Interview with Africa Writes Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo
Posted on 23rd February, 2022 in Academia
Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, Emerita Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence, Department of African Studies, Syracuse University (retired since 2015), has published seven books, eight co-edited supplementary school-readers and five monographs. Born in Baricho, Kenya, Mĩcere was, reportedly, the first scholar in East Africa to receive a doctorate in Literature and the first woman in Africa to be elected university academic-dean. During the 42 years of her university career, she served in many senior administrative roles and received numerous awards. Among her honors are: a forthcoming documentary on her life and work, Making life Sing in Pursuit of Utu by Professor Wachanga; Doctor of Letters honorary degree, University of Nairobi; the Flora Nwapa Award for Writing Excellence; Distinguished Mwalimu Nyerere Award; Distinguished Africanist Award; Nelson Mandela Leadership Award and a myriad of others. A longstanding activist for human rights and social justice, Mῖcere describes her daughters, Mũmbi wa Mũgo and the late Njeri Kũi Mũgo, as best friends and comrades in the struggle, especially during her years in exile from Kenya (1982-1993), under the dictatorship of former President Daniel arap Moi. She currently lives in Syracuse, New York and remains an ardent community activist.
In 2021 The Royal African Society’s Africa Writes festival honoured Micere with our annual Lifetime Achievement Award. We spoke to her about what it means to receive the award, her childhood inspirations and why African literature and orature are so crucial for young people today…
How does it feel to win the Royal African Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award?
I feel blessed. The award took me by complete surprise and I am indebted to the prize’s adjudicating panel for choosing me. It is a special honour to be the second recipient of the award, following Margaret Busby, whom I admire greatly. You see, when you go into retirement, you tend to be out of the limelight and so, winning this Africa Writes Lifetime Achievement Award gives me a sense of belonging. The other happy coincidence is that my birthday is coming up soon (December 12) and the award is, therefore, like a wonderful birthday present as well. Yes, this is both a moment for celebration and a reminder that I have been reading, teaching, writing and contributing to the canon of African literature in some way or other, for at least sixty years. I am reminded of how much I owe to many who have nurtured me…far too many to mention by name.
Take us on a trip down memory lane back to your beginnings, what was life like and how did you start out writing?
I’ve always been in love with literature, as it were. As a child, I loved orature (verbal art, or the art of the spoken word), especially stories and story-telling. I would then write some of these stories down later to make sure that I did not forget them. In the family, my parents encouraged us to read and in school, English was one of my favorite subjects. So, I grew to love books and reading, just as I thoroughly enjoyed keeping diaries and writing essays. This was during my primary school days in Baricho. Now in hindsight, I must have been an irritant of an introvert to many. During my childhood, I simply loved getting lost in this world of books and imaginative writing.
You seem to be making a connection between the spoken and written traditions. Could you elaborate?
Both are creative, imaginative artistic expressions that use words and language to communicate: one is spoken, or verbal; the other one is written. So, there is a direct connection and as I say, orature was an enormous part of what led me to where I am today both as an orate artist/performer and as a creative writer. The African orature heritage connects me to my African indigenous sites of knowledge where I learn stories, myths, legends, riddles, proverbs, poems and songs, etc. that remind me that our mothers, grandmothers and aunties were/are some of our most treasured gifts as educators and artists. The sessions I had with them in childhood stirred my creative imagination immensely. I so much admired the artistry. These beginnings laid the foundation for my interest in creative writing.
Did your formal schooling contribute towards your becoming a writer?
Yes, very much so. In fact, some of the schools I attended are a part of the “‘beginnings,” that gave me a head-start in writing. For instance, Embu Girls’ intermediate school, popularly known as Kangarũ (1952-56), introduced me to puppetry, drama and performance, which I excelled in. Then later in high school, at the premium national institution, Alliance Girls’ High School, Kikuyu, I was exposed to an even richer and more sophisticated tradition of drama and literary consumption. We had excellent library facilities. I became an active member of the drama and creative writing clubs, won many awards and throve in writing, poetry recitals and play- performance. Additionally, I was fortunate enough to be taught English and Literature by an amazing teacher, Barbara Pattern and to be mentored in creative writing by Rebecca Njau (then Miss Nyanjega), the well-known Kenyan playwright/novelist, who was a historian by profession, but formed a creative writing club for the students.
My time at Makerere University (1962-1966) was also critical. I was in the Drama/Creative Writing clubs…I won the best national actress award in the Uganda Drama Festival…I was a “Correspondent” with the African Service of the BBC, London” – where talented “budding writers” had a platform, under the tutelage of Professor David Cook – and was featured on the broadcasts regularly. Then, I was elected to the board of Penpoint, the student Creative Writers’ journal. I served as Assistant Editor to Ngũgῖ wa Thiong’o and then took over from him as the first woman editor of the journal.
