The Ali Mazrui I Knew

Esther Githinji Esther Githinji[/caption] I knew Professor Ali Mazrui for only ten years, 2004 to his death. Yet, in that short period, we got to know each other fairly well because we talked and worked on both personal and professional levels, at times, quite intensely. When he passed away on October 12, 2014, I asked myself a simple question:  What principles guided this remarkable man in life? I share here a handful of thoughts which have occurred to me, keeping in mind that this is still a work in progress. Speak Up for the Downtrodden Since his days at Makerere University, Ali Mazrui would not be silenced on matters of principle or public interest, even if this meant provoking the powers that be of East Africa. As Mazrui himself came to put it, “Obote was sometimes tempted to detain me or expel me (from Uganda); Idi Amin eventually wished he had eliminated me, and Julius Nyerere is in recurrent debates with me. Moi does not know what to do with me.” But in terms of live and hot political issues, it was Uganda’s Milton Obote who bore the brunt of Mazrui’s challenges. This was so in part because Mazrui lived and worked in Uganda in most of the 1960s.  Indeed, Obote was once driven to summon him for a warning coded in form of a pointed rhetorical question, “Professor Mazrui, do you know the difference between a professor of political science and a politician?” In the days to come Mazrui would pay a hefty professional price for the reputation of being ‘politically engaging.’ Indeed it was precisely for that reason that the University of Nairobi declined to offer the otherwise popular professor a job when Uganda became too dangerous for him during Idi Amin’s era. Why did Mazrui get involved in politically charged issues?  Was he a man inclined to taking chances?  It was startling, for example, that in the 1980s, at the height of general oppression and human rights abuses in Kenya, he dared call a news conference in Nairobi to challenge President Daniel Arap Moi to step down from power; that he had outlived his usefulness. Many a man had lost their lives for less. If Mazrui took chances, it certainly was neither because he was oblivious to the risks involved nor because of blind audacity. Moi knew the Mazrui name; Mazrui’s nephew, Alamin Mazrui, was in his ‘den of political detainees’ without trial in the same 1980s. More importantly, the President was certainly acutely sensitive to Alamin’s internationally famous uncle. After all, he had personally banned his scholarship in Kenya, including telecasting of his world famous television documentary, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage.” It was not that Mazrui was indifferent to his personal security.  The point was that there was a bigger, more powerful imperative: to speak up for the downtrodden, the voiceless people of Kenya. As has been said, “…he dined, wined and argued with Kings, Presidents, and Generals but he never lost his common touch.” Forgive but Not Necessarily Forget Professor Ali Mazrui left Makerere in the early 1970s pushed to do so by Idi Amin’s widespread inhumanity against his own people. By that time Mazrui had already established himself worldwide as a towering scholar. If he needed a job abroad, all he had to do was say so.  Odds are that most Africans in his shoes would have opted for a secure and lucrative position in more stable and wealthier West. Mazrui’s first choice was to teach at the University of Nairobi, in his home country.  And indeed he did approach the Vice-Chancellor of that institution to offer his services. However, the VC informed him with regrets that, ‘higher ups’ had conveyed a message that at the University of Nairobi, Mazrui was a persona non-grata. Hurt and disappointed, Mazrui departed for the USA where he worked at some of the finest Americans educational institutions. Mazrui did not disintegrate for being rejected by his mother country. As the old saying goes, it is impossible to keep a good man down. During his years away from Uganda and Africa, Mazrui became infinitely more productive. In addition to rolling out prolific publications, he undertook his defining work of writing and producing his legendary television documentary, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage.” Meanwhile, back in Kenya, Mazrui’s works, including the documentary were prohibited material, thanks to the regime of Daniel Arap Moi. The ban remained in effect until President Mwai Kibaki came to power and revoked it.   [caption id="attachment_14866" align="alignright" width="586"]From left standing, Esther Githinji, President Mbeki, Pauline Mazrui & Professor Mazrui seated From left standing, Esther Githinji, President Mbeki, Pauline Mazrui & Professor Mazrui seated[/caption] Kenya’s powers that be attempted to dismiss Ali Mazrui because they dreaded his liberating ideas. Mazrui kept writing newspaper commentaries on Kenya (and in Kenya) when issues of national interest arose, such as the post-election violence of 2007 erupted. He never ceased to suggest political solutions.  As fate would have it, ordinary Kenyans refused to abandon their intellectual gem, their finest political thinker. Secret love affair between Mazrui and Kenya never died; it was deeply entrenched. Those tempted to question this claim should review the Kenyan news media—electronic and printed— of the two weeks after Professor Mazrui passed away. The queues at his burial, the editorials, the tributes, the crowds at his funeral would make you think that the country had lost its beloved head of state. Loudly and clearly, Kenyans claimed their intellectual giant, their favorite son, even in death. Give a Helping Hand where You Can I was lucky to visit Mazrui’s home in Binghamton, New York, for professor’s 80th birthday celebrations. So, I state with certainty that when you hear it said that the Mazrui home was an African Center of sorts, it is meant literally. When African visitors arrived in Binghamton, they wanted to visit Ali Mazrui and his family. They did not care that Mazrui was perhaps too “big a name” and might be too busy or snobbish to welcome them. They felt and knew otherwise. Residents at that home were Mazrui’s extended family that covered three generations, mostly from Uganda and Nigeria. Some were family.  