postcolonial landscape of competing and challenging experiences in society. Her fictional works portray women characters who navigate local norms and expectations for women, customs and traditions, and the challenges of race, class, and gender inequalities within transnational spaces in western settings.

For over twenty years, my research, scholarship and teaching has explored the literature of African women writers, including Aidoo’s work, to highlight their experiences in society and to celebrate their remarkable contributions to women’s and gender studies through literary expression.

Aidoo is a pioneering figure of immense significance through the creation of Africa’s first dramatic work in English by an African woman, The Dilemma of a Ghost in 1965, followed by her second play, Anowa in 1970.

As a commanding literary figure, Aidoo repositioned women’s writing within a male-dominated canon in African literature during the mid-1960s. Her novels, Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections of a Black-Eyed Squint (1977) and Changes: A Love Story (1991) disrupted stereotypical portrayals of African women that were common in male-authored African texts written during the twentieth century. In both novels, Aidoo crafted female protagonists who were strong, intelligent, and outspoken as a form of ‘writing back’ to reclaim women’s voices from the margins to centre stage in the African literary world. Important themes in Aidoo’s works include postcolonial perspectives, feminist expression, the interplay of tradition and modernity, and the relationship between Ghana and the African diaspora, among other compelling issues of postcolonial discourse.

Her creative artistry has woven a tapestry of literature across genres of poetry, drama, novels, short fiction, essays, and literary criticism. Her short fiction includes No Sweetness Here (1970), The Girl Who Can and Other Stories (1997), and Diplomatic Pounds (2012). Her poetry collections include Someone Talking to Sometime (1985), Birds and Other Poems (1987), An Angry Letter in January, and Other Poems (1992), and After the Ceremonies: New and Selected Poems (2017). Like many African writers in the past and the present, Aidoo’s literary style draws heavily upon African oral traditions and a combination of prose and poetry.

Ama Ata Aidoo was born on March 23, 1940, in southern Ghana to a royal family of the Fante ethnic community. Encouraged by her father to pursue a western education, she began writing at the age of fifteen. After completing secondary school at Wesley Girl’s School in Cape Coast, she attended the University of Ghana at Legon, where she majored in English literature. While at University she participated in the Ghana Drama Studio and published her first play, Dilemma of a Ghost in 1965. Her teaching career began in 1970 and lasted for over a decade at the University of Cape Coast but the unfavorable political climate in the country failed to nurture her creative talent. In 1982 she was appointed Minister of Education by the then head of state, J. J. Rawlings. She resigned from her position in less than two years and migrated to Zimbabwe where she resumed writing and teaching. She subsequently taught in the United States, at the University of Richmond and at Brown University, until her retirement in 2012.

Ama Ata Aidoo’s works have received critical acclaim and robust scholarly engagement by writers and literary critics. Among these are Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo (1999), The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Documentary Film (2014), Essays in Honor of Ama Ata Aidoo at 70: a Reader in African Cultural Studies (2012) and The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Polylectics and Reading Against Neocolonialism (1994).

I am fortunate to have experienced a rewarding friendship with Ama Ata Aidoo that began at the African Literature Association annual conference in 2012. I will always cherish the memory of her warmth and hospitality as well as her insightful perspectives on contemporary women’s issues in Ghana and the African diaspora. In the early years of my career as a literary scholar, her fiction inspired my scholarly engagement with victimhood and agency in the work of African women writers as well as my approach to feminist-inspired African texts through critical analysis of her novel Changes: A Love Story, the short story collection No Sweetness Here and the play Anowa. In these iconic fictional works Ama Ata Aidoo presents paradoxical outcomes for women characters as they respond to patriarchy, urbanization, and the conflicting demands of modernity in the colonial and postcolonial landscape of Ghana.

