Connect with us


Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo’s Utu-Centric Scholarship

4 min read.

Professor Micere Githae Mugo conceptualised Utu-centric scholarship as humanising, liberative, inclusive, reciprocal and decolonising.



Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo’s Utu-Centric Scholarship

Professor Micere Githae Mugo was and remains my Mwalimu, my sister-most (her word), my mentor, and academic and life maitũ. In 2022, I was honoured to share the stage with her at her invitation, and she subsequently asked that I publish my brief remarks on this inheritance – this legacy of utu in scholarship that she has bequeathed us. I planned to develop this piece further because what I presented initially was limited by/to/for a particular purpose and time limit. Therefore, it is objectively non-exhaustive. However, I wish to honour her by publishing it as she heard it. A forthcoming scholarly publication will realise the task and vision of expansion. I previously shared this version of the work at the event memorialising the life of Mwalimu at the University of Nairobi on the 8th of August 2023.

The academic and activist perspectives of Professor Micere Githae Mugo insist on the significance of indigenous African knowledges, technologies, and lived experiences and practices, and how these can inform the definition of methods and languages for critical African(a) and global studies across the disciplines. Mugo, who professed a personal commitment to the philosophy of utu, defined it as the “essence of being human and demonstrating communal solidarity”. Utu as philosophy and as an active way of knowing, being and doing is grounded in the consideration of personhood and humanness. Mwalimu explicated: “The act of being human is in the affirmation of others’ humanity. Without this we are a mockery of the human essence”; and, “I subscribe to it [utu/ubuntu] – heavily! I tell you, don’t listen to anyone who suggests to you that this kind of thinking belongs to ‘primitive’ and/or ‘communist’ societies. Every human being should have this as a life motto.”

Utu/ubuntu orients radical living as both philosophy and active processes rooted in ethics and values of equity, love, and respect through which individuals and communities encounter each other and their environments. Actuating utu, therefore, is an exercise in expediting humanness and humanity. The title and chapters of Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo’s collection of speeches and essays titled Writing and Speaking From the Heart of My Mind are a call to humanising scholarship by centring utu in the creation and consumption of knowledges. Mugo directed us to activate pedagogies, methods, perspectives, languages, and philosophies that demonstrate humane ways of doing knowledge and knowing. She directed the application of critical utu-centric thinking and scholarship thus: “I offer no apology in embracing the notion that my mind has a heart. This is because I am persuaded that the challenge for the 21st century is not to flaunt knowledge, but rather to humanise it.”

“The act of being human is in the affirmation of others’ humanity. Without this we are a mockery of the human essence.”

As we seek to define the languages, methods, and theories of utu-centric scholarship, Mwalimu Micere Githae Mugo’s ways of being, doing, and knowing should be instructive and grounding. I list, in the following, some principles of utu-centric scholarship as conceptualised by her: Utu-centric scholarship is humanising scholarship. It stands in service to the humanity of the researcher, the researched, and the audience of the work; utu-centric scholarship is inexorably humanitarian. It begins with appreciating the primary purpose of scholarship and education as a service to watu, the people. utu-centric scholarship is fundamentally liberative. It delivers inventive de-bordering of languages, disciplines, approaches, world senses and lenses. Utu-centric scholarship is inclusive and reciprocal. She invited that scholars partner with communities as ideological allies to purposefully actuate and represent utu and humility in our/their work. Note that Mwalimu embraced an expanded and inclusive definition of the identity ‘scholar’ beyond the ivory tower of academia. She considered the exclusion of the watu and their contributions from scholarship arrogant, anti-knowledge, and as compromising to the utu of the scholar and the watu; utu-centric work demands decolonising methodologies and languages.

Mwalimu’s legacy on utu-centric scholarship is evident in the areas of decolonial and feminist philosophical frameworks, performance studies, writing and theorising revolution, environmental studies, history/herstory, feminist futures, intersectional thought and practice, narrative and biography, gender and sexuality studies, and scholar activism. Mwalimu has nurtured many into the production of decolonised, humane, and equitable conferences, classrooms, publications, book series, presses, curricula, artistic productions, research, and civic and community engagement endeavours. I conclude with a quote from Mwalimu’s 2021 work, The Imperative of Utu/Ubuntu in Africana Scholarship, where she asserted “that knowledge and scholarship can either be colonising, alienating and enslaving; or alternatively, they can be conscientizing, humanising and liberating, creating new human beings with the agency to transform the world for the better”. She adds, “Africana scholars need to find out how to incorporate this collective and connective perception of life into their scholarship.”

