In a poem titled Speaking of Hurricanes, the late Ama Ata Aidoo celebrates Prof Micere Githae Mugo, somewhat equating her achievements and that of other African exiles, with the force of hurricanes.
Well, those are the endearing words of an African literary heroine to a fellow African literary heroine. And when Aidoo breathed her last at the end of May, the reverberation, around the world, came with the force of a hurricane.
Exactly one month later, Micere joined her literary sister in the world of their ancestors. The literary world is currently seized of another storm arising from her death, arising from complications caused by cancer. She has been on life-supporting machines. She was 81.
Micere gained prominence when together with Ngugi wa Thiong’o, they co-wrote The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, published by Heinemann (now EAEP) in 1976. This play was performed at FESTAC 77 in Lagos Nigeria. She was in the cast of the University of Nairobi Free Travelling Theatre; The Festac 77 Drama Group, that acted the play in Nigeria.
The play, which had earlier been staged at the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) held symbolic importance for Ngugi and Micere as relates to the history of KNT as well as Kenya’s history. “It is interesting, for instance, that the National Theatre was opened in 1952 under a colonial management,” Ngugi writes in his book Writers in Politics.
“Many of the plays they performed between 1952 and 1958, served to entertain the British soldiers who came to Kenya to fight against Mau Mau guerrillas and to suppress the Kenyan people. Such colonial theatre was meant to boost the morale of the British soldiers… Over the same period, the Mau Mau guerrillas led by Dedan Kimathi and others, put up one of the most heroic armed struggles against imperialism in this century,” adds Ngugi.
He adds that The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, at the time, tried to recapture “the heroism and the determination of the people, in this glorious moment of Kenya’s history.”
Despite Kenya being a free country at the time the play was being staged at the National Theatre, it had to take the intervention of the Culture Ministry for The Trial of Dedan Kimathi and Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City to find space at the KNT, where British-themed plays enjoyed domination.
The revolutionary fire that saw Micere team up with Ngugi to write The Trial of Dedan Kimathi continued to burn inside her, and which eventually saw her being incarcerated, in the end, driving her into exile, first to Zimbabwe, in 1982 and later to the US where she joined her co-author Ngugi.
Such was the poisoned nature of her relations with the government that saw her being stripped of Kenyan citizenship. Luckily for her, the Mugabe-led ZANU-PF regime, before it went rogue, came to her rescue and offered her citizenship.
It should be recalled that even when she was teaching at the University of Nairobi, Micere was a trailblazer, rising through the ranks to become the first female faculty dean in Kenya’s history. Her research and teaching interests included African, African American and Caribbean Literature; African Orature; Creative Writing; Drama and Theatre, cultural and film studies; and education. She was especially passionate in her activism and support of African Orature.
Writing in Coming of Age: Strides in African Publishing, a collection of essays meant to celebrate Dr Henry Chakava, the chairman of East African Educational Publishers, Micere traced the roots of African Orature to the Colloquium of the Second Black World Festival of Arts and Culture, in Lagos, Nigeria, as championed by Pio Zirimu and Austin Bukenya.
Orature, she wrote, would no longer be viewed as the younger sibling of literature. “Orature would henceforth be Orature: an independent, liberated, indigenous art form, with the freedom to define its ethics and aesthetics on/in its own terms; an alternative site of scholarship,” she added.
Micere was both fiery and feisty in her activism and fight for human rights and any form of oppression. In that essay, she celebrates stories of stoic resistance, songs of rebellion; “poems of rebellion and hope… proving that no enslaver, however powerful, can chain oppressed people’s imagination. Hail to those orature creations that became literature!”
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Among the many accolades that have been bestowed upon her, in her long literary career, include the Ford Foundation Award for Research on African Orature and Human Rights, The Rockefeller Foundation Award for Writing and Publication and The Royal African Society Lifetime Award in Literature in 2021.
In 2002, The East African Standard (now The Standard) included Micere in the Top 100 Kenyans, who influenced Kenya the Most, during the 20th Century. Apart from The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, Micere also wrote The Long Illness of Ex-Chief Kiti, My Mother’s Poem and Other Stories and The Imperative of Utu/Ubuntu in Africana Scholarship.
At the time of her death, Micere was a literary critic and professor of literature in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University.