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The Micere I Knew

11 min read.

Professor Micere Githae Mugo’s biographer recalls a life lived with dignity, care, honesty, and courage.



The Micere I Knew
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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.

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Ndirangu Wachanga is a professor of media studies and information science at the University of Wisconsin and Micere Githae Mugo’s biographer.


Ama Ata Aidoo: A Tribute

Ama Ata Aidoo repositioned women’s writing within a male-dominated canon in African literature during the mid-1960s and her legacy can be seen in the outpouring of African literature in the twenty-first century by women authors who now dominate the field.



Ama Ata Aidoo: A Tribute
Photo: Flickr/RAS News & Events
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Ama Ata Aidoo is Ghana’s foremost woman writer whose distinguished career spans several decades of the post-independence era in Africa. Her literary contribution places her amongst the first generation of African women writers as a leading feminist voice within postcolonial writing. Through a feminist lens, her literary corpus conveys much insight into the complexities of African women’s lives in the colonial and postcolonial landscape of competing and challenging experiences in society. Her fictional works portray women characters who navigate local norms and expectations for women, customs and traditions, and the challenges of race, class, and gender inequalities within transnational spaces in western settings.

For over twenty years, my research, scholarship and teaching has explored the literature of African women writers, including Aidoo’s work, to highlight their experiences in society and to celebrate their remarkable contributions to women’s and gender studies through literary expression.

Aidoo is a pioneering figure of immense significance through the creation of Africa’s first dramatic work in English by an African woman, The Dilemma of a Ghost in 1965, followed by her second play, Anowa in 1970.

As a commanding literary figure, Aidoo repositioned women’s writing within a male-dominated canon in African literature during the mid-1960s. Her novels, Our Sister Killjoy: or, Reflections of a Black-Eyed Squint (1977) and Changes: A Love Story (1991) disrupted stereotypical portrayals of African women that were common in male-authored African texts written during the twentieth century. In both novels, Aidoo crafted female protagonists who were strong, intelligent, and outspoken as a form of ‘writing back’ to reclaim women’s voices from the margins to centre stage in the African literary world. Important themes in Aidoo’s works include postcolonial perspectives, feminist expression, the interplay of tradition and modernity, and the relationship between Ghana and the African diaspora, among other compelling issues of postcolonial discourse.

Her creative artistry has woven a tapestry of literature across genres of poetry, drama, novels, short fiction, essays, and literary criticism. Her short fiction includes No Sweetness Here (1970), The Girl Who Can and Other Stories (1997), and Diplomatic Pounds (2012). Her poetry collections include Someone Talking to Sometime (1985), Birds and Other Poems (1987), An Angry Letter in January, and Other Poems (1992), and After the Ceremonies: New and Selected Poems (2017). Like many African writers in the past and the present, Aidoo’s literary style draws heavily upon African oral traditions and a combination of prose and poetry.

Ama Ata Aidoo was born on March 23, 1940, in southern Ghana to a royal family of the Fante ethnic community. Encouraged by her father to pursue a western education, she began writing at the age of fifteen. After completing secondary school at Wesley Girl’s School in Cape Coast, she attended the University of Ghana at Legon, where she majored in English literature. While at University she participated in the Ghana Drama Studio and published her first play, Dilemma of a Ghost in 1965. Her teaching career began in 1970 and lasted for over a decade at the University of Cape Coast but the unfavorable political climate in the country failed to nurture her creative talent. In 1982 she was appointed Minister of Education by the then head of state, J. J. Rawlings. She resigned from her position in less than two years and migrated to Zimbabwe where she resumed writing and teaching. She subsequently taught in the United States, at the University of Richmond and at Brown University, until her retirement in 2012.

Ama Ata Aidoo’s works have received critical acclaim and robust scholarly engagement by writers and literary critics. Among these are Emerging Perspectives on Ama Ata Aidoo (1999), The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Documentary Film (2014), Essays in Honor of Ama Ata Aidoo at 70: a Reader in African Cultural Studies (2012) and The Art of Ama Ata Aidoo: Polylectics and Reading Against Neocolonialism (1994).

