Micere Mugo – Born into privilege to speak for the voiceless

Professor Micere Mugo is an accomplished writer and a firebrand activist who was exiled in the early 1980s for her anti-government rhetoric. She was the first woman to receive a PhD in East Africa and was named ‘Distinguished Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Scholar’ at the Dar es Salaam University, Tanzania in 2012. Mugo’s publications include six books, one co-authored play, eight co-edited supplementary readers for Zimbabwean schools and an edited journal, Third World in Perspective.  She has contributed many chapters in various books, three monographs and various internationally anthologised poems, numerous reviews, interviews and citations.

The mere mention of Professor Micere Mugo’s name conjures up images of the golden era of academia at the University of Nairobi. It was a period epitomised by a fearlessly vocal band of intellectuals bent on stretching the limits of national expression in the repressive environment prevailing in President Moi’s Nyayo era. The outcome? A ruthless clampdown in which Mugo and other fiercely independent colleagues were scattered into exile.

Author and academic Mugo embodies the spirit of freedom that she was born into during the heady days of Kenya’s struggle for independence from British colonialists. Not even the physical alienation of life in exile has snuffed out the fighting spirit that provoked President Moi’s security apparatus to hound her out of the country along with her colleagues Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Prof Shadrack Gutto, Ngugi wa Mirie and others.

Mugo talks fondly and nostalgically about her roots, who she is, what defines her and what keeps her going. Growing up, Mugo was an introvert and an avid bookworm. She came from a family of nine similarly gifted siblings. Her parents and maternal grandmother ensured she became involved in various activities to get her out of her cocoon.

“Going to boarding school taught me to appreciate those around me,” she says.

Mugo was the first African girl to gain admission to Limuru Girls’ School, which until then was an almost exclusively white institution. She did her ‘O’ Levels there and proceeded to Alliance Girls’ High School to study and sit for her ‘A’ Levels.

She graduated at the top of her class and was offered a scholarship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom, but opted for Makerere University instead.

There were more firsts to follow. Mugo was East African Examinations Council’s first African Chief Examiner of English and Literature, the first woman to receive a PhD in East Africa and the first female faculty Dean at the University of Nairobi in 1978.

Although Mugo believes in self-confidence, she says from the bottom of her heart that she never thinks of herself as a role model.


Words of Wisdom

•   “Power is the ability to inspire and energize people.”

•   “When you want to cry and feel sorry for yourself, stop and look around you and see what you can be thankful for.”

•   “Be optimistic, it’s not the end of the world. Don’t go into places and bring bad energy; if you’re not careful you will be a witch – looking and being angry.”

•   “Greet people even when they don’t answer back, and pass on good energy.”

•   “Learn to forgive and to move on; don’t be tied down to bad experiences.”

•   “Learn that there are many stars in the sky and you’re not the only one.”

•   “Don’t give because you are expecting a reward.”

•   “Self-belief is not being egocentric; don’t pass a vote of no confidence on yourself.”

•   “Don’t divert from who you are and what you believe.”


Fortunately, the patriarchal socialisation of the time was not acted out in her family, allowing her mother and sisters to distinguish themselves. Mugo’s father embraced the idea of empowering the girl-child. His children were just his children: never boys, never girls – all equal. A leader and a teacher in the community, he believed boys and girls could achieve the same things and hastily dismissed stereotypes, telling Mugo and her sisters: “You are my boys.”

“I was also very lucky to have a grand-dad who was a teacher and preacher. He believed boys and girls were equal,” she recalls.

Mugo’s life is a paradox in itself; born into privilege and opportunity, she somehow became a voice for the voiceless.

“We had workers in the house and on the farm. However, we were not allowed to ask them to do chores for us,” she says, acknowledging her privileged upbringing.

Mugo fled Kenya into exile when her girls were 6 and 5. “My daughters were my closest friends and confidantes. They were my little comrades,” she recalls. People often mistook her daughters Mumbi and Njeri for twins.

