By Maurice N. Amutabi
I had a good, cordial, intellectual relationship with Prof. Ali A Mazrui whom I greatly admired. When he died, I was in shock and watched as his peers mourned him. Among the Abaluhya, young people mourn older people after burial, during “amachienga” (last ambers of funeral fire), after the real fire of mourning is gone. This is Abaluhya culture’s way of saving young people from trauma and big shocks. Many people asked me why I had not written about my great friend and mentor. I cited my Luhya culture, because we are very cultural. Prof. Mazrui was like a father to me, only three years older than my biological father. He attended many of my presentations and said I was a provocative presenter. I have over a dozen personal letters written to me by Prof. Ali Mazrui is his own handwriting and which I now cherish more than before.
I regarded Prof. Mazrui as a mentor and did learn a lot from the Great Professor. Ali Mazrui liked me, and I greatly admired him too. I regarded myself like his protégé, always learning from the grand master. He was encouraging and pleasant as a person. He wrote me each time I took on William Ochieng’ or other academic heavyweights in the national media. When Ochieng’ replied to me through the Daily Nation in an article that was headlined “Amutabi talks tough, but show us his books,” Mazrui wrote to me telling me not to worry, he told me to be strong because I had arrived as a great scholar in Kenya and Africa and should now just write without fear. He told me that Ochieng never attacks an idea he does not fear and taking on me meant that he regarded me as a threat and the next big thing, for he was not comfortable to be succeeded. He told that that Ochieng was not happy with the debates in the media which all focussed on my article, especially the emergence of the pro-Amutabi and anti-Amutabi groups which were elevating me to a national figure. Mazrui shared with me the need for mentoring younger scholars and being fair and civil even as one engaged in public discourse and debates. He told me to be prepared to be disappointed sometimes when some scholars hit me below the belt or use vulgar language or get personal. He made me remember how my daughter cried in school after Ochieng’ had attacked me in public.
Mazrui had an easy smile and an active listener, who would not belittle anyone. He made you feel that your ideas were as important. He made you realize that he was listening to you. I met him more than ten times, and made sure that I took a picture with him each time we met. I am compiling my picture-bum with the great scholar. We were friends, but not close friends. I would say that I am closer to Prof. Alamin Mazrui, his nephew than I was to his fallen uncle, Prof. Ali A Mazrui. I liked Ali Mazrui’s intellectual flare but did not agree with him on some of the issues he postulated. He was kind and polite. I liked his capacity to coin new words and phrases and always told him about it whenever I had opportunity to do so.
I first met Ali Mazrui in 1986 in rather unusual circumstances. I was a struggling undergraduate student at the University of Nairobi when his planned public lecture was cancelled at the eleventh hour, during those dark KANU days. Despite the ban, Mazrui came to the University of Nairobi bookshop to ‘buy’ some books, and word immediately went round that the Great Scholar was on campus. There was a stampede from the library anda handful of us caught up with him at the parking lot between Gandhi Wing and the Geography building. I recall Prof. Kibiwott Kurgat, then SONU Vice Chairman appealing to the Vice Chancellor Prof. Philip Mbithi to allow the Great scholar to address us at Taifa Hall, an appeal that was flatly declined. Prof. Mbithi told us that we were asking him to choose between his job and us having to listen to Mazrui. He chose his job.
We persuaded Mazrui to give us an impromptu address in the car park. For almost ten minutes, we listened to one of the greatest intellectuals that Kenya has ever produced. He told us not to worry about dictatorship because it has a lifespan and is not immortal. Speaking in parables and political metaphors, he told how dictators such as Josef Stalin could not live forever. We asked him to return to Kenya and become our Vice Chancellor and he agreed, saying “….there is no problem, I would love to come back home, just ask President Moi to appoint me and I will gladly come.” The problem was passing this information to the appointing authority, but we did fantasize about life with Prof. Mazrui as our Vice Chancellor, perhaps having address from the VC every Friday in Taifa Hall which was a better idea than watching re-runs of films such as the Rise and Fall of Idi Amin or Cry Freedom.
