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The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.”  Paulo Freire

This essay creatively blends a piece I wrote for this edited volume with other reflections and email conversations with Mwalimu Micere Mugo, my mentor, teacher, and former colleague from – as she called me – her young friend.

My first ‘encounter’ with Professor Micere Mugo – my Mwalimu – was enthralling, poignant, exceptional. I first met the illustrious Mwalimu through her works, particularly the literary masterpiece My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs: Songs and Poems. This gripping and inspiring collection of poems spurred my inquiry into her life and continues to be a source of inspiration for me. I met her in person a few years later and our association morphed from mentorship to friendship. I continued to visit and communicate with her almost a decade after I left Syracuse University.

How did I end up in Syracuse? The 2007/2008 Kenya Post-Election Violence (PEV) occurred shortly after I graduated from the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi with a degree in International Relations as a self-sponsored struggling student. My interests in courses about conflict and peace studies were both academic and personal, having survived the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and other instances of violence in the Great Lakes region. Trepidation ensued as the PEV unfolded with the ruckus of rowdy youth passing from the Kibra slum through the Kilimani suburb, bearing crude weapons and baying for blood, so to speak.

Despite not being the target this time, the clamour in the neighbourhood rekindled deep-seated traumas within me. I spent days and nights asking questions, writing poems and other materials in the different languages resonant with my heart – my English vocabulary could not fully express my anxieties, anguish and search for peace. The crisis repurposed my life, and brought clarity. If I was going to delve into why such conflicts transpired in Africa, I needed a different learning environment and this time not as a self-funded student. So, I applied to pursue a Master’s degree in Pan-African Studies at Syracuse University on a two-year scholarship. As scholarship recipients, we were required to work as teaching or research assistants in the department with different professors and learn from them. In the second year of my graduate course, I was accepted as Mwalimu’s teaching assistant (TA). An African American student who had previously worked with Mwalimu lauded her as the best professor any TA could hope to work with. Each professor could only work with one teaching or research assistant at a time, so I was excited to be next in line!

While working as Mwalimu Mugo’s teaching assistant at Syracuse I learned three key lessons that have transformed my personal and professional life: How to decentre power in a learning environment; how to humanise the process of knowledge production and exchange; and how to share power, creativity, and decisions.

At that point, we had only met a couple of times as she was recovering from an illness. I arrived at her office to a warm reception and was ready to hit the ground running. However, her approach was divergent and heart-warming; she wanted to know about my family and life journey in a creative (not forceful or invasive) manner. Surprisingly, she also shared a little about her life, which was refreshing after working with supervisors who were not so open. We established that traumatic events underscored both our lives and that a friend of mine, an academic in Nairobi, was actually her nephew. In that moment, I learned that collegiality was not a mere buzzword to be relegated as an adjective to colour one’s resume. Mwalimu taught me how to introduce myself to colleagues and build rapport by letting people know that they matter. From her, I grasped what it meant to responsibly engage with questions of power differentials in the academy and, especially, how to work with students to ensure quality.

Nothing takes the chill out of the New England winter like receiving a compliment from your supervisor and s-hero! After a few preparatory meetings for the course, Mwalimu told me how excited she was to have me as a TA. Imagine that! She reassured me that I would receive the benefit of all her thirty-six years of teaching experience, despite the challenges and constraints brought by her illness. Mwalimu had just been discharged from hospital and was still attending some sessions with the doctors. Her resilience, commitment to students, and discipline were simply awe-inspiring. She understood how to maximise her reserves, which meant being wise enough to rest when it was time to rest.

In that moment, I learnt that collegiality was not a mere buzzword to be relegated as an adjective to colour one’s resume.

Mwalimu allowed me to take charge of the classroom. She would sit at the back and to the students’ surprise, put me in the driving seat. I would conduct a lecture and she would participate in class like everyone else, before giving me feedback later. She taught me how to listen to students, to encourage participation, to ensure the power of teaching and learning was shared so students could become co-creators not mere recipients, but without abandoning my teaching and supervision role. Our course was on creative writing, so she encouraged me to allow the students to write about anything – literally anything they wanted – as long as they used the writing techniques we learned. In powerful sessions where we debated students’ writing and gave feedback, I had to learn and re-learn the meaning and role of a teacher. She taught me how to manage the classroom which, in her view, was as important as the teaching materials. I learned that power is not guaranteed simply because one stands before students. Power is shared in a classroom. Respect is earned and nurtured. You help the students to be more present in their work and encourage their creativity, knowledge, and talent. Mwalimu Mugo was not only an artist in her work, but also in her approach to training those who worked with her.

