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“…part of the liberation process was not just to create a better world, but also to create better people of ourselves.” Micere Githae Mugo (Indianapolis, 2014)

We took Micere Mugo to the airport in New York City in 2015. Her daughter, Mumbi wa Mugo, was driving. At the airport, we were served by an incredibly discourteous attendant. So rude was this attendant that Micere almost missed her flight. But as we dashed to the gate, Micere handed me a twenty-dollar note. “Please give these twenty dollars to the airport attendant. It is our tip for his service,” she said as she handed me the dollar bill. Why reward bad behaviour, I wondered. Noting my discomposure, Micere advised: “Our role is to humanise him and not to be like him.” I witnessed the transformation of the erstwhile insolent attendant who now wanted to know how else he could help Micere. Such were Micere’s creative but revolutionary acts, which she performed quietly but powerfully. Micere, who died on June 30, 2023, in Syracuse, New York, embodied this humanising judgment.

As the architect of what she called the “onion structure theory”, Micere used this paradigm to capture a worldview where the existence of the individual, the collective group, and the world around them were inextricably intertwined. The idea that none of these entities could exist without the other was one of the most powerful forces in Micere’s philosophy. It was the core of the utu and ubuntu philosophy, which she embodied. When her daughter, Njeri Kui Mugo, died in 2012, Micere travelled to Kenya for one of Njeri’s memorial services. During her stay in Nairobi, I remember Micere calling one of her students in Syracuse who was defending his post-graduate thesis. Here was a mother who was grieving her daughter, but who still cared about her student’s wellbeing at a moment of personal pain and motherly loss.

Nicknamed “Njurī,” and baptised Madeline, Micere was born in Kariria, Kirinyaga, on 12 December 1942, to an elite Kenyan family. She was born in a world that was contending with the crises and consequences of trisecting national, continental, and global events: The Second World War, colonial expansionism, and the rising resistance against it. When Micere turned ten in 1952, the same year the State of Emergency was declared in Kenya, she witnessed one of the most violent periods in her country’s history and herstory. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as Mau Mau, had intensified its resistance against colonial occupation and brutality. Micere had just joined Embu Intermediate School, which was at the heart of this war. Accounts of her experiences during that period are gut-wrenching:

“When the colonial forces killed Mau Mau fighters, whom they called terrorists, they would line up the corpses for public exhibition and at times we would be taken out of our classroom to go view the dead bodies… And whenever these teachers – most of them were white – took us out there, they would say things like: This is your lesson for today. You see them? If you do not help and assist in telling us which of your uncles and brothers and fathers are terrorists, you are going to go through this every day.”

Micere attended Embu Girls’ School between 1955 and 1957, an interesting period for her family because her father, Richard Karuga Githae, who had worked very closely with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in organising rallies to conscientize the masses against colonialism, was now a collaborator with the British and was serving as a colonial Senior Chief in Mwea Division.

Between 1957 and 1960, Micere attended Alliance Girls’ High School for her secondary education. Although this was a period when colonialism was coming to an end, the British colonial establishment did not seem convinced that Black Africans were as intellectually endowed as their white counterparts. In order to test this racist logic, Micere was enrolled at Limuru Girls’ High School, an all-white girls’ high school. The other non-white student at the school was Kirpal Singh, an Indian girl who had attended Gloucester School, currently Pangani Girls’ High School. “I didn’t know anyone,” Micere said in our interview in 2014. “I didn’t have friends. It was a very lonely environment and I understood that I was walking into an antagonistic space. Knowing that a lot of students believed I was inferior to them and assumed that I could not perform at their level, made the experience very painful.” It is while at Limuru Girls’ High School that Micere started reading James Baldwin, who later became one of her close friends.

