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No one, in my view, personified the Utu philosophy as Prof. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo did.  She made this her life’s relentless pursuit. Although she asserted that she was not a loser, and acknowledged that she was not always a winner, she finally lost to cancer. But the irony in this is that, although dead, Mĩcere Mũgo still speaks to us. She speaks with a forked tongue, words of sorrow and words of joyful pride.

For the many who loved and embraced her, the many whom she embraced and whose lives she impacted, Mĩcere’s death speaks pain. A pain felt deep in the family, the academic fraternity, and in the social activism circles across the world.

It is the neverness that is so painful. Never again to be here with us – never to sit with us at the table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us, never to cry with us, never to embrace us, never to sing, or read poetry with us. All the rest of our lives, we must live without her. Only our death can stop the pain of her death.

Yet we must learn to live as faithfully and as authentically with her gone, as we had tried to with her present.

And what does that mean?

It will take a long time to learn.

It means not forgetting her.

It means speaking of her.

It means reading her poetry and acting her plays.

This is remembering her.

We are to hold the past in remembrance and not let it slide away. Because all around us are her things, her clothes, her books, her garden, her works, her words and her ideas.

We are to resist amnesia and live up to her ideals in Utu.

This is remembrance.

I parallel Mwalimu Mĩcere’s story to Miriam’s in the Exodus 2 passage. And to honour her memory, I will look at the Exodus narrative from a feminist perspective. I am indebted to Prof. Alan Boesak (2017) whose ideas I have adopted in interpreting the biblical text, principally from “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness, Miriam, liberation, and prophetic witness against the empire”.

The story of Exodus, like other biblical narratives, is written to be read in multiple ways, allowing for multiple interpretations, and so, hinders fundamentalists from weaponising the biblical texts. It also avoids imperialistic designs to impose a single view in this plural world, where we ought to be aware of the other. The Hebrew Bible and feminist scholar Phyllis Trible traces the life of Miriam’s prophetic tradition of faithful resistance against empire to the contest against pharaonic patriarchal power and privilege.

Through Miriam, we see God beginning the act of the exodus with the women. It is to these women of faithfulness, courage, and defiant obedience that the freedom of the people is  first entrusted. The first two chapters of the book of Exodus articulated this fact.  So exodus from Egypt was initiated by women who acted in faith.  A faith anchored in trust,  not sight. There seems to be no expectation that God would intervene. For God is not even mentioned in these two chapters of the exodus story.

We first meet Miriam as a protector of her brother on the riverbank. Then as a prophet and leader after the deliverance at the Red Sea. And finally, as a prophetic challenger to power in the wilderness. It is in comparison to these three scenarios that I hope to speak about the life of Mwalimu Mĩcere Mũgo.

First, Miriam on the riverbank (Exodus 2:1-8)

When Moses is born, Miriam’s mother Jochebed takes a risky but courageous initiative. She weaves a basket, puts the baby boy in it, places it among the reeds close to the riverbank, then tasks the young Miriam to stand guard.

Exodus 2:4 records that Miriam is standing “at a distance” at the river bank. According to the Dutch Hebrew Bible scholar Jopie Siebert-Hommes, the verb translated as “distance” means “far away”, and can also have two other meanings, which are: “to take one’s stand” and “to stand one’s ground”.

So, on the riverbank, Miriam is “standing her ground”, waiting in anticipation. She is aware of her own limitations under the circumstances.

When Pharoah’s daughter appears, for Miriam, there is no rational expectation of a “motherly” response from one seen as a representative of the Egyptian empire.

This passage is crowded with uncertainties. It offers no perspective on Miriam’s frame of mind. What if it had not been Pharaoh’s daughter? I mean, what if it had been men acting in blind obedience to the Pharaoh’s killing instructions? And what if the Pharaoh’s daughter was in one mind with her father?

Despite facing uncertainty, Miriam’s firmness and resolve make her remarkable. Miriam was not sure what would happen to her brother. But what stands out here is her readiness to stand her ground and face a dangerous situation. If something happened to the child, it would not be for lack of courage or action on her part.  And as the opportunity presented for Miriam to act, her quick-witted response to Pharaoh’s daughter suggests not only spiritual maturity, but political savviness as well.

So, Miriam stands firm in the prophetic tradition begun by Siphrah and Puah. It is a prophetic engagement with the empire (patriarchy) no less courageous and faithful than the actions of the midwives.

And as the opportunity presented for Miriam to act, her quick-witted response to Pharaoh’s daughter suggests not only spiritual maturity, but political savviness as well.