The novel Changes skillfully examines the complexities of Ghanaian women’s difficult choices and responsibility for one’s destiny in life. In the novel, Aidoo interrogates the extent to which a woman who follows her own path ends up better off than the woman who bends to the status quo through obedience to conventional norms in society. The stories in No Sweetness Here portray Ghanaian women faced with choices that challenge conventional norms and expectations as well as realities of the modern world of social flux and changing identities. The setting of Anowa is nineteenth century colonial Ghana where feminist themes emerge through the actions of the female protagonist. Anowa rebels against parental authority and women’s traditional roles by marrying a man her family has rejected, resulting in tragic outcomes.  In her role as an outspoken voice for women, Aidoo articulates the impact of social, economic, and political forces on the lives of African women. Aidoo asserts that, “on the whole, African traditional societies seem to have been at odds with themselves as to what exactly to do with women”. This dilemma lies at the crux of Aidoo’s feminist perspectives expressed in her writing and underscores the pressing need for social transformation and women’s equality.

Aidoo interrogates the extent to which a woman who follows her own path ends up better off than the woman who bends to the status quo through obedience to conventional norms in society.

As a consummate storyteller, the corpus of Aidoo’s writings captures the dynamism of Ghanaian and African women’s lives through strong women characters that exhibit intelligence, strength, and agency in the search for happiness and success in their lives. Ama Ata Aidoo’s legacy can be seen in the outpouring of African literature in the twenty-first century by women authors who now dominate the field. A new generation of leading women writers from Africa owe their inspiration to Ama Ata Aidoo and other pioneers like Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and Mariama Ba who broke barriers for women as literary godmothers of feminist expression and innovative ways of telling the African story. Ghana and the world have lost a commanding presence on the literary stage and her works will remain as cherished classics in African and world literature.

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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.



Professor Micere Githae Mugo: The Zimbabwe Experience
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“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.” 

– Maya Angelou

In the hushed corners of memory, where the tapestries of lives are woven, there lies a figure both fierce and tender – Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo. Hers wasn’t just a name etched in the annals of African literature and orature, a name revered in halls of the ivory tower, or a name heralded by activists. Indeed, she was all those things, and more. But behind closed doors, in the shadows of acclaim and applause, she was a cultivated radiant soul on whose shoulders so much was placed, a soul weighed heavily by unfulfilled dreams, a soul whose essence blossomed in myriad facets, each illuminating the mosaic of her existence. Much has been said and written about her in tribute and commemoration since her demise, all noteworthy. But alongside what is known lies the person as seen through the inner corridors of her life. It is there we find not just the public icon, but the woman, and it is through that lens that I wish to explore the layers of Mwalimu’s life that coloured her world.

In 1976, a struggling Cameroonian-Nigerian musician, Prince Nico Mbarga, and his band Rocafil Jazz, released the song Sweet Mother, an upbeat single, sung in Pidgin English, and featuring a West African highlife-infused tempo, with a Congolese Soukous-style fingerpicking guitar lead. Despite having been previously rejected by no less than three major record companies, it went on to become one of the best-selling and most popular Pan-African singles ever released. The lyrics began thus:

Sweet mother I no go forget you

For the suffer wey you suffer for me yeah

It was the quintessential African ode to motherhood. In equal parts full of praise and mention of sacrifice, it symbolised the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and is often played at weddings and other ceremonies far beyond Nigeria and Cameroon. Perhaps more than any other piece of art, this song captures the intimate tri-generational and parallel relationships between Micere Githae Mugo and her mother, and Micere Githae Mugo and her children.

Nothing brought Mwalimu more comfort and joy than her children. For those familiar with her lectures and presentations, nary a single one began without an elaborate acknowledgment of Mumbi and Njeri, replete with all their respective accomplishments (much to their irritation). Even in person, when speaking or referring to either one of them, a sparkle would light up her eyes as immense pride beamed. Every decision she made since their birth was carried out with them in mind, and although she often expressed regret for the effects some of those decisions had on her children, feeling her life’s trajectory had yielded undue hardship on them, Mumbi and Njeri would always reassure their mother of the contrary. It was this precise journey that forged them into the women they became, the daughters she referred to as her “besties” and of whom Mwalimu took immense satisfaction in being the loudest cheerleader and praise singer. If there was a heaven on earth for Mwalimu, it existed when she was beside her children.

