Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, a dual citizen of Kenya and the United States of America passed on June 30, 2023, at 11:30 a.m. at the age of 80, after a 16-year intense and “sheroic” battle with multiple myelom
a. Born in Kariria, Kirinyaga on December 12, 1942, she was the third born of Senior Chief Richard Karuga Gĩthae and Mwalimu Grace Njeri Gĩthae; sister to Eunice Muringo Kiereini, the late Judi Mũthoni Gilmore, the late Joyce Mũthoni Githae, Duncan Mutugi Githae, Winnie Wambui Marekia, the late Rose Wanjiru Wachira, the late David (aka Dauti) Githanda, Patrick Njeru Githae and Nancy Wangari (aka Kanini) Githae, father and mother to Mũmbi and the late Njeri Kui whom she both described as her “comrades” and best friends.
At the time of her birth, the world was contending with the crises and consequences of trisecting national, continental, and global events: the second world war, colonial expansionism, and the rising resistance against it. When Mĩcere turned ten in 1952, the same year the State of Emergency was declared in Kenya, she witnessed one of the most violent periods in her country’s history and herstory. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as the Mau Mau, had intensified its resistance against colonial occupation and brutality and Mĩcere had just joined Embu Girls’ School, which was at the heart of this war. She would remain at Embu
, in the Eastern region of the country from 1955 – 1957.
Mĩcere then attended Alliance Girls’ High School from 1957-1960. Though colonialism was coming to an end during this period, the British colonial establishment remained convinced that Black Africans were not as intellectually capable as their white counterparts. To test this racist theory, Mĩcere found herself thrust in the middle of what would become the educational desegregation project in Kenya, like the Civil Rights movement in the United States and in particular the “Little Rock 9” that same year. Mĩcere was selected as the first and only African child to attend Limuru Girls’ High School, then an all-white girls’ high school.
It was a painful and lonely existence at Limuru, and it was during this time that Mĩcere began reading authors such as James Baldwin, who would later become one of her close friends. But despite the hardships, Mĩcere emerged as the top student at Limuru Girls’ High School, earning herself a scholarship to go to Oxford University. To the surprise of many, Mĩcere declined this scholarship, opting instead to go to Makerere University, which she joined in 1963. At Makerere she studied under John Mbiti, Okot p’Bitek, and David Cook, among others. It was here, where some of her earliest poems were broadcast on BBC. Later, she became the first female editor of PenPoint, a literary journal in the English Department. Graduating from one of the most vibrant intellectual sites in East Africa at the time, Mĩcere was emboldened by the culture of debating and speaking truth to power that thrived at Makerere. While there, she had witnessed the rise of students’ intellectual activism, most of it expressed through the publication of short stories, plays, poems, and debates among peers who confidently challenged their professorial interlocutors.
Emerging from what was seen as the Makerere tradition, Mĩcere enrolled for a post-graduate diploma in education at the University of Nairobi in September 1966, a program that she would later lament “had a progressive vision meant to produce teachers who would decolonize education, professionals who were ingrained in the philosophy of ‘education for liberation,’ very much in line with Paulo Freire’s ideas in Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.
Mĩcere left Kenya for Canada in 1969 to pursue higher education at the University of New Brunswick, where she was introduced to African American and Caribbean writings, and the growing culture of letters in the Black diaspora. This intellectual climate expanded her connections to the Black Arts Movement, providing her with the opportunity to connect struggles of African Americans to those of liberation movements around the world, especially those in southern African countries. A little-known aspect of Mĩcere’s life was her deep involvement with militant movements fighting for the independence of Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. She was also active in the Free Angela Davis and Assata Shakur campaigns, which had spread to several cities in the world by the early to late 70s.
Her return to Kenya in 1973 was met with yet another honor - the first man/woman to hold a PhD in literature in all East Africa. In September 1973, Mĩcere joined the department of literature at the University of Nairobi as a lecturer. In the decade that followed, she would engage, train, and influence a generation of students and lecturers.