I am fortunate to have experienced a rewarding friendship with Ama Ata Aidoo that began at the African Literature Association annual conference in 2012. I will always cherish the memory of her warmth and hospitality as well as her insightful perspectives on contemporary women’s issues in Ghana and the African diaspora. In the early years of my career as a literary scholar, her fiction inspired my scholarly engagement with victimhood and agency in the work of African women writers as well as my approach to feminist-inspired African texts through critical analysis of her novel Changes: A Love Story, the short story collection No Sweetness Here and the play Anowa. In these iconic fictional works Ama Ata Aidoo presents paradoxical outcomes for women characters as they respond to patriarchy, urbanization, and the conflicting demands of modernity in the colonial and postcolonial landscape of Ghana.

The novel Changes skillfully examines the complexities of Ghanaian women’s difficult choices and responsibility for one’s destiny in life. In the novel, Aidoo interrogates the extent to which a woman who follows her own path ends up better off than the woman who bends to the status quo through obedience to conventional norms in society. The stories in No Sweetness Here portray Ghanaian women faced with choices that challenge conventional norms and expectations as well as realities of the modern world of social flux and changing identities. The setting of Anowa is nineteenth century colonial Ghana where feminist themes emerge through the actions of the female protagonist. Anowa rebels against parental authority and women’s traditional roles by marrying a man her family has rejected, resulting in tragic outcomes.  In her role as an outspoken voice for women, Aidoo articulates the impact of social, economic, and political forces on the lives of African women. Aidoo asserts that, “on the whole, African traditional societies seem to have been at odds with themselves as to what exactly to do with women”. This dilemma lies at the crux of Aidoo’s feminist perspectives expressed in her writing and underscores the pressing need for social transformation and women’s equality.

Aidoo interrogates the extent to which a woman who follows her own path ends up better off than the woman who bends to the status quo through obedience to conventional norms in society.

As a consummate storyteller, the corpus of Aidoo’s writings captures the dynamism of Ghanaian and African women’s lives through strong women characters that exhibit intelligence, strength, and agency in the search for happiness and success in their lives. Ama Ata Aidoo’s legacy can be seen in the outpouring of African literature in the twenty-first century by women authors who now dominate the field. A new generation of leading women writers from Africa owe their inspiration to Ama Ata Aidoo and other pioneers like Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and Mariama Ba who broke barriers for women as literary godmothers of feminist expression and innovative ways of telling the African story. Ghana and the world have lost a commanding presence on the literary stage and her works will remain as cherished classics in African and world literature.

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Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo: A Mother and a Gardener

In the garden of her home, Mwalimu found a mirror to her own life, where tending to growth required patience, determination, and the willingness to embrace, metaphorically and physically, both sunlight and storms.



Professor Micere Githae Mugo: The Zimbabwe Experience
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“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels.” 

– Maya Angelou

In the hushed corners of memory, where the tapestries of lives are woven, there lies a figure both fierce and tender – Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo. Hers wasn’t just a name etched in the annals of African literature and orature, a name revered in halls of the ivory tower, or a name heralded by activists. Indeed, she was all those things, and more. But behind closed doors, in the shadows of acclaim and applause, she was a cultivated radiant soul on whose shoulders so much was placed, a soul weighed heavily by unfulfilled dreams, a soul whose essence blossomed in myriad facets, each illuminating the mosaic of her existence. Much has been said and written about her in tribute and commemoration since her demise, all noteworthy. But alongside what is known lies the person as seen through the inner corridors of her life. It is there we find not just the public icon, but the woman, and it is through that lens that I wish to explore the layers of Mwalimu’s life that coloured her world.