In honouring Mwalimu’s passion for indigenous ways of knowledges, spiritualities, and practices, as well as poetry, I offer in closing a celebration of life, a praise poem from one of her sisters, Nkiru Nzegwu, SUNY Distinguished Professor at the State University of New York, also Professor Extraordinarius, Transdisciplinary Research and Graduate Studies, University of South Africa, and Founder of the Africa Knowledge Project. She sings:

Micere Githae Mugo, daughter of Mumbi who made rain with words,

Who turned fierce men into boys and made them quake,

Who could not be contained by prison walls of fear,

Who would not be silenced or made to disappear,

Who clapped like thunder and roared like lions,

Who crossed the ocean to plant new mukuyu,

Micere Githae Mugo, daughter of Mumbi, arise in power!

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.


Dr Besi Brillian Muhonja is Associate Vice Provost for Scholarship and Research Development and Professor of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at James Madison University.


Micere Githae Mugo: Creating Liberated Zones

Was it during her years at Limuru Girls School that Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo developed a lifelong passion for “creating liberated zones” in educational institutions?



Professor Micere Githae Mugo: The Zimbabwe Experience

It was the dawn of a new decade. The Kenya Colony was in the frenzy of transition. Behind it lay the trauma of the State of Emergency; ahead, the tantalising promise of Uhuru. In February 1961, the excitement rose to fever pitch: an African majority was elected for the first time in the colony’s Legislative Council, an important political development making manifest the reality of the “wind of change” sweeping not only across the rapidly diminishing British Empire but also right at home in the Kenya Colony itself. Everywhere, there was change in the air – euphoria for the majority, trepidation for others, as preparations were made in earnest for the birth of Kenya as a brand new independent nation.

On all fronts, the changes were happening; sometimes faster than the guardians and facilitators of the old colonial order were ready for. And so it is that change came to a little school, tucked in the heart of what was then called the White Highlands, where, according to school lore, a progressive headteacher, Veronica Owen, tabled a daring proposal. It was time, she said, for the school, which had begun as a small family initiative in 1922, to take the big step away from racial exclusion to integration. It was time for Limuru Girls School – as it celebrated 40 years as an educational institution that had served to this point an exclusively European student body – to transition into a multiracial institution.

To the school community, this was as momentous as the idea of independence was to many in the country. True, it wouldn’t be the very first time in the colony that students of different races would sit together in a classroom. In 1949, John and Joan Karmali, an interracial couple, had officially pioneered the first “non-racial” classes in the colony. With no other premises available, these had been held in the official residence of the Indian High Commissioner and in their own home. Later, as interest caught on amongst a tiny community of willing parents, the then Governor Phillip Mitchell facilitated the acquisition of the premises bequeathing it the name that it would become known by: Hospital Hill School. Thus began the first “brave, successful and doomed” experiment in instiling colour blindness in Kenya through racially integrated schooling – also noteworthy in that it was the first primary school in Nairobi to offer access to African pupils.

Up until that time, the assumption had been that African children were absent in the city. That the school had survived its first rocky decade despite the heightened political tensions of the fifties and the general disapproval of many in the settler elite, was possibly a source of inspiration to those at Limuru Girls School enthusiastic about the idea. Possibly, they were also aware of another initiative in the pipeline at the time: to set up a similar experiment in the form of an all-boys Sixth Form college – what ultimately became Strathmore. If this was the case, they must also have been very conscious that for their own school community, there were very important differences. Unlike Hospital Hill or the proposed Strathmore, the benefit of a committed and supportive school community united in the express vision of racial integration was not guaranteed. Then, there was also the fact that these other institutions were day schools, meaning that the children attending them would be living at home, making it possible for the parents to be constantly involved, on a day-to-day basis, in closely monitoring and offering daily support to guarantee their well-being. This would not be possible in a residential school. And finally, the student populations of both the Hospital Hill School and Strathmore College were racially integrated from the get-go, while in the case of Limuru Girls School, this would mean bringing in the bare minimum number of non-White students into one class on an experimental basis. It would not be exaggerating to consider those students as guinea pigs whose survival was a matter of optimistic conjecture, rather than as privileged winners of an educational jackpot.