The doctorate in Literature and a post-graduate diploma in education, enabled Mĩcere to bring her imprimatur to debates on education and curriculum development. This background led to other important roles in the changing pedagogical landscape - as the first Chief Examiner of English and Literature for the East African Examinations Council, both at the ordinary and advanced levels. In addition to overseeing the literature examination system in the entire East African region, she trained and supervised examiners, enforced grading standards, and assisted ministries of education in Africanizing the curriculum. For Mĩcere, the biggest national educational projects between 1973 and 1982 included “overhauling the then colonial secondary school curricula, promoting drama and theatre in schools and colleges, and applying individual and collective research to practical community needs.” During this time, Mĩcere traversed the country interviewing former Mau Mau women fighters, aware that the post-colony was erasing the contributions of women. She was one of the intellectuals who worked very closely with Field Marshal Muthoni wa Kirima and Mukami Kimathi. History was incomplete and inaccurate, she argued, if it erased the narratives of women in the liberation struggle.
In 1978, Mĩcere was elected as the first female Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Nairobi. That same year President Jomo Kenyatta died and was succeeded by his vice president, Daniel arap Moi. In this period of uncertainty, it quickly became evident that the new government was troubled by Mĩcere and several of her colleagues’ and students’ radical politics. She became a target of constant harassment, as the increasingly oppressive policies of the Moi regime disrupted teaching at University of Nairobi, with the situation becoming worse in the aftermath of an attempted coup in August 1982. Though the attempted coup was led by disillusioned non-commissioned officers in the military, much of the blame shifted to liberationalist intellectuals at the University of Nairobi and the Kenyan government targeted many of them for detention and, in some cases, assassination. As these efforts to clamp down on activists, professors and students intensified, Mĩcere was smuggled out of the country with her 2 young daughters, Mumbi (7) and the late Njeri Kui (5), to begin an arduous life in exile.
Mĩcere and her daughters began their exile in Canton, New York where she taught at St. Lawrence University. Immersing herself in community activities, she taught creative writing courses on African civilization, and Kiswahili in a Maximum-Security Prison. Most of the inmates were Black and Latino and had been removed from their hometowns and incarcerated far away from their families in what she considered to be a form of exile in their own country. Mĩcere also spent hundreds of hours jetting back and forth from one end of the United States to the other, giving speaking engagements in an effort to create awareness about the situation in Kenya. This included a visit to the United States Congress. At school, Mumbi and Njeri, the only two black children in the school, became targets for bullying and racist attacks. Mĩcere, feeling alienated “geographically, historically, and spiritually” decided to return to Africa. She applied and was offered a position as Chair and Professor of English at the University of Zambia. During a stopover in London, while enroute to Lusaka, she was informed that she would not be granted entry into Zambia based on a telephone conversation between President Moi and his counterpart President Kaunda. Now stranded in London with her two young children, Mĩcere was extremely lucky to bump into the Zimbabwean first lady, the late Sally Mugabe, the Ghanaian born wife of President Robert Mugabe, whom she had known through her long association with Southern African liberation movements. As they discussed Mĩcere’s situation at the Africa Center in Covent Garden, the first lady invited her to apply for a position at the University of Zimbabwe. Mĩcere was hired as an associate professor in the English Department and moved to Zimbabwe where she would be from 1984 to 1992.
Upon arrival in newly independent Zimbabwe, Mĩcere embarked on the production of a progressive indigenous literature for Zimbabwean government schools, co-editing 8 supplementary readers. It was in this context that she began to rethink literature in relation to its audiences. Out of a particular interest in orature, she wrote one of her most powerful monographs, African Orature and Human Rights out of her engagement with orality. Mĩcere’s time in Zimbabwe was filled with intellectual and political work, as she continued exploding silences surrounding the political environment in Kenya, South Africa and other political struggles globally. During this time, her passport was confiscated by the Kenyan government and thanks to President Mugabe, Mĩcere became a Zimbabwean citizen until 2010 when she “regained” her Kenyan one.