Mumbi, now in her late 30s and Njeri, who died in 2012 after a battle with ovarian cancer bravely borne, have been her rock.

Mugo went through a season when she had to deal with a sense of double rejection: firstly from her country and secondly from her matrimonial partner. In the early years of marriage she filed for divorce and soon thereafter was forced to flee with her young children into exile in Zimbabwe. She would later relocate to the US.

For Mugo, the journey of her life is a continuum. There are valleys, hills to climb, sharp bends to navigate and straight stretches, all interwoven into one. She has achieved much, for which she is grateful.

Mugo’s defining moment? Going into exile. The flip side of what was meant to destroy her catapulted her onto the global scene and into a new realm of thinking. “Though it was sad and I was at the time concerned about taking my children to exile, I have learned many lessons in forgiveness,” Mugo says. A lot of good has come from what was once a low point in her life.

She is extremely proud of her daughter Mumbi, a formidable organiser and activist for workers’ rights who assists in the area of disadvantaged children by offering them computer skills.

Mugo admits that it is sometimes upsetting to realise that the international community has recognised Mumbi’s efforts more than her own country, Kenya.

Raised in Kenya in the early 1940s and 1950s, she remembers the world as being incredibly loving. In those days, parents took the proverbial saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ quite literally. As such, if a child erred, any adult could discipline him or her.

Today, individualism, rules the world. No one bothers to set another person’s child straight, and everyone selfishly minds their own business. She advises, “Aim for the collective good of others and learn to be part of a larger group.”

Mugo joined Syracuse University’s Department of African American Studies in 1993 and has served as Director of Graduate Studies, receiving over 12 awards in the process.

She believes in the intrinsic goodness of people. “Everybody requires a second chance; perhaps even a third or fourth.” As such, she hopes to continue with community work and activism, given the problems all around; she has an interest in working with young people. Youth in the United States, which she has called home for many years, go through so much.

In the US, there are many marginalised, poor, forgotten folks: homeless black communities on drugs, or black men in prison for petty crimes. “I do a lot of work in the prisons,” she says. She visits often to encourage inmates that there are alternatives to crime. She also helps to coach those slow in reading. These are some of the ways she gives back to society.

What is it like in the US? For Mugo, the challenge of living abroad is the constant and painful reminder that you are an outsider. “You’re trying to be a part of the world and contribute to it, but it can never replace your actual home,” she says.

She further notes that racism is institutionalised, as was seen even during Barack Obama’s presidency. While the US has come a long way to reach the point of electing its first African American president, racism continues to linger. “As an African woman with an accent, teaching in Syracuse University, the knowledge that I am spoken of differently helps to put things in perspective.”

She reiterates, “You can’t do it alone,” adding that you should surround yourself with people who understand you, not people who pull you down.

What keeps her going? Having a passion and belief in what she does; loving what she does. “I don’t know how people get up and do what they do if they don’t love it,” she says.

Mugo advises, “Stop mourning and count your blessings. I did that when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which returned after my daughter passed on.” She has since learned to focus on what is good in her life.

Her close family and friends have continued to inspire her along the way.

She is grateful to Prof Eldred Jones of Fourah Bay College who read her maiden manuscript and was her first publisher. She is also a huge admirer of authors Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin.

Mugo is disgusted by the arrogance in elitism. She points out that being educated does not give anyone room to look down on others.

She recalls sadly that some of her own classmates were not able to continue their education for lack of school fees. “With positions such as I hold, it is important to humanise the knowledge and skills we have and accommodate others along our journey.”

Mugo retired from Syracuse University’s Department of African American studies, where she had taught for 22 years, in April 2015.

Now in her mid-70s, Mugo is looking forward to settling down to write. She is eager to get away from the busy life of schooling and research. “I want to do what’s creative: reflect, read and write.”

She continues to write and speak in public, and is often called on speaking engagements to share from her rich and vast experience.

Share this post

Comment on post

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *