Micere Mugo: Liberation literature icon takes final bow

The late Prof Micere Mugo died on June 30, 2023, at the age of 80. [File, Standard]

Micere Githae Mugo, who has died at the age of 80, was a pioneering Kenyan author and academic at the vanguard of Kenya and Africa's artistic and cultural revival. It's a role that she discharged without wavering, first in 1961, when she was deployed to join then white-only Limuru Girls High School in colonial Kenya.

In a virtual celebration to mark her 80th birthday last December, Micere said the intent of the multiracial experiment was to confirm that African students were as bright as whites. This is not conjecture; the Eugenics movement in colonial Kenya of 1930s held that the mental development of a grown African compared to an eight-year European boy.

Micere survived and thrived at Limuru, subsequently joining Makerere University, before heading off to Canada for graduate study-becoming the first African to earn a doctorate from the University of Toronto-and joining the University of Nairobi in 1973.

"She was inspired and inspiring," remarked Kenyan playwright, author and broadcaster, John Sibi-Okumu, who joined the institution as a student in that year.

Micere found the University of Nairobi in a revolutionary ferment: the colonial strictures had been subverted, replacing the Department of English with a Department of Literature, which prioritised indigenous expressions and pan-Africa literature from within the continent and its diasporas, rising to serve as Dean of the Faculty of Arts in 1976.

This bureaucratic leap, however, did not dislodge Micere from her activist footing; she firmly believed, right to the end, that a people's literature and creative endeavours must not be detached from their material conditions.

Unsurprisingly, Micere's intellectual curiosities distilled the black-white divide in literature, which found expression in her seminal work, Visions of Africa, which appraised how Chinua Achebe, Margaret Laurence, Elspeth Huxley and Ngugi wa Thiong'o, imagined otherness.

Her next major work, co-authored with Ngugi, rehabilitated freedom icon Dedan Kimathi from a colonial gaol, where his bones remain in an unmarked grave since 1957, to celebrate and elevate his exploits under the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, in the play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.

"August 1971 was the first time that we were sitting together arguing out many issues since our undergraduate days at Makerere of the early 60's," Micere and Ngugi recall in the play's preface. "Having encountered capitalism in its home ground, we were completely convinced that imperialism was the enemy of all working peoples..."

In the aftermath of the August 1982 military coup, Micere barely escaped with her life-a relative in the civil servant tipped her off about an impending raid-but the state revoked her citizenship after she fled to Harare, Zimbabwe, where she was domiciled before relocating to the United States, finding a home at Syracuse University.

In the decades that followed, Micere was away from her land of birth, only making a public return in September 2015, alongside Ngugi, as special guests marking the inauguration of a Sh100m makeover of the Kenya National Theatre.

"This is a liberated zone," Micere hailed, recalling their heroic struggles for civil liberties at the nearby University of Nairobi's Department of Literature. She also singled out for commemoration Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru, a little-known freedom heroine, who was felled by a police bullet outside the present-day Central Police Station, as colonial officers repulsed protesters demanding the release of trade unionist Harry Thuku in 1922.

Micere's life-long pursuits have been to challenge and subvert oppressive social structures whether manifest in gender, class, racial or economic hierarchies. She developed her unique lingo of "twisting and bending" things until all "zones are liberated." In her estimation, as she powerfully argued in tomes of poetry, essays and criticism, the dismantling and reorganisation of power structures could only yield in just systems where people can express their utu/ubuntu, which encapsulates the essence of our being.

These are the ideals that Micere championed in word and deed, as I got to know her in recent years. A petite woman, I was struck by her great stage presence and her deep, engaging words that dripped with wisdom.

Micere had a funny bone. In Washington, where she and Ngugi wa Thiong'o had been invited as part of the 40th celebrations of their famous play, she recalled her brush with policemen who claimed she resembled a drug-dealing Jamaican woman. While admonishing the police, she expressed her solidarity with all minorities targeted for police harassment on account of their race.

Micere employed similar humour to respond to personal adversity. As her health failed, she quipped in one of her recent emails: "No need to fight two monsters/ogres simultaneously, right?" to intimate that she was testing for Covid-19, even as she received treatment for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. Remarkably, Micere retained an active publishing schedule, releasing her memoir two years ago, while giving lectures and participating in celebrations to honour and champion her work. She did not shy away from explaining the treatment regimes that she had to undertake or revealing her private privations.

Alongside her "selected bibliography" that tailed her emails was an epitaph remembering her departed daughter.

In memory of beloved daughter, Njeri-Kui Githae Mugo (1976-2012); September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. A pap smear is important, but it does not diagnose ovarian cancer. Teal is the theme colour for ovarian cancer.

About herself, she told biographer, Ndirangu Wachanga: "I am a two-time cancer survivor, still battling the second bout of multiple myeloma [a cancer of bone marrow] and I'm marching forward. I am a loser at times, but oftentimes a winner. I am above labels and beyond definitions. I have far too many identities to bow to containment. I am a swimming in the stream of life."

Prof Micere Githae Mugo is survived by her daughter, Mumbi. She will be remembered for her many creative and critical works, and her life of activism that no death can quell.

- Prof Kimani, author of 'Dance of the Jakaranda', teaches at the Aga Khan University. He's the Mellon Writer in Residence at Witwatersrand University, where he also serves as a research associate.