The eminent Kenyan playwright, poet, and literary critic Prof. Micere Githae Mugo has passed on at the age of 81. She died on June 30, 2023. According to Kenya’s public television KTN, she died of cancer. Her passing comes as a shock and is a tremendous loss to the African literary community.
Kenyan-American novelist Mukoma wa Ngugi remarked on Twitter:
I have known Prof. Micere all my life, from The Trial of Dedan Kimathi play rehearsals in Limuru in the 70’s, to meeting up in Syracuse. She is the only person that I have met who truly practiced Ubuntu/utu in all she did, whether political or personal. These are sad times.
Prof. Mugo’s work is instrumental in shaping African literature and politics. Her contributions to African drama and feminist thought is significant. Her writing centered a traditional African, Pan-African and feminist perspective, and drew upon Indigenous African cultural traditions. Prof. Mugo’s life and work continues to inspire so many of us today.
Prof. Mugo was born in 1942 in Baricho, Kirinyaga District, Kenya to two progressive teachers who were politically active in Kenya’s fight for independence. She attended Alliance Girls High School, where she became one of the first black students to be allowed to enroll in the academy.
Prof Mugo received her B.A. at Makerere University in 1966, her M.A. at the University of New Brunswick in 1973, her Ph.D. at the University of Toronto in 1978. She began teaching at the University of Nairobi in 1973, where she became the first female dean in Kenya a few years later. She also taught at the University of Zimbabwe.
Besides her academic career, Prof. Mugo was a staunch political activist who fought against human rights abuses in Kenya. However, in 1982, Prof.Mugo and her two young daughters were forced to depart Kenya after she became a target of government harassment during the attempted coup of the Daniel Arap Moi government. Mugo’s Kenyan citizenship was taken away. Thankfully, she was given Zimbabwean citizenship and left Kenya. The East African Standard listed her one of the 100 most influential people in Kenya in 2002.
Prof. Mugo’s publications include six books, a play co-authored with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and three monographs. Some of her acclaimed works include The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (co-authored with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o), My Mother’s Song and Other Poems, and The imperative of Utu / Ubuntu in Africana scholarship. The Trial of Dedan Kimathi is one of the most influential plays of 20th century African literature.
In some of her recent work, she continued to explore African indigenous knowledge for ideas about ethical ways of centering the human as a form of thought. In a recent lecture titled “Decolonizing Scholarship: Excavating Indigenous Sites of Knowledge, Using utu as a Theoretical Framework,” she proposes the idea of utu or ubuntu, which means the essence of being human. Utu is how we assert our humanity and affirm the humanity of others. She called on scholars to excavate Indigenous knowledge such as orature, literature, and film which has been violently replaced by the colonial education system.
During her later years, Prof. Mugo was a foremost literary critic and professor of literature in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University. She was the founder and President of the Pan African Community of Central New York where she initiated volunteer programs in two prisons. Prof. Mugo received the Lifetime Achievement award in African Literature by the Royal African Society in 2021, a well-deserved prize for all her endeavors throughout the decades.
We are deeply saddened by the news of her passing. We extend our heartfelt condolences to her family and friends, and above all, we celebrate her life as she joins the ancestors.
May her soul rest in peace.