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Ali Mazrui, the celebrity intellectual who epitomised the best of Africa

By Makau Mutua | Oct 26th 2014 | 4 min read

Countless people — the high and mighty, as well as the hoi polloi — have eulogised Prof Ali Mazrui. But mine isn’t an eulogy. I am interested in Prof Mazrui as a “celebrity intellectual.” That’s the rare species of a “public intellectual” who’s achieved the status of a global icon. A true man of letters who transcends the mundane classroom and the academic’s published works.

 That’s a guru who bends the history of knowledge by the power of his thinking. In death, few people have left a legacy richer than Prof Mazrui’s. It’s a standard of excellence that’s epochal, and out of reach but for a tiny chosen few. Let me unveil the many guises of the genius from Mvita.

At the time of his demise, Prof Mazrui taught within the State University of New York, which I also call my academic home. He was a mentor and a friend. The first thing Kenyans need to appreciate is the rigour of making it as a revered academic in an American research university. The standards are gruelling. Only the fittest survive.

 In a publish-or-perish culture, the American research university — to which the don belonged — rising to the top is strictly by the most daunting of metrics. This is doubly true for academics who are not white. Persons of colour must prove themselves over and above their white peers. Prof Mazrui not only proved his superior intellect, but he vanquished them all.

Second, Prof Mazrui understood that prolific output was the first step to finding and producing knowledge. That’s why he wrote, and then wrote some more. He spoke in more conferences than one could count. He wrote everywhere and everything.

There was no publication or genre of publishing that he looked down on. He could be a newspaper columnist, a master of the dense academic writing and high theory, or a plain spoken policy wonk. He could speak to the village idiot in a language that was easily understood. But he could also speak in academic tongues not native to those with smaller IQs. Such was the man’s facility with knowledge — raw talent — that he was a literal wizard.

Third, Prof Mazrui was a world-class rhetorician and polemicist. I have never heard him use a word that wasn’t perfect for the occasion. It didn’t matter whether he was writing, or speaking. And it wasn’t just in English or in formal speech. You could’ve been having a glass of wine with him — relaxed and unpretentious — and forth issues from his mouth the most insightful comment wrapped in the most elegant expression.

 He never ceased to amaze me. He could debate and disarm the most cantankerous of opponents. That’s because his temperature never rose. He would methodically pick apart good and bad arguments, laying waste to the side opposite. He did it all with the civility of a violinist.

Fourth, although he was a formidable intellectual pugilist, Prof Mazrui didn’t allow ideological purity to detain him. Unlike some self-declared Marxists, or left thinkers, he could be intellectually polygamous. It’s true, his general hue was liberal, but he was a staunch believer in projects to reduce structural inequalities. He was an ardent democrat, and abhorred dictatorships, as KANU knew very well. He could turn the poisoned tip of his pen, or the venom from his sharp tongue, against Africa’s kleptocrats. Unlike some of his Kenyan contemporaries, he refused to be used by the State to legitimise autocracy. That’s why Kenyan officialdom never truly embraced him. It’s tragic that Kenya’s most famous academic was never truly requited at home.

Fifth, Prof Mazrui was a towering anti-racist, a pan-Africanist, and a beacon of hope for the black world. He spoke and wrote prodigiously against racism and Africa’s subjugation on the global map. But he also recognised — and celebrated — what he famously termed Africa’s “triple heritage.” He accepted that Africa wasn’t pure in any case, but a cross-contamination of the West, the East, and the original African. But to him, this alloyed culture was the strength of Africa, the sinews of resilience and tolerance of difference. He himself was a creature of these blissful contradictions — a liberal Muslim, a European-educated African, and a global icon who rose to the top of the American academy. He was an African medley.

Lastly, Prof Mazrui never let his status as a celebrity intellectual get to his head. He knew that a person’s legacy on earth is three-fold — the ideas that you leave behind, the progeny who carry your blood, and the material possessions you accumulate. He worked on the first two, but appeared to shun the last. He was cut from the cloth of intellectual humility. Quick to smile and easy to please, Prof Mazrui hasn’t left us. No — his words will ring loudly around the world forever.


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