Mwalimu Mĩcere’s struggle against colonialism, despotic government and her works advocating for human dignity began early in her life. In the anthology Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo: Making Life Sing in Pursuit of Utu edited by Ndirangu Wachanga, she recalls:

One Saturday afternoon, I was called from my dormitory and told that I had family guests. On going out to meet them, I was elated to find out that it was my mother, Grace Njeri, and her younger sister Tata (Aunty) Joyce, who was a teacher in Gaturi, Mũrang’a.

But their gloomy faces cut down my excitement. After embracing, my mother told me to go back into the dormitory and put on my uniform because they wanted to take me to Boma, the name we knew Embu town by.

It all didn’t make sense, but on the way to Boma, they informed me that my father had been jailed and when they had visited him in jail earlier, he had asked for me. [At the time, my two elder sisters were miles away in Gatigũrũ boarding school, Mũgoiri, Mũrang’a.]

Apparently, my father had been accused of double-dealing with the government and assisting Mau Mau adherents by refusing to torture villagers and their families to force them to confess their linkages to the Mau Mau fighters. He had been sacked as the chief presiding over Mwea Division.

I remember speaking with my father from outside Embu jail, separated by what seemed unending rows of barbed wire. His hands were shackled and there were two guards on either side, plus many more swarming all over the place, all armed to the teeth.

I was scared to death. We had to shout out conversation through the rolls of wire. At first, I was just in shock and tongue-tied, but when the visit ended and the askaris (guards) escorted him back (I suppose to his cell), I simply broke down into tears and cried for so long that my mother and aunt were still begging me to dry my eyes as I waved them goodbye after they took me back to school.

While a young Miriam is plunged into resistance against Pharaoh, 12-year-old Mĩcere encounters the colonial cruelty of the British against the Mau Mau during this visit. From her parents and community she learns a sense of humaneness, Utu, as the antidote to colonial inhumanity.

Mĩcere later articulates her understanding of Utu in the words of her teacher, Prof John Mbiti:

“I am because we are and since we are, therefore, I am,” which is the same as Ubuntu. Yet the sense of community and belonging that Mĩcere advocates is in what it means to be human, deeply rooted in African culture. Prof Mũgo took her stand in pursuit of the Utu philosophy:

I had to remind myself that part of the liberation process was not just to create a better world, but also to create better people of ourselves. [That involved] learning to humanise ourselves and be humane in the way we articulate our thoughts and treat others. I also learnt the difference between systems and institutions, and agents functioning in them. The person who oppresses you as an agent of an oppressive system is being dehumanised. Oppressive systems dehumanise their own agents as much as they seek to dehumanise those who resist oppression.

Mĩcere likened the exclusion of women to the cruelty of colonialism, and so, fought for women to have equal opportunities. This she learnt from her parents, who had no gender partiality. They, the five girls, were sent to school when it was not fashionable to send girls to school. And when they excelled, their father would quip, ‘Well done, my boys!’ Her mother would rebuke men who would ask: Gũtirĩ andũ gũkũ? Are there no people here?

Mĩcere adopted Rhoda Reddick’s definition of feminism articulated thus:

“Being aware of the structures and systems of injustices that held back women, that oppressed women … be they religion, cultural, educational and tradition, be prepared to do something about it, and to disentangle them. The greatest enemies of feminism are the women themselves who are purveyors of patriarchy.”

Mĩcere articulates her position in her poem To Be a Feminist Is:

For me, to be a feminist is

to be the mother of my daughters

it is to be the daughter of my mother,

it is to be more than a survivor,

it is to be a creator,

it is to be a woman.

Nothing explains her vision for women better than her poem: Ta imaaaagini!

Ta imagini that

you and I

and all the women

of this world

stood hand in hand

marched side by side,


dividing borders


connecting bridges


binding chains


delinkable links,

across the nations

across the continents!

So, Mĩcere speaks to us that we must act as feminists. It is clear that her feminist advocacy was undergirded by this Utu philosophy. We are being called to take our stand for a humanised humanity. We become human when we defy the impetus to dehumanise others.

Second, Miriam at the seashore

And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. Exodus 15:20

And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the LORD, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he threw into the sea. Exodus 15:21

This is after the people of Israel walked through the sea ‘on dry land’, leaving the Egyptian armies ‘dead on the seashore’ and the mighty empire defeated (Exodus 14:30). Exodus 15 opens with the song of Moses.

Then in verses 20 and 21, Miriam the prophet took a tambourine in her hand, opened her mouth in song and led the people in a dance of praise. Benno Jacob ranks this song as the oldest text available concerning the exodus. It is the oldest poem in the Hebrew Bible reflecting the mood of an exodus experience.

