Ali Mazrui, the truly Pan-African intellectual of our time, has passed away in the USA, aged 81. Kenyans, led by President Uhuru, are mourning, as are many many Africans and African-Americans around the world.
For me it is a personal loss, because the man was, besides Frantz Fanon and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the greatest teacher I ever had. As a school boy I came across Mazrui’s now obscure African Writers Series book titled “The Trial of Chris Okigbo”. It was about the Biafran Poet, Chris Okigbo, who put down his pen and became a soldier for the Biafran cause – and lost his life. Okigbo’s “Trial” is set in the After-Life, where Okigbo is indicted for sacrificing his God-given gift as a writer for the narrow cause of Igbo nationalism. Mazrui of course later became a Professor at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan.
I remember all this from 42 years ago – having never seen or touched the book since. Then we also played football on the shores of the Indian Ocean, the playing field in-front of the Portuguese built Fort Jesus, Mombasa. Mazrui, a scion of the old ruling family of Mombasa, also played in the same spot as a teenager – 20 years before me and my school friends.
Then, ten years later (30 years ago), while I was studying History at university in Scotland, Ali Mazrui became my teacher again – through the amazing television history documentary that he put together: “Africa: A Triple Heritage”. Even writing the title again after all these years sends a tingle up my spine. Mazrui appeared on British television for an intellectual discussion with a couple of British professors and I was left shaking my head in dismay. Prof Mazrui could not finish his highly intelligent sentences because he kept getting interrupted – and I am thinking “this guy is not Malcolm X!” Professor Mazrui was trying to put a pretty moderate point across about African civilisation and achievement and they were not letting him!
Many years later, once Moi was forced to resign his long-dictatorship and Kibaki became President, Mazrui went back to Kenya – and I think became Vice-Chancellor of Nairobi University (repeat I think!). Ngugi wa Thiong’o too went back at the same time, but soon fled (according to what he told me in London in 2009, “the new politicians made life too dangerous”).
Anyway, let me end this here, for far abler reviews will be coming out in days to come. What a life – may his soul rest in perfect peace.
It was infact at Jomo Kenyatta University that Mazrui became Chancellor (although ironically during President Kenyatta’s and President Moi’s rule Mazrui was BANNED from teaching at Kenyan Universities – which reminds me of Prof Angela Davis being sacked and banned from teaching at UCLA by President Ronald Reagan – only for her to become a professor there after Reagan died.
Ngugi wa Thiongo is now also teaching in California – and he too was imprisoned and BANNED from teaching by Jomo Kenyatta – and then BANISHED from Kenya by President Moi.
I met Ali Mazrui in 1991 at a conference organized by the African students in Ohio State University. He was a very humble and a kind man. I was a graduate student hoping to attend Ohio State after graduating, he advised me to continue my dream and never forget home. Mr. Mazrui is a great man and a true Pan Africanist. May Allah gives him Janna and forgive all his sins.