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Tribute to a mother of feminist masculinity – Micere Mugo

This speech[1] is included in the anthology of Professor Mutunga’s speeches, writings, and judgments, ‘Beacons of Judiciary Transformation’ co-edited by Prof. Sylvia Kang’ara, Duncan Okello and Kwamchetsi Makokha. His speech highlights the fact that feminism is about being but is not necessarily limited to one’s assigned sex. It is a summons to interrogate the deliberate and presumptuous framing of debates on feminism to exclude men even when they are integral to unraveling entrenched concepts of hegemonic masculinity.

His own feminism is rooted in the tense national political debates at the Senior Common Room at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s when the environment was growing increasingly hostile to dissent. Professor Mugo, a pioneer Kenyan woman scholar, writer and activist, challenged the boundaries of intellectual debate by drawing attention to silences around gender roles and their implication on personal commitment to avowed ideals. Introducing gender debates within the context of detention without trial and assassinations challenged intellectuals to re-examine the depth of their commitment to their ideology.

She had signaled to her colleagues that in the larger scheme of politics and moral authority, it would serve intellectuals’ struggles well if they modeled their social existence to be consistent with their espoused ideologies because ultimately, individuals are social actors in their own personal spaces. An intrigued Mutunga pursued Prof Mugo’s concerns and received a reading list that introduced him to feminist masculinity, which he eventually relates to her ideology and his own.

Professor Mutunga’s life-long education, reflection, self-assessment and struggles with feminist masculinity have significantly influenced his professional journey, particularly his work in human rights advocacy over three decades.

So, who is Professor Micere Githae Mugo? I am sure we all have answers to that question. I have one, too.

Distinguished Professor Micere Githae Mugo gave the distinguished Nyerere Lecture 2012 at the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. Another distinguished Professor, a fellow Nyerereist, Pan-Africanist, and a rebel/ revolutionary intellectual,[2] Issa Shivji read Professor Mugo’s citation. Professor Shivji, the Mwalimu Nyerere Professor of Pan-African Studies, was Professor Mugo’s host and introduced Professor Mugo by asking the audience, “Do you want to know who Micere Githae Mugo is?” Well, borrowing the Latin dictum that translates in English as “whatever is well said by another is mine,”

I say with Shivji this:

        She is an intellectual, not an impostor

        She is a feminist, not a feminine

         She is a fighter, not a fraudster

   She is a dedicated teacher, not an academic entrepreneur

   She is a guide to her students,

   A leader to her compatriots,

   And a comrade to her colleagues.[3]

I will not be able to reflect and glorify all of Professor Mugo’s attributes eloquently captured by Professor Shivji: her intellectualism, radicalism, her professionalism, feminism, Pan-Africanism, nationalism, courage, leadership and comradeship. I will very briefly glorify and reflect upon her feminism, her courage, her ideology, politics, and intellectualism.

Where do I begin? When the Literature Department nurtured dissent at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s, and when I joined the Faculty of Law, University of Nairobi, in late 1974, over a year after Professor Mugo, who then taught at the Department of Literature – by far the most radical department in the entire university. Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o was the head of the department. John Ruganda, a professor from Uganda, ran the Free Travelling Theatre by university students, which staged radical plays in schools all over the country. The Free Travelling Theatre seized through innovation, invention, and brilliant tactics freedoms of assembly, speech and movement then proscribed by the KANU dictatorship. Through this theatre, we had our academic freedom. Professor Mugo’s election as Dean of the Faculty of Arts reinforced the movements on the campus.

The Kanu-Moi dictatorship was determined to extinguish the only flame of dissent in Kenya through murder, torture, detentions without trial, imprisonment for long periods, disappearances, and by the exiling of patriots. The politics of the Cold War gave the dictatorship a further lease of life.

From May 1982, the University of Nairobi, the only base for dissent and rebellion against the Kanu-Moi dictatorship was attacked by the regime. The rebels/revolutionary intellectuals (lecturers and students) were the targets of this regime’s rage. Professor Mugo brilliantly captures the struggles of the 1970s and 1980s in Chapter 1 of her book[4] entitled: The Role of African Intellectuals: Critical Reflections of a Female Scholar, University of Nairobi, 1973-1982 and Their Relevance to the US Academy. The rebellious and revolutionary spirit of the Department of Literature quickly infected other departments, particularly political science, sociology, history and law. Professors Mugo and Wa Thiong’o became the ideological, intellectual, and political mentors and leaders of a rapidly growing radical movement supported by students and staff of the university. We did not lose the resistance. We simply retreated, and from 1991, we slowly but surely strangled the dictatorship that had arrogantly announced it would be in power for 100 years. The vision of these struggles is fundamentally decreed by the 2010 Constitution.

