ALI MAZRUI: The Human Dimensions

Prof Elaigwu Prof Elaigwu[/caption] An urbane gentleman, Ali Mazrui could easily have westernized himself, as some Africans have done. Some Africans in the West and in Africa are more Western than Westerners in their life-styles. But Ali Mazrui was a mixture of Western urbanity, African tradition, and Islamic values – part of the Mazrui Triple heritage. A liberal Muslim, Mazrui was genuinely committed to his faith, without necessarily making a show of it. He might not have met the numerical requirement for daily prayers, but he had a good heart, a kind heart, and the fear of God.  Religion and Tradition Ali Mazrui’s family background and the values he learned in early life under his Grand Khadi father, always seemed to remain as some kind of check, even in the materialistic Western context he found himself. He was tolerant of other religions and made no fuss over religious differences. He could also engage anyone in debates over religion, without getting emotional about it. This was why he was incensed when critics accused him of religious bigotry – such as his position on Salman Rushdie or critiques of his narrative of Islamic events in The Africans documentary ­ Indeed, Mazrui did not regard religious borders as impenetrable. He got married to his first wife, Molly, a Christian and British lady. His second wife, Pauline is Christian and Nigerian. Both have Islamic names. Mazrui never insisted that his wife should change her religion. Nor did Ali Mazrui insist that all his children be Muslim. One cardinal human trait of Ali Mazrui was his religious ecumenicalism in the family and among his circle of friends. Religion hardly came into his calculus of inter-personal relations. However, I observed that his early religious belief had much to do with his trust for people (until they proved themselves otherwise), his kindness, and his willingness to give without expecting returns. In a moment of introspection Mazrui once noted – “I grew up in the shadow of Mau Mau; I am aging in the shadow of Al-Queda.” To what extent did Ali Mazrui grow up in the shadow of his family’s Islamic tradition, and age under the shadow of stronger personal conviction as a Muslim? May be the answer is to be found in his experience in Africa with the BBC team as he shot scenes in various parts of Africa in the mid-eighties for The Africans. The documentary examined indigenous, Islamic and Western civilizations. In the process of filming, something new happened to Ali Mazrui. As he wrote: “I studied more closely than ever the religion of my birth within my own ancestral continent. Something in me was affected during those years.” If something affected Ali Mazrui in those years, the telecast of The Africans exposed him to new Islamic constituencies around the world. His lectures and writings on Islamic topics increased. In 1995 alone, he gave 10 lectures on various topics on Islam – from Oxford University through San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio, to Hong Kong and Canada. Another interesting aspect of Mazrui was his interest in African tradition. He was a collector of traditional African art, handicrafts and others. He was passionate about Africa. A humble and amiable personality, the only area I noticed his vanity was whenever he wore African clothes. He showed off African clothes, from all over the continent, with pride. Even when he wore a Western suit, he proudly adorned it with ‘kente’ muffler from Ghana. For Mazrui, Africa had many things of which to be proud. One of these was the rich variety of African fashions.  Large Heart and Generosity  I have never met anyone as generous as Ali Mazrui. In fact, the late Omari Kokole and I, believed that if Ali Mazrui managed his resources by himself, he would be broke in three months. He easily identified with the down-trodden and the less privileged. Like a typical African, he believed in the maintenance of an extended family and his wards also became members of the family. Several Ugandans became his wards. In many cases he assisted them with admissions to educational institutions and others with cash and jobs. This also applied to Nigerians and other Africans. Until his death, his house in Binghamton was a typical African family house with extended family members of three generations. He retained that African elder’s propensity to be his brother’s keeper. In capitalist, nuclear family-oriented America, Mazrui still played the typical African. Ali Mazrui had a large and forgiving heart. As an illustration, there was this ward of his who stole his checkbook, forged his signature, and cleared large sums of money from his bank account. Mazrui found, to his chagrin, that checks written to pay his children’s school fees were not being honored. He discovered that his ward had ‘sanitized’ his account.  