It is safe to assume that support for the proposal was not unanimous and one can only imagine how vehement the reactions to the proposal must have been. Still, the advocates for the idea would not be deterred. The school was a Christian school, they pointed out. Would it not be the Christian thing to do? Finally, however, the decision was taken: two students only – one African, one Asian – would be given the opportunity for two years to prove the intellectual and social worth of their respective races to the school community.

Story, story?

Story come!

Facts as foundation…

And so it was that in early 1961, Limuru Girls School embarked on its great experiment. Two pioneer students were invited to join the incoming Higher Certificate level class. The African student selected, Madeleine Mĩcere Gĩthae, had just excelled in her School Certificate examinations after four happy years at the African (later Alliance) Girls High School, where she had also been a popular head girl and active participant in a range of “extra” curricula activities. That school was also looking forward to a historic new class, 1961 being the seminal year when it would offer its pioneer Higher Certificate class. Either way, Madeleine Gĩthae, should she return to her former school or move on to this new opportunity, was set to be an educational pioneer in Kenya. The choice to join Kirpal Singh as the other pioneer non-European student in an entire school meant she would take the harder, lonelier path to engraving her name in the annals of the country.

Two students only – one African, one Asian – would be given the opportunity for two years to prove the intellectual and social worth of their respective races to the school community.

One could simply skip through the next couple of years by saying that the rest is history. The record does show that Madeleine Gĩthae did indeed go on to not only survive, but also to excel during her time at Limuru, passing every test set for her both in and out of the classroom. In her studies, she made nonsense of the notion of the alleged intellectual inferiority of the African, on the sports field she earned the grudging admiration of her peers by earning glory for the school. Throughout the six long terms that she was a student at the school, she gave those searching for reasons to bolster the case for continuing racial segregation in Kenyan schools nothing to point triumphantly to. By the time she left in 1962, she had flung wide open the doors of schools such as this one for the myriads of girls – and boys – of all races and classes who would come after her. She also graduated at the top of her class, earning a coveted scholarship to the University of Oxford. She turned this down – preferring instead to go to the University of East Africa at Makerere where … but that is a story for another time.

Story, story?

Story come!

Facts as foundation,

Spice creatively…

In some ways, this is the end of the story of those two years at Limuru Girls School… but in other ways, this is just the frame. To fill it out, I invite you to switch places with me as you become the storyteller and take the lead in a journey of imagination. Step back into that place, that time, step, for a moment, into the school shoes of a teenager facing the challenge of having such enormous responsibility placed on your shoulders. Ta imagini – to echo her older self – what it must have been like to leave home, a place where you were loved and cherished and affirmed, to go to boarding school for several weeks at a time. Ta imagini looking around you, once your parents had left, not at girls whose smiling faces promised the possibility of making new friends to set off with on an exciting adventure, but rather facing up to settling into this new environment, where the majority saw you as a lesser being, and deeply resented your presence. Ta imagini having to be in this lonely space for weeks on end with no respite; with even the handful of fellow students who might be a little sympathetic to your plight, careful not to cross the invisible boundaries of becoming too closely associated with you. Yes, ta imagini the direct personal experience of being on the frontline of the ugly racism that was at the core of the colonial education system.

And sure, one might argue, the success or failure of one schoolgirl would definitely not have been the end of the world. Kenya would have continued its inexorable march towards independence. Sooner rather than later, African and Asian students would have been welcomed at this school and many others as, indeed, racial exclusion died a timely death in Kenya – at least officially. But just for a moment, think about what it meant for this child facing the unknown to take a deep breath as the realisation set in of how utterly on her own she would be in the weeks to come, and most especially when immersed in the crowd of girls amongst whom she would never truly belong.

Yes, ta imagini the direct personal experience of being on the frontline of the  ugly racism that was at the core of the colonial education system.

Limuru Girls School has a simple motto: In Fide Vade – in Faith We Go. I think of it as a reminder that schools are spaces that do more than prepare students for exams; they are important agents of socialisation, facilitating the future into being by nurturing the children that will live as adults in it. As I reflect on these two critical years of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo’s childhood, in relation to the person she became, I find myself wondering what influence they might have had on her. In the discourse that pervades Kenya at the present time, as we tussle with the logistics of engineering the school structure and debate and discuss the ins and outs of the new curricula, I ask myself what exactly it is that we envision these critical spaces to be for and how far we have travelled from the challenges that six decades ago those in charge of the system were grappling with. What kind of impact will these critical years of their lives have on the students who are passing through our school institutions today?