Many years later in 1994, I met Ali Mazrui at the University of Florida, Gainesville, US where he was giving a public lecture on “The Wind of Change Africa” at the invitation of the Center of African Studies. It was a full house. The hall was full to the brim, the type I saw when the late poet Maya Angelou and Cornell West had visited. I felt proud to be a Kenyan. That Fall, another Kenyan, wildlife expert David Western had come to the University of Florida as well and spoke about eco-tourism and wildlife management in Africa but did not even get half of what Mazrui got for an audience. We sang ‘Jambo Bwana’ for Ali Mazrui but substituted Kenya with Africa. The Great Mwalimu just smiled as we milled round him, struggling to have a handshake with him. He was ours, all the way from Kenya, but Nigerians and other Africans insisted that he was also theirs, African. When he took to the podium, Prof. Mazrui was in his elements. He was impressive and spokes so eloquently. He tore into all African dictators but surprised us by saying that some of them were going to survive the tide of the wind of change blowing across the world due to lack of enough force, pull and push factors, to push them aside. He predicted that some would still be elected under democratic dispensation because of ethnicity. He was right and was vindicated on the account of rulers such as Paul Biya, Yowerri Museveni and Daniel Moi serving two ‘democratic’ terms, among others.
Prof. Mazrui was generous. In 1994 at the University of Florida he gave me two copies of his new books for free. I still keep the books with his signature, signed with my parker pen. During his presentation, Mazrui spent time trying to explain why Africa needed democracy more than foreign aid. He said democracy would allow for more equitable distribution of resources, which were enough but were unfortunately concentrated in few hands such as those of Mobutu Sese Seko and Muamar Gaddaffi. Mazrui responded to questions with amazing precision and persuasion. He predicted that Nelson Mandela was going to become the first black President of South Africa due to the number of black voters unless they were killed by some malevolent forces such as nuclear bomb or massive pandemic like the plague.
In 2001, Prof. Mazrui paid for an air ticket for me to fly from Chicago in Illinois to New York, Binghamton to attend a conference which he was organizing. He asked Dr. Patrick Dikirr, then his personal assistant to take care of us. It was four days of great enjoyment, listening to the grand doyen move one idea after another. At the time, I was at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I was doing tour of duty as a Fullbright Scholar. I took massive notes from this Fountain of Knowledge. I have been looking at the notes I took and wonder if Kenya will ever have such a great mind. He talked about wide range of issues such as why Africa may have the first female president before US. He said intermarriage between races and ethnic groups beautiful, bright and resilient people (perhaps anticipated the rise of Barrack Obama). He talked about why Ethiopia should colonize Eastern Africa, Nigeria should colonize West Africa and independent South Africa should colonize Southern Africa to bring about stability. He explained how US presence in the Western hemisphere had stabilized Latin America.
In 2002, Prof. Ali Mazrui and I met again at a conference organized by the Association of Third World Studies (ATWS) in Savannah, Georgia, where we drove for almost 15 hours from Illinois to Georgia with Prof. Moses Oketch (of University of London). The conference was organized by Prof. Harold Isaacs. We shared the same hotel with Prof. Moses Oketch and Prof. Shadrack Nasong’o (of Rhodes College, Memphis) and discussed Mazrui’s keynote address late into the night. At the conference, Prof. Abdul Bangura loudly confessed to Prof. Ali A Mazrui that “Mwalimu Mazrui, we have admired you, plagiarised you and continue to hold you with great esteem as the greatest scholar from the African soil residing in America today.” There was a long line of scholars from all over the world, seeking to greet Prof. Ali Mazrui. We posed for pictures with the Great Mazrui. Mazrui was a true globe trotter. He had just arrived in Savannah, Georgia from Latin America via Miami International Airport and after Savannah; he was headed to France, Europe where he was going to speak at a UNESCO meeting. We heard that ATWS paid him US$10,000 for the three hours he was in Savannah.