In 1976, a struggling Cameroonian-Nigerian musician, Prince Nico Mbarga, and his band Rocafil Jazz, released the song Sweet Mother, an upbeat single, sung in Pidgin English, and featuring a West African highlife-infused tempo, with a Congolese Soukous-style fingerpicking guitar lead. Despite having been previously rejected by no less than three major record companies, it went on to become one of the best-selling and most popular Pan-African singles ever released. The lyrics began thus:

Sweet mother I no go forget you

For the suffer wey you suffer for me yeah

It was the quintessential African ode to motherhood. In equal parts full of praise and mention of sacrifice, it symbolised the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and is often played at weddings and other ceremonies far beyond Nigeria and Cameroon. Perhaps more than any other piece of art, this song captures the intimate tri-generational and parallel relationships between Micere Githae Mugo and her mother, and Micere Githae Mugo and her children.

Nothing brought Mwalimu more comfort and joy than her children. For those familiar with her lectures and presentations, nary a single one began without an elaborate acknowledgment of Mumbi and Njeri, replete with all their respective accomplishments (much to their irritation). Even in person, when speaking or referring to either one of them, a sparkle would light up her eyes as immense pride beamed. Every decision she made since their birth was carried out with them in mind, and although she often expressed regret for the effects some of those decisions had on her children, feeling her life’s trajectory had yielded undue hardship on them, Mumbi and Njeri would always reassure their mother of the contrary. It was this precise journey that forged them into the women they became, the daughters she referred to as her “besties” and of whom Mwalimu took immense satisfaction in being the loudest cheerleader and praise singer. If there was a heaven on earth for Mwalimu, it existed when she was beside her children.

Mwalimu’s nurturing soul remained consistent throughout her life, reverberating across distance and geographies, always planting seeds of hope and reassurance in her children’s hearts. For Mũmbi wa Mũgo, and the late Njeri Kũi, their mother’s stories, woven from threads of struggle and strength, ignited in them fires of resilience, reminding them that roots, no matter how bruised and imperfect, are meant to be nourished and celebrated.

Believing, as the African American novelist Toni Morrison often said, that “the function of freedom is to free someone else”, Mwalimu’s essence as a mother, and her sense of family, transcended mere biology. She opened her heart and home to many, becoming a mother and sister to countless regardless of their origin and circumstances. Throughout her life, her homes did not discriminate. They were sites of knowledge, sanctuary, community, and entertainment for people from virtually every walk of life.

Mwalimu was the nurturer of dreams, fostering creativity and independent thinking in all those she embraced as her children, reflecting Bell Hooks’ notion of love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”. I recall her taking a keen interest in my own professional endeavours. While mine were different in discipline from hers, she recognised the common thread with which we pursued our respective fields, and invested her time and resources, often while battling one or more ailments, in guiding me towards conclusions that would embolden my arguments and position my work through the lens of Africana scholarship. Mwalimu frequently and publicly cheered my accomplishments, delightfully advertising the products of my work to the audiences we shared. When I was commissioned to curate a collective Pan-African architectural exhibition as part of the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennial, her thunderous applause that ricocheted in the longest email I’ve ever received from her – and this is not to say her emails were ever short – contained a critical review of my curatorial statement with appendices to boot, all attached in a multiple-page document that she took the trouble to manually digitise, all the while battling an infection.

She opened her heart and home to many, becoming a mother and sister to countless regardless of their origin and circumstances.

Mwalimu’s spirit was that of a wanderer. She roamed not just through physical landscapes but through the corridors of the human experience, embodying Chinua Achebe’s notion that “proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten”. An avid traveller, she so enjoyed encounters with diverse cultures through which she embraced the human experience in its myriad shades, recognising that unity arises from understanding and fostering solidarity with all who are disempowered and disenfranchised. In every place she lived, Mwalimu never stood idle or quiet in the face of oppression, always agitating and mobilising for the issues of the day, be they fighting dictatorship in Kenya, defeating Apartheid in South Africa and Palestine, supporting LBGTQI and immigrant rights globally, resisting White Supremacy and protecting the right to vote in the United States. All these and more she championed, determined to lend her voice to the voiceless, and might to the weak.