With the benefit of hindsight, I wonder if it was during these years at Limuru Girls School that Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo developed a lifelong passion for “creating liberated zones” in educational institutions. If it was here that, having experienced the lifeline of companionship through the books that she clung to during the loneliest of times written by artists such as James Baldwin (whom she would later meet and become close friends with), that she determined that art could not be relegated to the margins of society. Was it here that she first deepened her appreciation of Orature not simply as part of the everyday experience of life that she had experienced it to be since she was a child, but also as a necessary weapon in the struggle for liberation and the attainment of the vision of a holistic and healed society? Was it in this space, during these years threaded through with the implicit questioning of her own humanity and her right to be treated as equal to her peers, that she commenced her “tireless pursuit of utu” as lifelong praxis? Was it in this period that she consciously embraced the responsibility of being “the first” – and this could be counted as the seminal of the many other “firsts” in her life – not as exclusive privilege to flaunt, or guarantor of special benefits and recognition, but as the opportunity to burst open spaces of exclusion to create access for others? Perhaps. Whether consciousness of all – or any – of these crystallised during this period, or whether these experiences formed into coherent praxis during the decades to follow, with the benefit of hindsight, these years settle into a metaphor for the legacy she challenges us to reflect on.

What kind of impact will these critical years of their lives have on the students who are passing through our school institutions today?

How tempting to bring this rumination to a close as a triumphant account of victory over all odds! In a way, this would be true to the facts and the spirit of this sharing, and yet … a lingering thought: If indeed the Limuru Girls School of 1961–1962 played a role in influencing Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo to become what so many today are testifying to as worthy of emulation, it wasn’t because the school set out to achieve that, but rather in spite of the many obstacles she encountered that might have resulted in a very different ending. With that in mind, how can this story end without sparing a thought for the many other children broken or deeply wounded from being on the frontline of different sites of the liberation struggle, in spaces and circumstances that have shaped the terrain we have inherited today? And for every one that has emerged scarred but victorious in their battle, how many more have been martyred? Would it be too much to ask that we honour the memory of each one of them, even as we remember the contributions of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, with unwavering commitment to creating liberated zones in our educational institutions, in whatever way “aluta continua” rings true in our lives?

And so the story ends, the story passes on,

This story weaves in, this story weaves out:

Story, story

Facts as foundation

Spice creatively 

Mix and marinate!

Continue Reading


How I Lost My Faith in the Church

With politicians at the pulpit, the Church has chosen Caesar over God, and I have lost my faith.



How I Lost My Faith in the Church
Photo: Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Jesus has always been box-office.

He’s a superstar. He’s a celebrity. He’s the celebrity. He’s “hot”. He’s famous and popular—trust me, those are two different things, ask St Peter. But even the blind can see how the Church has recently been at odds with its heavenly and earthly masters, the former offering eternal life, the latter building heaven on earth. For a cleric, the hottest ticket in town is an invite to State House, or for State House to come to you.

Not so for my immortal soul. After a whirlwind teenage storybook romance, the Almighty and I hit a snag in our relationship. We are staying together for the kids—the kids being a wedding or a funeral, where He recently caught my eye across the room during a requiem and I looked away in shame, embarrassed that I hadn’t called.

Which is why I am surprised that He blinked first, showing up unannounced at my new residence. Indeed, I have moved houses to reflect my career trajectory. I now live somewhere off Ngong Road, shackled in between trees, with an eager and rather loquacious caretaker who I discovered has a penchant for rosemary (the herb). The rent is manageable, which, by “larger Kilimani” standards, is practically a bargain. I needed somewhere that was close to all the party scenes in Westy, somewhere close to the CBD and, more importantly, somewhere that has water because jerricans and mitungi on the balcony are just not giving. Thus, it was surprising when the landlord forgot the small matter of a Legio Maria church mushrooming right under the said balcony. And you know what they say: Shout your joyful praises to the Lord. Make noise for the Almighty.

Now, I don’t know if the Lord knows this, but I have been a captive audience, getting the brunt of the hallelujahs and the hosannas and the hail Jesuses in much higher decibels than reach Him. And if there are people who are brazen, it’s church folks.

