So I do not grieve Micere Mugo as I would a close friend. Instead, I grieve her as my mile stone. Since the day I heard her speak in person, almost ten years ago at the University of Nairobi, she has been my intellectual north star. My guiding light. When I heard her weave her ideas with her poetry, and engage the audience in her performance, I knew that that is what I wanted to be; not necessarily an oraturist like her, but an intellectual who weaves humanity into her thought, relations and politics. And then being in literature, many of my colleagues were taught by her and were friends with her. So her influence on me is probably what she aspired for, which is to influence humanity through humanity.
So the fact that I was so deeply influenced by Micere Mugo is evidence that she was a thinker, which is evidence of her power.
That is why Mwalimu Micere is such a threat. And not her alone. In Kenya, anyone who dares to think is a threat. Her literary son, Binyavanga Wainaina, who organized the Kwani? 10th Anniversary that invited Micere Mugo, once wrote that in Kenya, "we have learned that ideas are dangerous. To innovate is to threaten power." So during this period of mourning for Mwalimu, I decided that maybe I should maintain my piece, since I did not personally know her that well.
But right from the beginning, I suspected that that my position was a problem.
You see, mourning someone in intimate terms, especially when one is not a close relative or friend of the recently transitioned, can sometimes go awry. It can personalize their story too much that we withdraw them from the historical and the political context, yet the point of memorializing those who have left us is to enter them in the annals of history. From what I could see, the memoralizing of Mwalimu was getting a little too personalized for my comfort.
I began to notice this with the media focus on Micere Mugo's bio-graphy immediately after the sad news broke that she had left us. I've deliberately separated "bio" as a prefix, because the media reports were largely on what she did, where she was born, to whom she was born, where she went to school, whom she married and divorced, the children she had, and how she died. Yes, how she died. She had battled cancer for over two decades, had triumphed once and battled the second round for almost two decades. But somehow, the media made cancer the hero of her story, to the extent that one journalist penned a dirge to bone cancer rather than to her. Another media house reported that she had "succumbed to cancer," when actually she had bravely fought it. And had lived for a full eighty years. As a cancer survivor myself, I know the unnecessary drama that circles around cancer patients and never leads to an actual conversation about the stress, and mostly pollution behind cancer, and worse, the extremely high cost of treatment. In fact, Kenya has a deliberate policy of turning cancer treatment into a commercial product called "medical tourism," meaning that the government's focus is only on treating the rich.
I seem to be digressing from Mwalimu, but I'm not, because my point still remains that in Kenya, our words and ideas are not allowed to point beyond ourselves. They are channeled to dead ends of pity where we can no longer think about society and what to do about society. And that's what the media was doing to Mwalimu Micere.
But personalization can also be sympathetic. Even when that happens, it is no less depoliticizing. Worse, it is more difficult to critique. That's the liberal depoliticization. In Mwalimu Micere's case, it came in the form of praising Mwalimu Micere for her political resistance when, as the Kenyan capitalist story goes, she didn't need to. This line was echoed by the veteran novelist and academic Austin Bukenya. Bukenya points to Micere's fairly privileged background and relatives in high places, and then says that "she could have lived a life of glamour, affluence and tranquility in her beloved Kenya." In a group I'm in, people reacted to an extensive obituary which revealed Micere's rejection of an offer for land from the government by saying what a nice person she was to have sacrificed so much.
This thinking is more insidious than the media one, because it is difficult to critique without appearing nasty. However, the problem remains that it fails to understand that resistance to power is often a political decision; not a moral one. Morality is individual; it is about being good. But political decision comes from a consciousness of how one's individual actions and destiny are connected to those of other people. If anyone knew this, it was Micere Mugo. Her struggle for Utu, or Ubuntu, that sees individuals as inextricably tied to society and vice versa, were the themes of her life, her poetry, essays and performance. Micere Mugo's intellectual positions were therefore profoundly political. If she was simply moral, or a good person, she might have followed the trajectory that Bukenya says was available to her.
