Liberation Learnings: Thoughts from Activist-Scholar Micere Mugo

From the May 2012 PNL #814

Dr. Mugo speaking as a part Africa Week 2008 at Cornell University. Photo: www.Cornellsun.comDr. Mugo speaking as a part Africa Week 2008 at Cornell University. Photo: www.Cornellsun.comDr. Micere Mugo is a playwright, activist and poet. She is a Professor of African American Studies at Syracuse University and a co-founder of the Pan African Community of Central New York. Born in the central highlands of Kenya, she has been an instrumental figure in the shaping of that country: the East African Standard Century listed her as one of the top 100 people who have influenced Kenya in the 20th century. Her knowledge of African liberation struggles is rooted in her lifelong political activism. This is an excerpt from a longer interview which is posted on the Peace Newsletter page of the SPC website (

SPC: What do you see is the role of violence or nonviolence in our social justice struggles?

MM: It’s a tough debate. There was a moment historically when not responding to violence through liberation wars and movements would actually have meant annihilation of people, so we have to have a historical perspective that people took up arms to fight not because they chose to but because they were in a position where they knew they were being annihilated and there was no way out. I have always supported liberation movements and their use of armed force (cases on the African Continent, Palestine, South Africa, Latin American countries…), but at some point, when it became clear that there were other means of struggle that we could use without having as much cost to ourselves and other people, when it became clear that some countries even had the power of the [atomic] Bomb, it became necessary to consider the possibility of using conscientization, organization in order to show that there are other ways of fighting for these [liberated] spaces. Of course, the best examples are people like Martin Luther King, Jr.; Gandhi; Mother Teresa; and so on, and it worked. So I’m clear: I don’t believe in war, I don’t think it solves anything, but I don’t judge people who find themselves placed in a position where they have to fight back. I would have to look at the situation, case by case; where is there a case for true liberation self-defense, and where is it a question of war-mongering and creating warlords to fight over spoils? I think that debate should continue even now.

SPC: You talk a lot about the concept of amnesia in your political analysis. Why do you think that concept is so important in our analysis of the way the world is right now?

MM: It is very important because an individual or a culture without a memory stands in danger of being ahistorical, and you lose the history that stands before you, which is very important because it defines our identity; it tells us where we have come from; it shows us who the people are who have been there in the struggle before us. Actively remembering in an optimistic manner and with a determination to use history to learn and create continuity and to affirm that which is good, positive, liberating that has happened before us is very important particularly for colonized and dominated people. This is because the history of domination comes into a space and tries to wipe out that space. It is a history of erasure, whether you are talking culturally, or talking about identity, language, etc. This is the history of imperialism and colonization for black people and others who have been dominated.

SPC: What are some of the lessons that we can learn from the African colonial struggles in terms of how to resist systems of domination?

MM: The most important is: Howevermust always resist, resist, resist, and never give up. There was a time in Kenya when it looked like it was not possible. How do you fight the British Empire? It is very easy to cower, but it is always better to resist. Secondly, unless the struggle involves the collective group—and specifically, unless the struggle involves working class people —it will go nowhere. Once that struggle is over, if you forget ordinary people and you make it out as if independence is to be led by a few, then that is the biggest mistake you can make because you deify the leaders. You authorize and license them to walk all over you. Then what happens is the skin color of the rulers will change, or might change, but the systems of oppression and the institutions continue. Another lesson is that the African liberation struggle raised our consciousness towards women, especially after independence, as in Zimbabwe and Kenya. When women came to those spaces, they found that they were still marginalized. They didn’t get leadership roles. They didn’t have roles that made them visible. It’s as if they serviced the revolutions. In Nigeria, in Kenya, even the Black Power movement here with Angela Davis and Assata Shakur. In Africa, women really started questioning this. It’s amazing to see how much women have moved since independence. The only problem we have is that, as feminists, unless we have styles of leading and participation that are different from the patriarchal notion of having “the big people” and “the little people,” we will have failed. This is what women leaders should think about: “How different is what we are doing than what the patriarchal systems have done?” And I’m sorry to say that a lot of women also abuse power. Gender representation is important, but we have to continue to find new, liberating, feminist, non-patriarchal, non-colonial or neocolonial ways of defining our existence. The same methods will not work.

SPC: Could you explain what neocolonialism is and its impact on the continent right now?

MM: The term came from Kwame Nkrumah at the moment when he was seeing a Socialist arrangement of society as the alternative to Capitalism. He really challenged the independence project to ask itself how different are we from those who colonized us? Has the colonial condition really changed? Can we argue that we are in a post-colonial space and post-racial space? Nkrumah’s answer was no. What we have done is perpetrated systems that still tie us, like an umbilical cord, to the colonizers, and it’s a continuation of the educational systems of the elite. It’s the prison system and the criminalization of the poor; it’s the same system of capitalism. [Nkruhmah] said we are in a new colonial state. The new leadership that took over never really cut off from the metropolitan neocolonialists. We had new leaders with different colors sometimes, but it was the same system.

SPC: You’ve been informed by your feminist perspective. How has it impacted you as a scholar and activist, and how can that perspective help other activists?

MM: I can say decidedly this started from the moment I was born. I was so lucky. I grew up among the Kikuyu people, which is a very patriarchal society. But, paradoxically, it’s also a society where women are very strong. Very often, before anything happens in a household, the mother will have the last say. I’m very conscious in my feminism about dialogue and to work with the understanding that we also need men to be feminists as well because within colonialism and patriarchy women can be socialized to be just as patriarchal as men. So really, it’s the mentality and the practice that we need to be working on. As an intellectual I’m conscious that many of us are theorizing, but when it comes to life and “walking the talk,” we don’t. I think it’s a movement where progressive feminists have to say, “We are doing things differently. We define power, power structures, and relationships differently as mothers and daughters, fathers and children, workers and bosses, etc.” This is why I like progressive feminism because it has an eye on systems of oppression and recognizing those as what creates that patriarchal mentality. It’s our work as men and women to liberate ourselves from that to create new spaces. I think feminism has gone really quite far in challenging some of these comfortable places.


SPC: We’ve heard you use the proverb: “To hold dialogue is to love.” Could you expand on that?

MM: This proverb is from the Kikuyu people of Kenya where I was born. Among the Kikuyu, there are so many proverbs which say you should never silence somebody. Under colonialism, you were not allowed to say anything; you just accepted. But there was always a resistance culture coming from the orature (oral tradition), the indigenous knowledge that said “No, in our culture we always ask questions because if you don’t ask questions, then you’re a fool. You don’t grow.” So, “to hold dialogue is to love” means you must never silence people. “To hold dialogue is to love” means you should not live next door to a neighbor and not know them and understand what goes on there. It’s your business to know. This is the notion that a community happens because there are open spaces. There is dialogue, verbally as well as through self expression. And you definitely don’t pass people and just greet them. I used to find it very difficult when I first came to this country because sometimes people don’t want you to bother them. And then there is the Shona greeting... When people come in, you clap for people to welcome them. You actually begin when they are at the gate, when they get closer you are still greeting them, “How are you?” And you continue when they sit down: “Are you really well?” It becomes a communal thing, and once you do that the other person asks you “How are you?” and the response is “I am only well if you too are well.” In other words, you cannot assert your humanity alone. Once you assert your humanity, you need to assert the other person’s humanity. Otherwise, you are not whole.

Hear Dr. Mugo speak at 7pm at SPC’s May 1 program, Liberation Learnings at ArtRage Gallery, 505 Hawley Ave.

The interview was conducted and transcribed by PNL editorial committee stalwarts Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre and Aly Wane.