I asked my landlord, James, why he can’t petition to remove the church from the residential place and, clearly speaking from experience, he flatly told me it was impossible.

I am no longer a religious fanatic. I am no atheist either. Nor am I a misotheist—I don’t hate God. Quite the contrary. I like God—or the idea of God. But why do His people have to be so loud?

And why is it always the ‘hoods that have the loud churches? And, ironically, still grapple with the highest crime rates (up to 60 per cent as is the case in Bondeni, Nakuru)? In the “larger Kilimani” area, within a square mile of Kawangware, Congo or Amboseli you will find no less than twenty-odd churches, assaulting every ear in their vicinity. If the Protestants don’t get you, the Adventists will. Contrast that with the posh areas where the hum of pearly gates opening is what ushers you in, where the cacophony of the city is kept out by terrestrial walls and signs of “Controlled Development” silencing even the most fervent of evangelists. Gentrification makes noise silently.

Perhaps this is why I find the religious experience underwhelming, akin to attending the world’s most lavish church when you are ambivalent about God. Church services that should take, at best, two hours, are extended to accommodate politicians who promise “sitaleta siasa kanisani”. They go on and on, castigating their opponents, bellowing their achievements, “leta-ing siasa kanisani”. The congregation, meanwhile, is cast under their spell, ululating and dancing and stomping their feet as the 100K, 200K, 300K or whatever amount the politician has donated hits the offering basket. The Church has chosen Caesar over God and, put on a scale, has been found wanting.

I know how I lost my faith: When the church and the politicians started speaking through one mouth. Politics and preachers make for awkward bedfellows, but when Christianity is politicised, churches transfigure into repositories not of grace but of grievances. The combination of religion and politics is an alchemy of pure evil, all in the name of God, an exemplar of taking the Lord’s name in a vain self-serving fashion.

It feels like the church is unwittingly behaving like the adamant prophet Balaam, from the story in the Bible, while the donkey—the congregation—keeps resisting the prodding, because they can see the angel with a drawn sword on the road. In other words, one can’t tell where the politician ends and the pastor begins. President Ruto got his political (mis)education from President Moi, perfecting his master’s tricks. President Moi was “God’s anointed”; Ruto is “God’s Chosen One”. Moi himself was said to be hyper-religious, an AIC faithful, waking up at 5a.m. to pray and read the Bible. Ruto, falling at the base of the apple tree, is presumably a devout man of God, a teetotaller, waking up at 4a.m. to pray, a behaviour that became a habit from his days as the Christian Union leader at the University of Nairobi sometime between 1986 and 1990. In June 2018, Deputy President Ruto took umbrage at his critics, telling off those criticising his frequent church harambees and stating that he was “investing in heaven”.

Politics and preachers make for awkward bedfellows, but when Christianity is politicised, churches transfigure into repositories not of grace but of grievances.

Ruto the salesman, who sells himself by his manner of speaking, quickly became a refracted image of the pastors who had started their churches with a handful of congregants before they “hustled” their way into becoming the moneyed leaders of mega-churches. Moi may have used the Church, Ruto weaponized it. Moi may have been the tsar, but Ruto is its star. He is not its hero, but he just might be its culmination.

Going to church presently is akin to fulfilling a social obligation. It’s hard to trust the Church, and we certainly don’t believe our leaders, so we have a society where we are checking out – the middle children of history with no purpose or motivation. This is as acknowledged if ignored as oxygen is acknowledged and ignored. Which explains the exodus from mainstream churches and their long-held traditions to the new charismatic evangelical churches that are flexible and personal. This is our great social malaise, and it is terminal. We are the damned, who no longer give a damn.

In the high noon of my youth, I gave a damn. Wallaahi billaahi. I gave so much damn I had a Sunday Best outfit. My Sunday best was always a shirt, crisp white, brown, or beige khaki pants and dress shoes, good manners tucked in my pocket. Now I wear my Sunday best on a Monday. Or a Tuesday. Any day, really.

In those days, walking the streets of Nairobi on the way to Sunday service you would lose money to either a hawker or a pickpocket. Or both. It didn’t matter. We just wanted to be in the house of the Lord. We seemed to live at church. We weren’t living in Roysambu but we were living our best life. Now money is the true Jesus. Tuchangie this, tujenge that, and of course, the pastor needs a new car to move around in (with the Gospel?), and could we make it at least 2500cc, preferably black, so that the devil cannot see him coming? Amen?

