If a picture speaks a thousand words then the photograph above of six of Kenya’s better known academics, writers, activists, reformists and progressive thinkers should express volumes, especially to anyone who was at the University of Nairobi during the 1970s and early 1980s.
In the photograph are (from left to right) Dorothy Nyong’o, Chief justice Willy Mutunga, Prof Micere Githae-Mugo, Prof Anyang Nyong’o, Prof Simon Gikandi and Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who all rose to initial prominence in the period that coincided with Kenya’s transition into a one-party state.
The six were gathered recently at a tribute event honouring Prof Mugo, a world-renowned poet, playwright, literary critic and scholar who is widely studied across the disciplines in the arts, social sciences and education.
The tribute event which could in a sense be described as a reunion of sorts of family, friends and colleagues of Micere Mugo’s through the last 50 years or so, was titled The Tireless Pursuit and was to mark Mugo’s retirement from Syracuse University’s Department of African American Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences where she has taught for the last 22 years.
The Tireless Pursuit was a celebration of Mugo’s legacy as a playwright, literary critic and a social and political activist who challenged colonial and neo-colonial rule in Africa as bravely as she challenged racism around the United States.
I attended the event to salute Mugo as an educator with a mission “to enlighten; educate widely; engage new knowledge and ideas”. Here I suppose in fairness I should mention that Mugo also happens to be my aunt. She has throughout her life also been a kind friend and a tireless mother to the many younger people she brought under her wing.
In one of the tributes during the two-day celebration in Syracuse, New York, in April, Mugo was lauded as one who “in her writing and scholarship shreds the lines between disciplines, nor is she bound by any line between academia and activism. She has been an adviser, a mentor, an activist, a role model, and, beginning as a young woman in East Africa, a pioneer in national liberation struggles and campaigner for human rights.”
The tribute was described as “a fitting conclusion to an illustrious career”, but Mugo was quick to point out to an interviewer from one of Syracuse University’s publications that the celebration was not so much about looking in the rear-view mirror as it was about striking out on a new path. “I am honoured and humbled to be recognised this way, it’s my hope that the celebration will serve as a historical teaching moment by highlighting indigenous and other alternative sites of knowledge, in reaffirmation of the mission and values of a liberal arts education at the University.”
As for retiring, Mugo may have left off from her hectic schedule at Syracuse University, but clearly she is not about to sit back and rest on her laurels as evidenced during this first week of June when she is in Nairobi at Riara University on a lecture tour.
This afternoon at 2pm, Prof Mugo will deliver a public lecture at Riara University on the theme: “A home away from home: A biographical sketch (Working in the diaspora; Working within the context of the African-American –African-African dialogue)”
And on Tuesday, June 9, again at 2pm, she will participate in a public debate: “The gender campaign in Kenya: Are we winning the war?”
Mugo, who has been hailed as a 'Kenyan Literary Heroine' for contribution as a writer and educator and as one of the 'Top 100 writers who influenced Kenya most', was born in 1942, the third-born in a family of 10 siblings and daughter of two teachers, who were seen as progressive for their time in their belief that all their children both male and female received a solid education.
Her parents hoped that she would become a doctor, but Mugo harboured literary ambitions and was already writing poetry in her teens.
Mugo has had a career of firsts going back to 1960 when she was selected as the first African to enroll at Limuru Girl’s High School, which at the time was a whites only all-girls school as part of pre-independence efforts to de-racialise Kenya, which until then practised the colour bar, a form of apartheid.
Says Mugo, “An Asian girl and I served as ‘human guinea pigs’ for educational integration until 1962, just before Kenya became independent.” She adds, “Being at school was like facing the monster. I felt angry, upset and alone. Fortunately, I had strong family support and prominent pro-democracy personalities [including the likes of Tom Mboya] who stood up for me, encouraging me not to give up. They said, ‘Don’t let them break you.’ … I soon realised that I was there [at school] not just for myself, but for every African who’d come after me. I told myself that I had to be the best at everything I did.”