The tapestry of Mwalimu’s life extended beyond her family, weaving through communities with the deftness of the Afro-Cuban laureate, Nicolás Cristóbal Guillén Batista’s poetic strokes. She was a bridge builder, a community organiser, an embodiment of Assata Shakur’s vision of revolution as an ongoing process. She recognised that a single thread couldn’t hold the fabric of change; it required collective hands and shared dreams to stitch together a world of equity and compassion.

“Sometimes you take detours to get where you need to go.”  So wrote the Haitian-American author Edwidge Dandicat. And accordingly, exile couldn’t extinguish the fire within Mwalimu’s heart. No stranger to betrayal, she lived life looking forward, not forgetting the pains and losses of the past, but not clutching onto them nor clinging to bygone eras, acutely aware that a closed door is also a new beginning. It is an opportunity to resist containment, to evolve, to sow and nurture seeds elsewhere, with the new environment no different from a new blank page in one’s story. That is not to say she forgot about where she was from. Mwalimu was always engaged and connected to Kenya. But exile pushed her towards new horizons, all of which left identifiers on her that were as indelible as her origins.

She was a bridge builder, a community organiser, an embodiment of Assata Shakur’s vision of revolution as an ongoing process.

“How do I survive?” Mwalimu once rhetorically remarked during a 2015 conversation with her biographer Ndirangũ Wachanga. “[I survive through] linking up with struggles wherever I happen to find myself. That lesson really came very powerfully from my mother and is summarised in My Mother’s Poems, this notion of learning as human beings to create spaces, to create new homes, which we have to learn as progressive pan Africanists of what oppressed people, especially what enslaved people did.”

To buttress herself against the torment of being separated from all that was loved and familiar, Mwalimu immersed herself in the everyday lives of the people in the places she lived. Following the principles of Utu and Ubuntu, she embraced their concerns as her own, their fights as new battlegrounds. Like the Guyanese academic and activist Walter Rodney’s unwavering commitment to truth, she stood firm against injustice, transforming her longing for home into an unyielding struggle for justice. Mwalimu bore the weight of people’s hopes as she fought for a world where words, like South African singer-songwriter Miriam Makeba’s melodies, knew no boundaries.

In 1982, while addressing a Malcom X weekend lecture at Harvard University, the African American feminist philosopher Audre Lorde observed, “Revolution is not a one-time event.”  This Mwalimu understood well; she once chuckled with absolute glee at my calling out her lifelong affinity for mischief. Defiant to a fault, no nemesis was too big, too powerful, for her to oppose. Resistance, she felt, was as important as joy. And her defiance spread across facets. She abhorred, for example, the brandishing of titles and displays of social stratification – hallmarks, she believed, of the insecure. There she was, sitting quietly in a waiting room for one of her medical appointments, her body weakened from the effects of aggressive chemotherapy, proudly flaunting a tote bag brightly emblazoned with the words “Fight the Power!”

To buttress herself against the torment of being separated from all that was loved and familiar, Mwalimu immersed herself in the everyday lives of the people in the places she lived.

In the front and rear gardens of her home in Syracuse, there Mwalimu found solace. An avid gardener, the cold of winter was kept at bay by her anticipation of spring, when the loosening soils and warmer temperatures would draw her outside, along with both willing and unwilling accomplices, gardening paraphernalia in tow, to till the loosening soil. This, even when it was against Mumbi’s ever-vigilant advice, was her happy place. Basking under the sun, caring for the kaleidoscopic hues of the blooming canvas that was her vegetable and floral ensemble, Mwalimu found a mirror to her own life – where tending to growth required patience, determination, and the willingness to embrace, metaphorically and physically, both sunlight and storms. And it was under her sun hat, and in her gardening gloves and gumboots that some of her most devoted time was spent.

