I will begin my tribute by claiming pride of association with Prof. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, a feminist, in the finest of this tradition: A fellow Kenyan and resident of New York, an alumnus of Kangaru High School in eastern Kenya, and Dean at the University of Nairobi, my alma mater, whence, in collaboration with other scholars at the university, in the country and the continent, she laboured to shift traditional educational paradigms and policies, forcing these to include indigenous thought and practice.
My first research project, undertaken in secondary school, was assigned to me by a student who had been taught by these daring scholars and inspired by the work of Prof. Mĩcere – Mrs Cheboi, my literature teacher. It required us over a mid-term break to talk to our grandparents or someone of their generation, request them to share a traditional story in a local African language, translate the story into English and submit the assignment for grading. This assignment, which was both a celebration of the spoken word and an attempt to buffer local languages against the tides of erasure, was transformative for me. It normalised both indigenous languages and orality as forms of knowledge acquisition and transmission, a gift I have continued to appreciate and to be challenged by as a student of orature and performance. This experience was buttressed by other oral and written literary infusions; from short stories, to plays, drama, novels and African poetry – for example the collection by David Rubadiri through which I first heard Prof. Mĩcere’s voice making visible what in Kenya has come to be known as the voice of Mwikali, Atieno, Muthoni (Wanjiku) – gendered, classed voices of everyday women made invisible by the distortions of patriarchy, politics and certain distributions of capital.
I belong to a lucky generation in Kenya. One born after the pain and struggle for independence, yet close enough to the experience to hear firsthand about it and the aspirations that drove this important struggle, and the politics that characterised the immediate post-independence period. For us, one of our most valuable bequests was the work of progressive scholars like Prof. Mĩcere.
Because of the work of these intellectuals and activists, we were assured that our locations, origins, and opinions were valuable much as we were sustained by their work, words, and sacrifices. In their responses to the exigencies of the period, they developed radical, critical canons as they responded to the challenges posed to the worth and existence of African epistemologies, the character of our newly independent states, their relationships to the continent, and more urgently, to their citizens. With colleagues and artists of the word spoken and written across the nation and continent, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo, Alamin Mazrui, Asenath Bole Odaga, Miriam Makeba, Chinua Achebe, Ali Mazrui, Odera Oruka, Wole Soyinka, Joseph Kamarũ, Daudi Kabaka, Austin Bukenya, John Mbiti, and Pio Zirimu, they made the scholarly case for African Orature and Literature, performing these in ways that legitimised indigenous languages and knowledges, and more, inspiring us to become African griots, story tellers, singers, writers, theorists, poets, activists – to claim our ethnic, Kenyan, African social identities which they fleshed out and encouraged us to research, explore, enrich.
For us, one of our most valuable bequests was the work of progressive scholars like Prof. Mĩcere.
Each of these scholars, of these artists, found a way of raising issues that were important to them and used their place, personal skills, tools, to advocate and agitate. Prof. Mĩcere applied the power of drama, poetry and orature to guide us into a time before modern histories and find in it a glowing beauty as she recovered our suppressed memories with dignity and celebrated them with the flowers of the spoken word, her choice of medium, poetry.
On our behalf, Mĩcere Mũgo and her friends and colleagues asked tough questions that post-independence and the consequent experiences of tyrannies, dictatorships, tribalism, patriarchy, neocolonialism, and structural adjustment programmes forced to the fore. In the course of these critical interrogations that were often painful, we were fortunate to have Mĩcere who lovingly spoke to us in her poetry and in the integrity of her choices. Writing and living, she “held us by the hand”, telling us not only that it was okay, but indeed that it was our moral duty to ask all kinds of questions and demand that which had been fought for on our behalf – our “matunda ya uhuru”, the fruits of liberty and sovereignty; okay to question those who act in our name about what they do in our name; right to question how they access and dispose of our resources and, acting in solidarity, appropriate to insist that power treat our fellow human beings with dignity. Micere encouraged us to interrogate our locations, to step out of our “place” and question our leaders, expecting that our demands would not always be welcome but knowing that the cost, even if leading as it did for her in humiliation, rejection, and exile, would be worthwhile.
In the course of these critical interrogations that were often painful, we were fortunate to have Mĩcere who lovingly spoke to us in her poetry and in the integrity of her choices.
Throughout her career, Prof Mĩcere made clear that there are personal as well as global and class dimensions to issues of justice and peace, accepting long before these turbulent times that without justice there would be no peace. Allying with the disadvantaged, she questioned selective incarceration – whether of prisoners of conscience in Kenya or people of colour and the poor in New York – supported indigenous voices in Kenya and in the USA, examined the use and abuse of the environment (Onondaga Lake, the Mau, Karura Forest). Fighting and advocating for and alongside communities, she maintained both a humour and a humanity that allowed her to act in empathy and solidarity with others, including as she supported and mentored younger scholars like me.
In her writing and her lived experiences, Prof. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo invites us to be passionately involved members of our communities. It is this passionate, loving, humane reflection and engagement that I am sure she would have us apply to both the complex violence of Al-Shabaab in Kenya and police brutality in the USA, inviting us to tirelessly work for peace and humanity. To find truth, joy, and beauty in each other and in our words – both spoken and written. To imagine a better world, if only in tribute to her, her work, and her struggles. Let us commit to this pursuit.
From an homage shared in 2015 during a two-day Symposium titled “A Tireless Pursuit” at Syracuse University in honour of Prof. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo and adapted for a tribute in her memory during Pan African Women’s Day Celebrations at the Kenya National Theatre in 2023.