From her parents and community she learns a sense of humaneness, Utu, as the antidote to colonial inhumanity.

Miriam stamped her position as the people’s prophet. While Moses acted as an individual, Miriam turns her song into a congregational hymn. For on Miriam’s lips, it became a song of praise and celebration for the whole people.

Miriam’s radical inclusion of all the people, not just the women, proved her to be a prophet of God from among the people, guiding them in the glorification and the ownership of the mighty acts of God. Thus, God’s people owned their agency in their liberation.

Analysing Miriam’s action, Prof Allan Boesak observes “ … a radical inclusivity of worship at work here, and a radical overturning of the patriarchal paradigm. It is also a radical embracing of the responsibilities that come with freedom. Miriam is the people’s prophet.”

Mĩcere was a prophet in this Miriamic tradition. As a poet, a playwright and an intellectual, she included outsiders through orature and made knowledge creation a communal affair.

Mĩcere honoured the tradition of “African orature”. A tradition, she said, was about not speaking to yourself but having a conversation and making sure that your audience is following and engaging. In “African orature”, Prof. Mũgo argued, telling an autobiographical story is not about telling “my story” but about telling “our story”. Thus, a “personal” narrative becomes a “public” narrative.

As a poet, a playwright and an intellectual, Mĩcere included outsiders through orature and made knowledge creation a communal affair.

Although she was a professor of literature, Mĩcere realised the limits of written literature in the African context. Oral literature had a similar shortcoming, one of creating elitist academics, detached from their peoples’ lived experience.

Mĩcere often cited James Baldwin. Intellectuals used their power to speak against the challenges in their society. Mĩcere still questions us in her poem…. “Intellectual or Imposter?” Why are our intellectuals so aloof from their communities’ challenges?

Serving as the dean of the Faculty of Arts between 1978 and 1982 required courage as many opposed her election for being a woman. As Mũgo remembers,

We were given to understand that the government ordered the university registrar to nullify the elections immediately, which he did, even though he had been the election’s returning officer and had publicly announced my victory. He issued an official bulletin announcing that he had appointed the defeated candidate to serve as Acting Dean until further notice. The activists issued a counterstatement, with my consent, asserting that I was the elected Dean and would not step down. The CID [Criminal Investigation Department] police swung into action and threatened me with arrest if I did not step down. At times, they would coax me to resign, advising me that my activism was not befitting of a respectable woman.

Going beyond the privileges of office, Mĩcere broadened issues of concern beyond pedagogy, to include culture in development. For her, the ownership of knowledge, its production, dissemination, and custodianship were to be seen through the lens of Utu/Ubuntu.

Such education would be transformative since knowledge and scholarship can either be colonising or conscientizing, alienating or humanising, enslaving or liberating; therefore, creating new human beings with the agency to transform life and the world for the better.

Mĩcere refuted the false myth of dominating, colonising and imperialist cultures to monopolise knowledge, a position that justified the dehumanisation of the conquered, the attempted erasure of other knowledges, heritages and, ultimately, entire cultures.

Third and final, Miriam in the wilderness

The wilderness becomes the place for revelation of Miriam’s prophetic calling. To the people of Israel, the wilderness is more than just a place of wandering; it is the ‘wilds of the wildernesses’.

Phyllis Trible is right to note that uncertainties, complaints, confusions, and conflict make Israel’s wilderness experience wild. The frequent rebellion causes angst among the people. Yet, amidst this muddle, Miriam’s story sparkles.

So, in Numbers 12:2, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses:

“Has the LORD only spoken to Moses? Has he not spoken also through us?’ Miriam’s question goes to the root of the matter.

First, Moses was increasingly becoming autocratic and unpopular with the people. Miriam’s speaking “against Moses”, Naomi Graetz claims, occurs within the broader context of the people’s rebellion.

Miriam joins those who speak against the Mosaic authority in the recurring and intensifying rebellions narrated in Numbers 11, 12, 14, 16 and 20, beginning with the grumblings about food.

It is clear that Miriam’s act comes as a crucial intervention in the rebellion because she introduces the genuine issues of the people’s participation in their liberation, the quality and integrity of leadership and the questions of shared power and authority. She raises these issues because she had shown leadership before, at the seashore. Her leadership gave legitimacy to the radical inclusion of all God’s people in God’s acts of liberation.

Second, Miriam’s critical question also exposes a basic fault line in the rebellion: The nostalgic yearning for Egypt, the longing for the non-existent kindness of the oppressor, the desire to return to the imagined safety of Egypt instead of facing the hardships that come with freedom.

