Celebrating Mwalimu Ali Mazrui

Lindah Mhando Lindah Mhando[/caption] Situated at the intersection of the indigenous, Islamic and Western influences (the triple heritage), Mazrui’s philosophy in life, embodied the triple heritage of African, Western trained and Muslim. Mazrui’s scholarship was also influenced by Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah’s ideas on Pan Africanism, as evidenced in his doctoral thesis at Oxford University, Towards a Pax Africana: A Study of Ideology and Ambition. But Mazrui’s brilliance was vivid in his analysis of the Triple Heritage, through the nine-part television series, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage.” In the convergence of “triple heritage” Mazrui ascertains the coalitional strategies for resisting racialized and oppressions of global capitalism. The Africans is widely considered one of the most comprehensive assessments of African politics, economics, culture, and society. In it Mazrui established his global reputation, and also generated strong controversy. The series were condemned by the National Endowment for Humanities as anti-Western and ironically, banned in Mazrui’s homeland of Kenya, for being too anti-African. Mazrui was a master wordsmith, gifted with oratory ability, eloquence, unconventional style, originality of ideas, and fierce independence of thought. There are many memorable moments elaborating his prowess, including the town hall debates at Makerere University and the debates he had with Dr. Walter Rodney at the University of Dar-es-Salaam. Although some of us were too young to be at the University then, the legacy lived on. Mazrui was also known for stimulating the audience by his “Millennium Harvard Lectures” that drew large, engaged audiences for three consecutive days. The lectures were subsequently published as The African Predicament and the American Experience: A Tale of Two Edens in 2004.  He was considered to be a leading scholar in the field of African studies and a major African public intellectual, who has been the subject of numerous articles and books. Some scholars argued that, it is perhaps fitting to compare him with the likes of W.E. B. Du Bois, who had stolen similar titles in the last century. He truly captured the world’s imagination with his knowledge and ideas; influenced multiple fields within academia, but has also sent reverberations outside the ivory towers and scholarly journals, and clearly, revolutionized African studies. Mazrui’s writing has evolved into what is now termed as the “Mazruiana” collection; a paradigm with its own scholarship. Some of his most innovative and perhaps most enduring contribution to political philosophy has been, the re-invention of the “triple heritage” (the convergences of three civilizations: Islam, Euro-Christianity and indigenous), “Nkrumah: The Leninist Czar” (complexities of leadership/power) and “Afro-Saxon” (importance of cultural linguistic). In many ways his scholarship, situates a research agenda and praxis in order to challenge the assumption of neutrality. This resonates with me,  and in fact, the process forced me to even retrace the contours of my own  personal history; in other words, the way I understand myself and how I see others in relation to me. Mentoring Of his many accomplishments, mentoring his students was one of Mazrui’s proudest joys. He became my mentor when I was a graduate student at Binghamton State University, and our association developed in unanticipated ways. He was super busy, but at the same time making sure I was busy enough to hold on my own. From very early on he knew that my interest was to decolonize the capitalist supremacist patriarchal ways of thinking, and creating a trope that gives the marginalized, voices. One can just imagine the spirited conversations we had about these issues. I spent as much time in conversation with his ever-growing body of scholarly work, as in conversation with him. His works challenged me to think about different categories; from slavery to freedom, choices, citizenship, community and subjectivity. He created opportunities for me and through his mentorship, dozens of graduate and undergraduate students he supervised, trained, empowered, and challenged others to do the same. As a mentor, I can attest to the fact that not only was he my advocate, and understood that what I needed was interdisciplinary preparations for my future endeavors. He made my reading and writing a politically useful activity and a collective endeavor. I vividly remember how my intellectual confidence was boosted, when I was invited to write a comparative analysis piece on his Festschrift, I compared him to Mwalimu Nyerere. I received a complement from him, saying “your intellectual strength is in making comparisons” – it was perhaps the first time that I felt like a working scholar. At that time in many ways I was a poster child; the first Ph.D. African woman in the Sociology Department at Binghamton, fascinated by the notion of transnational feminism, social movement and political economy. The time we spent together was incredibly valuable to my intellectual development and my ability to be myself in the very white department. Being a first is not easy; you are carrying many burdens for the race, for the gender, being judged as a representative, not simply as a human being. In those ‘first positions’, stumbling is not an option. I tried and navigated well. After graduation, I joined St. Cloud University, but before long, I was hungry for more challenging opportunities. Given job market scantiness, I asked Mazrui, what areas should I focus my job talk on? With a grin on his face he said “anything you are going to talk about has to be authentic.” Mazrui never ceased encouraging me and following his advice I ended getting job offers at two prestigious institutions. In my naïveté, I was so proud to enter Black Studies and I was trying to weigh which institution would give me more resources. I was fortunate that his advice did not allow me to play that game. I ended up going to Penn State University. I moved from a traditional department of Sociology to Black Studies. In a very frank, paternal talk, Mazrui cautioned me that I would encounter