The months from April to October were focused on, among other things, planting, weeding, and harvesting. The discipline put in the effort that went into producing organic vegetables was second only to that which drove her writing, and always released a dose of energy that no medication could substitute. Every year, without fail, Mwalimu fastidiously planted a range of vegetables including heirloom tomatoes and kale, a headless leafy green cabbage similar to sukuma wiki that was also favourite of the neighbourhood gopher – a stubborn rodent of a creature that often, and quite successfully, claimed exclusive domain over this plant; Kunde, also known as cowpea leaves; and a plethora of herbs. Harvests were multiple throughout the summer, bringing her immense satisfaction and the luxury of consuming home-grown produce year round.

At the front of the house, bees pollinated her assembly of annuals and perennials, flowers that were also a delicacy for the local deer. “Pirates!” She called them. Each flower petal, each vegetable harvest, was a testament to her resilience, a reflection of her understanding that life’s beauty lies in its imperfections and in the sum of its parts.

Between the pages of books, Mwalimu embarked on a ceaseless voyage of intellectual discovery as she consumed literature with voracious hunger. She knew that the most profound journeys were those of the mind, and through every word devoured, she collected fragments of wisdom to sew into the tapestry of her own life, and the lives of others.

In 2018, I gifted Mwalimu the book Barracoon: The Story of the “Last Black Cargo”, a small title by the African American anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston.  “What a read!” she exclaimed, and went on to discuss how the author’s insistence on claiming and establishing African American Orature as a site of knowledge was nothing short of a revolutionary act. We would later share thoughts on the legitimacy of marginalized languages like Caribbean Patois or Kenyan Sheng, loathed by the elites but nonetheless authentic as linguistic systems, capable of literary rigour, and worthy of celebration. Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid asks in her book A Small Place, “For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?” Drawing from that, Mwalimu recognized that linguistic colonialism was as brutal and unjust as all other forms of dominance, and that language, in whatever form, is above all the heartbeat of a community.

But perhaps what she enjoyed reading the most was personal correspondence from those in her orbit. Every sentence in a personal email was carefully and diligently referred to or responded to. And those responses were ever so lyrical, so elaborate, so engaging that one would immediately feel the weight of the world in their attempts to write back in kind – an exercise quite often futile.  And God help you if you did not respond!

Each flower petal, each vegetable harvest, was a testament to her resilience, a reflection of her understanding that life’s beauty lies in its imperfections and in the sum of its parts.

A deeply spiritual being, Mwalimu prayed to God, often.  But she also meditated daily, believing that reflecting and thinking about the nature of, and occurrences on, those dear to her was aligned with and inseparable from her own circumstances.  She did not, however, subscribe to a singular organized system of belief and worship, and was always sceptical about seeing God through an externally programmed lens. Mwalimu’s spirituality was more personalized, and centred on providing her with peace and purpose. She was aware, as Professor Jacob Olupona states, that African “deities, spirits, gods, ancestors, and personal and impersonal forces are regarded as active agents in the created world…”, and ancestral tradition, the veneration of parents and forbears was central to an honest and unfiltered understanding of our world, rooted in indigenous African knowledge systems. She called out to the ancestors often, seeking their guidance and comfort, believing that the suppression of these systems remained a critical component in the unfinished process of African liberation.

At the core of her being, Mwalimu was human, embracing and being open about her vulnerabilities with the grace of James Baldwin’s reflections on authenticity.  Her honesty, like a mirror reflecting truth, resonated with the essence of what it meant to be complete.  In a world fraught with façades, she dared to bare her soul, displaying to us how authenticity is not only rare, but is a revolution in itself.  Hers is a tapestry woven with threads of love, struggle, growth, and ultimately truth.  This is what set her apart from many.  Ever conscious of social relationships that are of equal status, intellectual openness and possibilities for critique and creative engagement, Mwalimu’s encounters with the world followed her fervent belief in an old Gĩkũyũ adage, kwaaranĩria nĩ kwendana, meaning “to hold dialogue is to love.”

