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Ali A. Mazrui, Abdulrazak Gurnah and the Swahili moment, By Toyin Falola

October 12 has been declared “Ali A. Mazrui Memorial Day” by his friends, colleagues, and well-wishers. This year’s observance is very unique as it coincides with Zanzibar-born Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah winning the prestigious 2021 Nobel Literature Prize. Indeed, I will use this opportunity to eulogize, once more, Professor Mazrui of blessed memory while lauding Professor Gurnah, both of whom are Swahili-speaking intellectuals of great repute. I most certainly, enjoyed the opportunity of being interviewed as part of the 2021 memorial celebration for Mwalimu Mazrui as part of enlarging the Mazrui Archives.  In continuing to maintain an excellent archival website and creating a documentary on Mazrui, we owe an unlimited debt of gratitude to Professor Ndirangu Wachanga of the University of Wisconsin, whose documentary— “Ali Mazrui: A Walking Triple Heritage”— won the 2015 New York African Studies Book Award. Thank you, Ndirangu! I am Ndugu!!

It is a possibility that some younger people may not know Mwalimu Mazrui either in person or by name. However, for many of us, as scholars, whenever we hear his name, what comes to mind instantly is the representation of one of the most iconic as well as influential African intellectual figures of the 20th and 21st centuries. Mazrui, considered by many of us as the father of African liberalism, was our own US-based prolific African author as well as a political scientist, social commentator and theorist, who contributed immensely to our understanding of Africa through his vast intellectual-cum– scholarly inputs and public debates, coupled with his demand for social justice across the globe.

Mwalimu Mazrui’s inputs and contributions to the African discourse as well as an awakening of our intellectual consciousness towards understanding, demystifying and dissecting the African condition, indeed, cannot for any reason be considered minute. Through such sterling contributions of his, we sorely miss him today, and they can be classified into five topical themes: thus, the intellectual legacy; public intellectual debates; the infrastructure of the English language; epistemology grounded in Pan-Africanist-cum-anti-colonial, and transnational perspectives; and rising East African scholarship.

It is always a hard nut to crack in trying to appraise the legacies of the late Public Intellectual, and it is simply because he meant different things to different people cross-continentally and trans-nationally. Today—October 12th — marks seven years since his glorious exit from Franz Fanon’s wretched earth; otherwise, Mwalimu Mazrui would have clocked 88 years old on February 24, this year. In his honour, many tributes have been written and, as recently as 2017, a book of eulogies was published posthumously, thanks to co-editors Kimani Njogu and Seifudein Adem.

In his foreword to the festschrift, eminent historian and literary critic Paul Tiyambe Zeleza identifies Mwalimu Mazrui as “one of Africa’s greatest intellectuals of the 20th century and a prominent architect of postcolonial scholarship, an indefatigable voice for Africa’s intellectual rebirth and empowerment.”   Professor Zeleza is correct, but I would further point to other areas of Mazruiana greatness in everyday life. Yes, the Mwalimu was a towering intellectual figure by all means, and that is what he was most renowned for.  We need to add everything up in an effort to honor him appropriately.

For example, the first enduring legacy of Mwalimu Mazrui is public intellectual accolade. This can be viewed from his widely known career as an academic. Therefore, his early intellectual grounding began in his native Mombasa, Kenya, where he learned to speak and write in English, Swahili, and Arabic. He won a Kenyan Government Scholarship to further his studies at the initial baccalaureate level at University of Manchester in the United Kingdom (the proverbial Queendom) and then his M.A. degree at Columbia University in the U.S., returning to the United Kingdom for his doctorate (D. Phil.) at Oxford; he began his academic career at the University of Makerere, Uganda as a sharp and upcoming Political Scientist. During the turbulent Idi Amin era in Uganda, Mwalimu Mazrui subsequently accepted an appointment at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and, some years later, he moved to the State University of New York at Binghamton (or University of Binghamton). He was also honored with distinguished professorships at some of the most prestigious tertiary institutions in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Australia and in the Caribbean.

Being unusually prolific, Mwalimu Mazrui published many books as well as edited several journals and mentored generations of younger scholars. He provided the context for virtually all of his views on pressing issues of the day. However, his primary concern was on Africa, with research interests that included African politics, international political culture, political Islam, and North-South relations. The foregoing research interests were very much central to virtually all of the views or theories he elegantly propounded. Unabashedly, he coined the concept of “African Triple Heritage” to demonstrate the three influences that modern Africa was made up of. These include the pre-colonial legacy, the influence of Islam, and the active colonial legacy. This concept was appropriately expressed in his well-known documentary series titled: The Africans: A Triple Heritage, which was published as a 1986 book with the same title. 