Mwalimu’s nurturing soul remained consistent throughout her life, reverberating across distance and geographies, always planting seeds of hope and reassurance in her children’s hearts. For Mũmbi wa Mũgo, and the late Njeri Kũi, their mother’s stories, woven from threads of struggle and strength, ignited in them fires of resilience, reminding them that roots, no matter how bruised and imperfect, are meant to be nourished and celebrated.

Believing, as the African American novelist Toni Morrison often said, that “the function of freedom is to free someone else”, Mwalimu’s essence as a mother, and her sense of family, transcended mere biology. She opened her heart and home to many, becoming a mother and sister to countless regardless of their origin and circumstances. Throughout her life, her homes did not discriminate. They were sites of knowledge, sanctuary, community, and entertainment for people from virtually every walk of life.

Mwalimu was the nurturer of dreams, fostering creativity and independent thinking in all those she embraced as her children, reflecting Bell Hooks’ notion of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. I recall her taking a keen interest in my own professional endeavours. While mine were different in discipline from hers, she recognised the common thread with which we pursued our respective fields, and invested her time and resources, often while battling one or more ailments, in guiding me towards conclusions that would embolden my arguments and position my work through the lens of Africana scholarship. Mwalimu frequently and publicly cheered my accomplishments, delightfully advertising the products of my work to the audiences we shared. When I was commissioned to curate a collective Pan-African architectural exhibition as part of the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennial, her thunderous applause that ricocheted in the longest email I’ve ever received from her – and this is not to say her emails were ever short – contained a critical review of my curatorial statement with appendices to boot, all attached in a multiple-page document that she took the trouble to manually digitise, all the while battling an infection.

She opened her heart and home to many, becoming a mother and sister to countless regardless of their origin and circumstances.

Mwalimu’s spirit was that of a wanderer. She roamed not just through physical landscapes but through the corridors of the human experience, embodying Chinua Achebe’s notion that “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten”. An avid traveller, she so enjoyed encounters with diverse cultures through which she embraced the human experience in its myriad shades, recognising that unity arises from understanding and fostering solidarity with all who are disempowered and disenfranchised. In every place she lived, Mwalimu never stood idle or quiet in the face of oppression, always agitating and mobilising for the issues of the day, be they fighting dictatorship in Kenya, defeating Apartheid in South Africa and Palestine, supporting LBGTQI and immigrant rights globally, resisting White Supremacy and protecting the right to vote in the United States. All these and more she championed, determined to lend her voice to the voiceless, and might to the weak.

The tapestry of Mwalimu’s life extended beyond her family, weaving through communities with the deftness of the Afro-Cuban laureate, Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista’s poetic strokes. She was a bridge builder, a community organiser, an embodiment of Assata Shakur’s vision of revolution as an ongoing process. She recognised that a single thread couldn’t hold the fabric of change; it required collective hands and shared dreams to stitch together a world of equity and compassion.

“Sometimes you take detours to get where you need to go.”  So wrote the Haitian-American author Edwidge Dandicat. And accordingly, exile couldn’t extinguish the fire within Mwalimu’s heart. No stranger to betrayal, she lived life looking forward, not forgetting the pains and losses of the past, but not clutching onto them nor clinging to bygone eras, acutely aware that a closed door is also a new beginning. It is an opportunity to resist containment, to evolve, to sow and nurture seeds elsewhere, with the new environment no different from a new blank page in one’s story. That is not to say she forgot about where she was from. Mwalimu was always engaged and connected to Kenya. But exile pushed her towards new horizons, all of which left identifiers on her that were as indelible as her origins.

She was a bridge builder, a community organiser, an embodiment of Assata Shakur’s vision of revolution as an ongoing process.