Somewhere along that road I lost my way and joined the multitudes on the crowded highway to hell. Somewhere along the way I lost my fear. I lost my reverence.

I am not hiding the fact that I have a love-hate relationship with the Church. My mother has never missed a kesha (night vigil). When she talks about Jesus, even Jesus sits down to listen. Her voice would tremble, her eyes would water, and I’d run away, because what is this Jesus that makes people cry when they think of him? My mother fears Jesus. We feared her. I have always been jealous of Jesus. He got the best half—we got the discipline. Presently, my particular beliefs commit me to think that those who call pastors “dad” or “mom” are mistaken. Heresy aside, a pastor cannot replace one’s parents. It says so in Matthew 23:9. Besides, Jesus himself was called “Teacher” or “Rabbi”, never “daddy”. It does not, however, commit me to think any less of them for their belief. That is a crucial distinction, which often gets lost in translation when talking about religion. That is what has made me disdain Sunday service. It is no longer about God but about men of God.

Somewhere along that road I lost my way and joined the multitudes on the crowded highway to hell.

When I was growing up in Kahawa Wendani, a popular fridge magnet slogan was “WWJD?”—What would Jesus do? I can’t speak for Jesus, so now I ask, what should I do? The Church doesn’t call out leaders; not in the way Jesus did. It merely suggests, barely instructs.

The politician has since replaced the Almighrrryy Gaaawwdd (as my twenty-something choirmaster says it) as the most quotable figure on the pulpit. My Sunday School teacher could never have enough of saying, “The Bible is not a storybook. It is a book full of stories.”

Stories—like the Sermon on the Mount or the Parable of the Rich Fool or the Tale of the Lost Sheep—illustrate this; Jesus, a buddy-leader, shooting the breeze with the scum of the earth, the prostitutes and the tax collectors, those on the crowded path on the wrong side of the narrow way. The Bible, full of stories, the grotesque and the passionate. In 2022, I began my own story: I set fire to the rain with my mother’s mainstream church, when during the “Friends’ Sunday” service, in the lead-up to the general election, the presiding pastor told us which side to vote for. Not asked. Not recommended. Instructed. His exact words: “Tumefikiria na tunajua serikali gani itatuumiza.” ‘Tu-’ in this sense was not the ordinary mwananchi, but the ordinary kanisa. I was simply collateral in an us-versus-them, the children of light against the children of darkness. Jesus hates the sin but loves the sinner. The church is naked but it wants to advise you which clothes you should wear.

The parable of my generation—those whose guide is no longer the Holy Word but Hollywood—is that we long gave up the ghost. The spirit that possesses us instead is bottled in 250ml, 350ml and mzinga bottles. But the church below my balcony has an unmistakable scent of hope. Visitors, I see, troop in for a taste. Some come out of curiosity, many come in desperation, prayer items in tow: healing, deliverance, blessings. Politicians come not to win Jesus hearts, but the electorate’s vote.

I stopped going to church after campus, in the year of our Lord 2018, but Covid was the final Pontius Pilate moment for me. I couldn’t relate to the message, and I certainly didn’t trust the messenger. The times I remember being in church were ecstatic. The preacher—part voodoo evangelism, part dramatic mastery, self-indulgence par excellence—calling himself the mighty man of God rather than the man of the mighty God à la the self-proclaimed “Prophet” David Edward Ujiji Owuor, whose record-breaking titles are enviable, who gets roads cleaned for him. My pastor was an emotional preacher. One who rouses the crowd, gets their blood boiling, their fists flying and their throats breaking. A teacher tells, a preacher yells? Indeed.

A preacher of fire and brimstone, with the audacity of a white suburban male on a humanitarian mission to change lives in Africa, his words swarming over you from every direction. The pastor would seem possessed, losing himself in a trance, the church members drinking the Kool-Aid in a continuous chant sung by tens of hundreds of small bands. It is adulation, hero-worship, and a welcome home all wrapped together and delivered in surround sound. The way it used to be and, some would argue, still should be. Maybe that’s what keeps the congregation in their seats and the coins in the offering basket. In a sense, it’s no different from the spirit in bottles—one numbs the body, the other numbs the soul.