Mazrui did not cut off this ward; he still visited with this man when he was in his country. Similarly, on the faculty of the Department of Political Science in Jos, there were a few colleagues, who out of career insecurity made false academic allegations against Mazrui, and even tried to instigate students against him. They had painted him as a conservative agent of liberal western civilization. Of course, none of these colleagues had the courage to challenge Mazrui to debate. I learnt quite a great deal from the maturity with which he handled these junior colleagues. He treated them with courtesy and politely tried to erode their sense of insecurity. It showed maturity, humility and good skills in inter-personal relations.  Leadership and Influence Ali Mazrui provided leadership in largely very informal but definite ways. The late Kokole and I always braced ourselves to the usual Mazrui yellow ruled sheets, a day after he travelled. Late Nancy Levis, his Secretary then, usually had the largest number of yellow sheets. He discussed freely with one; he was the boss without being bossy; and took time to spend evenings with us, his friends. A number of times Omari, Ali and I would meet at my apartment or at Ali’s in Binghamton till the early hours of the morning, chatting over the trivial, the humorous and even highly debatable issues. I missed those informal friendly sessions. Ali and I also had such sessions in Jos with Prof. Nurudeen Farah. I often teased late Dr. Omari Kokole, over his attempt to become an Ali Mazrui clone. Omari copied many traits of Ali Mazrui without knowing that he was doing so. His writing was almost exactly like Mazrui’s. However, I stopped teasing Omari when I realized what happened to me in Paris in 1979, at the conference on “Historical and Socio-Cultural Relations Between Black Africa and the Arab World from 1935 to the Present,” organized by UNESCO Committee on the General History of Africa. I had just finished delivering my paper, when the former teacher of King Hassan of Morocco (I believe it was His Excellency, Mr. Mohammed El Fasi) called me aside and congratulated me, but advised me to be slower in my delivery especially when there were translations. He then turned to Ali Mazrui and said – “Professor, goodness you are reproducing yourself, only that he is faster in his delivery. Tell him to slow down.” Ali Mazrui smiled. I could not detect, even today, the ‘mazruiness’ in my style of presentation. In short, Ali Mazrui could be very infectious in his influence. I have been teased by many Nigerian colleagues and others as a “Nigerian Mazrui.” I have strongly denied this. One, I am nowhere as prolific as he was; two our writing styles are different, and, three, our modes of presentation are different. Moreover, I always argue that I would rather be Elaigwu, because that is what I would like to be, and that is what I believe Ali Mazrui would like me to be – myself, even if I had learnt some tricks of the profession from him. How does one draw the boundaries of influence?  Humanity, Humility and Africanity I was personally touched by Prof Mazrui’s humanity. You only needed to put Ali Mazrui on a carpet to debate any topic of interest to him to see his strength of personality. The image of a very strong orator, polemicist, writer and academic, belied the deeply human, empathetic and emotional aspects of Ali Mazrui. Ali Mazrui valued relations with people, family and friends in very emotional terms.  He did not pretend to be unemotional. He was very committed and loyal to his family and friends, no matter what differences existed. He did not pretend not to get incensed or offended, but he was quite patient. Nor was he vindictive. He forgave very easily, even if he might not have forgotten. Past wrongs so forgiven, did not affect his relations with the person. I once witnessed moments of Ali Mazrui’s anguish. The occasion was the death of Maureen, one of Ali’s Ugandan wards. I had never seen Ali Mazrui weep before, but he did. He was devastated.  Omari and I had to devise ways to console him. It was not easy. Warm, emotional in relationships and honest, Ali Mazrui found himself, feeling like he had lost part of himself. But he picked himself up and travelled to Uganda to make funeral arrangements with Brenda (Maureen’s sister.) Omari and I were relieved by the assumed stoicism. Ali brooded like any human being, then put himself together and took up what he considered to be his responsibilities. Another example of Ali Mazrui’s anguish was the death of Omari Kokole. I knew Omari’s role in Mazrui’s life and vice versa, and I could imagine how the latter felt at the death of Kokole.   