Mazrui loved sharing knowledge. Many scholars in Mazrui’s league such as Cornell West and Wole Soyinka took over US$50,000 per speaking engagement but Mazrui sometimes took US$10,000. I recall when I was working in the African Studies Programme at Central Washington University; we paid Prof. Wangari Maathai US$50,000 to come to our campus at Ellensburg and speak about environment. I received her from the airport at Seattle and while driving to Ellensburg through the Cascade Mountains, I remember her extolling the virtues of Prof. Ali Mazrui, and how his ‘talking fee’ was unbelievably low for the great ideas that he produced. Of course some scholars have been wondering not so loudly if the talking engagements may have slightly contributed to the burning out of the Great Professor Mazrui. Although it remains in the realm of speculation, it is obvious that Mazrui’s intellectual engagements may have had a contribution to his fast mortality.
In 2003, at Erie State University in Ohio, Mazrui asked me and Dr Godwin Murunga (currently of the University of Nairobi) to ride with him in an official limousine from the conference venue, to his hotel room in downtown Erie. He entertained us in his hotel room for over one hour on juicy intellectual stories and paid for our dinner. As we made our presentations, we did not know that the good Professor had recorded all that we had said and spared us the embarrassment and humiliation in public. He told Dr. Godwin Murunga that he needed to map the collapse of the Somali to broader factors and create a comparative matrix of similar states elsewhere in Africa and find out why even creation of smaller states from the Greater Somalia was not accepted by the Somali and the rest of the world. He seemed to move Dr. Murunga away from Islam as a factor in the problems of the Somali state. He went back to the colonial history where Somalia was divided into three colonial spheres for the British, Italians and French and how this legacy remained after independence.
For my presentation, Prof. Mazrui asked me to complicate cattle rustling in Northern Kenya into a more intellectual argument, and look at external and internal factors and examine the role of politicians more critically than Islam. He said that Muslims also lost cattle in northern Kenya and were also killed. He said that before Islam arrived in Northern Kenya, there were cattle raiding activities most of which were cultural and had nothing to do with Islam. He encouraged me to look for pull and push factors such as poverty than radical Islam. He said Muslim countries did not manufacture AK47 or M16 used to kill people in northern Kenya, and it was therefore wrong to blame Muslims for the violence in northern Kenya. This was one among many conferences where Mazrui cleverly deflected any discussion of Islam in negative form.
I looked back at many of Mazrui’s writings and saw the same trajectory. I noticed that Mazrui was an apologist for Islamic and Muslim excesses in Africa and abroad. I looked at his famous Film series, Africa: A Triple Heritage and realized how he worked so hard to privilege Muslims and attributed great African success stories to Islamic presence in Africa. I started having mixed feelings about Ali Mazrui and wondered if he was sincere and honest in his academic pronouncements. I even started to believe some people who had told me over twenty years ago in Florida that Mazrui was a CIA agent. I was surprised when he said that Arabs did not exert more violence on Africans compared to White European slave traders. I found strange that the Great professor was covering the fact that many African men who ended in the Arab and Muslim were castrated or killed; while African women had their fallopian tubes surgically removed so as not to create black people in the Muslim world. This was different from white Europeans who allowed African slaves to procreate and have families in captivity.
So as not to be misunderstood, let me state that slaves were treated badly by both Europeans and Arabs, by Christians and Muslims and no amount of justification will ever erase the grotesque and dark memories that this evil practice exerted on people Africa and their descendants to this day. But there are now 400 million blacks in the New World, from Brazil where there are 100 million, to the US where there are 50 million to Jamaica, Cuba, Honduras, El Salvador, Panana, Peru, Chile, Argentina, there are many black people in these places yet they received the same number of slaves as Arab countries. At least India preserved black slaves and even intermarried with them, but in the Muslim counties balck people were systematically eliminated and in ways that we see African house-helps treated in many Muslim countries. This is a topic that Ali Mazrui avoided in many of his writings and lectures, something he preferred to sweep under the carpet of the past.