As a prophet (Exodus 15:20), Miriam is now re-asserting herself in her calling by inserting herself into the rebellion while also correcting the rebellion from its flawed position (romanticising Egypt and anger about bodily comforts) to the fundamental revolutionary transformation of leadership and the theological integrity of the god they worshipped.

Mĩcere, like Miriam, articulated a question raised by all oppressed people: their challenge to the empires, invaders, and colonisers everywhere who seek justification for their imperial designs, if possible, by using the Bible.

As the dream of a prosperous Kenya after independence from the British became a nightmare, beginning in the 1970s with the rule of President Kenyatta and going into the 1980s under the regime of President Moi, the shift from white colonialists to black oligarchy catapulted the prophetic voice of the past back to the scene.

Mĩcere called them out through plays like The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, co-written with Ngugi wa Thiongó and performed at the Kenya National Theatre. Mũgo and Thiong’o spoke truth to power. As a result, they were jailed for inciting people to rebel against their government.

“Has the LORD spoken only to Moses?”

We must understand Miriam’s question to be a prophetic and theological challenge. They were not words uttered out of jealousy, slander, or arrogance, but prophetic truth spoken to power. Miriam questions not only the channel of God’s voice, but also the character of Israel’s god; who is this god Moses claims to be on his side, who gives him sole authority, who punishes and strikes and kills at the slightest sign of challenge and protest?

They were not words uttered out of jealousy, slander, or arrogance, but prophetic truth spoken to power.

This god appears different from the one Miriam had experienced at the riverbank. The one the defiant midwives had trusted. A god who rises in outrage against the violence and death-worshipping power of the empire, the god Miriam had proclaimed at the seashore, in contrast with the God of Moses, a vengeful, frightening mirror image of the gods of Egypt who know only domination, submission and death.

Miriam speaks prophetic truth to power, and it is so serious that Yahweh intervenes directly in defence of Moses. She knew how God showed a fierce partiality for Moses and male leadership in Israel with the brutal suppression of a rebellion over food. And yet, like her foremothers in Egypt, despite the risks, she speaks.

By refusing the privileges of her class, Mĩcere committed class suicide. She recounted when the Moi government offered her properties or positions:

“At one point, the government offered me land up there in Naromoru, about 50 acres. I was actually called to go to [Minister of Lands and Settlement] Mr [Nicholas] Biwott’s office in order to be given this gift from President Moi. While at the office, I told Mr Biwott, ‘Thank you very much. I really appreciate it, but please can you give this piece of land to some of the landless people, especially the former Mau Mau fighters?’

The next thing I knew was that I was being called in for questioning at the police station. ‘Look,’ interrogators yelled, ‘You were offered this piece of land by the president, and you were very rude, and you are now trying to tell him who to give it to. Who do you think you are?’

During the interrogation, if I did not write what they wanted me to, I remember a number of times they would hold my head and bash it on the table. Many times, I would go blank. Later, during hospitalisation in London, I was to discover that a minor strike I had been diagnosed with had come from these bashings. But I recovered sufficiently from the ordeal.”

In choosing a “people’s path” to promote the interests of the masses rather than the elite, Mũgo had become reprehensibly dangerous in the eyes of the elite and the state.

Exiled for speaking, Miriam is banished outside the camp. Although both Aaron and Miriam questioned Moses, only Miriam was punished. Naomi Graetz raises the question, “Why was Miriam punished and not Aaron?”

It is because Miriam takes the initiative, providing leadership, and it is not an easily forgivable sin. Miriam is neither terrorised nor cowed into submission.

Miriam speaks prophetic truth to power, and it is so serious that Yahweh intervenes directly in defence of Moses.

Although Mĩcere had not fully recovered from the minor stroke suffered during her tortures, she fled the country with her two young daughters, eight-year-old Mumbi and six-year-old Njeri, to avoid detention.

Mĩcere still speaks to us in the words of her address to the Riara University students in 2016: “If you have chosen the path of struggle, you must have the courage to build a new home wherever your path leads. Don’t romanticise home; you must have the courage to make new homes and new roots.”

Our sister Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo has now travelled away from this world to her new home. As a priest, for the last ten years we prayed together, shared scriptures, and had spiritual discourse. She often said: “Who am I, to say there is no God.” We came to agree that Utu and the dignity of all humanity are not incompatible with Christ’s characteristics and teaching.

Wade in the waters 

Wade in the water

Wade in the water, children

Wade in the water

God’s gonna trouble the water

An African American Jubilee Spiritual Song (1901)

Text adapted from the sermon during the Mĩcere Mũgo memorial service at All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi, 15 August 2023.