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'Mazrui, literary journalism and intellectual inclusiveness'

By Stephen Derwent Partington | Oct 25th 2014 | 5 min read

The death of one of our brightest thinkers has occasioned some generous and interesting literary journalism.

Following the death of Prof Ali Mazrui, The Standard on Saturday and Saturday Nation printed various ‘tributes’ to the late intellectual. Both newspapers had big-hitters and appropriate names authoring them: one had ‘global Kenyan’ Ngugi wa Thiong’o and one of our more visible scholars-in-place, Chris Wanjala; the other had author Austin Bukenya, brave publisher Henry Chakava, journalist Barrack Muluka and Kiswahili scholar Ken Walibora.

All were generous; some more charitable with this ‘late’ author than many of our literary commentators have ever been with the living.

Of central interest to me was how it was the ‘Literary Section’ of our newspapers that printed these tributes. After all, the brilliant Mazrui published only one piece of fiction, the peculiarly fascinating ‘programmatic’ (or ‘motivated’) novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971), in which Okigbo’s important legacy is debated. It was a novel that received mixed reviews in its day, many of them unfairly critical of its ‘clumsy’ prose and what was considered to be its issue-obsession.

But in truth, it is these reviews that now need criticising, not Mazrui’s novel, for most of those penned by EuroAmerican critics betray the prejudices of the Western academy of the day; it is indeed these reviews that now seem ‘obsessed’, with the idea that art must be primarily ‘for its own sake’ and only secondarily ‘purposeful’, meaning that the post-colonial aesthetic of functional literature was frowned upon, leading Mazrui’s very functional novel to be dismissed as ‘bad art’.

But the 1960s/70s were a complex time in East African and wider continental literary debate, with alliances forming here and authors being dismissed there as ‘bourgeois’, ‘committed’, ‘not properly African’, ‘comprador’, and so on. Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka (arguably an Islamophobe and security obsessive who some lauded at Nairobi’s recent StoryMoja Festival) once infamously implied that Mazrui was not sufficiently African, and perhaps too Muslim, to represent the continent in intellectual forums, something that Oumah Otienoh mentions in his tribute to Mazrui. But others also dismissed Mazrui: persistent contrarian, Taban lo Liyong, and Kenya’s historian, William Ochieng, amongst others.

It is arguable that while Prof Ali Mazrui, yes, had to physically flee for his (intellectual) life into exile from Idi Amin during that dictator’s persecution of intellectuals in Uganda, he was also consigned to a sort of limbo-of-marginalised-neglect, a readerly and scholarly silence, by many fellow ‘intellectuals’.

Few debated with him in ways other than spitefully.

Fortunately, Mazrui never consented to be silenced; instead, he continued to write and lecture, proving through his scholarship that East Africa was a region that needed a plurality of voices and ongoing intellectual debate. Reading the intellectual history of that time, one sometimes frighteningly gets the feeling that there were academics and artistic types who wouldn’t have minded if Idi Amin or somebody else had silenced this ‘turbulent priest’.

I don’t share Mazrui’s mistrust of any form of Marxism or experimental socialisms; nor do I believe in his assessment that (East) Africa has a very fixed triple heritage, let alone his conclusion that it is the Arabic-Islamic heritage in some sort of ‘pure form’ that is both most likely to somehow ‘triumph’ across the continent and that is most desirable.

There are simply no such ‘pure’ cultures that can wholesale impose themselves anymore; globally, despite imbalances of power, cultures are more or less mingled and hybridised in ways that scholars from the 1970s couldn’t see, through no fault of their own; it was the fault of an invader imperialism that imposed itself on Africa.

But even though, like East African scholars at the time, I’d not fully accept many of Mazrui’s early arguments, I feel that from the vantage point of today, where we have the benefit of distance from formal colonialism, a greater number of intellectuals inside and outside our universities and a new Constitution that obliges us to consider conflicting positions, the manner in which Mazrui was treated was often unfairly ad hominem and exclusionary. It was indeed terroristic.

According to some of his contemporary detractors, it almost seemed as if Mazrui had no right to speak at all, let alone on behalf of any ‘Africans’, a cultural ‘translation’ role he took to with great skill as his biographer Wachanga Ndirangu has written. He suffered not only at the hands of oppressive states such as Uganda and Kenya, the latter of which prevented the showing of his documentary series The Africans: a Triple Heritage, but also he suffered the critical ink of a range of ‘intellectuals’ and artists who should, perhaps, have exhibited more humility, generosity and solidarity.

Have we learned anything from how Mazrui was treated? Probably not. Our newspaper literary ‘debates’ continue the empty ad hominem back-biting that characterised the dismissals of Mazrui; like then, it is often the less interesting and more inflexible academics who treat their intellectual or artistic colleagues with disdain. Let’s face it, the litany of folk who then criticized Mazrui reads today like a list of ‘also rans’. Further, we today still ban films and harass documentary filmmakers.

So for me, a relative youngster, two major questions are raised by the brilliant Mazrui’s legacy.

Firstly, how can our cultural debates become more generous, and how can our jobbing university academics better accommodate divergent views when Kenyan intellectual spaces have almost no history of tolerating diversity? Secondly, how can we escape the narrow confines of traditional Literary Studies and instead advance a broader Cultural Studies, as Mazrui’s diverse interests enabled him to do as a ‘one man band’? Perhaps it’s time to dismantle our narrow Literature Departments and make literature just one piece of wider Cultural Studies departments.

The wider the field of study, the more open and ranging the play; and, the more democratic and imaginative room we create for players with different views.

One tribute writer honestly asked the Shakespearean question, ‘Shall we have other Mazruis?’ The answer: ‘No, not unless we broaden our minds and our departments’.

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