“How do I survive?” Mwalimu once rhetorically remarked during a 2015 conversation with her biographer Ndirangũ Wachanga. “[I survive through] linking up with struggles wherever I happen to find myself. That lesson really came very powerfully from my mother and is summarised in My Mother’s Poems, this notion of learning as human beings to create spaces, to create new homes, which we have to learn as progressive pan Africanists of what oppressed people, especially what enslaved people did.”

To buttress herself against the torment of being separated from all that was loved and familiar, Mwalimu immersed herself in the everyday lives of the people in the places she lived. Following the principles of Utu and Ubuntu, she embraced their concerns as her own, their fights as new battlegrounds. Like the Guyanese academic and activist Walter Rodney’s unwavering commitment to truth, she stood firm against injustice, transforming her longing for home into an unyielding struggle for justice. Mwalimu bore the weight of people’s hopes as she fought for a world where words, like South African singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba’s melodies, knew no boundaries.

In 1982, while addressing a Malcom X weekend lecture at Harvard University, the African American feminist philosopher Audre Lorde observed, “Revolution is not a one-time event.”  This Mwalimu understood well; she once chuckled with absolute glee at my calling out her lifelong affinity for mischief. Defiant to a fault, no nemesis was too big, too powerful, for her to oppose. Resistance, she felt, was as important as joy. And her defiance spread across facets. She abhorred, for example, the brandishing of titles and displays of social stratification – hallmarks, she believed, of the insecure. There she was, sitting quietly in a waiting room for one of her medical appointments, her body weakened from the effects of aggressive chemotherapy, proudly flaunting a tote bag brightly emblazoned with the words “Fight the Power!”

To buttress herself against the torment of being separated from all that was loved and familiar, Mwalimu immersed herself in the everyday lives of the people in the places she lived.

In the front and rear gardens of her home in Syracuse, there Mwalimu found solace. An avid gardener, the cold of winter was kept at bay by her anticipation of spring, when the loosening soils and warmer temperatures would draw her outside, along with both willing and unwilling accomplices, gardening paraphernalia in tow, to till the loosening soil. This, even when it was against Mumbi’s ever-vigilant advice, was her happy place. Basking under the sun, caring for the kaleidoscopic hues of the blooming canvas that was her vegetable and floral ensemble, Mwalimu found a mirror to her own life – where tending to growth required patience, determination, and the willingness to embrace, metaphorically and physically, both sunlight and storms. And it was under her sun hat, and in her gardening gloves and gumboots that some of her most devoted time was spent.

The months from April to October were focused on, among other things, planting, weeding, and harvesting. The discipline put in the effort that went into producing organic vegetables was second only to that which drove her writing, and always released a dose of energy that no medication could substitute. Every year, without fail, Mwalimu fastidiously planted a range of vegetables including heirloom tomatoes and kale, a headless leafy green cabbage similar to sukuma wiki that was also favourite of the neighbourhood gopher – a stubborn rodent of a creature that often, and quite successfully, claimed exclusive domain over this plant; Kunde, also known as cowpea leaves; and a plethora of herbs. Harvests were multiple throughout the summer, bringing her immense satisfaction and the luxury of consuming home-grown produce year round.

At the front of the house, bees pollinated her assembly of annuals and perennials, flowers that were also a delicacy for the local deer. “Pirates!” She called them. Each flower petal, each vegetable harvest, was a testament to her resilience, a reflection of her understanding that life’s beauty lies in its imperfections and in the sum of its parts.

Between the pages of books, Mwalimu embarked on a ceaseless voyage of intellectual discovery as she consumed literature with voracious hunger. She knew that the most profound journeys were those of the mind, and through every word devoured, she collected fragments of wisdom to sew into the tapestry of her own life, and the lives of others.

In 2018, I gifted Mwalimu the book Barracoon: The Story of the “Last Black Cargo”, a small title by the African American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.  “What a read!” she exclaimed, and went on to discuss how the author’s insistence on claiming and establishing African American Orature as a site of knowledge was nothing short of a revolutionary act. We would later share thoughts on the legitimacy of marginalized languages like Caribbean Patois or Kenyan Sheng, loathed by the elites but nonetheless authentic as linguistic systems, capable of literary rigour, and worthy of celebration. Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid asks in her book A Small Place, “For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?” Drawing from that, Mwalimu recognized that linguistic colonialism was as brutal and unjust as all other forms of dominance, and that language, in whatever form, is above all the heartbeat of a community.