True to the Mazruiana concept of Africa’s Triple Heritage, the indigenous African influence, which was strongest before the colonial era, is still reflective of African people’s actions, beliefs, and norms. Even, during intellectual discourses, there are clamors for preserving African cultures, traditions and norms, and a revisit to the African values that held sway in the pre-colonial era. The second, the capitalist heritage of Europe, was brought upon Africa and Africans by the colonialists. Africans are not naturally individualistic capitalists but, instead, they are communalistic liberalists — this brings to mind the age-grade system, indeed the owe among the Yoruba, Ubuntu, Ujamaa, and other African concepts that show communalistic liberalism. A concept that allows the individual certain moral freedoms, while also binding such individual by some communal moral boundaries.

However, the advent of the Europeans and forceful acculturation of Africans—for economic and social gains — has made many African nations capitalist, patterned after European countries and states. Mazrui believed that the practice of capitalism and the proposition of socialism, Marxism, and other European political and economic concepts to Africa is a forceful way of tailoring African states after American and European countries, although Africa is largely very different culturally from those two continents.

Lastly, it is the multi-dimensional influence of Islam. After all, the Islamic influence is not only spiritual but cultural, political, and economic. Mazrui also theorized that the effects of these triple heritage are not one-dimensional but a two-way thing. Africa is not the only continent that has received significant changes in different aspects due to European and American influence. Europe and America had also received significant changes in different aspects, bordering on Africa’s influence.

Mazrui also identified some of the contradictions that he claimed could help in understanding Africa. These were successfully articulated in his 1980 book, The African Condition: A Political Diagnosis, in which he also identified the dependency problem in Africa with the belief that doing so was disadvantageous to the continent’s development, dovetailing Walter Rodney’s how Europe underdeveloped Africa’s dynamic. The underdevelopment position had been explored in a different light three years earlier, precisely in 1977, with his book, Africa’s International Relations: The Diplomacy of Dependency and Change. Several other books, articles, lecture notes and interviews from this period up to the late 2000s engaged Mwalimu Mazrui’s mind. He was, of course, influenced by the ideas of Pan-Africanism and “consciencism” that was espoused by Ghana’s  Kwame Nkrumah. Still, Mwalimu Mazrui was often critical of many other isms that he believed did not conform to the African condition. On this basis, he coined the theory of “African Liberalism”, which he argued was more suited to or acceptable for the continent’s progress.

Mwalimu Mazrui knew very well that he had a powerful influence globally, but he did not brag about it. Instead, he built a vast network of friends and even critics throughout his career, primarily via public debates with other intellectuals. He was a man who loved enormous ideas and worked towards implementing them. Since he was a deep thinker, he was widely courted by state governments as well as the international media, tertiary institutions, public and corporate organizations for alternative positions and political strategies. Earlier in his career, young Mazrui was said to have gone into an epic debate with the late Guyanese historian (Walter Rodney), who reportedly eventually “humbled” him. This penchant for taking anyone on a debate continued for much of Mazrui’s academic career. It included his famous spat with Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and, much later, American literary critic and historian, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.; these are but a few examples of how Mwalimu Mazrui engaged the public ‘order’. It is understood that he made these “troubles” to provoke great minds like him into action. The debates identified above are in the realm of paper debates, sometimes in Transition Magazine. Several others were held both on live television and radio.  


Mwalimu Mazrui distinguished himself through the portal of languages. His academic career was constructed on what can be described as the “infrastructure” of the English language in collaboration with the “babel of languages”. He was equally fluent in Arabic and Swahili, which further reinforced his concept of a triple African heritage. Through language use, he   communicated his thoughts to the people and was also able to define his personality.  

Certainly, Mwalimu Mazrui remains one of the very few influential intellectual giants of the 20th century. He consistently championed, re-engineered, and reasserted African studies for more than four decades, making it more profound in the West. His legacy yet spreads its tentacles to what we can call “Pan-Africanist,” anti-colonial and transnational epistemological perspectives. His writings were not primarily drawn from Western epistemologies but instead adapted from his African philosophical worldview. The arguments in his books were Africa-centered and called for a place for Africa side-by-side with decision-makers in the Global North.

