Education serves no purpose if it does not humanise us

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Professor Mĩcere Mũgo is a world-renowned Kenyan poet, playwright, literary critic, and scholar, is widely studied across the disciplines in the arts, humanities, social sciences and education. Mwalimu Mugo, as she is fondly known, was forced into exile in 1982 during the Daniel Moi dictatorship for activism and moved to teach in Zimbabwe, and later the United States. Among her publications are six books, a play co-authored with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and three monographs. She has also edited journals and the Zimbabwean school curriculum. She spoke with Dr Tom Odhiambo when she visited Kenya in June.
Odhiambo: So professor, I know it is odd to say welcome back home again. But every time you come back home there is definitely a way in which you feel about home. How do you feel about home this time?
Micere Mugo: This visit is directly linked to Riara University and it is a visit dedicated to what I am seeing as a new institution, with new beginnings and that therefore has got capability of doing things differently and emerging with a model of how all things we have dreamt of doing at university and so on could be done. So the answer to your question is that I am very excited about this and being at Riara has really been uplifting. I have seen possibilities and real seeds of hope that make me really happy. Nationally, I am delighted about the progress that Kenyans have made, especially when I think of issues such as the Constitution, when I look at the infrastructure in place. When I see the freedom of speech, that people can express themselves so freely, this is very delightful because this is what we fought for. A lot of people forget that we were some of the initiators of the struggle for democratic spaces from the University of Nairobi.  Lastly, I do want to say, though, that coming home always makes me sad when I see us as a nation repeating the same mistakes – and there are some serious mistakes we are repeating here – when we have no excuse of repeating them. Corruption has been with us for so long and somehow it seems to be getting worse. Issues like forming a nation ought to be clear and straightforward; negative ethnicity and negative nationalism will not get us anywhere. So I am happy to be home but we need to really work harder to make a better and warmer home for all of us.
How do we renew ourselves socially?
Renewal means that we go right back to when Kenya became independent, that we need to have learnt from history that we should not have sat pretty, feeling as if we had won, as if we had achieved. We should have realised that creating change is creating a revolution, transforming our reality; that it is a continuous process. So, really, the struggle for the revolution goes on. If we have an eye on that philosophy, then we focus on renewal. And so what does renewal mean? Renewal means that we use our talents as human beings to create and recreate rather than repeat that we are doing. We ought to do what George Lamming encouraged us to: to keep intervening at special moments in history that history offers and not lose that opportunity for us to do something. It means getting together; having conversations all the time on how to create new visions. Renewal for me means not thinking of a source individually but thinking on how we can collectively move together in order to change and transform. Renewal for me means a spirit of daring – and I love the way that Maya Angelou always expressed this by saying that “you should have audacity”. And audacity means trusting your creativity rather than becoming a parrot and copying models of other nations, other cultures people and so on.
You know that part of renewal is pegged on the system of education. The school system socialises people, acculturates people. How do we revitalise education and intellectual work – because we seem to be caught up in a situation where we do not reflect deeply on this?
Let me begin by theorising, by reminding us that education is situated as part of what we call institutions of the superstructure. And systems of superstructure such as education, media, religion, lawmaking etc relate to an economic base. So, before we even address the system of education, we really need to address the issue I am talking about regarding the equity that we have in that economic base. That economic base also places us within a system: a governmental system. I really think there is need for greater commitment to and investment in education in this country by our government. I marvel at the idea that Kenya has got about 64 universities. The education system is probably the most important system in the superstructure of a country in changing and transforming both the economic base and also the world around us and so on, because it helps us especially when it is the positive, liberating education of the type that Paulo Frere spoke about, and not enslaving.
Years back, there used to be the word ‘solidarity’. Then solidarity meant that we solidify together. What would you tell Kenyans about this notion of solidarity, the notion of collaboration in a situation where the country seems to be pulling a part rather than pulling together?
In my book of essays, “Writing and Speaking from the Heart of My Mind”, I actually argue that the knowledge we produce and any innovations that we might have are useless unless they are in the service of the people. But more than that, however much we get it, education is of no use unless it humanises us and unless we use it to humanise others and the world. Because if we live without “utu”, without “ubuntu”, we are not going to get anywhere. Why do I say this? You have captured it in the word solidarity, which was very important during the liberation struggle, especially among the people of southern Africa like in Angola, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Now, for me, solidarity actually means that you cannot walk in isolation. It also means that you empathise with others and that what is happening to them, that if the humanity has been particularly abused, you have been abused as well. So, least of all then is that one should move out and engage in acts that dehumanise other people because you are also dehumanising yourself.
Currently we have a debate about gender representation in positions of leadership, in public offices in all areas of our lives. Should we really be having this debate considering that women and men are found in equal proportions in the world?
No. The simple answer is no. It is actually even ridiculous when you actually think of it. I believe in our honouring of the Beijing conference proposal and mandate, for instance, that Parliament should have thirty percent of women at the very least. Some countries have done it dutifully, like Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa, to a large extent. Having said that, I am also really challenging women and youth, that once we enter these spaces that we fought for, not to repeat mistakes of history, not to repeat patriarchal notions where people go into positions and replace yesterday’s oppressor, becoming oppressors themselves.
How do we keep history permanently in the public space and discourse given that we keep repeating these mistakes as if history hasn’t taught us?
Debate at all levels, in schools and colleges, in the media in churches, in the mosques, even in bars and everywhere, in order to be historical, in order to be people and human beings of history not just watchers of history passing by. In fact, our intervention and what we do makes history and I quote George Lamming who kept saying that unless you enter those moments, intervene and change directions, give it vision for the transformation of the world to make it a better place, you have lost a moment, you have lost a piece of your humanity. So how do we do it constantly? It is something that we have to keep reminding ourselves and liberating ourselves every day. Some people have been revising history in such a way that they want to create gaps in certain moments that they want things that were terrible not to be remembered and especially in moments that they were involved in it. Sometimes it is even an erasure. I guess it is like doing what the District Officer – in “Things Fall Apart” – was doing with Okonkwo’s story: converting a long a narrative that involves a people and just producing a paragraph about this man, one of the greatest among the Igbo people. So we engage in those kinds of tendencies – falsifying history and so on. But you know however much people engage in this kind of activity, I don’t think they will succeed. I believe in what Fidel Castro kept reminding us about: that history will either absolve us or indict us, and, believe me; even generations to come will need to go and dig up in the archives. Whatever it takes, truth will always come out. History refuses to be falsified.

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