This point is extremely important, because right now, the bulk of Kenya's resistance to abuse of power is stuck in capitalist moralism embodied in, especially, the liberal academia and civil society. It so happens that at the same time I was concerned about the depoliticization of Micere Mugo, Okoiti Omtatah, himself also a thespian, was talking on different forums about the heist of the Kenyan public through fictitious debt. Omtatah's message has been profoundly political and philosophical. He has talked about how the Kenyan public mind needs to be revived through political education, so that Kenyans understand the relationship between how we vote and our financial mess. However, it has been frustrating to watch the interviewers miss the political nature of his message. Instead, the conversation goes the way that Austin Bukenya's tribute to Micere Mugo went: we marvel at the fact that Omtatah did not cave in to withdrawing the legal challenge to the Finance Act in exchange for a hefty sum of money. We praise him as an individual for resisting corruption, when Omtatah is asking us to move our gaze from him to the social issues he is pointing at.
At the heart of this fascination with personal sacrifice for the country is the fundamentally Euro-Christian message embodied in a Jesus who gave up his riches in glory to save sinful creatures of humanity. I profoundly disagree with this reading of Jesus because, like for Mwalimu Micere and Omtatah, it depoliticizes Jesus. Jesus was born in the Roman Empire and his message challenged the political establishment at the time, especially the comprador elite in the form of the Pharisees. He was subjected to a political execution, rather than moral stoning, after a corrupt judicial process. That political aspect of Jesus's story has been dumbed down, especially by the evangelical and charismatic denominations that preach a no-pain Christianity. That no-pain Christianity has suppressed the value of mourning even in Christian worship itself, because mourning interferes with the always-happy faith that they preach.
The result is that this charismatic Christianity presents a Jesus who is suicidal and whom Christians must emulate by ignoring the political nature of our suffering. This message was projected by the Kenyan media when Dr. Mogusu, a young doctor, died from Covid after working on contract, without receiving his pay, and without resources to pay for admission to ICU when he got sick. The Nation played down the political issues surrounding Dr. Mogusu's death with the headline "Young doctor who gave us his life," next to a picture of a smiling Mogusu. When Mogusu's colleagues tried to use his plight to resist the cynicism of the government in its treatment of health workers, they were lectured by the then CS, Mutahi Kagwe, on how the government expected doctors to mourn their colleague properly - which in essence meant not mentioning the problems of the healthcare system which caused Mogusu's death.
I have argued elsewhere that this action of Kagwe demonstrates that mourning is a political act which empire seeks to contain by offering us the concept of "sacrifice." With this concept, empire tells us that victims of its injustice "gave their lives," or suffered "when they didn't need to." However, political resistance despite knowing the risk of persecution does not necessarily mean that you are looking for the worst to happen to you. It means you are living in an unjust society where you cannot do ordinary nice things like healing the sick and teaching the poor without being crucified. In such a context, people need to change the society's political structure. However, to divert the people from arriving at that conclusion, empire praises its victims for giving up their lives, the way Nancy Pelosi thanked George Floyd for giving up his life for justice. Similarly, to go on about Mwalimu Micere's "sacrifice" without an accompanying analysis of the politics to which her actions and ideas pointed is a form of depoliticization.
The worse part of depoliticization, however well intended, is that it leaves the ground fallow for a major attack on moral grounds. That attack would come, not surprisingly, from Henry Indangasi, professor emeritus of the famous department of Literature of the University of Nairobi. Unlike me who was losing patience with the moralist tributes to Mwalimu Micere, Indangasi was profoundly irked, but for different reasons. While I was concerned that the fixation on Micere's biography was too much, Indangasi felt that that fixation still wasn't enough, and sought to push it to the extreme by arguing that the sacrifices which Mwalimu Micere is credited for were self-serving, if not immoral.
The political project of Indangasi's tirade against Mwalimu Micere is simple, and more than that, is explicitly announced. His beef with her, in his words, is that she saw literature as "almost exclusively about politics." What should concern us here is Indangasi's definition of politics. In Indangasi's view, politics is something that can be separated and isolated from other facets of life. In other words, politics is individual, not social, and we can only relate socially through institutions; not with each other through relationships or as a collective.
This individualist concept of politics leads Indangasi to accuse Mwalimu Micere of failing to "draw the line that separates the personal from the political, or if you like, the private from the public." But here, the don contradicts his definition of politics as an individual phenomenon that can be isolated, because by contrasting politics to the personal and the private, he is essentially saying that politics is necessarily social and public.
