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Fare thee well Ali Mazrui, a true Kenyan and a good human being

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By By Professor Henry Indangasi | Oct 19th 2014 | 3 min read
Prof. Ali alamin mazrui  cutting he cake during the Jomo Kenyatta University Of Agriculture and technology 12th graduation ceremony.

Nairobi; Kenya: I first met the famed Professor Ali Mazrui at the University of California Santa Cruz back in 1976.

He had come there at the invitation of Professor John Marcum, the provost of Merrill College, a college of the university that specialised in so-called Third World Studies. (In those days, the term “Third World” included the domestic  “Third World”—America’s ethnic minorities.) 

Like Ali Mazrui, John Marcum, now deceased, was a political scientist.

Professor Mazrui was teaching in the US, and Professor Marcum was an Africanist who had specialised in African politics. And it so happened that the American professor was in that year the chair of the African Studies Association.

A graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, I had the dubious distinction of being the only Kenyan; and so Professor Marcum had decided to introduce me to a fellow countryman.

The Marcums invited us to dinner in their house. At some point, Marcum tactfully left us together, and sitting next to each other, we talked extensively about Kenya — about the assassination of JM Kariuki, which had been widely covered in the American press, and about the infamous Change-the-Constitution Movement, which was aimed at preventing then vice president Moi from succeeding president Kenyatta.

Mazrui filled me in on the political gossip of the time — and in those years there was plenty of gossip. I immediately took a liking to this great Kenyan on this our first meeting. In spite of the difference in age and status, Mazrui stuck me as a singularly warm and unassuming person.

MEETING HELD 38 YEARS AGO

This meeting took place thirty-eight years ago, but it has remained etched on my memory. In that year, there was a lot of political turbulence in Africa, and especially in Southern Africa.

The former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau were fighting for independence.

Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, South West Africa, which became Namibia, and of course apartheid South Africa were all on fire.

As a leading Africanist, Marcum belonged to the think tank that advised Henry Kissinger, the then Secretary of State, on the turmoil in our continent.

Indeed, as I learnt later, one reason the American professor invited Mazrui was so that he could consult the Kenyan scholar. There was a huge sense of urgency, as America had been checkmated in this part of the continent by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

I was not privy to the advice Mazrui gave to his American counterpart, but from a public lecture Marcum delivered at UC Santa Cruz on Southern Africa, I figured the Kenyan academician had argued for a change of strategy, that it was better for the US to be seen to be on the side of the Africans.

Sadly, under the pretext of fighting communism, America continued to support the racist regimes in that part of our continent. That for me meant they had disregarded the advice of the two professors.

Marcum invited me to the conference of the African Studies Association which was taking place in San Francisco.

Mazrui was a key speaker at this conference, and I remember him talking about a crazy idea: that the Islamic world was poised to rule the world using their oil power. 

He argued that the West had conquered the rest of the world using the gun and the Bible. Now, the Islamic World (read: the Arab world) was going to use their oil and the Koran to overturn the world order.

Remember, the developed countries were still reeling from the shock of the oil embargo that had been imposed on them by the owners of this commodity. So, although his idea was outrageous, the professor had touched a raw nerve.

I am usually loud and talkative in academic conferences, but this time I was keen on not spoiling my new-found friendship with Kenya’s most famous scholar. It was as if I had joined my compatriot in a conspiracy of silence.

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