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Man of books who sits on both sides of the world

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Daniel Wesangula | August 29th 2021

Professor Paul Tiyaze Zeleza. [Courtesy]

Professor Paul Tiyaze Zeleza walks around the United States International University campus in Nairobi like a proud parent showing off the achievements of a child. He points at new buildings within the vast campus, which he says represents the direction the campus is taking.

“The foundation of any sort of education is in the liberal arts,” he says as he ushers us into the new humanities department, an airy, multi-storeyed building on one end of the campus that is as imposing as it is welcoming.

As he ushers us into a conference room, it is easy to imagine a Mariah Carey song playing out in the head of the man who has dedicated his entire life to academia.

If not a Mariah chorus, perhaps an Obama quote does the rounds as he settles down. He is currently reading biographies of these two individuals whom he says are great in their own ways.

For Prof Zeleza, coming to USIU was an easy decision. But it wasn’t the first time he came to Kenya. “I first came to Kenya in 1979 as a PhD student,” he says.

He went on to stay for four years after completing his paper on the Kenyan Economy and the Labour Movement, between 1895 and 1963. The bug had already bitten him.

He was to come back in the early 90s for another teaching opportunity, this time at the Kenyatta University, this time staying for five and a half years.

When he starts talking about what is wrong or right with academia, you cannot stop him. A certain excitement gets into his voice as he talks about curriculum development, the role of higher education in nation-building and where we have gone wrong.

USIU Vice-Chancellor Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

“There are a few good things that have happened in the Kenyan higher education space over the years. We have seen massive growth in terms of the number of institutions. But what are we putting out to the world? We need to be sober to understand we are behind the curve,” he says.

Prof Zeleza life as an academic has also put him in contact with individuals who have and continue to shape his view on life. One of them is the travelling spiritual Sade Guru.

“He made me realise that a lot of the problems we face in life can be easily dealt with if we all had the will. The Guru said that a lot of the problems in the world are caused by people who think they know more than everyone else,” Prof Zeleza says.

Mantra to live by

The mantra to live by, according to the Guru is that one should live convinced that they are deeply ignorant of all else around them. Man should always search for meaning, knowledge and enlightenment. These, according to the Guru, are the only things that should motivate man to live.

“This belief deeply captures what I live for. Always on a quest to know more.”

And from an early age, Prof Zeleza has always sought to know more. Burying himself in books throughout his formative years and publishing his first novel at the age of 19. He says that this insatiable curiosity could only have one outcome- a life in academia.

“Reading expanded my horizons in ways that I didn’t think possible. I was transported through great civilizations through the pages of the books I read,” he says.

Ebooks dominate his iPhone. But they struggle for space with Korean drama series too. He says the storylines contained in the dramas provide an escape from the humdrum of life in a way that only they can.

He’s not always glued to a book or the screen though. When he feels like the weight on his shoulders is starting to be a bit uncomfortable, he takes long walks, hours on end, to re-centre.

Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza (front centre) during recent graduation. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

After six years, his time at one of the countries most prestigious institutions is coming to an end. But, he has his eyes firmly set on the next phase of life.

Predictably though, it is not too far from what he has perfected over the years. He is still going back to academia. A fellowship at a prestigious university, a teaching job, books to write and growing passion projects that have been on the back burner for years are top of his to do list.

For brief periods of his tenure, the university has, like many other institutions, gone through changes. Some good, some bad, all of which he took in stride. Under his watch, the institution has grown. Student enrolment has gone up, the number of courses offered has increased.

But like its peers, USIU too has been shown in a bad light.

“I have been in this world of books for long enough. Nothing shocked me. All I saw during my tenure was expected and I think I dealt with everything that came my way the best way possible,” he says.

“I have no regrets. Would I have wanted to do more? Yes. Did I do the best possible job? Yes.”

When he walks you through the campus, one gets the sense of great achievement from a man proud of what he has done. But still, one gets the sense of a man who still has a lot of ideas for the institution.

Given the chance, would he stay on longer?

“No. When I took the job my wife and I agreed that I will only do one term as the Vice-Chancellor so I’d like to keep my word,” he says.

“Plus, I think I have done all I could do. I do not want to overstay in this position of authority like many of our presidents and corporate bosses. Sometimes you have to pass on the baton to the future generations.”

It is these generations, he says, that will make Africa an active participant in what he calls the fourth industrial revolution.

“We provided labour in the first industrial revolution, we were colonised during the second one, we provided raw materials in the third one…. We need to play an active role in the fourth generation. Or else, everybody will forget about Africa.”

In his own way, Prof…. is a man of books who sits on both sides of the world. A majority of his working life has been experienced in the Western world. But he has not lost faith in the possibilities that Africa holds.

“It is up to us to save ourselves. No help is coming.”

As his term comes to an end at the end of the year, USIU is getting ready to welcome a familiar face of the former Vice-Chancellor, Freida Brown.

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