With her older daughter Mũmbi, ready for university, and Zimbabwe’s focus on Zimbabwean nationals given priority in admission into the University of Zimbabwe, Mĩcere returned to North America as a Visiting Professor at the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in 1992 to settle her daughters before returning to Zimbabwe. After a health scare, she was forced to remain in the U.S. and joined the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University in 1993 where she served for 22 years until her retirement in 2015 upon which she was awarded Emeritus status. At Syracuse University, Mĩcere’s contributions were as invaluable as they were diverse, with her becoming the first Black professor to be awarded the prestigious Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence. She received over 20 awards from student organizations across the campus for her leadership and human rights activities.
Her nurturing spirit and indomitable will touched communities and institutions worldwide, resulting in numerous awards including: a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Human Rights Defenders, the Defenders Coalition and the Embassy of Sweden in Kenya in 2022; a Lifetime Achievement in African Literature award from the Royal African Society in 2021; a Doctor of Letters honorary degree from the University of Nairobi in 2020; the Elder of the Burning Spear medal from the Government of Kenya in 2013; the Flora Nwapa Award for Literary Work That Transcends Culture, Boundary and Perception, from the African Literature Association in 2013; the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Distinguished Lecturer Award from the University of Dar es Salaam in 2012; an Award for Excellence in Master Level Teaching from the College of Arts and Sciences, Syracuse University in 2011; a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pan African Studies Program of Syracuse University in 2010; the Central New York (CNY) Women of Distinction Award, honoring her for her contributions to the Syracuse community in 2008; the Distinguished Africanist Award from the New York African Studies Association in 2007; and the East African Standard Century publication of November 2002 cited her among “The Top 100: They Influenced Kenya Most” during the 20th Century.
As had been the case in Zimbabwe, Mĩcere set out to create communities in Syracuse, beginning by co-founding the Pan African Community of Central New York (PACCNY) in 1994, whose mission is to engage in fostering the unity of people of African origin in Central New York and beyond through activities that promote understanding among all global communities, especially those who suffer from oppressive structures and systems. In 2003, she went on to establish the United Women of Africa Organization (UWAO) after several women in the local African community shared with her the challenges of isolation in a new environment away from home. Since inception UWAO has had representation from Botswana, Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, the United States and Zimbabwe.
The “onion structure theory”, which Mĩcere developed in African Orature and Human Rights, captures a worldview where the existence of the individual, the collective group, and the world around them are inextricably intertwined and exist as a “Shared Humanity”. This paradigm insists that none of these entities can exist without the other. This was a driving and powerful engine within Mĩcere’s philosophy and activism. It was the core of the utu and ubuntu philosophy, which she embodied, which transcended parochialism, classism, patriarchy, sexism, heterosexualism, and all other confining -isms.
Mĩcere was deeply spiritual and often invoked the Almighty, the Ancestors, the Spirit World and the benevolent spirit of the Universe for intervention and guidance. While she never attended in-person Mass at All Saints Parish in Syracuse (Mũmbi’s church), she often watched the livestream with her daughter. She deliberated on the spirit of Utu that the church displayed in its welcoming of refugee families, standing with the Black Lives Matter movement, offering refuge for undocumented citizens and standing up against heterosexualism. She did not miss an opportunity to praise its inclusive, diverse and progressive nature, whether she was speaking to family, friends or Father Frederick Daley himself. And it was often her praise that drew those around Mĩcere into her own spirit of progress, justice, and compassion.
Her tireless and uncontainable dedication to growth and liberation, and her inexhaustible maternal righteousness will be missed by anyone who met her, everyone who knew her, and each community she touched or built. May our shujaa (heroine) travel on in dignity and peace to join her Ancestors, the Spirit World and her Maker. Ashe! (Life Force); Afya! (Health and Healing); Moyo! (Life); Amen! (So let it be).
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In Remembrance of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo
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