Thus we witness here a convoluted discussion of what politics means. At one point, Indangasi sees politics as individual and therefore requiring divorce from thinking, at another point he sees politics as public and requiring distinction from the private. In the end, Indangasi has no choice but to reveal what his agenda really is, which is to assert institutions of the (colonial) state as the sole site of power, which in this case, would be the University of Nairobi and its Literature department. For him, the only politics available to Kenyans is through accessing institutions, like that of academia. That is why he concludes that literature is an "institution," which essentially implies that human beings can only be literary if they do so through academia. And we know the results of such politics. We have heard new literary voices dismissed as "literary gangsters" or Kenyan writers being blasted for producing substandard, rather than "world class" literature. Or worse, graduate students at the University of Nairobi's Literature Department being failed because they didn't bow to the dictates of either the gurus of stylistics or of oral literature.
In other words, Indangasi is promoting a particular political ideology while pretending not to do so, and ranting about those thinkers who are not so pretentious as to present themselves as apolitical. His ideology is, in fact, what Mwalimu Micere explicitly disagreed with. Mwalimu Micere belonged to the persuasion of Africana existential philosophy in which, to borrow the words of the philosopher Lewis Gordon, politics is about ordinary life. How we love, how we eat, how we die and how we are mourned, which are the subjects of literature, are profoundly political. In fact, Gordon argues, oppression is the imposition of extraordinary circumstances on ordinary life. From this view, politics is not individual views of power, as Indangasi suggests, but the collective discussion of, and decisions about, what power should do.
Mwalimu Micere beautifully articulated this view of politics through the concept of Utu or Ubuntu, where who we are and who others are is inextricably linked. One memorable articulation of this is found in preface to her poetry collection My mother's poem and other songs, where she wrote: "A few have even asked me whether I ever write poetry on love and other 'non-political' themes. My response has been that within the context of exploitation and powerlessness experienced by the majority in Africa, the so-called Third World and the rest of this planet called earth, love is a very political theme. I say, for the poor, there is no private space to even engage in love making!"
It is this view of politics that has made me use Micere Mugo's poems in my theory and political classes, rather than the typically literature classes where we would do stylistic analysis that Indangasi is renowned for. In very simple language, Mwalimu's poems articulate a political philosophy where love, solidarity and collective action are the foundation of healthy politics. In my classes, I insist on students reading her poems aloud, especially because that very act of audience participation and refrain in Mwalimu Micere's poems is a political act that challenges the individualization and institutionalization of politics and knowledge.
Which brings me back to the lesson I learned from my failed advocacy against CBC, which is that Kenya is profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-political, and it does so through controlling speech and ideas, so that speech and ideas never transcend the individual. Mwalimu Micere devoted her life to fighting against this idiocy, and she was not alone. Binyavanga did it. Yvonne Owuor does it in through her fiction and numerous essays on the imagination. Parselo Kantai wrote about it in his essay "The Redykylass Generation." ES Atieno Odhiambo called us to reflect on it in his famous article on the "ideology of order," which he opens with reflections on how Jomo Kenyatta and his government shut down thinking through ideas of development and through state violence. Keguro Macharia has also pointed at it through his essay on the particular vernacular. Even Taban lo Liyong was pointing to it in the 1960s, but his message has been drowned in the hurt feelings of Kenyan academia following his statement wondering if East Africa was a literary desert. These are just some of the other Kenyans, many of them on social media, who are getting tired of the suffocation of ideas and the imagination as a way of suppressing politics from below in Kenya.
The weapon in this war on politics is the argument that the academy should be insulated from politics, or the idea that discussing the plight of the poor and the oppressed is the monopoly of Marxism. This Cold War framework was imposed on Kenya through the university from the 60s to 80s, when Kenyan higher education policy and the teaching of social sciences was driven by British government and American philanthropic foundations. Aspects of this intellectual engineering have been discussed by scholars like Mwenda Kithinji who looks at the political intrigues behind the establishment of the University of East Africa. So while Indangasi may have "caught feelings," as we say in Kenya, about Mwalimu Micere's "spurious dichotomy between the anti-imperialist and pro-imperialist intellectuals in Kenya," the reality is that imperial interests in Kenyan education remain a big concern, as I learned when studying the ideology behind CBC.
Indangasi is promoting a politics of anti-politics that functions by denying people's political agency and reducing them to their biography. And we are witnessing that extension of anti-politics in the supporting arguments about the need for two sides of the issue, or the need to accept criticism, as if Indangasi was simply criticizing Mwalimu Micere. Such propaganda is related to the Kenyan ideology that depicts disagreeing someone as an attack on who they are rather than an engagement with what they are saying, which again sends us back to the biological anti-politics which Indangasi was promoting. It is also based on a Kenyan fascination with performance of thinking as opposed to actual thinking, where Kenyans judge thinking not by the ideas and the conversation but by whether it meets superficial criteria of having two positions at polar opposites. For such people, critique is for the sake of being contrary rather than for advancing a conversation.
