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I first encountered and read the works of Professor Micere Mugo at Kenyatta University as an undergraduate student. My teachers, who included Prof Oluoch Obura (himself a former student of Micere, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, John Ruganda and Okot p’Bitek), Dr Kisa Amateshe, Dr Wasambo Were and Dr JKS Makokha, introduced us to a wide range of exciting African literature. It is during that period that I read Micere’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (co-authored with Ngugi) and her poetry anthologies, My Mother’s Song and Other Poems and Daughter of My People, Sing!

During my reading of these literary works, I was profoundly intrigued by the way they were able to speak to our human condition, particularly on the question of national memory and how, as the years went by, it was being distorted and desecrated by the political class and their acolytes in other spheres of society.

For example, isn’t it true that those who collaborated with British colonial rule are the ones who bagged lucrative positions in Kenya’s first post-independence government? Isn’t it also an open secret that the remnants of the Mau Mau fighters were abandoned and vilified and later outlawed by the state? And most importantly, barring conspiracy theories, aren’t imperialist forces – the US and Russia – still exploiting African peoples through constant meddling in African affairs with the blessings of African leaders?

I was, therefore, utterly dismayed by the polemic on Micere in the pages of Saturday Nation (July 29, 2023). The article, titled, “Henry Indangasi: No, Micere was not a deep thinker”, advanced several arguments, one of them being that the Micere’s political activism was a gross fabrication. Indangasi went on to argue that Micere’s conception of what literature should be about was deeply flawed because, for her, everything was “almost exclusively about politics”.

Literature and politics

I disagree with Indangasi on the idea that literature should always be divorced from politics. Our lives are touched by politics on a daily basis. How we eat, the houses we live in, the clothes we wear and how we acquire them are the result of complex economic forces that are overseen by our elected representatives in the Parliament, the Senate, the County Assemblies and even State House. What am I trying to say? Literature springs from within people’s lived experiences and the politics embedded within those experiences cannot be wished away because of the fear of so-called mindless activism as Indangasi puts it.

Second, literature that reflects and represents the daily experiences of people, however, does not necessarily give an author carte blanche to be preachy, because that equally has a way of ruining what would otherwise be compelling writing. It, therefore, means the writer has to strike a delicate balance between politics and literature, to produce what can speak to the “totality of human experience”.

It is in that regard that I felt disturbed that, despite Indangasi stating from the outset that Micere was not a deep thinker, he did not attempt to present supporting evidence of his outlandish claims by way of subjecting the author’s writings to literary analysis. In my naiveté, drawing from training in the art of literary criticism, I expected a thorough evaluation of Micere’s body of work so that, as a reader, I could judge and draw my own conclusions.

However, that was not the case. Instead, what came out of his “biographical sketch” was something like an unauthorised biography of sorts where the subject of the book has adamantly refused to cooperate and an overly excited would-be biographer is willing to do everything, including bending all the rules of intellectual decency, to write what he knows about his subject.

Pitfalls of the cult of personality 

I have to quickly state from the outset that I am against the culture of hero worship and the cult of personality. All our heroes and heroines, like Ngugi and Micere, deserve to be given accolades that they rightly deserve. That, however, does not mean they should be deified. Their intellectual and creative output should be scrupulously debated and contested to generate new knowledge and enrich our overall cultural production.

I expected a thorough evaluation of Micere’s body of work so that, as a reader, I could judge and draw my own conclusions.

Indagasi rightfully deserves credit for ensuring that the culture of literary debates is alive in the pages of our newspapers, social media handles and other online platforms. His penchant for ruffling the feathers of the “untouchables” means there’s always no settled official narrative. There are so many dangers inherent in narratives that have already been settled by the mainstream media, popular culture, academia, the church and civil society. This concept of the single story is problematic in the sense that it treats the national archive as a sacred entity that cannot be questioned despite emerging evidence, including personal testimony (as long as it is stated at the outset).

More often than not, our society and education system have inculcated a culture of veneration for officialdom that paralyses our critical thinking ability to interrogate phenomena presented before us. Therefore, for Micere, who embodied a revolutionary spirit through her writings, there is no higher honour than to counter her critics and detractors through a critical examination of the very archive used to denounce her.

Departmental politics and crisis of imagination

That brings me to the obsessive narratives of the University of Nairobi’s departmental politics. I don’t think it adds value to literary scholarship. This “academic and theoretical rut”, as Dr Tom Odhiambo once called it, means the power of the imagination is blunted. How does one come to terms with scholars like Indangasi who can only write so eloquently about the past but nothing else? If it is not the stale politics of the abolition of the Department of English in the 1970s by Ngugi, Taban lo Liyong and Owuor Anyumba, then it is some mundane squabble over a deanship position in 1980.

While African literature by a younger generation of novelists, poets, short story writers and literary critics continues to grow in leaps and bounds – writings that meditate on the anxieties of the present and the future – this generation of scholars and academics, who are still key decision-makers in what is left of literature departments, remain imprisoned in a past that practically adds no value to society. No wonder the Kwani? generation (a new crop of writers who came of age in the early 2000s) had a low opinion of them.

In a country like South Africa, where yours truly wrote his master’s thesis, emeritus professors like Indagasi are vastly up to date with what is happening in the literary scene, and they publish insightful and deeply thought-provoking commentaries in online magazines, newspapers and journals. These academics are acutely aware that one cannot dwell too much on the past because a lot is happening in the present. Essentially, the polemic against Micere should be read as symptomatic of the gradual intellectual decay and the crisis of imagination that today pervade our institutions of higher learning, and more so the public universities.

This brings me to the most fundamental aspect of this entire conversation: what is to be done?

Documentation as resistance 

Currently Micere’s only official biographer, Ndirangu Wachanga has made a valiant effort to document her life and works in the form of a video interview and a book titled Micere Githae Mugo: Making Life Sing in Pursuit of Utu (2022). These intellectual efforts cannot be over-emphasised. However, what emerges more saliently from the book’s preface is the urgency to further document the contributions and struggles of this woman of firsts, her privileged upbringing (to which she honestly admits in the interview) notwithstanding.

The act of documentation, I want to believe, is an act of resistance not just against revisionism and overall memory erasure, but also against other forms of distortion. Micere’s contributions to the field of literature and political activism – now that she is gone to the ancestors – should be a call to action to add to the body of impressive work produced by Wachanga. As an academic and scholar who has been in the centre (academy) and at the margins (exile), her life transcends disciplinary boundaries. This means that the act of historicising her life should not just be left to literary scholars, some of whom might have ulterior motives because of their past political leanings and sense of guilt.

The act of documentation, I want to believe, is an act of resistance not just against revisionism and overall memory erasure, but also against other forms of distortion.

Also, a younger generation invested in the practice of resistance against contemporary problems such as bad governance, tribalism, corruption, police brutality, ethnic hegemony and electoral malpractice, should learn from Micere’s generation and honour it using the digital tools at their disposal. This act of honour – as I cautioned earlier – must not descend into hero worship and turn people into political martyrs. Social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and YouTube, therefore, are essential tools only to the extent that they help in enriching the overall archive and revealing alternative pathways of exploration that might not be possible in the discourses coming from either the academy or the mainstream media. In the final analysis, it is not silence and refusal to engage with Micere’s legacy that will keep her critics at bay, but the commitment of her legion of admirers to write and document without tiring.