Despite the pain she endured, the loneliness she withstood, and the racism that she bravely confronted, Micere emerged as the best student at Limuru Girls’ High School, earning herself a scholarship to go to Oxford University. To the surprise of many, Micere declined this scholarship, preferring to go to Makerere University, which she joined in 1963. At Makerere she studied under John Mbiti, Okot p’Bitek, and David Cook, among others. While at Makerere, some of her earliest poems were broadcast on the BBC. She was later to become the first female editor of PenPoint, a literary journal in the English department. Graduating from one of the most vibrant intellectual sites in East Africa at the time, Micere was emboldened by the culture of debating and speaking truth to power that thrived at Makerere. She had witnessed the rise of students’ intellectual activism, most of it expressed through the publication of short stories, plays, poems, and debates among peers who confidently challenged their professorial interlocutors.

Emerging from what was seen as the Makerere tradition, Micere enrolled for a postgraduate diploma in education at the University of Nairobi in September 1966. “From its inception, this program, had a progressive vision meant to produce teachers who would decolonise education, professionals who were ingrained in the philosophy of ‘education for liberation,’ very much in line with Paulo Freire’s ideas in Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” she said in one of our conversations.

Graduating from one of the most vibrant intellectual sites in East Africa at the time, Micere was emboldened by the culture of debating and speaking truth to power that thrived at Makerere.

Micere left for Canada in 1969 to pursue higher education at the University of New Brunswick. Here she was introduced to African American and Caribbean writings, and the growing culture of letters in the Black diaspora. This intellectual climate expanded her connections to Black radicals associated with the Black Arts Movement and provided her with the opportunity to connect the struggles of African Americans to those of liberation movements around the world, especially those in southern African countries. A little-known aspect of Micere’s life was her deep involvement with militant movements fighting for the independence of Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. She was also active in the Free Angela Davis campaign, which had spread to several cities in the world in the early ’70s.

Micere returned to Kenya in 1973, with another honour – she was the first person to hold a PhD in literature in East Africa. This education, combined with her eloquence, would instantly turn her into one of the most powerful interpreters of the West to Africa. In September 1973, Micere joined the department of literature at the University of Nairobi as a lecturer and for the next decade she would engage with, train, and influence a generation of students and lecturers including Eddah Gachukia, Willy Mutunga, Martha Karua, Kivutha Kibwana, Wahome Mutahi, and Simon Gikandi, among others. Aware that the post-colony was erasing the contributions of women, Micere traversed the country with some of her students, including Wanjiku Kabira, interviewing former Mau Mau women fighters. She was one of the intellectuals who worked very closely with Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima and Mukami Kimathi. History was incomplete and inaccurate, she argued, if it erased the narratives of women in the liberation struggle.

This education, combined with her eloquence, would instantly turn her into one of the most powerful interpreters of the West to Africa.

Two years after Micere’s return from Canada, JM Kariuki was assassinated. Two other assassinations had already shaken the nation: That of Pio Gama Pinto in 1965, and that of Tom Mboya in 1969. From her office at the University of Nairobi, Micere saw the paradox that was now defining the young nation: Kenya was suffocating under the weight of disillusionment with postcolonial political and economic policies, but it was also being energised by the vibrancy of intellectual debates that imagined the future beyond the failures of independence and the contradiction of the neo-colony.

In 1968, attempts to decolonise the curriculum had started with a proposal to abolish the English Department at the University of Nairobi, an initiative led by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Henry Owour Anyumba and Taban lo Liyong, but many of the actual changes in the teaching of literature at the University were implemented when Micere joined the department in 1973. With a doctorate in literature and a postgraduate diploma in education, Micere could bring her imprimatur to debates on education and curriculum development. In fact, her background in education would lead to other important roles in the changing pedagogical landscape. She was the first African Chief Examiner in literature for the then East African Certificate of Education at both the ordinary and advanced levels. In addition to overseeing the literature examination system in the entire East African region, she trained examiners, supervised and moderated their work, enforced grading standards, and assisted ministries of education in Africanising the curriculum. For Micere, the biggest national educational projects between 1973 and 1982 included “overhauling the up to then colonial secondary school curricula, promoting drama and theatre in schools and colleges, applying individual and collective research to practical community needs”, she wrote in 2012.