“For isn’t it odd that the only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime?”

From Kariria, Kirinyaga County in Central Kenya on the southern slopes of the great mountain, to the revered halls of Makerere University perched on the hilltops of Kampala, Uganda, to the maritime province of New Brunswick on the Atlantic coast of Canada, to the then politically active University of Nairobi in Kenya’s bustling capital, to the blooming Jacaranda tree-laden avenues of Harare, Zimbabwe, and finally to her home in Syracuse, nestled in the heart of Onondaga County in Central New York, Mwalimu’s legacy beckons us to embrace life’s journey with modesty and fervour. These two qualities, along with courage, guided and grounded her throughout her life. They were, however, not qualities gained as she navigated through the world, but rather qualities that were already in place, and instilled in her as a child by her mother, a woman who had walked her own path before her, experienced and overcome her own share of turmoil and in the process found her own voice. Mwalimu remained anchored to her mother, her metaphorical North Star, and grateful for the sacrifices that were made, and the pain that was endured, to allow for the becoming of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo.

If i no sleep, my mother no go sleep

If i no chop, my mother no go chop

She no dey tire ooo

Sweet mother i no go forget dey suffer wey you suffer for me yeh yeh

Sweet mother yeeeeh

Sweet mother oh, oh oh

And so ends Prince Nico Mbarga’s Sweet Mother, so aptly describing the bonds between a woman in the central highlands of Kenya who despite losing it all, would persevere to nurture Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, bequeathing to her the fortitude to stay the course, a foundation that would one day take Micere to previously unimaginable heights. The daughter would herself become a mother, passing onto the next generation what would take Mwalimu’s legacy even further. Grace.

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Micere Githae Mugo: Creating Liberated Zones

Was it during her years at Limuru Girls School that Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo developed a lifelong passion for “creating liberated zones” in educational institutions?



Professor Micere Githae Mugo: The Zimbabwe Experience
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It was the dawn of a new decade. The Kenya Colony was in the frenzy of transition. Behind it lay the trauma of the State of Emergency; ahead, the tantalising promise of Uhuru. In February 1961, the excitement rose to fever pitch: an African majority was elected for the first time in the colony’s Legislative Council, an important political development making manifest the reality of the “wind of change” sweeping not only across the rapidly diminishing British Empire but also right at home in the Kenya Colony itself. Everywhere, there was change in the air – euphoria for the majority, trepidation for others, as preparations were made in earnest for the birth of Kenya as a brand new independent nation.

On all fronts, the changes were happening; sometimes faster than the guardians and facilitators of the old colonial order were ready for. And so it is that change came to a little school, tucked in the heart of what was then called the White Highlands, where, according to school lore, a progressive headteacher, Veronica Owen, tabled a daring proposal. It was time, she said, for the school, which had begun as a small family initiative in 1922, to take the big step away from racial exclusion to integration. It was time for Limuru Girls School – as it celebrated 40 years as an educational institution that had served to this point an exclusively European student body – to transition into a multiracial institution.

To the school community, this was as momentous as the idea of independence was to many in the country. True, it wouldn’t be the very first time in the colony that students of different races would sit together in a classroom. In 1949, John and Joan Karmali, an interracial couple, had officially pioneered the first “non-racial” classes in the colony. With no other premises available, these had been held in the official residence of the Indian High Commissioner and in their own home. Later, as interest caught on amongst a tiny community of willing parents, the then Governor Phillip Mitchell facilitated the acquisition of the premises bequeathing it the name that it would become known by: Hospital Hill School. Thus began the first “brave, successful and doomed” experiment in instiling colour blindness in Kenya through racially integrated schooling – also noteworthy in that it was the first primary school in Nairobi to offer access to African pupils.