In Chapter 1 of her book,337 Professor Mugo chronicles ‘The Fight against Patriarchy’ at the University of Nairobi. This was her experience when she decided to run for the office of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts: sexism by ‘so-called male leaders towards their female counterparts’, sexual harassment, intimidation, violence, discrimination, abuse, “stalking, life-threatening anonymous telephone calls”. Her election as Dean “was instructive of how viciously guarded the monopoly of male power and custodianship of knowledge had become in the academy”. Although “the patriarchal mindset and violent misogyny” did not apply to all her male colleagues, particularly the progressive male colleagues, whom she rightly observes were advocates of gender equality, she correctly adds,“ which is not to claim that they were altogether liberated from socialised and internalised sexism”.

Difficult dialogue

This was the context within which Professor Mugo in the Senior Common Room of the university, surrounded almost entirely by male colleagues, old and young, posed the following fundamental questions: Do you men cook? Do you wash your underwear? Do you make up your beds? Do you clean your beddings? Do you change your baby’s nappies? Do you agree to be driven by your girlfriends and spouses? How do you treat your maids in their terms and conditions of service?

The Senior Common Room was always a venue for debate and, as young lecturers, we would seek out eminent professors, ask questions, beg them to read think pieces we wrote or proposals to be submitted to donors in search of research funds. There were the intellectuals like Okot p’Bitek who would ask a question that would result in laughter followed by in-depth reflection. He once asked the gathering whether any of its members had seen a bishop who was not fat. Excited that I knew one who was not, I answered in the affirmative. Then followed a question from p’Bitek that simply floored me: “Oh, yes he is not fat, but have you noticed that his skin is as soft as a baby’s bottom?” I am quite certain the late p’Bitek must turn over continuously in his grave in a church cemetery in Gulu, Uganda. His attacks on religion and its leaders were common in the Senior Common Room.

Let me get back to Professor Mugo’s questions. I do not recall any man answering those questions although where I sat I could feel the collective anger of patriarchy to those questions. At first I wondered why she had asked questions whose answers were obvious, and I guess that was what was going through our collective patriarchal heads. Without waiting for answers, Professor Mugo left the room. I did not wait to hear the reactions from my male and female colleagues because I had a class. Eventually, I sought out Professor Mugo and asked her why she had asked those questions. She patiently and persuasively answered my questions, giving me my first lecture ever on feminism and feminist masculinity. Beyond this initial lecture, I got a reading list of feminists and their critics. I never stopped reading, reflecting, and conducting self assessment.

Professor Mugo’s feminism is part of her rebellious and revolutionary ideology, politics, and intellectualism. Two of her poems, ‘To be a Feminist is’338 and ‘The Woman’s Poem’,339 are excellent examples of this interaction. She co-authored The Trial of Dedan Kimaathi with compatriot Ngugi wa Thiong’o, glorifying the hero of the Mau Mau War of Independence who led the Land and Freedom Army against the might of British imperialism in Kenya. She was a great leader of the movement for academic freedom at the university, mobilising staff and students to resist the Kanu-Kenyatta-Moi dictatorships. She courageously resisted the intimidation and oppression by those dictatorships.

There is a critical aspect of Professor Mugo’s ideological, political, and intellectual radicalism and patriotism that I must reiterate. In Kenya, the divisions on the basis of ethnicity, race, region, religion, gender, generation, and clan have been the hallmarks of political mobilisation in the country. At the university, these divisions existed and became more pronounced in the Kanu-Moi dictatorship. They continue to be. Professor Mugo and others, such as Professors Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kimani Gecau, Maina Kinyatti, Kamoji Wachiira, among others, were not expected to resist the Kanu-Kenyatta dictatorship of 1963-1978 because they were members of President Kenyatta’s ethnic community. What the regime saw as a betrayal of the ethnic community of the President was severely punished. Professor Mugo has always been a Pan-Africanist, a nationalist, and her vision, and those of other heroines and heroes of our struggles for liberation is now decreed in the 2010 Constitution.