Still, Micere’s achievements flourished in an intellectual and political environment dominated by powerful men, and she often worked in hostile environments at the university and at the national level. In 1978, Micere was elected as the first Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nairobi. The same year President Jomo Kenyatta died, to be succeeded by his vice president, Daniel arap Moi. In this period of uncertainty, it quickly became clear that the new government was alarmed by Micere’s radical politics. She became a target of constant harassment, often receiving disparaging and sexually graphic calls at home. Ironically, one of the powerful figures in the Moi government was Jeremiah Kiereini, Micere’s brother-in-law, the secretary to the cabinet in Moi’s government. Despite these family connections, and various efforts by the government to buy her with offers of high positions and material possessions, including fifty acres of land in Naromoru, Micere refused to associate with the regime and for this she was arrested and taken to a police station for interrogation. “I remember several times they would hold my head and bang it on the table. Many times, I would go blank,” she said in an interview in 2014. Two years later, in 2016, the late Charles Njonjo called Micere and apologised for all the harassment she went through in the early 1980s when Njonjo served as one of the most powerful politicians in the Moi government.

The increasing oppressive policies of the Moi government had disrupted teaching at the University of Nairobi. The situation would become even worse in the aftermath of an attempted coup in August 1982. Although the attempted coup was led by disillusioned non-commissioned officers in the military, the Kenyan government shifted much of the blame to radical intellectuals at the University of Nairobi and targeted many of them for detention and, in some cases, assassination. As the government clamped down on activists, including professors and students, Micere hurriedly left the country with Mumbi and Njeri, her two young daughters, to begin what turned out to be four decades of exile.

Ironically, one of the powerful figures in the Moi government was Jeremiah Kiereini, Micere’s brother-in-law, the secretary to the cabinet in Moi’s government.

Micere and her daughters had their first home in exile in Canton in upstate New York. Here, she immersed herself in community activities, including teaching creative writing, courses on African civilisation, and Kiswahili in a Maximum Security Prison. Most of the inmates were Black and Latino and had been removed from their hometowns and incarcerated far away from their families in what Micere considered to be a form of exile in their own country. But the inmates’ exile could not have been worse than what Micere and her family were going through. At school in upstate New York, Mumbi and Njeri, the only two black children in the school, became targets for bullying and racist attacks. Micere, feeling alienated “geographically, historically, and spiritually” wanted to return to Africa. She applied and was offered a position as Chair and Professor of English at the University of Zambia. On her way to Lusaka, she made a stopover in London where, to her surprise, she was informed that she could not be allowed to enter Zambia. Apparently, President Moi had telephoned his Zambian counterpart, President Kaunda, and had pressured the Zambian government to deny Micere entry into the country. Micere was now stranded in London with her two young daughters, and she would have been a stateless person hadn’t Sally Mugabe, the Ghanian-born wife of President Robert Mugabe, whom she had known through her long association with the liberation movements in Southern Africa, asked her to apply for a professorial position at the University of Zimbabwe.

Micere applied for the job, got it, and moved to Zimbabwe where she was to live from 1984 to 1992.

Zimbabwe had won its independence when Micere arrived and had embarked on the production of a progressive indigenous literature for Zimbabwean government schools. It was in this context that Micere began to rethink the project of literature in relation to its audiences. She was particularly interested in orature, and wrote one of her most powerful monographs, African Orature and Human Rights out of her engagement with orality. Looking for new avenues of using literature as a medium of democratisation, Micere started conceiving literature and literary criticism as a mode of performance. Her goal in performing criticism was to give her audience a voice; by giving her interlocutors a voice, Micere’s goal was to offer them an important tool in the production of a culture of democratisation. In Zimbabwe, Micere was thriving intellectually, but the problems of living in exile were not going away. Her passport had filled up. When she sent her passport for replacement at the Kenyan High Commission Offices in Lusaka, it disappeared and efforts to recover it proved fruitless. Micere became a Zimbabwean citizen until 2010 when she “regained” her Kenyan one.