Up until that time, the assumption had been that African children were absent in the city. That the school had survived its first rocky decade despite the heightened political tensions of the fifties and the general disapproval of many in the settler elite, was possibly a source of inspiration to those at Limuru Girls School enthusiastic about the idea. Possibly, they were also aware of another initiative in the pipeline at the time: to set up a similar experiment in the form of an all-boys Sixth Form college – what ultimately became Strathmore. If this was the case, they must also have been very conscious that for their own school community, there were very important differences. Unlike Hospital Hill or the proposed Strathmore, the benefit of a committed and supportive school community united in the express vision of racial integration was not guaranteed. Then, there was also the fact that these other institutions were day schools, meaning that the children attending them would be living at home, making it possible for the parents to be constantly involved, on a day-to-day basis, in closely monitoring and offering daily support to guarantee their well-being. This would not be possible in a residential school. And finally, the student populations of both the Hospital Hill School and Strathmore College were racially integrated from the get-go, while in the case of Limuru Girls School, this would mean bringing in the bare minimum number of non-White students into one class on an experimental basis. It would not be exaggerating to consider those students as guinea pigs whose survival was a matter of optimistic conjecture, rather than as privileged winners of an educational jackpot.

It is safe to assume that support for the proposal was not unanimous and one can only imagine how vehement the reactions to the proposal must have been. Still, the advocates for the idea would not be deterred. The school was a Christian school, they pointed out. Would it not be the Christian thing to do? Finally, however, the decision was taken: two students only – one African, one Asian – would be given the opportunity for two years to prove the intellectual and social worth of their respective races to the school community.

Story, story?

Story come!

Facts as foundation…

And so it was that in early 1961, Limuru Girls School embarked on its great experiment. Two pioneer students were invited to join the incoming Higher Certificate level class. The African student selected, Madeleine Mĩcere Gĩthae, had just excelled in her School Certificate examinations after four happy years at the African (later Alliance) Girls High School, where she had also been a popular head girl and active participant in a range of “extra” curricula activities. That school was also looking forward to a historic new class, 1961 being the seminal year when it would offer its pioneer Higher Certificate class. Either way, Madeleine Gĩthae, should she return to her former school or move on to this new opportunity, was set to be an educational pioneer in Kenya. The choice to join Kirpal Singh as the other pioneer non-European student in an entire school meant she would take the harder, lonelier path to engraving her name in the annals of the country.

Two students only – one African, one Asian – would be given the opportunity for two years to prove the intellectual and social worth of their respective races to the school community.

One could simply skip through the next couple of years by saying that the rest is history. The record does show that Madeleine Gĩthae did indeed go on to not only survive, but also to excel during her time at Limuru, passing every test set for her both in and out of the classroom. In her studies, she made nonsense of the notion of the alleged intellectual inferiority of the African, on the sports field she earned the grudging admiration of her peers by earning glory for the school. Throughout the six long terms that she was a student at the school, she gave those searching for reasons to bolster the case for continuing racial segregation in Kenyan schools nothing to point triumphantly to. By the time she left in 1962, she had flung wide open the doors of schools such as this one for the myriads of girls – and boys – of all races and classes who would come after her. She also graduated at the top of her class, earning a coveted scholarship to the University of Oxford. She turned this down – preferring instead to go to the University of East Africa at Makerere where … but that is a story for another time.

Story, story?

Story come!

Facts as foundation,

Spice creatively…

In some ways, this is the end of the story of those two years at Limuru Girls School… but in other ways, this is just the frame. To fill it out, I invite you to switch places with me as you become the storyteller and take the lead in a journey of imagination. Step back into that place, that time, step, for a moment, into the school shoes of a teenager facing the challenge of having such enormous responsibility placed on your shoulders. Ta imagini – to echo her older self – what it must have been like to leave home, a place where you were loved and cherished and affirmed, to go to boarding school for several weeks at a time. Ta imagini looking around you, once your parents had left, not at girls whose smiling faces promised the possibility of making new friends to set off with on an exciting adventure, but rather facing up to settling into this new environment, where the majority saw you as a lesser being, and deeply resented your presence. Ta imagini having to be in this lonely space for weeks on end with no respite; with even the handful of fellow students who might be a little sympathetic to your plight, careful not to cross the invisible boundaries of becoming too closely associated with you. Yes, ta imagini the direct personal experience of being on the frontline of the ugly racism that was at the core of the colonial education system.