In their wisdom, the Kenyan people decreed that past to reflect a status quo that was unacceptable and unsustainable through: reconstitution or reconfiguration of a Kenyan state from its former vertical, imperial, authoritative, non-accountable content under the former Constitution to a state that is accountable, horizontal, decentralised, democratised, and responsive to the vision of the Constitution; a vision of nationhood premised on national unity and political integration, while respecting diversity; provisions on the democratisation and decentralisation of the Executive; devolution of power and resources; decreeing values in the public service; giving ultimate authority to the people of Kenya that they delegate to institutions that must serve them and not enslave them; prioritising integrity in public leadership; a modern Bill of Rights that provides for economic, social and cultural rights to reinforce the political and civil rights, giving the whole gamut of human rights the power to radically mitigate the status quo and signal the creation of a human rights state and society in Kenya; mitigating the status quo in land that has been the country’s Achilles’ heel in its economic and democratic development; the strengthening of institutions; the creation of institutions that provide democratic checks and balances; among others, reflect the will and deep commitment of Kenyans for fundamental and radical changes through the implementation of the Constitution. The Kenyan people chose the route of transformation to end their poverty and deprivation and regain their dignity and sovereignty and not the one of revolution. If revolution is envisaged, then it will be organised around the implementation of the Constitution.340

Her nationalism and Pan-Africanism have been reflected in her ideological, political, and intellectual positions on contemporary capitalism or neoliberalism. Her reflections on US intellectuals and those from the Global South reflect her progressive worldview. East Africans are particularly aware of the dictum “The Kabaka is the husband of husbands”, the hegemonic masculinity reflected in our national political leadership and that of global domination, exploitation, and oppression. 

My message to my mentor and comrade

Thank you for your ideological, political and intellectual mentorship. From the initial guidance you gave me in the 1970s and 1980s, I have grown to learn the following lessons:

  • It is because of your mentorship and comradeship, and upon reflection and self-assessment, I became aware that I had both light and dark sides in my relationships with women. The former was clear in my non-romantic relations and the latter in my romantic relations. My life continues to be a struggle to work on both sides of my life to get a healthy balance. It has not been easy, and reversals are always very painful. In my life as a student, teacher, writer, human rights activist, social movement builder, husband, father, grandfather, donor, and now a judge, I have over the decades thought through, reflected, and acted on issues that started with those poignant questions by Professor Mugo.

338  Micere Mugo, My Mother’s Poem and Other Songs (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Limited, 1994), 36. 339  Ibid; p. 43.

  • Though positive, it is not enough to brag about cooking, being driven by a woman, changing baby’s nappies, washing my innerwear, treating maids as human beings (paying them a decent salary, definitely above the minimum wage that is invariably a slave wage fixed by the state), making up my own bed, shopping, cleaning utensils, ironing, and cleaning toilets, among other tasks that society dictates should be undertaken by women. This is simply part of the struggle for feminist masculinity, but it is not enough.
  • Struggling against socialised and internalised patriarchy and sexism is not easy. It requires serious ideological, political and intellectual engagement. You were absolutely right to observe in your book, “One wonders whether beyond sentimentalising, these patriarchs truly perceive their mothers, sisters, and wives as full human beings.”341
  • I have watched painfully as the so-called women representatives exploit other women. They are corrupt, ethnic, racist and generally divisive, and I have come to understand the importance of class analysis of this representation. Like all progressive people seeking a just world, I have told male comrades from other countries, from the Global North and South, that we cannot brag about being ‘new men’ when we do not speak about exploitation and domination of some countries by others and that we must resist the doctrine of ‘husband of husbands’.

I thank you all of you for your time.I thank you for finding time to come to this celebration of a Kenyan patriot. Ladies and Gentlemen, let us celebrate and glorify Professor Micere Githae Mugo, a Mother of Feminist Masculinity.

340  Samir Amin, ‘The World We Wish to See: Revolutionary Objectives in the Twenty-First Century’ (New York, Monthly Review Press, 2008) at page 17: “The ‘great revolutions’ are distinguished by the fact that they project themselves far in front of the present, toward the future, in opposition to others (the ‘ordinary revolutions’) which are content to respond to the necessity for transformation that are on the agenda of the moment.” Yash Pal Ghai (note 43 above). I believe we also need to debate the viability of ‘ordinary revolutions’ as a basis of the ‘great’ ones. Such debates have taken place in the past. See, for example, (Ed); Helen Scott, The Essential Rosa Luxemburg (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), P 41-104. 341  See note 1 at p.23.


[1] Speech in honour of Prof. Micere Mugo at Syracuse University on April 3, 2015 acknowledges her as his mentor and the mother of feminist masculinity.

[2] This categorization is Professor Mugo’s. See Mugo, Writing and Speaking from the Heart of my Mind:

Selected Essays and Speeches (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2012), p. 10.

[3] Micere G Mugo, ‘Art, Artists and the Flowering of Pan-Africana Liberated Zones’, Distinguished Nyerere Lecture, 2012, p. 3.

[4] See note 1, p 3-25. 337  Ibid; p. 19-24.