As he wrote to me later – “What a shock, Jonah. We are quite bewildered.” I fully empathized with his situation. At that point I was not sure what I was more concerned about – Omari’s death or Ali’s health. I resorted to prayer for the Mwalimu. Again, like a strong character, he gradually overcame the tragedy and moved on. In a typical African way, Mwalimu Mazrui not only arranged for the funeral, he visited Omari’s mother, sister and two daughters to console them. Mazrui was really disturbed by the debate with Wole Soyinka and its depreciation into pettier levels than he had expected. In Nigeria, whenever anyone challenged Ali Mazrui publicly about it, one could feel the personal anguish he was going through. His usual explanation that he did not start the debate and the gutter-type vituperations which followed did not seem to convince, even himself. His anguish was, I believe, “why should two elder academics debase themselves before younger and junior colleagues?” In African tradition, elders are conscious about how they settle their squabbles, such that wrong signals are not sent to younger ones. Mazrui’s dilemma was whether to stop or continue to reply to charges he felt were untrue and unfair, in view of the side-effects on younger colleagues. In 1995, Ali Mazrui was given the Distinguished Africanist Award at the 38th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, meeting in Orlando, Florida. At a party held in his honor by the African Studies and Research Centre of Cornell University, Ali Mazrui paid tribute to the five pillars of his professional career, two of which were in Africa – Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Jos in Nigeria. The other three were American universities – the University of Michigan, the State University of New York at Binghamton, and Cornell University. Ali Mazrui’s commitment to Africa was beyond dispute; his ability to interpret it has been accepted world-wide, even if there is no consensus on such interpretation; and his spirit of congeniality towards fellow Africans and Africanists has been confirmed by many Africanists themselves. The impact of Ali Mazrui’s works transcends countries and continents, race and ethnic groups, religion and languages. Mazrui was a modern Aristotle, his peripatetic style did not merely involve walking while talking in the classroom, it involved flying to Tokyo, a car-ride in Brazil, and walking in the rural areas and the bushes of Nigeria, as he filmed and lectured all over the world. There was no stopping this African in his intellectual crusade as a globalist, trying to make the world understand Africa, and Africa, the world. Professor Mazrui’s works reflect his beliefs and concerns about Africa, Africa and the world; the contradictions in the continent’s developmental process; the alternative mechanisms for conflict resolution; the socio-psychology of the African elite and the dilemmas of development; the politics of globalism and Africa’s position; the third World and the North – issues of dependency and liberation; modalities for South-South cooperation; religion, language (culture) and the State; academic freedom and the freedom of the writer, and many others. Some of the issues highlighted in his writing and public lectures are matters that gave him personal causes of agitation. Even in these circumstances, he tried to maintain as much academic objectivity as humanly possible, driven by powerful logic and incredibly coherent and impressive prose. You may not always agree with Ali Mazrui, but you will agree that he was a distinguished academic and Africanist. Ali Mazrui thought, wrote and spoke about Africa with passion and patriotism. It is important to note that although Ali Mazrui resided in the United States for forty years, he retained his Kenyan passport and citizenship. He could easily have become an American, possibly British, citizen. Even at eighty (four score years) Prof. Ali Mazrui still made frequent international trips to give lectures. While the wheel chair came to his aid at the airports, Mwalimu Mazrui still soldiered on in spite of his ill-health. His persistence, hard-work, determination and commitment to the cause of expanding the parameters of knowledge, has been a great lesson to those of us coming behind him. Conclusion Professor Ali Mazrui journeyed to the “Hereafter”, after eighty one years. For me, it has been an honor to be associated with Ali Mazrui from Palo Alto to the Nigerian Plateau and beyond. Professor Mazrui had been a role model, an inspiration, a mentor, a teacher and a boss. He represented noble characteristics of an urbane western-educated African who is Islamic and yet traditional. From Ali Mazrui I learnt not only skills in intellectual work but in interpersonal relations. I must confess that Mazrui’s Africa-centric concerns encouraged me to remain in Nigeria, even amidst massive exodus of Nigerian intellectuals from the country. I did not want to be far away from the field of my study. Let me salute this great African Globalist and Global African, this orator and master of English Language; outstanding academic, scholar par excellence, novelist, excellent narrator, an amazingly efficient teacher, meticulous editor, and astute administrator. I salute his humanity, humility and Africanity. I salute his passion and patriotism, and above all, the courage to be himself even when others disagreed. I salute this true “African child of a mountain called Kenya, a river called Niger and a lake called Victoria.” May God grant his SOUL eternal rest in the “Hereafter.”  Amen!! *J. Isawa Elaigwu is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Jos; President, Institute of Governance and Social Research, Jos, Nigeria]]>

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