Professor Micere Githae Mugo was and remains my Mwalimu, my sister-most (her word), my mentor, and academic and life maitũ. In 2022, I was honoured to share the stage with her at her invitation, and she subsequently asked that I publish my brief remarks on this inheritance – this legacy of utu in scholarship that she has bequeathed us. I planned to develop this piece further because what I presented initially was limited by/to/for a particular purpose and time limit. Therefore, it is objectively non-exhaustive. However, I wish to honour her by publishing it as she heard it. A forthcoming scholarly publication will realise the task and vision of expansion. I previously shared this version of the work at the event memorialising the life of Mwalimu at the University of Nairobi on the 8th of August 2023.
The academic and activist perspectives of Professor Micere Githae Mugo insist on the significance of indigenous African knowledges, technologies, and lived experiences and practices, and how these can inform the definition of methods and languages for critical African(a) and global studies across the disciplines. Mugo, who professed a personal commitment to the philosophy of utu, defined it as the “essence of being human and demonstrating communal solidarity”. Utu as philosophy and as an active way of knowing, being and doing is grounded in the consideration of personhood and humanness. Mwalimu explicated: “The act of being human is in the affirmation of others’ humanity. Without this we are a mockery of the human essence”; and, “I subscribe to it [utu/ubuntu] – heavily! I tell you, don’t listen to anyone who suggests to you that this kind of thinking belongs to ‘primitive’ and/or ‘communist’ societies. Every human being should have this as a life motto.”
Utu/ubuntu orients radical living as both philosophy and active processes rooted in ethics and values of equity, love, and respect through which individuals and communities encounter each other and their environments. Actuating utu, therefore, is an exercise in expediting humanness and humanity. The title and chapters of Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo’s collection of speeches and essays titled Writing and Speaking From the Heart of My Mind are a call to humanising scholarship by centring utu in the creation and consumption of knowledges. Mugo directed us to activate pedagogies, methods, perspectives, languages, and philosophies that demonstrate humane ways of doing knowledge and knowing. She directed the application of critical utu-centric thinking and scholarship thus: “I offer no apology in embracing the notion that my mind has a heart. This is because I am persuaded that the challenge for the 21st century is not to flaunt knowledge, but rather to humanise it.”
“The act of being human is in the affirmation of others’ humanity. Without this we are a mockery of the human essence.”
As we seek to define the languages, methods, and theories of utu-centric scholarship, Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo’s ways of being, doing, and knowing should be instructive and grounding. I list, in the following, some principles of utu-centric scholarship as conceptualised by her: Utu-centric scholarship is humanising scholarship. It stands in service to the humanity of the researcher, the researched, and the audience of the work; utu-centric scholarship is inexorably humanitarian. It begins with appreciating the primary purpose of scholarship and education as a service to watu, the people. utu-centric scholarship is fundamentally liberative. It delivers inventive de-bordering of languages, disciplines, approaches, world senses and lenses. Utu-centric scholarship is inclusive and reciprocal. She invited that scholars partner with communities as ideological allies to purposefully actuate and represent utu and humility in our/their work. Note that Mwalimu embraced an expanded and inclusive definition of the identity ‘scholar’ beyond the ivory tower of academia. She considered the exclusion of the watu and their contributions from scholarship arrogant, anti-knowledge, and as compromising to the utu of the scholar and the watu; utu-centric work demands decolonising methodologies and languages.
Mwalimu’s legacy on utu-centric scholarship is evident in the areas of decolonial and feminist philosophical frameworks, performance studies, writing and theorising revolution, environmental studies, history/herstory, feminist futures, intersectional thought and practice, narrative and biography, gender and sexuality studies, and scholar activism. Mwalimu has nurtured many into the production of decolonised, humane, and equitable conferences, classrooms, publications, book series, presses, curricula, artistic productions, research, and civic and community engagement endeavours. I conclude with a quote from Mwalimu’s 2021 work, The Imperative of Utu/Ubuntu in Africana Scholarship, where she asserted “that knowledge and scholarship can either be colonising, alienating and enslaving; or alternatively, they can be conscientizing, humanising and liberating, creating new human beings with the agency to transform the world for the better”. She adds, “Africana scholars need to find out how to incorporate this collective and connective perception of life into their scholarship.”
In honouring Mwalimu’s passion for indigenous ways of knowledges, spiritualities, and practices, as well as poetry, I offer in closing a celebration of life, a praise poem from one of her sisters, Nkiru Nzegwu, SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York, also Professor Extraordinarius, Transdisciplinary Research and Graduate Studies, University of South Africa, and Founder of the Africa Knowledge Project. She sings:
Micere Githae Mugo, daughter of Mumbi who made rain with words,
Who turned fierce men into boys and made them quake,
Who could not be contained by prison walls of fear,
Who would not be silenced or made to disappear,
Who clapped like thunder and roared like lions,
Who crossed the ocean to plant new mukuyu,
Micere Githae Mugo, daughter of Mumbi, arise in power!