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Micere Githae Mugo is undoubtedly one of Africa’s foremost poets of distinction. Her iconic status as an activist, scholar and creative artist spans the colonial and post-independence era of Kenya’s political history. My tribute will highlight the ways in which Mugo’s collection, My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs (1994) interrogates important issues of women’s empowerment, Pan-Africanism, and social justice that resonate with contemporary challenges to progress in Kenya, East Africa, the continent and beyond to the diaspora.

Micere Mugo’s poetry resonates her commitment to political activism, support for social justice and racial solidarity within a feminist framework. As a literary treasure of Kenya, her poetic expression foregrounds feminist expression as a lens to examine larger issues of the political and socio-cultural landscape of Kenya, the Black world, and the global arena.

In the same way as My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs, her earlier poetry Daughter of My People, Sing! (1976) is described as a defining work infused with feminist elements, hope, and the promise of development in post-independence Africa. My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs convey these tenets to vividly extol the virtues of Africana Womanism that engage pressing issues in the past and present. Poems such as “To Be a Feminist”, “The Woman’s Poem”, “Mother Afrika’s Matriots”, and “The Pan-Afrikanist Poem”, articulate striking feminist expression as well as political themes. These poems are the focus of this tribute that explores the value of women’s identity, Pan-Africanism, and social and political transformation for African and African diaspora people.

Micere Mugo was born in Baricho Kenya in 1942 and her nurturing family background and early education planted the seeds of her strength, resilience, and political activism in her career. She grew up during the colonial era, guided by progressive and politically active parents. As a child, she witnessed the inhumanity of the British colonial government first-hand which no doubt left indelible awareness of political oppression and violence against her people.

These early encounters with inequality and racial barriers were the fertile soil of Mugo’s growth and development as an educator, outspoken activist, and feminist icon throughout her career.

Among her many awards and honours is the Distinguished Africanist Scholar Award, 2007, and the Human Rights Award, 2004. The Ford Foundation honoured her for research on African orature and human rights in 1987-90 and in 1992, she was given the Rockefeller Foundation Award for publication and writing. In 2002, she was recognised as one of the top 100 people to influence Kenya during the 20th century. Her activism in Kenya was not well received by the regime of Daniel Arap Moi, then president of Kenya. After experiencing harassment by the government, Micere Mugo departed her homeland as an exile in 1982 which resulted in the loss of her citizenship. Eventually she became a citizen of Zimbabwe where she lived and taught for many years. She migrated to America and became a professor, and chair of the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University in New York.

Feminist Synergy

Published in the late 20th century, Micere Mugo’s poetry (re)positions women’s identity in ways that express a feminist vision of social justice. The form and structure of her poems convey complexity that invokes the narrative features of a novella. In Mugo’s poetry, conflict and realism mirror the experiences of African women throughout history from post-independence to the global age. Mugo’s poetic vision has woven a tapestry of women’s historiography that resonates contemporary challenges in the lives of Africana women. One of the most important poems from My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs is “To Be a Feminist Is”. In no uncertain terms, the poem eloquently establishes the poet’s (re)imagining of the controversial tenets and ideological debates around feminism.

Micere Mugo’s ideas about feminism were timely in the 20th century and continue to resonate in the global age. “To Be a Feminist” is essentially a form or ‘writing back’ to women from the global north as well as to patriarchy and foreign domination.

The poem asserts that:

To be a Feminist is to embrace my womanness

The womanness of

all my mothers

all my sisters

it is

to hug the female principle

and the metaphors of life

that decorate my being.

These lines represent a celebration of the essence of femininity through her female lineage to position the centrality of her womanhood. The poet expresses the collective identity of women from which she draws her life force. The ‘metaphors of life’ invoke the female principle and for Mugo, these innate qualities of the female principle emphasise that to be a feminist is to “water my fertility…”, to “woman my womb…” “It is to converse with my soul”.

Micere Mugo’s ideas about feminism were timely in the 20th century and continue to resonate in the global age.

Mugo embraces these ‘metaphors of life’ as an affirmation of her femaleness. When Mugo “ululates that my gender is female” she turns patriarchy on its head to reinstate women’s essence in society. The celebration of her gender usurps the subordination of women and in a sweeping gesture, Mugo unseats ‘colonial hangovers’ that mark the deteriorated status of women under the colonial onslaught.

Mugo’s anger and astute political observations that indict European exploitation are conveyed through vivid imagery and personification. To illustrate, she uses terms such as ‘cannibal named capitalism’ and ‘the ogre named imperialism’. The rape of Africa during the colonial era sparks her bitter tone, and with reference to the Atlantic slave trade driven by the British, Portuguese, Dutch and French, she states that to be a feminist is:

to unhood racism

to decry Zionism

to detonate apartheid

to obliterate “tribalism”

to necklace homophobia

to drown fanaticism

to strangulate classism

to fumigate ethnic cleansing.

