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Unisa confers posthumous honorary degree on heroine Prof Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo

On 10 May 2024, Unisa conferred the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Languages, Linguistics and Literature (Honoris Causa) posthumously on Prof Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, a celebrated playwright, author and activist, at the #UnisaAutumnGraduations held at the Muckleneuk Campus.

Selfless agitator for freedom

Mũgo, who passed away in June 2023, was a prolific writer, scholar and advocate for social justice. Her work explored themes of gender, identity and the complexities of Kenyan society.


Prof Zethu Nkosi, Executive Dean: College of Human Sciences

"Amongst many of her contributions to the cause of liberation on the African continent, Mũgo was known for her deep involvement with militant movements fighting for the independence of Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa," said Prof Zethu Nkosi, Executive Dean: College of Human Sciences. In addition, Nkosi stated that Mũgo was active in the Free Angela Davis and Assata Shakur campaigns, which, she said, had spread to several cities worldwide by the late 1970s.

Nkosi stated that Mũgo was also an accomplished academic and scholar. She explained: "In 1973, upon her return to Kenya after pursuing higher education studies in Canada, she became the first person to hold a PhD in literature in all of East Africa. This was followed in 1978 by her election as the first female Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Nairobi." Nkosi continued: "She is responsible for over 200 publications in the form of book chapters, journals and interviews, was a member of at least 60 professional organisations and served on at least 150 international executive boards, directorships and councils, many of which she chaired or presided over. Amongst the publications she is renowned for are the powerful monograph African Orature and Human Rights and the seminal play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, which she co-wrote with her Kenyan counterpart, the internationally renowned novelist and playwright, Prof Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o."

Mũgo was elected to serve in more than 300 distinguished roles in international bodies and organisations, including board and programme directorships, academic and literary advisory boards, United Nations advisory boards and numerous consultancies in recognition of her professional experience and skills.

During her teaching and academic career spanning over 40 years, Mũgo served as a supervisor for a large number of dissertations, graduate and undergraduate theses, honours theses and special projects at the four primary universities where she taught: Cornell, Syracuse (New York, United States of America), Nairobi and Zimbabwe.

The daughter of Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, Mumbi, said her heart is overflowing with humility and gratitude over the award, describing the moment as the beginning of a beautiful journey. "As much as this honorary degree recognises my mother's past contributions, it also initiates a new chapter in both her legacy and my life," she stated.

An indomitable spirit

Mumbi said her mother's legacy is marked by resilience, activism and intellectualism, which, she said, aligns with the university's values. She acknowledged the university's impressive alumni and their fight for justice. Her mother, she said, was always a source of inspiration, believing in the power of words to change the world.


Mumbi Mũgo, receiving the honorary degree on behalf of her late mother, Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, from Prof Solomon Magano

"A list of the university's alumni shows that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and their profound impacts constantly remind us. They dared to challenge the status quo in an effort to pave the way for a more just and equitable society. In the vibrant tapestry of African literature, social and political activism, my mother's life has always stood out to me as a towering beacon of inspiration. From an early age, she was imbued with the fervent belief in the power of words to shape destinies and ignite revolutions," Mumbi said.  

Mumbi stated that her mother wielded her pen and voice with wisdom and passion, weaving tales of resistance and resilience reverberating across Africa and the rest of the world. In addition, she said it is a privilege beyond measure for her mother to be mentioned in the same breath as luminaires who passed through the hallowed halls of Unisa. She further explained: "From the indomitable spirit of President Nelson Mandela to the unyielding courage of Robert Sobukwe, each name represents a chapter in the epic saga of African liberation, and for my mother's name to be mentioned among them is an honour and a privilege that she could never have asked, nor dreamt of."


Mumbi Mũgo

"My mother traversed continents and borders in pursuit of a dream of a global African people liberated from the shackles of oppression and exploitation, united in the spirit of Ubuntu. It is an esteemed privilege to receive this degree on her behalf, in her honour," she said.

Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo was an African, a Pan-African, a transnationalist, a citizen of the world and a non-communalist who dedicated her life to growth and liberation. Her posthumous degree is a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman who left an indelible mark on the literary landscape. Her work continues to inspire readers and scholars alike, and her legacy as a writer and activist will endure for generations to come. 

* By Godfrey Madibane, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

** Photography by Shooheima Champion, Multimedia Centre

Publish date: 2024/05/14

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