But perhaps what she enjoyed reading the most was personal correspondence from those in her orbit. Every sentence in a personal email was carefully and diligently referred to or responded to. And those responses were ever so lyrical, so elaborate, so engaging that one would immediately feel the weight of the world in their attempts to write back in kind – an exercise quite often futile.  And God help you if you did not respond!

Each flower petal, each vegetable harvest, was a testament to her resilience, a reflection of her understanding that life’s beauty lies in its imperfections and in the sum of its parts.

A deeply spiritual being, Mwalimu prayed to God, often.  But she also meditated daily, believing that reflecting and thinking about the nature of, and occurrences on, those dear to her was aligned with and inseparable from her own circumstances.  She did not, however, subscribe to a singular organized system of belief and worship, and was always sceptical about seeing God through an externally programmed lens. Mwalimu’s spirituality was more personalized, and centred on providing her with peace and purpose. She was aware, as Professor Jacob Olupona states, that African “deities, spirits, gods, ancestors, and personal and impersonal forces are regarded as active agents in the created world…”, and ancestral tradition, the veneration of parents and forbears was central to an honest and unfiltered understanding of our world, rooted in indigenous African knowledge systems. She called out to the ancestors often, seeking their guidance and comfort, believing that the suppression of these systems remained a critical component in the unfinished process of African liberation.

At the core of her being, Mwalimu was human, embracing and being open about her vulnerabilities with the grace of James Baldwin’s reflections on authenticity.  Her honesty, like a mirror reflecting truth, resonated with the essence of what it meant to be complete.  In a world fraught with façades, she dared to bare her soul, displaying to us how authenticity is not only rare, but is a revolution in itself.  Hers is a tapestry woven with threads of love, struggle, growth, and ultimately truth.  This is what set her apart from many.  Ever conscious of social relationships that are of equal status, intellectual openness and possibilities for critique and creative engagement, Mwalimu’s encounters with the world followed her fervent belief in an old Gĩkũyũ adage, kwaaranĩria nĩ kwendana, meaning “to hold dialogue is to love.”

“For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?”

From Kariria, Kirinyaga County in Central Kenya on the southern slopes of the great mountain, to the revered halls of Makerere University perched on the hilltops of Kampala, Uganda, to the maritime province of New Brunswick on the Atlantic coast of Canada, to the then politically active University of Nairobi in Kenya’s bustling capital, to the blooming Jacaranda tree-laden avenues of Harare, Zimbabwe, and finally to her home in Syracuse, nestled in the heart of Onondaga County in Central New York, Mwalimu’s legacy beckons us to embrace life’s journey with modesty and fervour. These two qualities, along with courage, guided and grounded her throughout her life. They were, however, not qualities gained as she navigated through the world, but rather qualities that were already in place, and instilled in her as a child by her mother, a woman who had walked her own path before her, experienced and overcome her own share of turmoil and in the process found her own voice. Mwalimu remained anchored to her mother, her metaphorical North Star, and grateful for the sacrifices that were made, and the pain that was endured, to allow for the becoming of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo.

If i no sleep, my mother no go sleep

If i no chop, my mother no go chop

She no dey tire ooo

Sweet mother i no go forget dey suffer wey you suffer for me yeh yeh

Sweet mother yeeeeh

Sweet mother oh, oh oh

And so ends Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother, so aptly describing the bonds between a woman in the central highlands of Kenya who despite losing it all, would persevere to nurture Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, bequeathing to her the fortitude to stay the course, a foundation that would one day take Micere to previously unimaginable heights. The daughter would herself become a mother, passing onto the next generation what would take Mwalimu’s legacy even further. Grace.

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