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I want you to know
how carefully
I watered the tender shoots
you planted
in my little garden.

Micere Githae Mugo, 1972.

On Thursday, 25 May 2023, several of us, mostly women from across various continents, gathered at the Africa Literature Association (ALA) Annual Conference to honour Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo on her 80th. Birthday. We were all happy to be there; some attending virtually via zoom from as far as Japan, Europe, and the rest from the United States. The room was full and those of us on the organised roundtable felt the enormity of this event. I had not anticipated the number of people attending to pay homage to one person: Professor Micere Githae Mugo, who could not attend in person. I was delighted that she was able to attend virtually, but alas, we did not see her face because she was in bed and quite sick.

I was grateful that she had followed us online. In those few minutes of our convening, I became acutely cognisant of the significance of the occasion. We had all come to honour and celebrate our sister Prof Micere Githae Mugo, but did we have some prescience? Wangui wa Goro and two others present at the conference had been discussing organising a roundtable to honour sister Micere at the African Literature Association or a small event for quite some time. The ALA Annual Conference offered the best opportunity. Wangui submitted the roundtable proposal and eventually expanded the contributors to include those who could only attend virtually. I was happy to see this gathering. Indeed, it was a sisterhood, although several brothers attended. Did we know then that this would be our last communion with our beloved sister? I worried. If we did, none of us showed it.

I have tried to recall when I first met Dr Micere Githae Mugo and concluded that my first encounter with her was through her writing, specifically her co-authored play with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. In the mid-1980s, I was a young black female graduate student who perceived herself as a feminist, an activist, a fighter for human rights. I was involved in the anti-apartheid activism on my campus, and later, on the campus where I worked. I was in the early stages of working on my doctoral dissertation. I had been drawn to the anti-apartheid and protest writings of South African authors, but I was especially interested in the writings of Black Consciousness authors, and even more specifically, the playwrights. I had also read plays by other African playwrights. I wanted to focus on the relationship between art – mainly theatre – and politics. I wanted to examine liberatory plays, particularly those by African women. But it was clear that the field was dominated by men.

Ironically, African women were concerned with some of the historical and political challenges that confronted many post-colonial African nations – postcolonialism, identity politics, gender marginalisation, class, etc., but their voices were absent. I found only a few: Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo and Efua Sutherland, Nigeria’s Zulu Sofola, South Africa’s Fatima Dike who was emerging. I wanted more! As a black female graduate student in a predominantly white department or programme and institution in the United States, I was looking for a model of revolutionary art practice and scholarship. For sure, I was familiar with the works of numerous African Diaspora authors, scholars, and culture critics – women and men. I was familiar with the revolutionary writings of Audrey Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Angela Davis and Zora Neale Hurston, to mention a few. But while their voices spoke to my pan-Africanist spirit, I was looking for one whose voice addressed my uniquely African spirit and experience. While black women writers in the US were coining new language for their feminist practice or did not care if their works were feminist or not feminist enough, African women writers were struggling with how to define their feminism–“small f” or big “F” or just feminist – feminist or not? Speak up!

I found my model. It was a short but powerful play – The Trial of Dedan Kimathi. It was co-authored by Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost writers. Here was a play whose focus was the struggle for African autonomy – self-determination and dignity. Yes, the play is about Kimathi, but it addressed so much more: colonisation, racism, gender and class injustice. Here was a play with a male title character, but which gave equal space for women’s voice, acknowledging that African women were also victims of colonialism. It would not be far-fetched to conclude that the strong presence of women in that play is due in part to Professor Micere Githae Mugo’s contribution.

In 2004, Micere Mugo would be the speaker for the Women’s Caucus of the African Literature Association (WOCALA). She would introduce us to her performative voice and body. She had been making a case for the inclusion of orality/orature in our examination of African literature and her performance of her luncheon address was evidence of her commitment to orature.

In October 2014, Professor Micere Githae Mugo invited several of us to Syracuse University to a special event: “Achebe Symposium: A Celebration of the 50th. Anniversary of Arrow of God.” There were more than twenty-five speakers. It was cold, but over a period of two days, we discussed several aspects of this complex text and its relevance in the field of African Literature. My focus was uncomplicated, simply, “The Art of Arrow of God”. The event also provided us with an opportunity to see Dr Mugo in leadership and performance!

I have several memories of this wonderful human being, this warrior for justice, as she was present in academia and in human rights work. It is difficult to condense such memories into a few paragraphs or words. Besides, this is one of those moments when words fail to describe or represent accurately what one means to us or how we perceive another human being who has made an impact on our lives. Micere Mugo was my sister, my friend, and a friend to many. She was highly respected and drew people to her at these gatherings.

I honour my sister Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo. For me, she was the quintessential human being, a renaissance soul who embodies what it means to be a public intellectual and a culture critic. She was a pan-Africanist, a feminist scholar, an activist, an educator, and a scholar. Two dominant memories sum up how I see our sister Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo: One is as an African feminist scholar and advocate for women’s voices and inclusion in the political process and development. She helped to shape African feminist criticism, particularly when African women writers and critics were afraid to use the “F-word” to define their art.

Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo helped to give voice to African women’s struggle against oppression either by colonial processes, imperialist oppression or by their post-colonial nation-state. This recognition of the contribution of African women to the struggle against oppression is evident in the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, where, as she indicated in a conversation with me in October 2014, she and Ngugi had “met Kimathi through women freedom fighters” who underscored the important role of women in the Mau Mau resistance. She and Ngugi had done research and had visited Kimathi’s home area and spoken with people who knew him or something about him to counter the distorted stereotypical image of Kimathi popular in the colonialist and even some African representations of him as a bloodthirsty violent figure. In the play, the two authors would recuperate Kimathi, granting him the heroic qualities and dignity he deserved. Kimathi would bring the oral tradition and history together to create strong male and female voices of African liberation. Although Kimathi remains unburied, the tide has turned about his status to such a degree that his comrade wife received a state funeral only earlier this year.

The other memory of Professor Micere Mugo is as a strong advocate and scholar of orature; she called for our understanding of the importance of orature and argued that orature and literature are equally important art forms and should be given equal representation and treatment in our exploration of African literary productions. To me, this argument highlights the place of indigenous literary forms and practices in our studies.

Exiled from her nation by an oppressive government, Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo resisted silencing, engaging in various Pan-Africanist and anti-colonialist conversations that centre the important role of art and literature in revolutionary politics and societal transformation. She was a strong advocate for human rights and for the voices of women. She showed us that art/literature/theatre would help to transform consciousness and society. Art when aligned harmoniously with politics can cultivate humanity and in so doing liberate us and transform society. Orature is one tool in this liberatory practice. For me, therefore, Professor Mugo has combined her scholarship and activism. She provided me with a model of how to do this work, a model of a present future me. For this I am grateful.

I began this piece with your poem, a reminder that I have watered those “tender shoots you planted in my garden”. For that gift, I am grateful. I sing you home today with your own words – rest now:

Flowers now adorn the ground
the fruits are ripe
Come
bring a strongly woven basket
and bring with you also
the finest palm wine
that your expert tapping

can brew
we must feast and wine
till the small hours
of our short days together

Joy and love
shall be our daily
harvest songs. 

Micere Githae Mugo, I Want You to Know, 1972.

And here, I bid farewell to my sister, an amazing feminist, scholar activist, and warrior for justice.

May you feel no more pain.
May the ancestors welcome you with fanfare and blessings for you have earned them.
Rest.  

Rest now my sister. Laa n’udo, go in peace.