What I may well regard as Mazruiana’s most significant legacy is how his life and time have positively influenced a rise in East African scholarship. For, by far, he was one of the greatest intellectual exports from East Africa. Close to his towering figure would be a literary icon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Indeed, since Mazrui died in 2014, there have been some concerns that “Africa in general and East Africa, in particular, has plunged into intellectual pitch darkness.” This concern is not entirely valid as a handful of intellectual giants worldwide—from sub-Saharan Africa— are making the continent proud. However, the like of Mazrui comes once in a lifetime.

Notwithstanding, Mwalimu Mazrui’s scholarship has influenced a generation of scholars in ways that cannot be expressed. For instance, Zanzibari novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, who recently won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, comes to mind. The Royal Swedish Academy awarded Gurnah the Prize for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. This statement can quickly help to connect the dots. The ideas in Gurnah’s novels and his scholarship are not dissimilar from Mwalimu Mazrui’s, who surprisingly also published a novel in the 1970s about Nigeria’s Christopher Okigbo (The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, an African Writers’ Series book). Gurnah’s nomination for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature stands at the intersection of one of Mwalimu Mazrui’s important legacies—telling the story of the African condition.

When reading of Gurnah’s life—from Zanzibar to the United Kingdom, where he settled to a new life of safety—one can find some deep correlation with Mazrui’s who also fled Uganda at the height of Idi Amin’s power, settling in the United States to a life of safety and intellectual flowering.  Apart from the fact that Mwalimu Mazrui and Gurnah are both from the East African part of the continent, both men espouse almost the same, if not the same, ideals. They worry about home and want the home to be better.  Both of them fled for their lives after they were persecuted and moved to the West to explore a career path defined by troubles at home and troubles with the continent. Their intellectual outputs are about Africa and how the African condition can be mitigated.

Other thoughts and beliefs of Mazruiana, which form an integral part of his legacy, are that Africa is too dependent on the developed world and that Africa will never earn itself the respect it deserves or an equal seat at the table until it ceases to be overly dependent on the developed world. He also believed that Africa’s relationship of dependency with the developed world could never be beneficial to Africa. Lastly, he argued that regardless of Africa’s abundance of natural wealth and resources, the African people are still Africa’s most significant wealth.  

There is no denying that Mwalimu Mazrui ranks among the most illustrious sons produced by Africa. His life and legacy have influenced and, indeed, continue to spark intellectual debates around the world. Sadly, Mazrui’s case yet proves the biblical maxim that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown. His name and fame have positively reflected on the international perception of Kenya, yet, his country seems to have forgotten him. Mwalimu Mazrui himself lamented this challenge. I, in fact, think that it has a lot more to do with a complex problem. However, we must understand that not many younger people today in Kenya were born when Mwalimu Mazrui was making waves in the 1970s. I, therefore, seriously think that it is a generational gap problem, whereby today’s population in Africa, which does not preclude Kenya, is mainly made up of youthful people, whose interests are different from that of our own generation. Look at Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta the gap between when he and Mazrui were born is 28 years (1933 and 1961, respectively). He was 52 when Mwalimu Mazrui, his compatriot, passed on. Imagine how old he was when Mazrui filmed his famous documentary.

Yet, again, this did not start with President Uhuru, as it is known that even his predecessors, too, showed disdain for this great icon from Mombasa. I must emphasize that as much as Mazrui fought for the African cause, he detested the type of leadership that emerged in post-colonial Africa. We recall that although Kwame Nkrumah’s political thoughts influenced him, he published an article titled “Nkrumah: The Leninist Czar” that was highly critical of the Ghanaian President. Recall also that Idi Amin wanted him to serve as his special adviser, something akin to Henry Kissinger’s role under the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. He openly criticized Idi Amin and then fled the country and, indeed, the continent for good. A man, who does not suffer fools gladly, is not wont to be loved by African presidents, who more often than not despise criticism. So, there is an understanding of why he was better left alone by his people than being remembered for his good.

As we mark yet another remembrance of the life and legacy of Mwalimu Mazrui, the Great Intellectual, we must deeply reflect on his concept of African Liberalism, and how we can drive discourses towards bringing it to fruition. Ali Mazrui’s life is an embodiment of pride in Africa and African cultures and languages. He always believed in the African people as Africa’s greatest gift and resource. With us in existence, Africa still hopes to take its place as an equal counterpart of other continents of the world.

We must all emulate Mwalimu Mazrui and, also, show our pride in Africa and the African culture. Beyond that, we must live African, think African, breathe African, as well as influence and shape the world’s perception of Africa positively, just like our dear friend and brother: the indomitable Ali!

Toyin Falola, a professor of History and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, is Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at The University of Texas at Austin.

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