The church means different things to different people. To some, refuge. To others, hope. To me? A noisy, insensitive place, nestled within an estate, forcing teachings down one’s throat. It’s very hard to separate the signal from the noise. But I can no longer fathom my place without that church below my balcony. They are my windvane for Sunday mornings. I even know one song: “Nikiwa shemasi mwema, nitapewa dhahabu, nitahimiza wenzangu kwa kuwatembelea, wasiporudi zizini nitawarudiaaaa…”

Religion is faith. Faith is strong belief based on conviction rather than proof. Faith asks you to believe and share without evidence.  Faith has never been reasonable. Nor will I try to paint it as such. Because faith is not rational, it rattles us, it prods us; are you a coward because you don’t believe … or because you believe? Maybe that irrationality nourishes the emotional brain because it calms fears, answers to yearnings, and strengthens feelings of loyalty. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.

Church imetuwekea finyo

Like Prayerful Rachel and Honest Ruto, perhaps the Kenyan Church is a manifestation of our prayers getting answered, our very own Frankenstein’s monster. Perhaps, this government really is the chosen one. Isn’t it clear already in Romans 13:1? Isn’t this what you get when you put a hustler in State House? The girl I want to make my wife says, “We elected hustlers, only we are the hustle.”

We so much want to believe in the Church—that it will do good. But the scandals just won’t let us. Did you hear of the priest that was caught in a lodging with that girl? Have you heard of that pastor who asked his congregation to fast and die so they could go to heaven? And – whisper it quietly – the other one who is married but has knocked up a baby-momma?

I can no longer fathom my place without that church below my balcony.

I still periodically go to church. Wallahi. Mbele ya God. And I only go there because the service lasts as long as a Gengetone rapper’s musical career. Sometimes to pacify my mother—I still fear her. Sometimes because of a girl I like. Okay, most times. It doesn’t hurt that the congregation has a high net worth too. Have you seen the rich pray? They do not so much supplicate as they ask the Lord to do things. Chinua Achebe captures it perfectly in Anthills of the Savannah: “Charity, really, and not religion, is the opium of the privileged.”

Jesus used to be box-office. People obey Him, or they say they do. You know, Jesus is Lord.  But ever since politicians climbed the mountain, saw churches in the promised land, and prepared to harvest, I silently mourn. Lord, I pray: please protect me from your followers. Or maybe I should just join the Legio Maria church under my balcony. Juu, otherwise, kwani nita do?

“I closed the huge doors behind me and walked softly towards the altar. I was in the opium of the people. The huge cross dangled from chains fixed to the roof. I stood looking at the crucified Christ. He looked like He needed a stiff drink. He looked as if He had just had a woman from behind. He looked like He had not been to the toilet for two thousand years. He looked like I felt. That was the connection.”

~ Dambudzo Marechera, Black Sunlight. ~

Continue Reading


Micere Githae Mugo: She Held Us by the Hand

Professor Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo made the case for African Orature and Literature, performing these in ways that legitimised indigenous languages and knowledges, and inspiring us to claim our ethnic, Kenyan, African social identities which they fleshed out and encouraged us to research, explore, enrich.



Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo: She Held Us by the Hand

I will begin my tribute by claiming pride of association with Prof. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, a feminist, in the finest of this tradition: A fellow Kenyan and resident of New York, an alumnus of Kangaru High School in eastern Kenya, and Dean at the University of Nairobi, my alma mater, whence, in collaboration with other scholars at the university, in the country and the continent, she laboured to shift traditional educational paradigms and policies, forcing these to include indigenous thought and practice.

My first research project, undertaken in secondary school, was assigned to me by a student who had been taught by these daring scholars and inspired by the work of Prof. Mĩcere – Mrs Cheboi, my literature teacher. It required us over a mid-term break to talk to our grandparents or someone of their generation, request them to share a traditional story in a local African language, translate the story into English and submit the assignment for grading. This assignment, which was both a celebration of the spoken word and an attempt to buffer local languages against the tides of erasure, was transformative for me. It normalised both indigenous languages and orality as forms of knowledge acquisition and transmission, a gift I have continued to appreciate and to be challenged by as a student of orature and performance. This experience was buttressed by other oral and written literary infusions; from short stories, to plays, drama, novels and African poetry – for example the collection by David Rubadiri through which I first heard Prof. Mĩcere’s voice making visible what in Kenya has come to be known as the voice of Mwikali, Atieno, Muthoni (Wanjiku) – gendered, classed voices of everyday women made invisible by the distortions of patriarchy, politics and certain distributions of capital.