According to one of the writeups of Mugo’s life, “Thus began the process of racially desegregating public spaces, including schools, hospitals, and even churches.”
Mugo managed to capture much of this for posterity in her first collection of poetry, ‘Daughter of My People Sing!’ which was published in 1966 by the East African Literature Bureau while she was a student at Uganda's Makerere University where she studied drama and even won an award for best actress at the Uganda Drama Festival. Her literary ambitions were encouraged by acclaimed writer Chinua Achebe during this time.
After Makerere, Mugo moved to Canada where she earned a degree from the University of New Brunswick before returning to Kenya to join the faculty of the University of Nairobi in 1973.
In 1971, Mugo had married Dr John Njuguna Mugo, a medical doctor and biochemist at the University of Nairobi, with whom she had two children — her daughters Mumbi and Njeri (who died in 2012 after a brief but heroic battle with ovarian cancer).
While at the University of Nairobi, Mugo teamed with Ngugi wa Thiongo to write The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, which recounted the political persecution of the Mau Mau uprising’s martyred leader. Issued by the London publisher Heinemann in 1976, it was Mugo’s first work to be published outside of Africa.
Her dissertation was published in 1978 as Visions of Africa: The Fiction of Chinua Achebe, Margaret Laurence, Elspeth Huxley and Ngugi wa Thiongo.
Another first for Mugo was to come in 1980 when she had risen and as Thiong'o pointed out in his tribute, “to the rank of associate professor of literature and was popularly elected as Africa’s first female academic dean.”
Mugo was barely two years into her deanship when Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi, was the target of a failed military coup in 1982. More than 120 people were killed and hundreds more were jailed by the president, who was notorious for banning pro-democracy groups that championed human rights and for shutting down universities.
By this time her marriage had ended in divorce and after years of harassment by both the Kenyatta and Moi regimes (at one point during her time at the University of Nairobi, Mugo was arrested, detained and tortured by the Special Branch), Mugo and some of her university colleagues such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Prof Anyang Nyong’o and Willy Mutunga were seen as “dangerous radicals” by the Moi regime.
After the coup attempt, the Moi government’s sights were trained on “radicals” such as Mugo and others at the University of Nairobi who were thought to have been in favour of the failed coup and fearing arrest and worse, Mugo felt she had no choice but to flee Kenya with her daughters.
Their first home in exile was in the USA where Mugo served as a visiting professor at St Lawrence University in Canton, New York, between 1982 and 1984.
After St Lawrence, Mugo and her daughters moved to Zimbabwe for a time, where she found a teaching post, and continued to write. Her second work of literary criticism, African Orature and Human Rights, appeared in 1991.
By 1992 the family was on its way back to the US, first to Cornell as Visiting Professor, Africana Studies and Research Centre, Cornell University (1992-93) and then to Syracuse University from where she retired at the end of April this year.
As another tribute writer observed of Prof Mugo, “Throughout her life Mugo's orbit of friends and colleagues has included James Baldwin, the American novelist best known for Go Tell It on the Mountain; Samora Machel, Mozambique's first president; Graça Machel Mandela, widow of both Machel and South African President Nelson Mandela; Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Prize Laureate; Chinua Achebe, the ‘father of the African novel’; and Wole Soyinka, the first African Literature Nobel Laureate.”
Though Prof Mugo is now retired from daily teaching activities, she continues to write and be invited to speak at universities and other fora while at the same time undergoing chemotherapy twice a week to treat multiple myeloma, a cancer she refers to as a “sneaky disease”.
With regards to her retirement, during which she fully intends to go on writing and her health struggles, Mugo told a recent interviewer, “At first, I realised that I had all this unfinished business,” she says, referring to various literary works underway, including a novel. “At the same time, I know that, when it comes to cancer or some other incurable illness, one can never be too sure that there will be ‘another day.’ So I have no choice but to release the mind and be at peace, which are critical to the healing process.”