And sure, one might argue, the success or failure of one schoolgirl would definitely not have been the end of the world. Kenya would have continued its inexorable march towards independence. Sooner rather than later, African and Asian students would have been welcomed at this school and many others as, indeed, racial exclusion died a timely death in Kenya – at least officially. But just for a moment, think about what it meant for this child facing the unknown to take a deep breath as the realisation set in of how utterly on her own she would be in the weeks to come, and most especially when immersed in the crowd of girls amongst whom she would never truly belong.

Yes, ta imagini the direct personal experience of being on the frontline of the  ugly racism that was at the core of the colonial education system.

Limuru Girls School has a simple motto: In Fide Vade – in Faith We Go. I think of it as a reminder that schools are spaces that do more than prepare students for exams; they are important agents of socialisation, facilitating the future into being by nurturing the children that will live as adults in it. As I reflect on these two critical years of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo’s childhood, in relation to the person she became, I find myself wondering what influence they might have had on her. In the discourse that pervades Kenya at the present time, as we tussle with the logistics of engineering the school structure and debate and discuss the ins and outs of the new curricula, I ask myself what exactly it is that we envision these critical spaces to be for and how far we have travelled from the challenges that six decades ago those in charge of the system were grappling with. What kind of impact will these critical years of their lives have on the students who are passing through our school institutions today?

With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if it was during these years at Limuru Girls School that Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo developed a lifelong passion for “creating liberated zones” in educational institutions. If it was here that, having experienced the lifeline of companionship through the books that she clung to during the loneliest of times written by artists such as James Baldwin (whom she would later meet and become close friends with), that she determined that art could not be relegated to the margins of society. Was it here that she first deepened her appreciation of Orature not simply as part of the everyday experience of life that she had experienced it to be since she was a child, but also as a necessary weapon in the struggle for liberation and the attainment of the vision of a holistic and healed society? Was it in this space, during these years threaded through with the implicit questioning of her own humanity and her right to be treated as equal to her peers, that she commenced her “tireless pursuit of utu” as lifelong praxis? Was it in this period that she consciously embraced the responsibility of being “the first” – and this could be counted as the seminal of the many other “firsts” in her life – not as exclusive privilege to flaunt, or guarantor of special benefits and recognition, but as the opportunity to burst open spaces of exclusion to create access for others? Perhaps. Whether consciousness of all – or any – of these crystallised during this period, or whether these experiences formed into coherent praxis during the decades to follow, with the benefit of hindsight, these years settle into a metaphor for the legacy she challenges us to reflect on.

What kind of impact will these critical years of their lives have on the students who are passing through our school institutions today?

How tempting to bring this rumination to a close as a triumphant account of victory over all odds! In a way, this would be true to the facts and the spirit of this sharing, and yet … a lingering thought: If indeed the Limuru Girls School of 1961–1962 played a role in influencing Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo to become what so many today are testifying to as worthy of emulation, it wasn’t because the school set out to achieve that, but rather in spite of the many obstacles she encountered that might have resulted in a very different ending. With that in mind, how can this story end without sparing a thought for the many other children broken or deeply wounded from being on the frontline of different sites of the liberation struggle, in spaces and circumstances that have shaped the terrain we have inherited today? And for every one that has emerged scarred but victorious in their battle, how many more have been martyred? Would it be too much to ask that we honour the memory of each one of them, even as we remember the contributions of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, with unwavering commitment to creating liberated zones in our educational institutions, in whatever way “aluta continua” rings true in our lives?

And so the story ends, the story passes on,

This story weaves in, this story weaves out:

Story, story

Facts as foundation

Spice creatively 

Mix and marinate!

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