The University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada, where I did my master’s and doctoral degrees, also contributed greatly to my journey in becoming a writer. In 1971, I was awarded the coveted Sir Charles G.D. Roberts’ Medal for Creative Writing, as the over-all university champion, through a story entitled, “Zawadi” and then earned an M.A. (through coursework and a creative writing thesis, “The Long Illness of Ex-Chief Kiti”), with distinction.
All of these educational opportunities inspired me no end to take creative writing seriously
Any other influences, mentors, or sources of inspiration that have influenced your journey in writing?
I’ve been very lucky to have been nurtured by some amazing talents such as the late Professor Chinua Achebe who read through my first poetry collection, Daughter of My People, Sing! and encouraged me to publish the poems; the late Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones; Professor Ama Ata Aidoo; the late Grace Ogot; the late Flora Nwapa; the late Okot p’Bitek, who was my professor of anthropology at Makerere; African Diasporan writers such as the late James Baldwin who became a dear friend and mentor after I met him as my co-guest of honour at a Penn International writers’ conference in Amsterdam (1981); and even publishers like Jessica Huntley and John la Rose, both activists and African Caribbean immigrants to Britain.
What advice would you give to those just starting out in the writing career?
The best advice I could give is that they should do it for the love of it; do it for the pure joy that writing brings. Writing, and even becoming a published writer, is not necessarily going to make you famous or make you money: in fact, you may very well die poor! You need to be in love with writing; let the impetus come from deep within you; feel it in your bones and in the very depths of your soul. Allow the message to possess you to the extent that you cannot hold it back. In the spirit of Haki Madhubuti’s poetry collection’s title, Don’t cry, scream!
The other important thing is: don’t be discouraged by rejection, especially from publishers who say your work is not quite right for them. Have faith in your ability and very importantly, focus on learning, growing and developing. I encourage all young writers to form and attend writing groups/clubs; share their work with peers and above all, keep writing and reading, no matter what. Make a regular commitment to these activities and carve out that dedicated time to create. Read as widely as you can and remember, creative writing cannot really be “taught,” as such. You can be advised about skills and given ideas on what constitutes good or poor writing, but in the final analysis, you have to dare to become the “creator.” My last tip is to follow and consume writers that you love. Immerse yourself in their writing and you will find that they become a quiet source of inspiration.
In your acceptance speech you mention manuscripts that you have in the pipeline, can you give us a little sneak-peek?
Oooh well, aren’t you mischievous to ask! If I tell, then it will no longer be a secret. This is a perfect set-up on your part, right? Well, out goes the secret!
I’m working on the second volume of my essays and speeches, following Writing and Speaking from the Heart of My Mind by Third World Press, 2012. I love to write in a style that speaks right from the heart, whether dealing with intellectual, or creative works.
I also have an almost finalized third collection of poetry, following Daughter of My People, Sing (1976) and My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs (1994). The collection is “crying” out to be put into an anthology and will, I believe, be seminal in that most of it is not only African orature-inspired, but purposefully reflects the ethics and aesthetics of African orature as a unique indigenous heritage.
The last piece that I’m working on has been more than 15 years in the making… can you believe it? It’s not been published yet because publishers kept asking me to write it as a historical fiction piece, which it is not. It is in fact an extended conversation, in orature-style, with a former “Mau Mau” freedom fighter, Field Marshal Mũthoni wa Kῖrῖma – the only self-claimed woman field marshal of the Kenya Liberation Army in Kenya. There is debate about whether Dedan Kimathi wa Wachiuri was the only “Mau Mau” Field Marshal, but that is another subject. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and I have commemorated Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi in a co-authored play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.
At any rate, Field Marshal Mũthoni wa Kῖrῖma says that during his crowning as Field Marshal, Dedan Kimathi declared that those who were at the rank of General and fought to the end of the war (which included her), would be recognized as field marshals. Her story seems to be corroborated by David Njagi’s book, The Last of the Field Marshals (1993), in which she and Field Marshal Mwariama are featured. At any rate, my work follows the orature method of storytelling, with FM Mũthoni wa Kῖrῖma narrating her story in Gῖkũyũ (which is actually my first language) to her younger sister and me. It is a beautiful orature piece of an elder with her younger sisters/“daughters” sitting at her feet, feeding on her wisdom. I’m excited that I’ve finally found a publisher who is willing to honour this orature format as other publishers have insisted on me telling the story on her behalf. As orate women in my “Prosaic Poem,” My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs would argue, …” We too have tongues, you know!” So, I am delighted that this highly skilled orate woman will tell her story in her tongue and her own voice, not mine.
What are some of your favourite books and what do you enjoy reading?
