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150 Years of Impact

A Tireless Pursuit

On the eve of her retirement, Syracuse Professor Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo ponders her life and legacy—and her next move

Mar 31, 2015 — Article by: Rob Enslin

Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo Photo

Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo

As a young girl growing up in the Central Highlands of Kenya, Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo was taught by her parents that anything was possible—even in a patriarchal, economically exploitative, and racially defined British colony, where African women and children occupied the bottom rungs of society.

“I grew up in a family that was educated and whose parents believed in the equality between boys and girls,” says Mũgo, the third in a family of 10. “The first four of us were girls, but my father jokingly called us ‘his boys.’ Despite the irony and contradiction of this statement, it gave me a sense of pride that has stayed with me my entire life. I’ve always felt that, with an education, determination, discipline, and clear life goals, I could accomplish anything.”

Mũgo explains that her parents owned a farm with lots of workers--whom, in colonial parlance, would have been called "servants"--but she was not allowed to ask them to do anything for her. “We were taught to work with our own hands," she says. "This was good because it helped me become mature and self-driven at an early age."

As a child, Mũgo was rather antisocial: "I loved reading and being on my own. I would do my chores quickly, just to get back to my books. Even then, I probably wanted to be a scholar--part of my father’s idea of [being one of] ‘his boys’, if you like.”

No doubt that Mũgo’s father would have been proud. Since joining the ranks of Syracuse University in 1993, Mũgo has solidified her place as one of the world’s foremost experts on African culture, specifically orature. She’s also a prolific author, journalist, poet, and playwright. That Mũgo has proven her mettle by overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds—discrimination, forced exile, single-parenting away from home, the death of a daughter, and an ongoing battle with cancer—makes her accomplishments all the more remarkable.

In April, Mũgo pauses from her breakneck schedule to be feted at a two-day celebration hosted by the University. Aptly titled “A Tireless Pursuit,” the program highlights her accomplishments as a teacher-scholar, writer, activist, and family person. More than 250 people from all over the world are converging on campus for lectures, discussions, and performances.

“A Tireless Pursuit” falls on the eve of Mũgo’s retirement from the Department of African American Studies (AAS) in the College of Arts and Sciences. The tribute is a fitting conclusion to an illustrious career, but Mũgo is quick to point out that the celebration is not so much about looking in the rearview mirror as it is striking out on a new path. “I am honored and humbled to be recognized this way,” says Mũgo, a Meredith Professor of Teaching Excellence in AAS. “It’s my hope that the celebration will serve as a historical teaching moment by highlighting indigenous and other alternative sites of knowledge, in reaffirmation of the mission and values of a liberal arts education at the University.”

Karin Ruhlandt, A&S dean and Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, is among those delivering remarks. “Professor Mũgo leaves behind a legacy of inspired teaching and mentorship,” she says, describing Mũgo as a "quieting presence." “She has increased our understanding of and appreciation for African cultural heritages, as well as women’s rights and education. This has resulted in a more inclusive culture at Syracuse, while raising the profile of our African American studies department.” 

Seated in her book-lined office on the second floor of Sims Hall, Mũgo is a study in elegance. Her warm smile, soft tone, and polite gestures belie the fact she undergoes chemotherapy twice a week to treat multiple myeloma. Because of this “sneaky disease,” Mũgo is keenly aware of the risks of procrastination. “At first, I realized that I had all this unfinished business,” she says, referring to various literary works underway, including a novel. “At the same time, I know that, when it comes to cancer or some other incurable illness, one can never be too sure that there will be ‘another day.’ So I have no choice but to release the mind and be at peace, which are critical to the healing process.”

Writing and Speaking from the Heart of My Mind

The desire to attend to “unfinished business” has resulted in Writing and Speaking from the Heart of My Mind (Africa World Press, 2012), a collection of selected speeches and essays spanning Mũgo’s 40-year career. She says the project was not only an intellectual exercise, but also an opportunity to reflect, unapologetically, on what makes her tick. “Scholars and thinkers are products of an environment that shapes their thinking through socialization, culturalization, education, and other processes,” Mũgo says. “The processes are, in themselves, operative tools of systems and instructions that are laden with values and ideological meaning. Furthermore, factors such as race, ethnicity, and class influence our view of reality in very concrete ways and define how we think, write, speak, and practice.”

As the book title suggests, heart and mind are not mutually exclusive. Part of what Mũgo hopes to accomplish with the book and the April celebration is to demonstrate the humanness—the strength and frailty—of scholarship. Otherwise, she says her research runs the risk of becoming elitist. “My goal is not to flaunt knowledge, but to humanize it,” she says. “In doing so, scholarship becomes an agent for social transformation for all people, not just the privileged.”

Facing the Monster
Mũgo says that, for all its industrial and agricultural prosperity, British colonialism led to disinheritance and impoverishment among the majority of Kenyans. For starters, the British imposed a racial and economic tier system that benefited whites--specifically, European settler farmers--at the exclusion of everyone else. Europeans were at the top of the pecking order, followed by Asians and then Arabs. “We were right at the bottom,” says Mũgo, referring to Africans.