resistance to my chosen scholarly and career paths. He urged me that, I should allow myself to read quite a bit about the history of Black studies. Indeed, efforts at institutionalizing Black Studies have their roots in the heroic work of W. E. B. Du Bois and others in an attempt to forge local and international alliances toward a larger vision of radical social change. Mazrui echoed what Manning Marable has argued, “Black Studies is simultaneously descriptive, corrective and prescriptive” insisting that, in black scholarship, there is a practical connection between scholarship and struggle, between social analysis and social transformation. While several African intellectuals of preceding generations have fought battles for the recognition of African scholarship in the global knowledge society, the challenge for the emerging generation of scholars is to complete the move; in the words of Micere Githae Mugo, ‘from the periphery to the center’ of African Studies scholarship. [caption id="attachment_14885" align="alignright" width="200"]Charles Gray, Honorary Consul of Tanzania, Prof. Lindah L. Mhando and Prof. Ali A. Mazrui in New York at the launching of the book "Julius Nyerere: Africa's Titan on a Global Stage" in 2013.Pic credit Tanzania Consul,USA Charles Gray, Honorary Consul of Tanzania, Prof. Lindah L. Mhando and Prof. Ali A. Mazrui in New York at the launching of the book “Julius Nyerere: Africa’s Titan on a Global Stage” in 2013.Pic credit Tanzania Consul,USA[/caption] Mazrui has been my advocate, through my academic and personal journey. He had numerous sons, but no biological daughter. Like his adopted daughter Grace, many of us considered ourselves as his daughters. He made us feel heard, seen, loved, special and worthy. He stood behind us, and was always available to offer advice. When I invited him to Penn State, and met some of my students, he said this was one of his proudest moments, saying “when a mentor gets to witness his/her mentee taking a role of a mentor, it is very satisfying.” In turn I learned humility! Mazrui also took special interest in my contributions, certainly another expression of his encouragement. We ended co-authoring the book Julius Nyerere, Africa’s Titan on a Global Stage: Perspective from Arusha to Obama, allowing me to take lead in the project, which culminated into a recognition award from our peers at NYASA on his 80thBirthday. The last time we shared a stage and spotlight was in October 2012, at the United Nations, in New York, where we were invited to launch our book, in commemoration of Nyerere Day. Mazrui was on wheel chair then. We had moments to have lunch, conduct interviews and chat. As always, he was ever generous and sensitive; he was concerned about my well-being, since I looked thinner than usual. Our families were close. My partner is originally from Tanga, the Tanzania side of the border from Mombasa, Kenya. He was the only one I knew who would converse with Mazrui in ‘their’ native Swahili tongue, of which Mazrui was very proud. The young sons with his wife Pauline were about the same age as my old daughter, so he would tease me that he could be an in-law to one of my girls. As a couple, Mazrui and his wife complemented each other well. Pauline is extremely generous and their house was always open. Every New Year eve, the couple would invite the Binghamton African community to his house, have a great meal, and just talk about the world! Mazrui was well informed, knew sports, music, mass culture and was an avid follower of the television program 60 minutes.  On Islam  I was not aware how deeply involved Mazrui was in intellectual commitment to denouncing all forms of violence. Cognitively he had a sense of urgency in his call for collective struggle to overcome the burden of discrimination and criticized violence against innocent people. He outspokenly criticized both the US and European  imperial war on terror, exploitative capitalism, intervention in the global south;  as well as extremists such as Boko Haram and other Jihadists; the enslavement of women; the bombing of civilians, or the drone attacks. Distinguishing between violence and power, he maintained that, although theorists of both the Left and Right regard violence as an extreme manifestation of power, the two concepts are, in fact, antithetical. Mazrui was highly critical of Salman Rushdie’s 1988, The Satanic Verses, he urged Muslims not to attack Rushdie physically. He was also passionate for humanity, and peace (has written quite a bit about Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King’s non-violence tactics), challenging neo-liberal imperialism, understanding the living reality of race, and his call for collective struggle to overcome the burden of discrimination. This resonates with the corpus of my scholarship and political belief, and I began to think hard about unpacking the question of positionality, my intellectual assumption of what would a de-colonial trajectory, particularly in relation to feminist solidarity and transnational feminism look like? I am deeply honored to have worked with Mwalimu Mazrui, I shall miss him dearly. What I know for sure is that he would not want any of us to remain immobilized by grief at his death. He would want us to celebrate life and carry on his legacy.  Buriani Mwalimu (RIP) *Lindah Mhando (PhD) is currently a Visiting Associate Professor of African & African America Studies and Women Studies & Research Associate – Center for Study of Race, Gender Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences at Duke University]]>

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One Comment

  1. I am not a history or political science scholar but an enthusiast of history & a well narrated story, I used to read his columns published in Sunday Nation(KE) without fail. Finally his 9 part documentary “The Africans: A triple heritage” was screened in one of the local TV stations. It taught us so much, his publications I hold in awe. I am glad he mentored you & others to carry on with his stellar work in the academic sphere. Buriani Mwalimu & thank you for describing mwalimu’s side most of us didn’t know about.

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