Micere returned to North America as a Visiting Professor at Cornell University in 1992 before moving to Syracuse in 1993 where she taught for 22 years until her retirement in 2015. In Syracuse, Micere’s contributions were as invaluable as they were diverse. She became the first Black professor to be awarded the prestigious Meredith Professorship for Teaching Excellence after submitting a proposal on debating as a method of teaching and learning. But her influence would spread outside the university. As had been the case in Zimbabwe, Micere set out to create communities wherever she lived. Thousands of miles away from home, she created a new home, just as in her poem, My Mother’s poem: wherever/you are/be it/ in the air/in the sea/be it/ in the trees/be it/in the deserts/create new life/create new human beings/out of those/and build/new homes. By building new homes wherever she went, Micere set out to repair the damage the oppressive regime in Kenya had done not only in destroying institutions, but by wrecking families. Micere’s relationship with her daughters would serve as a model of the power of love and unbreakable motherhood.

Apart from her loving daughters, Micere’s life was defined by a global family of scholars and writers. The archive of her life and her family album is full of her encounters with some of the most distinguished Pan-Africanist politicians, writers, and scholars of our time. In this archive, we see her with Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana, Samora Machel and Marcelino dos Santos of Mozambique, Angela Davis and James Baldwin of the United States, Issa Shivji of Tanzania, Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima of Kenya, Tsitsi Dangarembga of Zimbabwe, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe of Nigeria, Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, her Kenyan colleague and collaborator. Micere was a model of an inviolable and incorruptible citizen and the epitome of the ideals of Pan-Africanism.

Serving as Micere’s biographer has been a learning experience for me. When my daughter, Njeri, was born in 2013, Micere visited us a few years later because “I want to see where you live so that I can have a mental picture when meditating for you and your daughter.” She travelled against her doctor’s advice. In 2014, when Prof. Ali Mazrui was hospitalised, Micere would send him floral arrangements and fruit bouquets. Later, Mazrui asked Micere to send him a poem. Micere went ahead and recorded her poems in Pauline’s, Mazrui’s wife, voicemail so that she could play them for Mazrui at the hospital. During Micere’s illness, I would send her a bouquet of flowers. My daughter sent her poems. Micere taught me how to live with dignity, care, honesty, and courage.

The archive of her life and her family album is full of her encounters with some of the most distinguished Pan-Africanist politicians, writers, and scholars of our time.

For the sixteen years that she fought multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow, Micere was often worried more about our wellbeing than she was about herself. When we felt pain because of her suffering, she is the one who made our pain bearable.

Last year, in a phone conversation, she likened the symptoms of multiple myeloma to tricksters in our folktales. “These symptoms can trick you, but they are quite cowardly, just like Anansi or the rabbit or the hyena in our tales,” she joked over the phone. “If you bravely scream at them, they run away and hide. So, Ndirangu, please help me to scream at them.” We laughed. I would call her often to remind her that I had even bought a vuvuzela to scare away these “tricksters”. Micere’s resolve to live is captured in Martin Carter, the Guyanese poet, who sang that “death must not find us thinking that we die”. Micere transitioned when she wanted to. In Micere’s case, cancer lost.

Micere’s integrity was of a rare quality in its purity and profundity, especially in its complete lack of calculation. Her generosity was marked by an honest but critical acumen. She was deeply spiritual and often invoked the Almighty, the Ancestors, the Spirit World and the benevolent spirit of the Universe for intervention and guidance. Now she has joined the ancestors. Yet, we all know that all of us are called to be members of this ancestorhood. Still, we know there are those we have lived with in this world that we would not wish to be our ancestors. Even in this adoration of ancestorhood, where we are all called, we know that only a few are chosen. How lucky that we can say with certainty that Micere now resides with other benevolent ancestors, and we are sure she will continue to intervene on our behalf. “Even in the Hereafter, I will continue to be an activist,” she said in 2014.

I have lost a dear friend, teacher, mother, mentor, and what John Lewis called “a good troublemaker”. I already miss her so much.