From childhood, Mũgo witnessed ordinary Kenyans being subjected to exploitation, oppression, and violence. “Fertile lands, especially in the Central Highlands, were seized, and their owners pushed out into what were known as ‘African reserves,’ the American equivalent of Native American reservations,” she says, adding that the British changed the name of the Central Highlands to the “White Highlands." “Africans provided the labor force, which was free or minimally paid for."

Matters came to a head in 1952, when the colonial government imposed a state of emergency throughout Kenya, following worker strikes, political protests, and mass mobilization of various resistance movements. In Central Kenya, cadres of the Mau Mau liberation movement waged an armed struggle that lasted eight years. Thousands of Kenyans were arrested, tortured, and killed; raped and sodomized; thrown into concentration camps; and subjected to other atrocities at the hands of the British government.

Against this backdrop, Mũgo began forming her philosophy of resistance and struggle against injustice. In 1960, she was selected as the first African to enroll in a white, all-girls high school, as part of pre-independence efforts to de-racialize Kenya. “An Asian girl and I served as ‘human guinea pigs’ for educational integration until 1962, just before Kenya became independent,” she says. “Being at school was like facing the monster. I felt angry, upset, and alone. Fortunately, I had strong family support and prominent pro-democracy personalities who stood up for me, encouraging me not to give up. They said, ‘Don’t let them break you.’ … I soon realized that I was there [at school] not just for myself, but for every African who’d come after me. I told myself that I had to be the best at everything I did.”

For Mũgo and millions of other Kenyans, the turning point came on June 1, 1963 (since then known as Madaraka Day), when Jomo Kenyatta, who had been imprisoned for nearly a decade for his role in Mau Mau, was installed as president. National independence became official six months later, on Dec. 12, also Mũgo’s 21st birthday. Thus began the process of racially desegregating public spaces, including schools, hospitals, and even churches. Mũgo managed to capture much of this for posterity in some of her student poetry and stories at Uganda's Makerere University, where she doubled as a part-time correspondent for BBC London. She finally felt like part of the solution, instead of the problem.
Micere Githae Mugo desk

As Africa's first female academic dean, at the University of Nairobi

The Long, Hot Summer
It is interesting to note that Mũgo’s rise to prominence coincided with Kenya’s transition into a one-party state. After a brief sojourn to Canada, where she earned graduate degrees from the University of New Brunswick, she returned to Kenya to join the faculty of the University of Nairobi (UoN) in 1973. Within five years, Mũgo rose to the rank of associate professor of literature and was popularly elected as Africa’s first female academic dean.

One of Mũgo’s colleagues at the time was Eddah W. Gachukia, who faithfully studied her book Visions of Africa (East African Literature Bureau, 1978), already a hallmark of literary criticism. “Her vision has enriched and influenced my understanding and teaching ever since then,” says Gachukia, founder and director of the Riara Group of Schools in Kenya. “Her courage in speaking out has impacted many women whom, otherwise, would have held on to great ideas out of fear.”

Mũgo was barely two years into her deanship when Kenya’s second president, Daniel Arap Moi, was the target of a failed military coup. More than 120 people were killed and hundreds more were jailed by the president, who was notorious for banning pro-democracy groups that championed human rights and for shutting down universities. A single mother and legal guardian of two young girls following a contentious, politically charged divorce, Mũgo had no choice but to flee the country.

Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a prominent Kenyan senator and former health minister, taught with Mũgo at UoN. “At first, the old guard saw Mĩcere’s [decanal] appointment as a sign of rebellion by the young faculty and a ‘giving in’ to the radicals, but soon they appreciated her objectivity, efficiency, and love for dialogue. A fresh wind was blowing through the corridors of power at the university, as it was becoming possible to appoint younger people—conservatives and progressives, alike—as department chairs. Then the repressive regime of Moi came along and scattered us all over the world.”

Mũgo recalls the Moi regime being unnecessarily brutal. “They would arrest us at night or show up at our classrooms and hurl us out the door,” she says. “Many of my colleagues, as well as up to 200 to 300 students, were arrested following the abortive coup of 1982 and were sentenced under trumped-up charges. Some of them thrown into solitary confinement for several years and fell ill. Others were beaten and tortured. A number of them died there."

Mũgo probably would have become a statistic herself, had it not been for a minor stroke that forced her to be hospitalized in London, just before the coup. Upon returning to Kenya, where she stayed at home on medical leave, Mũgo learned she was a wanted person. Through the efforts of some unnamed colleagues working “in collusion with people in government sympathetic with democracy,” Mũgo and her kids secretly made their way through the Nairobi airport and escaped the country. Their destination? The United States.

Micere Githae Mugo

In her Syracuse office, 2015

Role Model for Excellence
Much has been made of Mũgo’s exile and subsequent activities: a brief professorship at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., followed by an eight-year stint at the University of Zimbabwe, where she was welcomed as a political refugee. In 1992, Mũgo returned to New York State for good, taking a yearlong appointment at Cornell University before joining the Syracuse faculty.

By then, Mũgo was a prolific scholar and literary artist, with multiple books, journals, and monographs to her name. (The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, a play co-authored with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, made its premiere at the 1977 World Festival of Black Arts and Cultures in Lagos, Nigeria. Last year, it was the subject of a 10-day run at the University of California, Irvine.) Syracuse, with its strong commitment to understanding the global African experience, seemed tailor-made for Mũgo. In 1993, she taught an introductory course on African orature—a first for not only the University, but also the academy--which has since become part of AAS' core curriculum.

“Unfortunately, students hear the word ‘orature’ and assume it’s a bunch of people sitting around, telling stories,” she says. “True, stories are part of orature, but African orature is much more than that: it's a systematic, scholarly study of ethics and aesthetics pertaining to an indigenous site of knowledge that uses elements such as story, song, poetry, dance, and drama to artistically make sense of our world, while teaching vital lessons about human rights.”

Tasneem Grace-Tewogbola ’96, a professional writer and storyteller in Nashville, Tenn., remembers spotting a poster of Mũgo in Zimbabwe, before studying with her at Syracuse. “I recognized her name from the AAS class schedule but had no idea of her global relevance and renown,” she says, recalling Mũgo’s “slight smile and blooming gele [head scarf]” in the photo. “A year later, I became one of her students and quickly understood why her name has exemplified the revolutionary roots of African orature and poetry. I am honored to call her my ‘Mwalimu’—my mentor, my soul mother, and my friend.”

At Syracuse, Mũgo has distinguished herself as teacher-scholar, administrator, and social activist. She is perhaps best known for chairing AAS (2005-08); helping launch the department’s M.A. in Pan African Studies Program (2005); and serving as the first full-time director of the University’s Africa Initiative (2001-05).

"Our faculty is graced by many stars who bring light and energy to our academic missions and acclaim to the University," says Cathryn Newton, Syracuse's only professor of interdisciplinary sciences and A&S' dean emerita. "Mĩcere is more of a whole galaxy, inexhaustibly rich with constellations of surprising sorts in every direction. I have had the great privilege of working with Mĩcere on many projects, and, in every conversation, her rare combination of gentle kindness and flinty resolve helped me learn and grow. I revere her as a friend and colleague and hope our orbits will continue to intersect for decades to come."

Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo with James Baldwin

With author James Baldwin

In addition to Newton, Mũgo's orbit of friends and colleagues has included James Baldwin, the American novelist best known for Go Tell It on the Mountain; Samora Machel, Mozambique's first president; Graça Machel Mandela, widow of both Machel and South African President Nelson Mandela; Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Prize Laureate; Chinua Achebe, the "father of the African novel"; and Wole Soyinka, the first African Literature Nobel Laureate.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark, was at the helm of Syracuse for part of Mũgo’s tenure. Calling her a “moral force of good in the world,” Cantor participated with Mũgo in a 2006 University summit on generating practical solutions for peace. “She compels everyone around her with her poetry, her voice, her courageous acts, her generosity of spirit, and her generative intelligence to be a better force for social justice in the world,” Cantor says. “She is my exemplar of the true meaning of a public intellectual, at one with the world and never satisfied with its injustice.” 

Former A&S Dean George M. Langford offers similar praise. “Professor Mũgo has been and remains an uplifting voice among the faculty,” says Langford, the University’s Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience and a champion of women and underrepresented minorities in the sciences. “She has been a true role model for excellence in research, teaching, and service. We’re all the better for having her as a colleague, and I feel fortunate to have her as a friend.”
Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo being honored

Being honored in Tanzania, 2012

As Mũgo’s retirement draws near, she credits much of her success to her daughters, Mũmbi wa Mũgo and the late Njeri Kũi Mũgo, whom she has considered her "closest friends and comrades." Mũgo is also reminded of the interconnectedness of life. The past three years, alone, have witnessed a reconciliation of sorts with Kenya, whose president—Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, Jomo’s son—named Mũgo an Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear, one the republic’s highest honors. She also has kept up a hectic speaking schedule, including delivering an address to the United Nations about gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Then there are the many civic obligations, including the Ghana Society of Central New York, the Pan African Community of CNY, and the United Women of Africa Organization, to which Mũgo gives her time, talent, and treasure. She says that, along with her fellow faculty members, these groups serve as a kind of surrogate family. They were particularly helpful in 2012-13, when she was grieving the loss of Njeri, who succumbed to ovarian cancer, and President Mandela, whom Mũgo considered an “icon in his own class.” 

Leave it to Mũgo to put a positive spin on such events, calling joy and tragedy part of the “rich fabric of life.” “I subscribe to the philosophy ‘I am because you are, and, since we are, therefore, I am,'" says Mũgo, quoting John Mbiti, the eminent African theologian who was her professor in Uganda. "This has been my guiding philosophy throughout my life, and I view it as the essence of being human. One is only truly human through the affirmation of others’ humanity. In this regard, all of my embracing circles of support and friendship involve beautiful people who have contributed to my growth in special ways. All of you are forever in my heart."
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Rob Enslin