The second lesson from Mwalimu Mugo involved how to mentor students. She was an ardent believer that students are human beings. Students (like their teachers) have pasts, individual personalities, and different abilities. She encouraged me to be open and pay attention to the students throughout the semester, including by getting to know as many of them as I could. This technique proved especially useful when I taught seminars or breakout groups. During each session that semester, we all had to display our names, which she memorised in a week! She had several tricks up her sleeve when calling upon students. She would use the colour of a student’s clothes or someone’s smile or attitude as an example to teach us how to write. I was bad at memorising names and shied away from this exercise. However, her gentle prodding pushed me to alternative ways to learn students’ names. Mwalimu urged me to associate each name with the writer when marking student essays and to make a habit of reading out the students’ names when handing back assignments. I have held on to that practice and now encourage students to use each other’s names to cultivate a support network in class. We shared the grading of each student’s work and discussed the grades we had awarded and the rationales behind them. This taught me how to read in detail and assess each student’s work without shortcuts. Mwalimu did the same and was always ready to change her mind on a grade if I argued my case convincingly.

Thirdly, I gleaned the power of words from Mwalimu. It did not matter how little time we had, we would always begin by checking on each other as individuals before discussing professional matters. She was genuinely interested in how I was fairing and was, in turn, open about her well-being or otherwise. It was in these brief exchanges that I learned to humanise my professional interactions and not only focus on the work. Moreover, Mwalimu Mugo was a very busy person, but you could never feel it because when you were with her, you were all that mattered. On the few instances where she had to take a phone call, she would politely excuse herself – a stark contrast to my previous experiences. In her world, manners and politeness mattered with both students and colleagues.

One snowy day, in the middle of the Syracuse winter, Mwalimu greeted me with a smile when she found me waiting outside her office. I was perplexed by the boldness of the students’ essays and was quite eager to express my opinions about them. True to form, she began by asking how I was as we walked to class. We arrived rather early, which gave me ample time to voice my sentiments about the essays. One particular essay had kept me up the night before since the student had used vivid language to describe the trauma of a violence-laced event in her teenage years. The student’s blatant elucidation of events had roused my own teenage trauma. Mwalimu listened intently but did not say much.

However, in class, we had a lengthy and spirited discussion about the essays on traumatic experiences and complicated pasts. It was an emotionally intense class during which Mwalimu gave a lecture on the use of creative writing as an artistic tool to express deeply embedded traumas and find healing. This was one of the best lecture sessions of my entire university career. It left many of us in tears because Mwalimu allowed us to process our emotions without shutting us down. After the class, Mwalimu asked me to share the poetry I had written during the Kenya Post-Election Violence period with the class. I emailed the class a copy of my poem with the simple message “see bellow” (sic.) in reference to the attachment. Mwalimu noticed my error and replied with a detailed email explaining the power of words and, in this case, of that one letter. She asked me to determine the meaning of “bellow” and “below” and get back to her. In that instant, I learned that I had been using the wrong “bellow” all my life without anyone correcting me. She cared enough to notice and to make sure I benefitted as a result.

It was an emotionally intense class during which Mwalimu gave a lecture on the use of creative writing as an artistic tool to express deeply embedded traumas and find healing.

Upon completing my studies at Syracuse University, Mwalimu Mugo recommended that I continue with graduate studies and nudged me to submit applications to a variety of PhD programmes in different parts of the world. I was fortunate to benefit from her evaluation of my teaching and research skills. She was one of three individuals whose mentorship led me to carve out a career in teaching and research.

I still employ Mwalimu’s techniques in my classes and share her influences. Students have commented on my teaching approach in instructor evaluations, particularly on the three aforementioned lessons. However, whatever my students appreciate in my approaches or whenever anyone appreciates my writing, I acknowledge that it is because I stood on the shoulders of Mwalimu Mugo, the greatest teacher, mentor, and researcher of all time.

I continued to foster my relationship with Mwalimu by visiting whenever possible and keeping in touch via email. It has been a delight to share some of my publications with her, and I look forward to dedicating an anthology of my poetry to her. In the meantime, I strive to pay it forward, to give back to the youth what I have learned from her. While I doubt I will ever match Mwalimu, it will not be for lack of work to put her lessons into practice. For instance, from 2010 to 2015, I organised and delivered a mentorship programme at her alma mater, Limuru Girls School. I made a habit of starting the event by telling the students of a young lady who once attended their institution as the first African and black student and went on to become an acclaimed scholar, a celebrated teacher, and an influential Pan-African activist.