When I first shared these historical facts and some facets of cover up in Mazrui’s writings while I was teaching in America, a friend of mine told me that rising against Mazrui’s ideas in America was like committing academic suicide. This was because in the American academy Mazrui’s voice was very strong. I clearly believed my friend because Mazrui was one of the voices that led to the granting of my work permit in the US for a Fulbright scholar like me who should have returned to Kenya after completing my doctoral studies. I shelved these ideas and focussed on writing about innocent issues. I received very kind advice to desist from presenting Islam in any manner different from the way Mazrui presented it, pointing to less than 1 percent as bad Muslims who engage in violence and not all Muslims. A prominent Kenyan scholar discouraged me from publishing my manuscript on How Islam Undeveloped Africa, arguing that it would annoy Prof. Mazrui and end our friendship and also attract the wrong crowds to me.
Prof. Atieno-Odhiambo once told me, “If Mazrui endorses you, the whole world will appreciate and receive you, but if he condemns you, you will be on the side of Wole Soyinka and have few academic friends in academia” Mazrui had just praised my paper for being bold and deeply intellectual which I had presented at Association of African Studies Conference in Houston, Texas in 2001 and in which I was calling for rotational presidency along ethnic groups in African countries in order to avoid marginalization and civil wars, and domination by majority ethnic groups.
Prof. Mazrui was very vocal on reparations for slavery and slave trade from the West but not from the East. He was a member of the eminent Africans appointed by the African Union to pursue reparation or compensation for Africans for the trauma of slave and slave trade. He was an apologist of Islamic excesses and did not appreciate the resilience and forgiving hearts of Africans. Unlike Arabs who experienced oppression from 1948 when the state of Israel was created, Africans have suffered over three thousand centuries of oppression and invasion by other cultures and have never engaged in suicide bombing, Africans have never created a Black Al Qaeda to kill Arabs and Europeans despite many years of oppression and enslavement.
Prof. Ali Mazrui has left a lot of academic legacies in the world. His famous TV series on Africa: A Triple Heritage will be remembered for the many good things it did in preserving Africa’s past. His many books on topical issues will continue to remind us about his great mind. I first learnt the idea of interdisciplinary research and writing from Prof. Ali Mazrui. It was only recently when I was looking at newspaper cutting from the 1980s when I realized that I had more newspaper cutting of Mazrui’s articles more than any other scholar alive or dead, and interestingly followed by those of Prof. William Ochieng’ whom I also admired a lot. Mazrui wrote about anything and was perhaps the great public intellectual that Africa has ever produced. He was certainly a man who was ahead of his peers in many ways. Mazrui loved debates and was at his sharpest wit during questions and answer sessions, when he would widen his eyes and lengthen his neck looking at the audience as if to hold them in his spell, like a hypnotist. He often left audiences asking for more, because of his articulateness and eloquence.
Many scholars in Kenya often looked for a day when Prof. Ali Mazrui would debate William Ochieng. Now that they are both dead, perhaps their academic sons and daughters will debate one day. I look forward to one day debating an academic son of Ochieng, looking at the influence of triple heritage on former Ruothdoms in Usenge or Uyoma and how Ochieng and Mazrui would have responded to such. We shall forever be indebted to Ali Mazrui for illuminating our intellectual minds and pointing to new horizons of knowledge, many of which ideas have inspired hundreds of doctoral and masters dissertations world over. I regard myself as one of the followers of Mazrui who was regarded as historian, political scientist, literary scholar and political analyst, among other references. Asante Mzee, Mwalimu, Professor Ali A Mazrui for giving it all and rest in peace.
Prof. Amutabi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and Student Affairs), Kisii University. Amutabi@yahoo.com