The poet names diverse forms of oppression and does not spare the inhumanity meted out in Africa’s wars of ethnic conflict as well as dangerous and unproductive behaviours like homophobia and religious fanaticism or the pentecostalism that is presently sweeping the African continent. Moreover, Ecofeminist elements in the poem connect women to the earth and to harmony with nature as an expression of the female principle. Reverence for nature as part of the female principle is echoed in the spiritual traditions of African people throughout the continent.

Songs of Resistance

“The Woman’s Poem” mirrors the synergy of “To Be a Feminist” as it journeys through women’s emerging agency for social and political transformation. The poem codifies African women’s identity and the capacity to mobilise and energise the struggle for liberation from all forms of oppression and inequality. Perhaps the most compelling element of “The Woman’s Poem” is the refrain expressed in Mugo’s Gikuyu language, ‘Ta Imaaaagini!’ that translates to “Just imagine!” The act of couching this idea in Gikuyu solidifies Kenyan identity as a launchpad of feminist solidarity and sisterhood. The poem takes the reader into the realm of potential for a different future for Africa through the solidarity of women.

The imagery in the poem conveys women united as “one mighty waterfall of sweeping human mass waters…” and “a global family of women combatants” who will form “one non-ending feminist drama”. These images suggest a panoramic vista of female resistance infused with agency to transform society. The repeated refrain, ‘Just imagine’ is a rallying cry for Pan-African activism that cannot be undone against the forces of racism, patriarchy, and classism. These issues in society represent the ills that plague the African post-independence landscape and form the overarching focus of her poetry. “The Woman’s Poem” extends the idea of “exploding silences” with reference to the ways in which women are ‘silenced’ by patriarchy and that the poem denounces:

“refrigerated womanhood

pestle and mortared

the chains

that grate

and grind us!”

Micere Mugo is a fearless writer who leads the mandate for women to speak for themselves. Mugo’s poem is a charge to women to mobilise their strength to throw off the shackles of subordinate status in society. She refers to women’s labour as ‘chains’ but asks women to break free through their own agency.

Pan-African Energies

Mother Afrika’s Matriots” conveys a Pan-Africanist ethos that links to Africana Feminism, sisterhood, human rights, and liberation struggles of African people.

Like “The Woman’s Poem” and “To Be a Feminist”, “the poem vividly renders “herstory” in ways that celebrate women’s power. She animates ’herstory’ as a means to (re)envision African womanhood in the service Pan-African unity in Africa and the Black World. Central to unfolding “herstory” is the honour, praise, and veneration of Mother Afrika’s Matriots to invoke their contributions to African civilisation and to inspire a sustainable future for Africa. These ideas arouse the flavour of a ‘praise poem’ or ‘praise song’ that the poet calls “immortal verse”.

Beginning in antiquity, ‘herstory’ unfolds the richness of Africa’s past through a feminist lens of empowered womanhood. Throughout the poem, the refrain, ‘Mother Africa’s Matriots’ punctuates the flow of celebratory images of African women. The poem narrates the legendary accomplishments of Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, and Cleopatra, to memorialise them in the annals of women’s history. Further, Pan-Africanism infuses the tone of the poem because the historical figures are from diverse communities in the Black world to form a broad spectrum of female power through spatio-temporal framing. To illustrate, the narrator moves from the ancient world to the colonial period to include Queen Nzinga as an “abolitionist supreme who etched liberation anthems across Angola’s valleys and hills”. The Atlantic slave trade and the creation of the African diaspora created the anti-slavery heroine Harriet Tubman as a “guerilla of the underground railroad”. Notable among women of this dark period in America’s history are Sojourner Truth, Mary Prince, and Mary Seacole, described in larger-than-life terms as females who inspire women to “pilot their herstory to newly aimed heights” or, in the case of Sojourner, as an “earthquake that shook pillars of racism and sexism”. During the 19th century, dynamic women such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells carved paths of activism in pursuit of women’s rights and Black liberation from racial oppression.

The act of couching this idea in Gikuyu solidifies Kenyan identity as a launchpad of feminist solidarity and sisterhood.

The diaspora is well represented through a Pan-African pantheon throughout enslavement, the suffrage movement and the civil rights era during the 1950s as well as in the militant activism of women in the Black Panther Party during the mid-to late 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to Black Power in the mid-1960s that parallels the agitation for African independence to include figures such as Queen Mother Yaa Asantewa and Nayakasikana Mbuya Nehanda and “the last field Marshall of the Mau Mau, Muthoni wa Kirima”. Organised resistance to colonial domination celebrates Afrikan Matriots as women who participated in the Aba Women’s War of 1921, documented as the largest anti-colonial protest movement in West African history.