Another fallacy being thrown in support of essay is to punch holes into whether Micere Mugo made sacrifices for her country or not. Apart from this logic being based on the frivolous, imperial and Euro-Christian idea of self-sacrifice and falling on one's sword as the ultimate expression of love for one's country, it forces us into the awkward and toxic position of using Moi's persecution of his political critics to judge a person's ideas or legacy. That manipulation into using oppression as the foundation of justice is absurd and unacceptable.
Yet others, including journalists of Nation, are telling us that those who disagree with Indangasi should respond to the facts he has provided. Facts? What facts? The article is based on his interpretation of events. If these were facts, they would be verifiable from an alternative source. But conveniently, those who would counteract his "facts" are not there. Bob and Sally Mugabe are gone; and now so is Mwalimu Micere. Since we were not there, how are we to give our account of what happened? And that's the point, is it not? To put us in a corner where we cannot respond because we were not there, and so we have to take Indangasi's word for it? How is that not an assertion of power?
As others have pointed out, Indangasi had over a decade to refute Mwalimu Micere's account of her exile when those who were there could respond to his accusations, but he conveniently chooses to do so now. These are the questions that Nation should have asked. It is interesting that the newspaper accepted Indangasi's account without asking for empirical proof, when accusing the government of corruption makes journalists cringe and ask for documentation. In other words, Nation is asking us to dismiss a woman's life corpus of work because a man belatedly provided facts about events that occurred in the 1980s.
And it is important to note that Indangasi's tirade is based on a very limited time of Mwalimu Micere's life, not on her ideas and not on the last three decades of her work. After all, in his words, he is not talking about her work. He announces in the opening line of his article that he is reacting to what is being said about Mwalimu Micere. But more than that, Indangasi is not giving us facts. He's telling a story. The facts - his or any other - do not really matter. What his article is meant to do is plant doubt and put us who use her work on the defense. Because in Kenyanese, thinking isn't about people in conversation; rather it's about the winning narrative.
And that is the crux of the matter. Indangasi is angry less at Micere Mugo, and more at us who speak about her. He is not providing facts; he is telling a story based on the very weak idea of "sacrifice" as an anchor of legitimacy. As I've already said, self-sacrifice is an imperial narrative that we should not apply to Jesus, let alone Mwalimu Micere. But Indangasi so owns that narrative, to the point of suggesting he too could be a martyr. And so he declares: "If I am crucified for saying what I am about to say, so be it." No, professor. We're not crucifying you. We believe that nobody, not even Jesus, deserved to be crucified. We do not believe that the scars of crucifixion are a mark of pride. They are the scars of pain. A reminder to end oppression. So no, we're not crucifying you. We're holding you to account for what you have said.
Likewise, we will not descend to refuting this article by solely pointing to what a nasty person Indangasi can sometimes be. That response keeps the conversation exactly where Indangasi wanted it: in the sphere of the personal.
I wanted to write my memorization of Micere Mugo after the send-off rites for Mwalimu Micere Mugo were over, because I wanted to play along with this personalizing anti-politics of Kenya. I wanted to wait because I feared being told not to challenge the political vernacular while people were still mourning. But after reading Indangasi's article, I realized that if our mourning for Micere Mugo is not a political act, we are going to bury the memory of people like Micere Mugo, and even Stephen Mogusu and many others, under tantalizing and nasty bio-graphies from media and academia that deny them their voices beyond their person. And that act perpetuates the de-politicizing of our society which Micere Mugo fought against. If, as Adorno said, thinking points beyond itself, then Micere Mugo was simply a thinker, and what Kenya badly needs is simply thinking. "Deep thinking" is a fallacy where the focus is on respecting institutional protocols of thinking rather than on what the thinking is pointing us to. And despite itself, the demand for deep thinking points beyond itself to a war on politics.
By contrast Mwalimu Micere Mugo fought for our right to politics exercised through speech, through thinking and through the imagination. Clearly, that struggle continues. And thankfully, Micere Mugo has not died. She has multiplied. Ase. Ase. Ase.