I joined Alliance Girls High School as a first former in 1967. There were three Form 1 streams – X, Y, and Z – each of which had 33 girls. I was placed in Z. Our teachers were mostly white except for one African lady, Miss Mwangangi, who taught us Geography. Our English teacher was an elderly lady named Mrs McPherson who, whenever she took us gardening at the staff quarters, would chat with the staff very warmly in their mother tongue. She was very friendly, almost motherly.
But there were a few hostile teachers who used to abuse us, calling us “black niggers” or “black monkeys”. We didn’t understand and nor did we pay much attention to their insults. But there was one particularly racist lady named Miss Cousins who taught us Home Science. Whenever she taught us needlework, if she was showing you how to stitch and she handed you a needle, you had to be very careful not to touch her white fingers with your black ones when taking it from her; otherwise she would rain all manner of insults on you. All this meant very little to us, however; you knew you had been insulted but as for the insults, they meant nothing.
Come the second term in May 1968, a petite black woman filled with passion for fighting white racism and supremacy, came to the school. This lady was as bold, as courageous and as strong as she was small, fearing neither the teachers nor their white skin, nor the headmistress who was nicknamed The Horse because of her demeanour, her height and her character. Mrs Bruce – for that was her name – was feared by students and teachers alike. Mrs Bruce could not stand the newly arrived Miss Githae who accused her of allowing her teachers to abuse the girls with racist insults.
Miss Githae moved from class to class asking the girls which teachers called them black monkeys or black niggers; Forms 1 to 4 had three streams of 33 girls each, while Forms 5 and 6 had two streams each composed of the Arts and Science classes. There was tension in the school for some time; the teachers were afraid of her and the girls were afraid of the repercussions should things turn against them for reporting the teachers.
This lady was as bold, as courageous and as strong as she was small, fearing neither the teachers nor their white skin.
The young teacher must have come for a short tutorial span because she didn’t stay long with us. But in the time she was with us, Miss Githae succeeded in putting a stop to the abuse; never again were we called black monkeys and all other insults and condescension ceased. She was soon gone, leaving behind an indelible mark.
I was to meet her again at the University of Nairobi where she was a lecturer in the Literature Department. There she was known as Micere Githae Mugo. She was most critical of the leading African statesmen who had become leaders of their countries in the place of those who had fought for freedom but who, instead of honouring the freedom struggle by improving the lives of Africans, had handed the power back to the colonialists to continue molesting Africans. Micere would talk about Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah and other African leaders whom she accused of inviting neocolonialism through the back door, insisting that these leaders were only zombies of the white men who were ruling us through these “dummies” just like in the colonial times. Micere and Ngugi wa Thiong’o were most critical of Jomo Kenyatta and his government, and other leaders of the time including Milton Obote of Uganda and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia.
Micere loved Kongi’s Harvest by Wole Soyinka, a play in which every important institution is named after the leader. She would talk of Kongi International Airport, Kongi National Hospital, Kongi University, Kongi Avenue, repeating this until even the dumbest of students would get the hint of what she wanted to put across. Micere also loved Betrayal in the City, a play by Francis Imbuga in which the leadership of the fictional country of Kafira is the epitome of an oppressive regime, run by half-baked leaders like Mulili, the sycophant of the master.
Those of us students who enjoyed our lecturers’ criticisms of the government of the day used to admire their passion, their confidence and their zeal for a change of approach to political leadership. But they also had their enemies; we had spies among the students who used to work for government intelligence agencies and would report them and their views. The lecturers started receiving threats to their lives and they eventually fled the country.
When I heard news of the demise of Micere Githae Mugo, I knew that a giant icon had departed the earth. But one thing I know for sure is that she left us a legacy; her knowledge, her insights, her inspiration together with her wisdom, her boldness and her courage will remain with us to impact upon and inspire future generations.
Fare thee well dear teacher, friend and inspirer.