Professor Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo’s passing away on 30 June 2023 could not have been more different than her discreet departure from Kenya in 1982. A month-long of remembrance activities remind us that our courage to stand up for a just nation is probably all that really matters.
Aptly born on what would become Jamhuri day, Mĩcere was born on 12 December 1942. Her personal and professional life is a series of firsts. First African student to attend Limuru Girls High School, first Kenyan PHD Literature doctorate and first woman University of Nairobi Arts Faculty Dean were some of the glass ceilings she mercilessly shattered.
Author of several books of poetry and literary writing, Mĩcere was a gifted academic, teacher and playwright. By the time of her death (80), she had received more than thirty international awards of recognition. She was also militantly anti-exploitation and pro-socialist. As the darkness of one-party rule and authoritarianism crushed the right to expression, academic freedom, and legitimate dissent underground, she joined a courageous core of lecturers, students, workers, religious leaders, and professionals to challenge rights violations, economic inequality, and political injustice in the 1980s.
Perhaps Mĩcere’s greatest super-power was her belief in “utu” (people) and a life-skill for building communities wherever she landed. Pushed into exile, she integrated into and built new communities in Canada, Zimbabwe, and America. Fundamentally internationalist, she cultivated life-long relationships with freedom fighters dismantling apartheid and women demanding equality across Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, and South Africa. Among these friendships was the legendary Ghanaian poet Ama Ata Aidoo who tragically passed away one month before her. She also campaigned for the release of Black Panther leaders Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and other American civil rights leaders and spoke on several Amnesty International platforms.
Despite physical exile, she never lost contact with those that stood up for democracy, human dignity, and social justice for the marginalised. Over the eighties, through movements like the Mekatilili Revolutionary Movement and Umoja wa Kupigania Demokrasia Kenya (UWAKE), she rallied Kenyans to demand a system of governance now envisaged in our Constitution.
Many who have eulogised her would argue Prof. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo is the closest we have to a National Poet. An organic intellectual, she also knew her knowledge and class privilege was best placed in building awareness and solidarity with the downtrodden and those who had lost hope. She represents the most revolutionary expression of Kenya’s struggle for the national values now enshrined in Article 10 of Constitution of Kenya.
Not surprisingly, there have been more than ten public events organised across several countries. Hundreds of people across three generations have gathered in the University of Nairobi’s iconic Taifa Hall, Kenya National Theatre, Sister Salons, USIU and Syracuse University and elsewhere to celebrate her. In Syracuse City, her home away from home, Mayor Ben Walsh has proclaimed the 29th of July as Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo day to immortalise her. Perhaps, this might inspire the National Honors and Awards Committee to recommend a posthumous award or one of our county assemblies to rename a road or public space in her honour.
Mĩcere sheroically slipped away after a 16-year battle with multiple myeloma, one of the most virulent of cancers. Beside her was her loving daughter and caregiver Mũmbi and sister Mũringũ Kiereini. Fearlessly outspoken about cancer, the poem she once wrote for the late Jane Kiano in 2018 can now be read for her also, "The monster cancer has robbed us of your earthly presence, but it can never rob us of your unperishable life, for human beings will always triumph over the ugliness of ogres.”
As the Yoruba believe, all living beings and non-living things have a life force and the power to make things happen (ashé). This was Mĩcere’s gift to us, to always believe in ourselves.
May she rest in power always. Ashé, Ashé, Ashé.
The funeral service for Professor Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo’s takes place Tuesday 15 August, All Saints Cathedral, Nairobi at 10am. For more on her life and tributes see here
This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard on 12 August 2023