Mugo passionately describes “Afrikana chimurenga women” of:

Haiti and Cuba

Algeria and Kenya

Mozambique and Angola

Guinea Bissau and Namibia

Zimbabwe and South Africa

They will explode imperialist history’s incarcerating myths. The myths are the Eurocentric discourses and narratives that valorise the colonising, imperialist mission in Africa. These distorted historical narratives form the legacy of domination that sustains mental chains/slavery as part of the social, economic, and political exploitation of African people globally.

In honouring ‘Afrika’s Matriots’, the tone of the poem changes to firmly assert the continuity of women’s collective resistance and ’womanist struggles’. Looking towards the future, the poem voices women’s agency to “surmount an attack on the unfinished business of historical stocktaking”. ‘Herstory’ is thus an ongoing effort to (re)frame women’s contribution to the liberation of the Black race.

In (re)framing ‘herstory’, Mugo reclaims Pan-African sensibilities from the male-centred historiography of the not-too-distant past. Afrika’s Matriot’s ends on a note of confidence that future generations will celebrate the dynamism of Africana women. The narrator is assured of the inspirational and nourishing energies of women that span the past and present and assumes these sentiments will inform future struggles of African women.

The “Pan-Afrikanist Poem” opens with an epigraph that dedicates the piece to “all those who struggle(d) to establish Afrikana Studies on campuses of cultural domination”. The imagery invokes the unearthing of “our buried Pan-Afrikanist heritage”. She indicts the “colonial violation and imperialist infestation…. a piece of land ambushed by western civilisation”. These images represent the complexity of Africa’s occluded history, distorted by colonial miseducation, cultural imperialism, historical erasure, massive ignorance and historical amnesia in the African diaspora.

The speaker deplores the epistemological structures of Eurocentric knowledge that celebrate western civilisation while denying the contributions of Africa to the world dating from antiquity. The dispersal of African people from the continent as a result of forced migration during the Atlantic slave trade exacerbated the disruptions of knowledge systems that lie at the core of African cultural identity. Pan-Afrikanism is the key to suturing Afrika’s scattered and disparate masses throughout the globe. “The Pan-Africanist Poem” poignantly resonates the powerful Ghanaian symbol of Sankofa that conveys the need to recover the past as a foundation for the future. The centuries-old wisdom of this concept is important throughout the African continent as well as in the far-flung diaspora. The narrator of the poem states she “poetized for you and for myself… I poetized for him, and for her… I poetized for our children and for all of us.” The divisive nature of Africa’s history is perhaps the greatest enemy to a sustainable future.

Mugo’s poem is a charge to women to mobilise their strength to throw off the shackles of subordinate status in society.

Micere Mugo’s poetry foregrounds the female gaze on a range of woman-centred issues that span Africa and the diaspora. Her vision is sharp, clear, and penetrating as she displays her commitment to gender equality, progress, and social justice. Her poems represent African women’s literary traditions that evolved from orature to literary expression. Mugo’s poetic vision in My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs narrates tropes of feminism with a Pan-Africanist flavour. While recounting ‘herstory’ in poems such as “To Be a Feminist”, Mugo ‘names’ herself, celebrates her femininity and the innate power of her womanhood to transform society. “To Be a Feminist Is” translates to ‘unsilencing’ women’s voices as well as to literally ‘explode silences’, which is a recurring metaphor and one of the most important messages in the poem.

In “The Woman’s Poem”, Mugo asserts that all women have the power to change their destinies and dismantle forces of oppression. At the core of her message is the belief in women’s capacity for transformation of themselves as well as society. She conflates patriarchy with political domination and imperialism. For Mugo, women’s resistance can never be passive but rather aggressive, bold, and relentless. “Mother Africa’s Matriots” is yet another form of ‘herstory’ as a praise song to memorialise dynamic and fearless Africana women in all periods of history. The celebratory tone elevates the heroines of the Black race to their rightful place as “Matriots” to form a composite of Pan-Afrikan feminist synergy on behalf of liberation struggles. Africana women have made diverse and meaningful contributions to society from antiquity through the global age. The political overtones in the poem are strong as a reflection women’s heightened consciousness and commitment to freedom struggles.

Finally, “The Pan-Africanist Poem” highlights the importance of historical continuity and reclaiming (Afrikan) self-knowledge as the inspiration for Mugo to commemorate “those who struggled to establish Afrikana Studies”. The essence of this poem underscores the inherent wisdom of “knowing where you came from in order to know where you are going”. Taken together, the poems examined speak to the creative artistry of Micere Mugo to fashion a dynamic vision of female empowerment, political engagement, self-love and knowledge. Her poems express the hope for a sound future for African and African-descended peoples, founded upon Pan-African ideals of sisterhood and brotherhood. Her poems are part of an African literary tradition in which women speak for themselves as well as speak to power in the interest of equality and social justice. Her talent, outspoken activism and lifetime of outstanding achievements are a testimony of her commitment to uplifting Africa through the full participation of empowered African women. Women ‘breaking silence’ is the first step in Africa’s renewal and the quest for dignity and gender equity in a new world order.