The contributions I offer below are based solely on my personal experiences with Former Chief Justice Dr Willy Munyoki Mutunga as an uncle, a role he has played in my life for as long as I can remember. Though I have always referred to him as uncle, I am often tickled when in conversation Uncle Willy refers to me as Comrade; a term I find far better suited for elders such as he, my mother – Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo – and other such esteemed uncles, aunties and close family friends who were part of the struggle for Kenya’s second liberation.
As a child growing up in exile, my knowledge of Uncle Willy was centered around conversations that my late sister Njeri Kũi and I had with our mother. My family and I left Kenya, in August 1982, after the continuous hounding/arrests of my mother by the then Moi regime. My sister had just turned 6 years old, and I still had a couple of months before turning 8. We stopped over in London, before finally disembarking in Canton, New York, where my mother had been offered a visiting professorship by St Lawrence University. We were ‘lucky’ to have escaped into a life of exile, given that countless of my mother’s comrades such as Uncle Willy, Uncle Alamin Mazrui, Uncle Koigi wa Wamwere, Uncle Maina wa Kinyatti, Edward Oyugi, Kamoji Wachiira, Mwachofi Mwakuduwa, Mukaru Ngang’a, Onyango Oloo and many others had prison for ‘home’.
My mother spent hundreds of hours jetting back and forth from one end of the United States to the other, giving speaking engagements in an effort to create awareness about the situation in Kenya. Supportive and caring students from Kenya and the Pan African world would babysit my sister and I, while my mother travelled. It was with this same group, that my sister and I worked with, to assist my mother in assembling pamphlets that she would then carry with her on these trips – one of those, being a visit to the United States Congress in Washington, D.C. My mother raised my sister and I in a home where dialogue was encouraged, and we were not shy to ask questions, especially my younger sister Njeri Kũi! It was during that time that we learnt that Uncle Willy had been imprisoned in Kamiti Maximum Security and later in Shimo La Tewa prison in Mombasa.
Watching my mother through this period, communicating with uncle’s then wife, Auntie Rukia and the family; we empathized with what they were going through. I also remember Auntie Mumbi wa Maina, another great mobilizer, visiting us in Canton and talking of the horrible conditions the comrades were being held under. Young as we were, even then, my sister and I deeply understood the sacrifices that so many of these compatriots had made to ensure that Kenya’s youth, working class and other marginalized communities had a voice, even as the government was determined to shut these voices out.
In recent years, my interactions with Uncle Willy have allowed me to develop a deeper understanding of who he is. I am struck by his fearlessness and ability to consistently stay true to himself. I admire his ability to assess himself critically and his sincerity in welcoming the same from others. Criticism has been levied against him regarding his beliefs on culture, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and yes, his views as a progressive leftist; but this has not changed the root of who he is. The term that best comes to mind when I think of him, is organic leadership. His community-centered, relational leadership with a focus on centering discourse on the rights of the working class/wananchi has proven to effectively transform not just the judiciary in Kenya, but other pockets of society as well.
As a woman who proudly identifies as Kenyan, I also strongly identify as a Pan Africanist. The question of ethnicity and the herstorical [to quote my mother] impact it has had on our nation has always been something that pains me deeply. Uncle Willy and I have had several conversations on this and his thoughts regarding what we can learn from what he refers to as Kenya’s ‘ethnic barons’, who use ethnicity to reach their political ambitions. He argues that these leaders should not organize politics around ethnicity and other socially negative ‘isms’, as these do not address the societal concerns but rather result in major clashes. I agree with him wholeheartedly. Mind you, this is not just true on the African continent, it can be argued that Donald Trump perfected the art of divisiveness and continues to do so as we speak today, having witnessed its result in the horrors of January 6, 2021, but I digress.
Whether I am listening to Uncle Willy present a paper on his reflections on feminist masculinity; giving a lecture on Kenya’s most recent election and the country’s way forward; in casual conversation about African architectures of Zamani; the role of Kenya/Africa’s youth in nation building or the role that religion and spirituality play in our lives; I am always struck by the fact that though he considers himself a student, he has taught me so many soul lessons.