Open letter to Micere Mugo (1942-2023)

You taught that it's important to know who you are, find your roots

In Summary

• I learned that art should bend in the direction of justice and the poet should not just chronicle but be the voice of conscience

Prof Micere Mugo
Prof Micere Mugo

When I first approached you in the winter of 2009, you responded with the eloquence of silence. Nights are many that I still count as echoes of the mind, when I tossed and turned next to my writing table, my black laptop, waiting for your precious words. Then come February, come month of love, you said yes. The rest is history.

Prof Micere Mugo, you are gone but you are here. The news from the United States, from New York, reached me on Friday night. It was confirmed by social media networks on Saturday.

Strangely, I am not feeling grief even here at the Holy Family Basilica, where I now write this on my trembling black phone. Your demise is confirmed. Yet you are still here in the inner chambers of my memories and respect.

You accepted to write the foreword to my debut book of poems: Nest of Stones (2010). We had never met in person. You in New York, I in Berlin: Kenyans. Kenyan poets of two generations, decades apart, appeared between the same cover. By doing that, you confirmed my kaleidoscopic fears to me: I am a poet.

You said so in your 800 words sprawled between three pages. You told me you typed them nonstop as you escorted me in my poetic elegies to the 1,133 Kenyans who died in the post-election violence of 2007. We cried for our beloved country from abroad, together, that year.

It is clear now that this book you endorsed as my first published acts of poetry now attains a higher meaning. It grows into a new signature of our literary friendship; your firm confirmation that art should bend in the direction of justice and the poet should not just chronicle but be the voice of conscience.

Thank you, my mother, my elder and guide, for helping me write the unspeakable.


As a long-standing student of literature, I had met you earlier, hayati Mama, through the fecundity of your lessons on life transmitted through your canonical writings and philosophical works.

Micere, is it not you who restored the dignity of Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, with Ngugi, in the play you penned together? In fact, in 1977, at the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (Festac) in Lagos, you acted the play out to wide and wild accolades from people of Africa. Before then, Kenneth Watene had released a play of dubious aesthetics that politicised the freedom fighter negatively.

You taught the world thus, that literature is not simply an act of art. It is a hallowed space for enunciation of order and balance.

Equations of the world that symbolised disorder and imbalances bothered you. This is why you called out the settler white writers of colonial Africa and their misrepresentations of our continent and cultures in your debut philosophical book, Visions of Africa, published by Kenya Literature Bureau in 1978.

Inequalities and inequities based on gender and the constraints of patriarchy bothered you as well. You composed numerous poems to celebrate the grandmothers, mothers and daughters of Africa. Daughter of My People, Sing (1976) and My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs (1994) stand as monuments of this gender agenda within your academic work of decades.

In a bid to demonstrate that roots of human rights lie within our natal cultures and native heritages, you chose Orature and Folklore as sites of knowledge. You restored their dignity from the earlier view that held them as barbaric barriers to colonial and missionary agendas before Independence here. You showed how our ethical and moral parameters reside in our folk wisdom and ways in African Orature and Human Rights (1994).

However, it is in this century that your matters reached a head. Having taught on both sides of the Atlantic for six decades, the vision of your work on earth attained its finest clarity when you released Writing and Speaking from the Heart of My Mind (2012).

The speeches and essays congregated in this book left the world with confirmation that you were not just a poet but a philosophical teacher of mankind. In them is the common thread that calls conscience to loftier levels for the benefit of humanity.

Your committed campaigns against neoliberalism, neocolonialism; your intellectual acts of decolonisation climaxed your revolutionary credentials when you released in 2021 The Imperative of Utu/Ubuntu in Africana Scholarship under Daraja Press.

You embody prices of knowledge and freedom, value of justice through nationalism and exile, reminding us to guard African Studies as a liberated academic zone; to continue its legacies in our own workstations and nations.

It is you, Mama, who thus empowered me with a solid philosophy of art to use as a scribe. I signed to Ubuntu as a philosophy, not through Nyerereism or even Thabo Mbeki of African Renaissance discourses. Rather, I did so through your writing; retracing the evolution of your thoughts, life and deeds. Playwright John Sibi-Okumu, whose class was your first in 1973, knows I am not the only one.


Micere, you are Kenya and more. Kenya rejected you at one point. Persona non grata, you went into exile in the unforgettable 1982.

You are Africa. A young, revolutionary Zimbabwe gave you a home, work and dignity. With identity papers, you crossed the Atlantic and initiated a stellar career in New York at Syracuse University, where you taught Black Studies for long. You are America.

In New York, you taught people of the world this: It is important to know who you are and to find your roots. However, it is more urgent and permanent to find the meaning of existence now by securing the world, making it a better place for you and others. You are Earth.

You earned moral awards from Africa and beyond. They highlight to our young eyes the right paths to light even as you leave. We thank your family now for releasing you to the rest of us forever.

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