The death has been announced of the Kenyan-born playwright, poet, author, scholar, Africanist, literary critic and campaigner for social justice Micere Githae Mugo. Born in 1942, she was a contemporary of Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo, whom she described as a mentor.
She was also a close friend of the grand lady of Ghanaian letters, who died on 31 May this year.
A source close to Mugo told Asaase News that she died in the United States today (Friday 30 June 2023) after a long illness.
Born Madeleine Micere Githae in Baricho, a village in the Kirinyaga District of Kenya’s Central Province, she was reputedly the first scholar from East Africa to receive a doctorate in literature. Her own poetry and drama drew heavily on African oral storytelling traditions.
She was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, including a doctorate in letters from the University of Nairobi, the Flora Nwapa Award for Writing Excellence and the Distinguished Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Award from the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
She also received the Distinguished Africanist Award and the Nelson Mandela Leadership Award. In 2021, the Royal African Society honoured her with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Visions of Africa
Mugo was first exposed to stage drama, performance and puppetry at Embu Girls’ Intermediate School (popularly known as “Kangarũ”) from 1952 to 1956 and then at Alliance Girls’ High School, one of Kenya’s best-known single-sex secondary schools.
Among the literary influences on her writing other than Aidoo were the Sierra Leonean scholar Eldred Durosimi Jones, the pioneering Nigerian playwright Flora Nwapa, Grace Ogot, Kenya’s first published female anglophone author, the Ugandan poet-anthropologist Okot p’Bitek and Chinua Achebe, who encouraged her to publish the writings that formed her first poetry collection, Daughter of My People, Sing! (1976).
She attended Makerere University in Uganda, from which she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1966, followed by the University of New Brunswick, Canada, where she received a Master’s degree in literature in 1973 and a PhD.
Her doctoral thesis formed the basis of her best-known critical work, Visions of Africa (published 1978), which considers how a range of female novelists present the notion of Africa. In 1980 she became the first woman in Kenya to become the dean of an academic faculty – the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nairobi.
Exiled by Moi
Mugo was famously the co-author (with Ngugi wa Thiong’o) of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, a classic of political theatre that centres around the life of the Mau Mau independence fighter. The play was first produced in 1974.
She became a high-profile political activist campaigning against human rights abuses by the government of Daniel arap Moi and was forced into exile in 1982. She moved to teach first at the University of Zimbabwe, where she worked alongside Ama Ata Aidoo, and later in the United States.
Mugo was appointed professor emerita in the Department of African American Studies at Syracruse University, New York State, in 1993. She retired from academia in 2015.
The East African Standard listed her among the top 100 people who most influenced Kenya in the 20th century.
Editor’s note: This article was amended on 9 July 2023 to reflect Ama Ata Aidoo’s year of birth: 1940.
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