That’s such a difficult question because it depends on why and when I am reading, as well as on how much time I have in hand. But generally, I just love to read. Everything and in all genres. The genre often depends on my mood. For instance, on holiday it will be a longer novel that I can get lost in, but if I am on, say, a short flight, then I probably will read a short story, or poetry collection. I love drama and plays in particular because of how compelling the characters can be and how much they pull you into the story, especially when it’s on the stage in front of you.
My absolute favourite genre is the autobiography, or autobiographical accounts. I think it is the love of sharing stories and hearing the connection between humanity, across cultures and their lived experiences. Autobiographical works fuse personal narrative with hers/historical events, geography, culture, politics, etc., which make the work richer and more educational. The autobiographies of Assata Shakur and Angela Davis, the writers of which are both dear friends and comrades, are among my favorites and I love “Slave” Narratives as well, which, by the way, are orature compositions, originally, that were later converted into written narratives.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
The list is endless, but looking at Africa and the African Diaspora, the most obvious would be…Ama Ata Aidoo; James Baldwin; Chinua Achebe; Ngũgῖ wa Thiong’o; Tsitsi Dangarebga; Aimé Césaire; Maya Angelou; Wole Soyinka; Lorraine Hansberry; Alex la Guma; Sonia Sanchez; Okot p’Bitek; Flora Nwapa; Ayi Kwei Armah; Mariama Ba; August Wilson and the list goes on. Most of them “oldies,” but still very relevant today.
You’ve been a prominent voice in championing democracy and human rights. Can you talk about your activism and any advice you’d give to encourage young activists?
This is a critical question that is at the center of my writing and I could write a book on it. So, please bear with my lengthy response.
Once again, it takes us back to orature. A lot of orature stories have a moral illustrating what is right and what is wrong; what is beautiful and what is ugly. Many stories champion the plight of the underdog. They depict that little animal, or creature that nobody paid attention to who ends up being the hero/shero of the story. So, from a very early age, orature introduced me to the themes of “injustice versus justice and human rights” …and yes, even animal rights.
We were told stories of huge bullies like elephants, or the ogre – that frightening creature that is so ugly, evil and lethal that it scares even the most courageous of people. The stories taught us how the forces of evil and the forces of good are always in contestation with one another. Those stories, poems and proverbs teach you that you have a responsibility in the world. Which of these creatures do you like best? Is it the hare who in his or her own way is very clever and can also be deceptive but means no harm; or is it the hyena who is so greedy that he/she will even eat his or her own children. Even in animal stories there is the question of human rights and the responsibility of distinguishing between right and wrong.
Moreover, as an adolescent, I lived through some unthinkable times during the “Mau Mau” war for the liberation of Kenya. The freedom fighters were demonized and yet they were the real heroes and heroines, fighting for our motherland. Despite a lot of brainwashing in colonial schools, as young people we could tell how wrong things were under colonial occupation and that we could not just accept what we were being taught about hating the freedom fighters.
In 1960, after my O levels at Alliance Girls’ High School, I became the first African child in Kenya to be admitted into an all-white school, along with an Asian girl, Kirpal Singh. The school, Limuru Girls’ High, was in the heart of White-settler land, the then “White Highlands,” where Africans needed a pass to be. Kirpal and I were the “guinea-pigs,” as it were. Our failure or success would determine whether or not schools could integrate. At the time, there was a rigid social tier-ladder with whites at the top; Asians, second; Arabs and “Coloreds,” third; and Blacks, at the bottom. My time at Limuru plunged me into a world that taught me the ugliness of racism through direct personal experience. Later, when a graduate student in New Brunswick, Canada (1969-73) I was introduced to the Black Power Movement as a leader in the Black Students’ Union and this conscientized me further.
So, on returning to Kenya in 1973 and joining the university of Nairobi faculty, I immediately became an activist, with others, protesting the injustices of the oppressive neo-colonial state that had emerged following independence. In 1982, I was forced into exile with my daughters, Mumbi (7) and Njeri (5). After two years as a Visiting Professor at St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, I was lucky enough to find a home in Zimbabwe where I worked and lived from 1984-1992. During my student days in Canada and back in Kenya until forced into exile, I was in solidarity groups that supported the liberation struggles of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia and South Africa, which is how I ended up in Zimbabwe at the invitation of the then First Lady, Madame Sally Mugabe and then Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe.
Forgive this long story of my journey in activism, but as I said, it is very closely tied to the themes and vision of my writing. Orature narratives on justice and injustice turned into life lessons that matured into the realization that if I am going to claim humanity for myself, I must seek to humanize others by reaching out to them in solidarity. Today, I am an adamant and passionate advocate of utu and ubuntu. Utu, is a Kiswahili term that loosely translates into “the essence of being human,” or “the state of being a human being.” You cannot claim to possess “the essence of being human” unless you share it with and affirm it in other/all people.
Being an activist can be a risky choice, especially for young people. What advice would you give them?
I would suggest to them that the struggle for social justice badly needs the participation of young people. Global youth make up an estimated 1.3 billion of the world’s population and so they need to fight to ensure that they live in a just world. As a popular saying goes, “You are either a part of the problem, or a part of the solution.” That is the choice. Fighting for freedom is always risky; but accepting dehumanization is just as risky, if not more so. At the University of New Brunswick, I was a “Commonwealth Scholar” (awarded to top-ranking students in the Commonwealth) and it forbade recipients to participate in politics. Still, I joined the Black Students’ Union and became a leader. Our branch was associated with the Black Power Movement in North America. This is how I later came to be friends with some of the icons of this movement, such as Angela Davis and Assata Shakur. So, to the youth I say, in a slogan originally used by Civil Rights African American woman leader, Florence Rae Kennedy: “Do not agonize; organize!”
As a poet yourself, how important is it for children here in the UK to have access to poetry and orature from the African diaspora?
Learning about African orature and poetry is essential. Equally, Orature from the various global cultures of people of African origin, regardless of where they’re located, is a precious cultural heritage we cannot afford to ignore or neglect. The heritage is important in helping us understand the diverse cultures from which it originates. It is an imperative site of knowledge. Colonialism has of course been responsible for a lot of the erasing of or denying our cultures and in some cases, demonizing them. Undoing this damage is urgent and one of the most effective ways of doing so is exposing children to orature. By orature, I mean “verbal art” that is used to create genres such as: myths, legends, historical narratives, human and animal stories, poetry, epics, proverbs, riddles, tongue-twisters, drama, etc.
Speaking of poetry, which you asked about …epics such as The Epic of Old Mali by Djibri Niane and Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic by Mazisi Kunene are not just examples of excellent orature poetry, but indispensable sources of African her/history, politics, geography, cultures and much more. But, this said, it is also important to point out that even as we advocate the exposure of children to orature, we should adopt a critical approach that analyzes its strengths and weaknesses as opposed to romanticizing it. Equally, orature should not be viewed as a relic of the past. African orature is being composed right now, in real time.
What would you say to teachers of African orature-poetry, especially in the UK?
First of all, they should do everything possible to demystify it… meaning that it should not be intimidating. I remember how poetry classes used to be spaces of terror in the colonial classroom for students who did not like English as a subject. We were taught about iambs, trochees, iambic meters, pentameters, iambic pentameters and others that I do not remember. It was all so mathematical and cumbersome that, in my view, the “measurements” became prohibitive barriers rather than useful tools for exploring poetry. I would advise teachers to move away from this type of mechanical approach to poetry. Fortunately, my advice might not be needed as, with African orature-poetry, participation and performance are structured as integral parts of the poem. Students love performative learning.
Is “Spoken Word” Orature?
The spoken word is only a tiny bit of orature: it is poetic oracy and oracy is what I define as the skillful use of linguistic-expression to create utterance that renders itself to performance. By the way, this is an important question because some people talk as if “Spoken Word” is a “modern” replacement of Orature that makes the latter “irrelevant” today. This is hardly the case. As I have already said, orature is being created today and will be created tomorrow and the day after …and for generations to come. We must never make the mistake of relegating orature to the past. I repeat: orature is actively and deliberately being created and recreated as we speak. In primary school when I was in the colonial classroom, we were prohibited from singing songs from orature or doing dances from orature or anything like that. Today, I urge young people to look with pride, Sankofa-like, at all the many powerful poets who have perpetuated the African Orature tradition, on the home continent and in the diaspora. I want them to meet Kamau Brathwaite, for instance and other “modern” poets who were influenced by orature, including Sonia Sanchez, Okot p’Bitek and others. It is not right that they should grow up reading Milton but not all the Africana poets I have mentioned above. This racialized selectiveness and exclusiveness in what and who students are exposed to has to stop because it creates costly gaps in their education.
Any final words…
None. You are kind to allow me to say more after the much I had already said. The only remaining thing is for me to thank you again for this enjoyable conversation and for allowing me to share the story of my journey in writing. I also want to express my gratitude, yet again, for the Lifetime Award in African Literature whilst I’m still on this side of life to enjoy it. Life is such a gift and we should celebrate it as well as each other every day. I celebrate you. Thank you. Thank you.
Interview with RAS Deputy Director Desta Haile, December 2021.
Many thanks to Penguin UK for their generous sponsorship of the award, and to Africa Writes Advisory Group: Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Caitlin Pearson, Mireille Cassandra Harper and Mukoma Wa Ngugi.