Internationally recognized poet, playwright, and literary critic Dr. Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo spoke to us about one of her passionate interests, the negative roles that poverty and inequitable resource distribution are playing, often leading to wars, conflicts, and violent upheavals all over Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Dr. Mũgo was born in Kenya, one of ten children of parents who were both teachers and political activists. After completing her Bachelor’s degree with the University of East Africa at Makerere, Kampala, Uganda (1966), she went on to study for a Postgraduate Diploma in Education with the University of East Africa at Nairobi, Kenya. She then taught for some years before continuing her education in Canada, where she earned her Masters (1971) and PhD (1973). She returned to Africa and taught at the University of Nairobi where she became the first woman to serve as Dean of a college faculty before being forced into exile by the Moi dictatorship in 1982 due to her activism. She then worked for two years as a Visiting Professor at St. Lawrence University and then moved to teach at the University of Zimbabwe. She joined Syracuse University in 1993 and is currently a Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence as well as chair of the Department of African-American Studies. Her scholarship is impressive, and she has authored and co-authored an extensive list of essays, plays, and poems. Her work has focused on women’s issues, literature, education, revolutionary change, and international human rights.
Dr. Mũgo began by complimenting the Women Transcending Boundaries name. She praised us for refusing to be contained, bringing down fences, and creating bridges instead of barriers. A proverb of Kenya is “To hold dialogue is to love;” conversation creates understanding and allows us to touch each other. From that understanding comes love. Dr. Mũgo said that her talk was intended to create that love and understanding between the WTB audience and Kenya and all of Africa . The members of WTB would say that she succeeded admirably.
Dr. Mũgo passed out a set of four papers. The first showed that Africa is larger than China, the United States, India, Europe, Argentina, and New Zealand combined, and is home to more than 900 million people. The second showed the countries of Africa and the years that they gained independence from colonialism, a process that gained momentum in the 1960s. The third map showed African nations and their neighbors today.
The final page showed the spiral structure representing the worldview of the Gĩkũyũ people of Kenya, with the individual at the center, surrounded by family, then layers of extended family, the community, the society, and the world which includes the hereafter and the ancestors. All of this is surrounded by nature. The spiral shows how people who are living in life’s war zones, struggling to make a living and address problems of survival manage to affirm each other’s humanity through communal connectedness. The layers are dependent on each other and the layers of interrelationships create meaning and interconnection between all people, leading to the traditional greeting, “I am only well, if you too are well.” Dr. Mũgo quoted Professor John Beattie, who shared the African philosophy of life: “I am because you are, and since you are, I am.” Thus in affirming my human dignity, I also affirm yours.
Dr. Mũgo revealed the wide variety of war zones of life that are the legacy of colonialism and deeply affect life in Africa today. She spoke of how as a system of domination, colonialism created metaphorical and actual war zones, including the ugly realities of life that inhibit people’s psyches. She focused on Kenya so that she would not generalize too much. Dr. Mũgo warned against forgetting history. To remember does not mean to be stagnant. It means forcing humanity to recall when the humanity of others has been abused and denied, and making a vow to commit to doing something different. When we remember, we come face to face with ugly reality and are forced to do something about it, to change it. If we don’t want to be bothered to do something, we say we didn’t live when the wrongs under scrutiny occurred. For instance, “there was slavery but I’m not responsible.” Yet such conditions made such a difference that the world is still affected by them as we speak.
Today we say that America will never be the same since 9/11. Well, Native Americans likewise have never been the same since the white man’s invasions and massacres. Africa has never and will never be the same since the invasion by slave traders and countries bent on colonization. The Middle Passage was Africa’s Holocaust, and because it has been suppressed in our collective memories, history has been repeated and hence modern holocausts in the form of genocide such as in Rwanda, Darfur and in Eastern Europe. So the histories of slavery and colonization and their effect on the collective memory of humanity are war zones that continue even today.
In the many areas of military action in Africa, women and children suffer in the largest numbers. Eighty percent of refugees are women and children, and Africa has the highest number of refugees in the world. Countries such as Angola and Mozambique have the highest number of amputees in the world as a result of mines and amputations and other atrocities by the Renamo “bandits,” supported and funded by the United States through then apartheid South Africa as a part of the war they were waging against communism during the cold war era. The United Nations organized a number of conferences to expose the horrors of that war and had victims give testimony, asking journalists, writers and historians to write them down so that the world would remember.
Another war zone was created by Christian missionaries who stripped people of their cultures and identities, including their own names. Many children were taken to mission schools where they were forced to reject their cultural heritage, creating a sense of shame and forcing them to deny themselves. When Dr. Mũgo was registered for school, her given African name, Mĩcere, a name that connected her to her people, was deemed un-Christian, and she was required to adopt Madeleine, a name that was of no meaning or symbolism to her.
The legacy of colonialism on land distribution created and continues to create a war zone. Under settler colonialism in Kenya 85% of prime land was given to less than two million white colonizers while the local population shared the remaining 15% – then designated as “reserves” for “natives” who could be shot and killed for entering their traditional lands then held by whites. The colonial social structure put whites at the top, followed by Indians, then Arabs and “coloreds,” then Africans at the bottom.