In the meantime, I strive to pay it forward, to give back to the youth what I have learnt from her.

One time, after sharing this publication, which was specially dedicated to her, Mwalimu responded with a lovely and funny email. As always, her words made me smile, even in the middle of COVID-19:

“And then: what a great coincidence that you would email me at a time when you have been so much on my mind! Let me explain. For the last month or so, MSNBC has been running a commercial that is accompanied by “You are my sunshine…” the song that you and I once sang for our Creative Writing class to demonstrate the abundance of metaphors, symbols and imagistic language in “Song” as an orature genre. I shared with Mumbi how tickled the young people were by the free performance from their professor and TA. My intention was to email you and remind you what an amazing TA you were, but I have been battling some health hiccups. So, you got “there” before me.” MMG

This was the Mwalimu who never ceased to give compliments – even a decade after we held classes together, she was still always giving encouraging words.

I emailed her many times, especially when I published works to honour what I learned from her or when I started projects that built on her ideas. She expressed joy and congratulated me when I sent news that I won a European Research Council Grant for the TMSS project. She loved that I built on her work on orature to win major funding, and for a project that would allow for collaboration amongst many scholars and people who have faced displacement. She even asked to share the email with other colleagues in our networks. She celebrated everyone she mentored and gave generous support whenever she could. This essay discussed her impact on my academic and personal life.

When I heard the news that she had passed away, I immediately shared the following words on social media. They poured from my heart:

“My dear professor, mentor, friend who was still laughing with us, chairing a meeting recently, has left us after fighting a long illness…

Professor Micere Githae Mugo (born Madeleine Micere Githae in 1942) was a playwright, author, activist, instructor and poet from Kenya.

A mentor of mentors, a teacher of thousands who have taught thousands, a critical decolonial Afro-feminist leader … will live on through many!

Read her work!

Pole to my sister Mumbi, the family, and all lives she touched, and pole to Kenya and Syracuse Pan-African community for your loss…

Mwalimu welcomed me in Syracuse. She was having a tough time with her health in 2009–2010… We laughed. We shed tears in her office, in restaurants, on my most difficult days dealing with my own traumas.

She stood up for us to keep our studies’ funding… Oh, Mwalimu, you really cared!

She sent me emails telling me that my spelling mistakes in English could result in disasters. I learned she wrote a paragraph in a recommendation letter for my PhD application criticizing my spelling mistakes. I was so upset but later, I came to learn, as a teacher myself, that it’s not good to lie about a patient when they can be treated. I am still improving my writing. Oh, Mwalimu, I will miss you…

When I thought I liked a girl on campus, I asked her what to do from a feminist perspective. She teased me so much and laughed, then gave me some of the coolest advice.

She pushed me to go volunteer in prison, like she had done, to help those who are abandoned, ashamed, condemned by society. It is here where I got my current research question for the TMSS project. She showed many of us how through studying Art we can understand many things in societies. She guided me and gave me the confidence to apply for a PhD.

When I finished at Syracuse, I went to do mentorship to honor her at Limuru Girls School in Kenya every year for five years. She was the first Black Kenyan girl to go to that school. I took many of my friends there to work on guiding girls in transition to University.

I am grateful to have gone back to Syracuse many times and to have met in Kenya to celebrate life with her. I have the most lovely emails and humour in my inbox from our exchanges over the years. We would always sing our song “there is no sunshine when she is gone”, and indeed, there is no sunshine today! She is gone but a good teacher lives on in her students…

Prof Ndirangu Wacanga has a book of essays from many of us who walked with Mwalimu and it is such an honour to be in conversation with great minds and global icons to honour her work, life, and love.

I followed all her last hours. She went voluntarily without pain, and surprised many with her grace, leaving doctors and nurses with lessons. What else can we say but we celebrate Mwalimu…

Rest in Power, Mwalimu. You lived with so much grace. I wish for a small dose of it in my own life.

Read her poems and works”

Indeed, Mwalimu was an artist, a teacher, and an educator who epitomized Paulo Freire’s assertion, “What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” I am myself because I encountered Mwalimu Mugo and others like her.

It is only fitting that I wrap up my essay with one of Mwalimu’s poems, which embodies why her students will always celebrate her life, friendship, and mentorship!

“I Want You to Know” in Daughter of My People, Sing! 

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

Flowers now adorn the ground
the fruits are ripe

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.