Thirty years ago I was an impressionable first-year Wits University student in search of the real Africa.
The one that was portrayed in the apartheid history books was woefully inadequate. Besides the usual heart of darkness narrative, they didn’t offer anything positive about the continent.
The university texts were written by European scholars. They offered interesting but contrasting perspectives which only served to evade the definitive authentic African image for which I was searching.
Then along came Professor Ali Mazrui’s The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986), a documentary series that was later published in book form. It was a revelation that opened my eyes and ears to an African story told through an African perspective. It was an incendiary torch that illuminated the dark picture which has been portrayed by colonial and apartheid scholars.
Astute as author and narrator, Mazrui’s soft but authoritative voice in the BBC series still rings like a symphonic melody in my ears. He left no subject untouched.
From the traditional medicine man in Mombasa to Michael Jackson as the ultimate face of pop culture, Mazrui put everyone with an African identity under the microscope of academic analysis.
From the pulsating slums of Nairobi in the horn of Africa in the east to the rolling desert plains of the Sahara in the west, Mazrui and his crew traversed the length and breadth of the continent’s diverse landscape to capture its majestic and tragic history in equal measure.
“You are not a country, Africa; you are a concept. You are not a concept, Africa; you are a glimpse of the infinite,” he wrote.
His trenchant words, “Africa produces what it does not consume and consumes what it does not produce” still rings true as a statement on unequal economic power relations between the West and the rest of us.
In subsequent years I discovered more of Mazrui in the form of memorial lectures, newspaper columns, debates and the like. I read his only novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971) with a certain degree of scepticism. I naively argued that novels belonged to the Achebes and Ngugis of this world. Based on the true story of a celebrated Nigerian poet who chose the secessionist cause of Igboland during the Biafran War (1967-1970), in retrospect I think it was a work of fiction that was ahead of its times.
Fond memories of my first encounter with the eminent Kenyan scholar and prolific writer through his landmark documentary series came flooding back early this year during the launch of this epic tribute work at the University of Johannesburg.
The 537-page tome includes more than 130 heartfelt eulogies of prose and poetry by a global family of thinkers who have been touched by this colossal intellectual father of African scholarship. They range from journalists to academics and eminent politicians.
Dedicated to the future generations of Mazrui disciples, this monumental work carries a foreword by Dr Salim Ahmed Salim, a former prime minister of Tanzania and past secretary general of the Organisation of African Unity.
The co-editors – Seifudein Adem, Jideofor Adibe, Abdul Karim Bangura and Abdul Samed Bemath – are respected Ali Mazrui scholars, authors and accomplished academics in various fields.
The results of their literary experience and erudite scholarship are evident in this posthumous magnum opus. Ali Mazrui bequeathed to African scholarship and the academic world the concept of a triple heritage – the idea that the continent’s contemporary identity is based on indigenous, oriental and western traditions.
The impact of Islam and Christianity on African spirituality was one of his favourite themes in this regard. So was the notion that Africa is the ancient homeland of Judaism.
Born into a prominent Muslim family of Swahili speakers in Mombasa to a father who was a supreme Muslim judge of Kenya, he grappled with religious questions such as whether a Muslim could marry a Christian or Jew without conversion.
For the record, he was married to Molly, a white woman from Yorkshire, England. In accordance with the dictates of the Qur’an, she had to adopt a Muslim name (Muna) when they exchanged vows in 1962.
In line with the Islamic doctrine of peace, he coined the phrase Pax Africana in a seminal 1967 work titled Towards a Pax Africana. Mazrui defined it as a quest for the continent to assume responsibility for its peace and security.
Controversial but exceptionally cerebral, some of his views attracted a fair share of criticism from fellow scholars. He was critical of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), arguing that it was blasphemous but citing freedom of speech, he publicly opposed the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for the author’s death.
His critical stance against the state of Israel was sometimes misunderstood for anti-Semitism. He occasionally crossed intellectual swords with his unflagging adversary, Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. Nigerian writer Soyinka recalls their relationship as that of unflagging adversaries.
One of their memorable sparring duels was at the turn of the millennium when Soyinka branded the late Kenyan scholar’s famous documentary a serious threat to relations between Africa and African Americans since the US authorities destroyed Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement in the 1920s.
The Nobel laureate was displeased by Mazrui’s uncomplimentary critique of a television series, Wonders of the African World (1999), by Henry Louis Gates Jr, an eminent African American scholar and public intellectual who is also Soyinka’s friend.
At the time of his death on October 12, 2014, Professor Ali Mazrui (81) was head of the Institute for Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York in Binghamton.
Befittingly, the world mourned the loss of this gentle doyen of African studies, internationally renowned scholar and indeed one of the brightest minds and sharpest thinkers to have ever come out of the continent.
This book is a fitting monument to a great teacher, versatile public intellectual, torch-bearer and film-maker whose documentary illuminated my world in a way that no book or institution could have achieved