The pan-African logic in life and times of Micere Mugo

She was the Distinguished Nyerere Lecturer in 2012

In Summary

• Tanzanian intellectuals still talk in awe of how she delivered 2012 Nyerere lecture 

Map of Africa with flags on it
Map of Africa with flags on it

The life and times of the late Prof Micere Mugo, the prominent Kenyan writer, intellectual and rights champion who died a fortnight ago, is a lesson to many on pan-Africanism viewed through her teachings centred around the philosophy of Utu.

Utu, or Ubuntu, calls for a heightened sense of humanity and humanness in our everyday lives. Great leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere placed this African worldview at the centre of their presidencies.

Nyerere famously planted the sense of social responsibility towards each other among the Tanzanians during his tenure as a leader. It is one of the legacies for which he is remembered and respected across the continent.

His beliefs in a just and egalitarian society looked at African heritage and traditions for anchorage. Cooperation, mutual support and care for the welfare of all regardless of their backgrounds were important to Nyerere’s vision of leadership. He died on October 14, 1999, and is buried in his native Butiama in northern Tanzania, near Migori county.

Nine years later, the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) established the Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies. It is also called Kigoda cha Mwalimu.

The prestigious chair was established as one of the national attempts by Kenya’s neighbour to the south to intellectually honour their founding leader. A professorial chair, also known as an endowed chair or endowed professorship, is a prestigious academic position in higher education. It is typically created through a substantial donation or endowment made to a university.

Professorial chairs play a crucial role in promoting excellence in teaching and research, attracting top talent and advancing knowledge and innovation in various academic disciplines. They contribute to the overall academic reputation and standing of the institution that hosts them.

Nyerere was a great African literary intellectual. He translated Shakespeare into Kiswahili, encouraged translation of Russo-Chinese socialist literatures and wrote prolifically on matters of governance, education and development.

The Nyerere Chair aims to promote his ideals relating to human development. It seeks to develop and promote interdisciplinary basic research on development from pan-Africanism as a category of intellectual thought and a vision in the context of Utu.

UDSM conceived and funded this chair from within the continent using seed money from the ace continental think tank called Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) in the spirit of pan-Africanism.

Prof Micere Mugo is feted during the lecture
Prof Micere Mugo is feted during the lecture

This week, the Star talked to the founding holder of the chair when it was established in 2008, the famous scholar Prof Issa Shivji. Having retired from formal teaching as professor of law in 2006, he was recalled to lead the initiative with a team of other professors under the then UDSM vice chancellor Prof RS Mukandala. The retired Mukandala holds the chair this year. Between him and Shivji, the ally of Micere and prominent Tanzanian playwright Penina Mlama, 75, served as chair.

One of the flagship activities of the unique chair is to hold the Annual Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival around Mwalimu’s birthdate of April 13. Every year, the UDSM invites a prominent African intellectual to deliver the Annual Nyerere Lecture at the Festival. That scholar is then installed to the honorary, prestigious position of a Distinguished Nyerere Lecturer (DNL) in a ceremony at the university.

Under the chairmanship of Shivji, there were five intellectuals who were thus honoured. The first DNL was the literary Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 2009. The others are: Egyptian Samir Amin (2010), Eritrean Bereket Selassie (2011) and Malawian Thandika Mkandawire (2013).

The late Micere Mugo was the Distinguished Nyerere Lecturer in 2012. Her public lecture was entitled: 'Art, Artists and the Flowering of Pan-Africana Liberated Zones'. The live event was covered by Royal Media Services, with Dr SK Macharia in attendance among the intellectual and political leadership of Tanzania.

This lecture and the other four were published in 2016 by the leading Tanzanian publisher Mkuki na Nyota in a great 274-pages book titled, 'Re-Imagining Pan-Africanism: Distinguished Mwalimu Nyerere Lecture Series'.The book carries an illuminating introduction by Issa Shivji.

Micere was forced into exile in 1982 due to her systematic campaigns as a resolute champion of African unity and dignity. Thirty years after the region saw her flight to exile, she returned with eloquent calls for young Africans to re-commit themselves to the ideals of pan-Africanism and Utu.

This DNL moment became another spotlight to her incessant contributions on the intellectual landscapes of East Africa since her days at Makerere in the 1960s, at the revolutionary University of Nairobi in the 1970s and the University of Zimbabwe of the 1980s.

True to her folkloristic roots, and emblematic of the famous song tradition in East African literature, inaugurated decades ago by her erstwhile ally the Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek at the 1970s University of Nairobi, Tanzanian intellectuals I have met recently still talk in awe of how Micere delivered the 2012 lecture in her own way. She involved the audience and made it an interactive dialogic experience of great sharing and memorialisation.

It is her steadfast commitment to the welfare and well-being of the continent and its people that remains as a beacon to millions of young Africans, including myself. Her fame and thoughts in Dar es Salaam became one of the magnets that have since pulled the likes of Samia Nkrumah, Marcelino Dos Santos and a son of Frantz Fanon to the Annual Nyerere Intellectual Festival.

It will be a great honour were our universities to pick up this idea and establish a chair in her name. An annual festival of arts and intellectual discourse around the idea of Utu, an idea that was at the epicentre of her lifework, will go a long way to memorialising this fallen champion of East African Cooperation and African unity.

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star