These colonial seeds created a war zone of poverty that persists to day under neo-colonialism, sometimes causing hunger so intense that victims cannot think. And lest we forget it, extreme hunger in the young stunts brain growth, dooming the individual’s future as well. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have contributed to this war zone. They have focused on debt repayment and the production of cash crops such as tea and coffee that are capital intensive but provide no food for citizens. The beneficiaries are transnational corporations, while the people suffer with malnutrition. Estimates of malnutrition among children run as high as 75% in some countries. These children are robbed of the capacity of the brain to grow, and condemned to a sub-standard life because they can never catch up. The emphasis on globalization has left the individual to fend for herself without resources.
Dr. Mũgo personally experienced another war zone under colonialism – one of racism, discrimination and isolation. In 1961, as a result of civil rights activism, the government was looking for an African child to pioneer integration in a white school that had opened up for one African and one Asian student. Young Mĩcere Mũgo was a student from of a privileged Black national school, with excellent grades. She was chosen to attend the white school to study for A levels. The white girls were shocked that she would use the same bathroom as they, or sit at the same table, and would leave en masse whenever Mĩcere showed up. Mĩcere was active in sports and rode on team buses, but although she was a first-rate team member, wherever she sat all the seats near her were always left vacant. She filled the loneliness of these times with books, finding a kindred spirit in James Baldwin, whom she finally met and became friends with in 1978.
Right-wing Christianity can also create war zones. Some fundamentalists teach people to be passive, to accept suffering as a cross to bear. They portray suffering as something positive that will lead to a reward in heaven. Very convincing speakers and preachers proclaim that if you have faith, your illnesses will be healed, so going to a hospital is a sign of lack of faith. Calamities are claimed to be God’s will, either as punishment, or as a test that will lead to glory.
Dr. Mũgo said she has fought these attitudes even in her own family. People must understand that God has given wisdom and knowledge to doctors and has given individuals the strength and will to change themselves and eventually to change the world.
In Kampala, a rally by Joyce Myers, an American evangelist, once identified Islam as the anti-Christ, to be destroyed at the end of the world. She and similar evangelists such as Morris Cerullo have proclaimed the end times, leading to situations where local followers commit to recruit people to go to Israel to meet Armageddon. Dr. Mũgo said that some people with these fundamentalist beliefs are in President Bush’s cabinet and others serve as his kitchen cabinet or as advisors. So the war exists at many levels. Faith is being used to create destructive behaviors.
Dr. Mũgo told us about Nishike Mkono, an organization that means ‘Hold my hand’ or ‘Let’s hold hands.’ A group of Kenyan poor villagers, most of them women, joined together to share their strength and experience human worth that can be destroyed by pessimism. They look after orphaned children, widows and the homeless, providing them with food, clothing – walking for miles to render their services. Once a month the group comes together with donations of the little money they can afford. This is given to one member who will use the proceeds to feed her family well for one day, and the process is repeated such that each month the recipient changes. In this way each member gets to eventually experience one day of sufficiency.
E.J. Platt, a Canadian poet, once observed that the line between humankind, the angel, and the beast is tissue-thin. These people know that humans are capable of acting like animals, but in their sharing they rise above the level of beast and raise each other up.
Dr. Mũgo contributes financially to groups like these and said that $200 to $300 a month can be stretched to perform miracles. Women, in particular, come together to create alternatives, with elders mentoring the youth. Poverty has driven many to drink, especially on commercial farms, where no matter what other amenities are missing, there is always a bar. A small amount of money can lift these lives from despair and help them affirm each other’s dignity.
Dr. Mũgo read us her poems that speak to real life situations and issues in a conversational manner, arriving at a place which in which to hold dialogue is to love. The first poem she shared was “In Praise of Africa’s Children.” Another she had written was about the Rwanda genocide. After each stanza, she asked the audience to repeat the refrain “and all this time, the world looked on, doing nothing.” The recitation was very moving.
The final poem was her poem of hope, “Prosaic Poem” which advocates that a new day will rise for the oppressed. Each stanza began with the audience saying “One day.” We all were moved to contribute to this bright day.
In response to questions, Dr. Mũgo said that it is wrong to say that the people are ignorant. They may not have book-learning, but they are educated by their rich cultural heritage and have a deep understanding of the world. Actually book-learning and clever speakers have been used to take advantage of people or mislead them. In recent times the media has been used to promote hatred as in Rwanda, and departments of justice have been used to subjugate. The tools of the state have been used to subjugate the citizens.
When an audience member brought up the refugees who have resettled in our area, Dr. Mũgo said that the difficulties that they face here, of a new language, new culture, racism, loneliness for those they have left, constitute a new war zone, one that we can assist to eradicate.
At the end of her dynamic and provocative comments, Dr. Mũgo received enthusiastic applause, and was then surrounded by members who wanted to speak with her privately. As promised, Dr. Mũgo educated us, stimulated us, and guided us in thinking about what remedial actions we might take as individuals and as a community.