Others were friends while others were children that Mazrui had legally adopted so that they could benefit from his name. In another essay in this collection, an unequivocal assertion is made that Mazrui was generous to a fault.  This could indeed be an understatement. I became involved in the management of Professor Mazrui’s affairs in South Africa in 2004. I noticed immediately that it was expected of me to contact and arrange Mazrui’s meetings with people from everywhere in Southern Africa; he wanted to meet and see them in the flesh to personally verify how they were doing. One time it was a Zambian ex-soldier who Mazrui was assisting financially because somehow he had come to hard financial times. Next, it was a Ugandan student at Fort Hare University who Mazrui was sponsoring through school. When they came to Johannesburg, I booked them in hotels. Mazrui was footing the bill for their travel, room and board. Mazrui never talked much about these extra-curricular ventures; they were private between him and his friends. What has to be remembered is that this was Mazrui spending time and money on nameless ‘John Does.’ This is the same man for whom we had no difficulty securing meetings and appointments with Thabo Mbeki when he was President of the country and after. Along this same line, many of us know that Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.  What is less known is that towards the end of the candidates’ review, the Norwegian Peace Committee consulted Professor Mazrui regarding Wangari’s candidacy. His strong endorsement that she was ‘eminently qualified’ probably tipped the scale in her favor. Let No One Push You Around I was witness to one running disagreement between Professors Ali Mazrui and James Kariuki.  Kariuki was pushing the opinion that Mazrui should quit responding to those who criticized him in print. In Kariuki’s view, Mazrui as a scholar had become too big for such engagements and his work spoke for itself anyway.  Additionally, his writings were so vast that he could not effectively keep up with all his academic nemeses. Mazrui’s reaction was that he had to respond because “ignoring the critics was a higher form of arrogance.”  Kariuki was later to confide in me later that, in his view, the reasoning that Mazrui  state was partly correct, but there was an additional factor. When challenged, the small giant in Mazrui had to rise to the occasion and show his critics that there was a tiger in his tank. On many occasions, Mazrui himself lamented that his whole life had been one long debate. You can see why. He relished a good debate. Unfortunately, some of these written exchanges eventually degenerated to undesirable levels. The most notorious of these was the exchange between Mazrui and Nigerian playwright, Wole Soyinka and, to a considerably lesser degree, South Africa’s late Archie Mafeje. The barrage of attacks and counter-attacks became acrimonious and virtually ad hominem (playing the man not the ball) which grieved Mazrui deeply but he could not stop himself from continuing the duels.  The tiger in Mazrui had been roused.  Shake them up occasionally lest they doze off [caption id="attachment_14867" align="alignleft" width="586"]From right seated Esther Githinji, Professor Ali Mazrui & Professor James Kariuki standing From right seated Esther Githinji, Professor Ali Mazrui & Professor James Kariuki standing[/caption] At some point in my involvement in the management of Professor Mazrui’s affairs in South Africa, he was given an honorarium in check form for a lecture that he had delivered.  It was on a Friday and he was leaving for home the following day, a Saturday. It was critical to cash his check in South Africa; he could not just deposit it (in South African rand) in his bank account in New York.  So, on Saturday morning we went to the bank in Sandton and he carefully handed over the check and his passport for ID to Professor Kariuki to go to the counter and cash it for him. Meanwhile, Mazrui and I sat down; his legs were already getting fragile. At the bank we were served in about ten minutes and we proceeded back to Prof. Mazrui’s hotel to get him ready for his departure in about four hours. We were sitting at the hotel lobby sipping coffee and talking casually when, out of nowhere, Mazrui dropped a bomb. He said to Professor Kariuki, “James, where is my passport?” Kariuki’s heart skipped a beat but, for emphasis, Mazrui continued, “I remember giving it to you at the bank but I do not remember you giving it back to me!” Kariuki knew that he had received the passport and was also sure that he did not have it now. The question remained: where was that travel document? The banks were already closed; we could not check there.  James and I drew a blank! Professor Mazrui did not seem particularly perturbed about the agonizing state of affairs.  But you rewind and consider the state of mind for Kariuki and me. Here is an elderly international icon in South Africa and he will be stuck here for an indefinite period of time because we, his ‘handlers,’ had lost his diplomatic passport. How long will it take to get him another diplomatic passport from Kenya?  Where will he be staying meanwhile?  Will a new visa be required for Mazrui to enter the US? Who will be responsible for his bills in South Africa?  Did he bring with him enough of his medications? What about his professional duties back in New York? Can you imagine the newspaper headlines in South Africa, Kenya and even the USA? These questions ran through our minds in bewilderment. As usual a woman’s mental intervention’ came to the rescue. I recalled that when we returned from the bank to the hotel, Professor Mazrui changed his jacket which I folded neatly and put it in his suitcase. I thus asked him for the keys, went to his room, opened the suitcase and voila! There was the passport in the inner pocket of his jacket. Kariuki’s heart started beating regularly again and we continued with our conversation and coffee sipping as if nothing had ever happened. Mazrui never uttered another word about his alleged lost-and-found passport. Was he pulling Kariuki’s leg about the passport fiasco to stop us from dozing off? He never told; we will never know. May your soul rest in eternal peace, my special friend!  *Esther W. Githinji is a Kenyan business lady who is currently doing philanthropy work in South Africa.]]>

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