I belong to a lucky generation in Kenya. One born after the pain and struggle for independence, yet close enough to the experience to hear firsthand about it and the aspirations that drove this important struggle, and the politics that characterised the immediate post-independence period. For us, one of our most valuable bequests was the work of progressive scholars like Prof. Mĩcere.

Because of the work of these intellectuals and activists, we were assured that our locations, origins, and opinions were valuable much as we were sustained by their work, words, and sacrifices. In their responses to the exigencies of the period, they developed radical, critical canons as they responded to the challenges posed to the worth and existence of African epistemologies, the character of our newly independent states, their relationships to the continent, and more urgently, to their citizens. With colleagues and artists of the word spoken and written across the nation and continent, such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo, Alamin Mazrui, Asenath Bole Odaga, Miriam Makeba, Chinua Achebe, Ali Mazrui, Odera Oruka, Wole Soyinka, Joseph Kamarũ, Daudi Kabaka, Austin Bukenya, John Mbiti, and Pio Zirimu, they made the scholarly case for African Orature and Literature, performing these in ways that legitimised indigenous languages and knowledges, and more, inspiring us to become African griots, story tellers, singers, writers, theorists, poets, activists – to claim our ethnic, Kenyan, African social identities which they fleshed out and encouraged us to research, explore, enrich.

For us, one of our most valuable bequests was the work of progressive scholars like Prof. Mĩcere.

Each of these scholars, of these artists, found a way of raising issues that were important to them and used their place, personal skills, tools, to advocate and agitate. Prof. Mĩcere applied the power of drama, poetry and orature to guide us into a time before modern histories and find in it a glowing beauty as she recovered our suppressed memories with dignity and celebrated them with the flowers of the spoken word, her choice of medium, poetry.

On our behalf, Mĩcere Mũgo and her friends and colleagues asked tough questions that post-independence and the consequent experiences of tyrannies, dictatorships, tribalism, patriarchy, neocolonialism, and structural adjustment programmes forced to the fore. In the course of these critical interrogations that were often painful, we were fortunate to have Mĩcere who lovingly spoke to us in her poetry and in the integrity of her choices. Writing and living, she “held us by the hand”, telling us not only that it was okay, but indeed that it was our moral duty to ask all kinds of questions and demand that which had been fought for on our behalf – our “matunda ya uhuru”, the fruits of liberty and sovereignty; okay to question those who act in our name about what they do in our name; right to question how they access and dispose of our resources and, acting in solidarity, appropriate to insist that power treat our fellow human beings with dignity. Micere encouraged us to interrogate our locations, to step out of our “place” and question our leaders, expecting that our demands would not always be welcome but knowing that the cost, even if leading as it did for her in humiliation, rejection, and exile, would be worthwhile.

In the course of these critical interrogations that were often painful, we were fortunate to have Mĩcere who lovingly spoke to us in her poetry and in the integrity of her choices.

Throughout her career, Prof Mĩcere made clear that there are personal as well as global and class dimensions to issues of justice and peace, accepting long before these turbulent times that without justice there would be no peace. Allying with the disadvantaged, she questioned selective incarceration – whether of prisoners of conscience in Kenya or people of colour and the poor in New York – supported indigenous voices in Kenya and in the USA, examined the use and abuse of the environment (Onondaga Lake, the Mau, Karura Forest). Fighting and advocating for and alongside communities, she maintained both a humour and a humanity that allowed her to act in empathy and solidarity with others, including as she supported and mentored younger scholars like me.

In her writing and her lived experiences, Prof. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo invites us to be passionately involved members of our communities. It is this passionate, loving, humane reflection and engagement that I am sure she would have us apply to both the complex violence of Al-Shabaab in Kenya and police brutality in the USA, inviting us to tirelessly work for peace and humanity. To find truth, joy, and beauty in each other and in our words – both spoken and written. To imagine a better world, if only in tribute to her, her work, and her struggles. Let us commit to this pursuit.

From an homage shared in 2015 during a two-day Symposium titled “A Tireless Pursuit” at Syracuse University in honour of Prof. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo and adapted for a tribute in her memory during Pan African Women’s Day Celebrations at the Kenya National Theatre in 2023. 

Continue Reading