Fit­ting tribute to Africa’s Mazrui

Writer sheds lit­er­ary light on a con­ti­nent rich with re­sources, writes Sam Mathe

Daily News - - LIFESTYLE -

THIRTY years ago I was an im­pres­sion­able first-year Wits Univer­sity stu­dent in search of the real Africa. The one that was por­trayed in the apartheid his­tory books was woe­fully in­ad­e­quate. Be­sides the usual heart of dark­ness nar­ra­tive, they didn’t of­fer any­thing pos­i­tive about the con­ti­nent.

The univer­sity texts were writ­ten by Euro­pean schol­ars. They of­fered in­ter­est­ing but con­trast­ing per­spec­tives which only served to evade the de­fin­i­tive au­then­tic African image for which I was search­ing.

Then along came Pro­fes­sor Ali Mazrui’s The Africans: A Triple

Her­itage (1986), a doc­u­men­tary se­ries that was later pub­lished in book form. It was a rev­e­la­tion that opened my eyes and ears to an African story told through an African per­spec­tive. It was an in­cen­di­ary torch that il­lu­mi­nated the dark pic­ture which has been por­trayed by colo­nial and apartheid schol­ars. As­tute as au­thor and nar­ra­tor, Mazrui’s soft but au­thor­i­ta­tive voice in the BBC se­ries still rings like a sym­phonic melody in my ears.

He left no sub­ject un­touched. From the tra­di­tional medicine man in Mom­basa to Michael Jack­son as the ul­ti­mate face of pop cul­ture, Mazrui put ev­ery­one with an African iden­tity un­der the mi­cro­scope of aca­demic analysis. From the pul­sat­ing slums of Nairobi in the east to the rolling desert plains of the Sa­hara in the west, Mazrui and his crew tra­versed the length and breadth of the con­ti­nent’s di­verse land­scape to cap­ture its ma­jes­tic and tragic his­tory in equal mea­sure.

“You are not a coun­try, Africa; you are a con­cept. You are not a con­cept, Africa; you are a glimpse of the in­fi­nite,” he wrote.

His tren­chant words, “Africa pro­duces what it does not con­sume and con­sumes what it does not pro­duce” still rings true as a state­ment on un­equal eco­nomic power re­la­tions be­tween the West and the rest of us. In sub­se­quent years I dis­cov­ered more of Mazrui in the form of me­mo­rial lec­tures, news­pa­per col­umns, de­bates and the like. I read his only novel, The Trial

of Christo­pher Okigbo (1971) with a cer­tain de­gree of scep­ti­cism. I naively ar­gued that nov­els be­longed to the Achebes and Ngugis of this world. Based on the true story of a cel­e­brated Nige­rian poet who chose the se­ces­sion­ist cause of Ig­boland dur­ing the Bi­afran War (19671970), in ret­ro­spect I think it was a work of fic­tion that was ahead of its times.

Fond mem­o­ries of my first en­counter with the emi­nent Kenyan scholar and pro­lific writer through his land­mark doc­u­men­tary se­ries came flood­ing back early this year dur­ing the launch of this epic tribute work at the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg. The 537-page tome in­cludes more than 130 heart­felt eu­lo­gies of prose and po­etry by a global fam­ily of thinkers who have been touched by this colos­sal in­tel­lec­tual fa­ther of African schol­ar­ship.

They range from jour­nal­ists to aca­demics and emi­nent politi­cians. Ded­i­cated to the fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of Mazrui dis­ci­ples, this mon­u­men­tal work car­ries a fore­word by Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, a for­mer prime min­is­ter of Tan­za­nia and past sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Or­gan­i­sa­tion of African Unity. The co-ed­i­tors – Sei­fudein Adem, Jide­o­for Adibe, Ab­dul Karim Ban­gura and Ab­dul Samed Be­math – are re­spected Ali Mazrui schol­ars, au­thors and ac­com­plished aca­demics in var­i­ous fields.

The re­sults of their lit­er­ary ex­pe­ri­ence and eru­dite schol­ar­ship are ev­i­dent in this post­hu­mous mag­num opus.


Ali Mazrui be­queathed to African schol­ar­ship and the aca­demic world the con­cept of a triple her­itage – the idea that the con­ti­nent’s con­tem­po­rary iden­tity is based on in­dige­nous, ori­en­tal and western tra­di­tions.

The im­pact of Is­lam and Chris­tian­ity on African spir­i­tu­al­ity was one of his favourite themes in this re­gard. So was the no­tion that Africa is the an­cient home­land of Ju­daism.

Born into a prom­i­nent Mus­lim fam­ily of Swahili speak­ers in Mom­basa to a fa­ther who was a supreme Mus­lim judge of Kenya, he grap­pled with re­li­gious ques­tions such as whether a Mus­lim could marry a Chris­tian or Jew with­out con­ver­sion.

For the record, he was mar­ried to Molly, a white woman from York­shire, England. In ac­cor­dance with the dic­tates of the Qur’an, she had to adopt a Mus­lim name (Muna) when they ex­changed vows in 1962. In line with the Is­lamic doc­trine of peace, he coined the phrase Pax Africana in a sem­i­nal 1967 work ti­tled To­wards a Pax Africana. Mazrui de­fined it as a quest for the con­ti­nent to as­sume re­spon­si­bil­ity for its peace and se­cu­rity. Con­tro­ver­sial but ex­cep­tion­ally cere­bral, some of his views at­tracted a fair share of crit­i­cism from fel­low schol­ars.

He was crit­i­cal of Sal­man Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), ar­gu­ing that it was blas­phe­mous but cit­ing free­dom of speech, he pub­licly op­posed the Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini’s fatwa call­ing for the au­thor’s death. His crit­i­cal stance against the state of Is­rael was some­times mis­un­der­stood for anti-Semitism. He oc­ca­sion­ally crossed in­tel­lec­tual swords with his un­flag- ging ad­ver­sary, Nige­rian play­wright Wole Soyinka.

Soyinka re­calls their re­la­tion­ship as that of un­flag­ging ad­ver­saries. One of their mem­o­rable spar­ring du­els was at the turn of the mil­len­nium when Soyinka branded the late Kenyan scholar’s fa­mous doc­u­men­tary a se­ri­ous threat to re­la­tions be­tween Africa and African Amer­i­cans since the US au­thor­i­ties de­stroyed Mar­cus Gar­vey’s Back to Africa move­ment in the 1920s. The No­bel lau­re­ate was dis­pleased by Mazrui’s un­com­pli­men­tary cri­tique of a tele­vi­sion se­ries, Won­ders of

the African World (1999), by Henry Louis Gates jr, an emi­nent African Amer­i­can scholar and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual who is also Soyinka’s friend.

At the time of his death on Oc­to­ber 12, 2014, Pro­fes­sor Ali Mazrui (81) was head of the In­sti­tute for Global Cul­tural Stud­ies at the State Univer­sity of New York in Bing­ham­ton. Be­fit­tingly, the world mourned the loss of this gen­tle doyen of African stud­ies, in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned scholar and in­deed one of the bright­est minds and sharpest thinkers to have ever come out of the con­ti­nent. This book is a fit­ting mon­u­ment to a great teacher, ver­sa­tile pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual, torch-bearer and film-maker whose doc­u­men­tary il­lu­mi­nated my world in a way that no book or in­sti­tu­tion could have achieved.

DOYEN: Ali Al’Amin Mazrui was a lead­ing light in the world of African in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism.

A Gi­ant Tree has Fallen: Trib­utes to Ali Al’Amin Mazrui (African Per­spec­tive)

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