I FIRST learnt about Ali Mazrui through a story a friend shared in my East African history class when I was at university. I don’t know how true it is, as I have never found a reference to confirm the narration, but it went like this: on being invited to give his first address to the African Union (AU), Mazrui spoke in Swahili from start to finish. The conundrum, as my friend explained, was that there were no Swahili translators at the African Union, only English, French and Arab ones, an irony if there ever was in postcolonial Africa.

This prompted me to learn more about this man. I had grown up in an education system that punished my use of Swahili unless it was controlled — it was allowed during certain hours and only when seated for examinations. Swahili was not the language that would take you places — European languages and perhaps some Japanese was the way to go.

For a long time, I did not consider myself trilingual because I spoke and understood English, Swahili and Kikuyu. When I was younger, my imagination only allowed me to envisage that trilingual people were those who spoke English and other European languages. Then, through my friend’s story, I met Mazrui.

His work opened up my mind to a new idea of what it was to be African. Not the Africa of colonial Europe only. No — Africa in terms of its influence on the world and its influence from parts of the world that were not white, might and right.

His trenchant analysis in a wide range of scholastic work on African studies led me away from the grip of Joseph Conrad’s idea of Africa, away from Tarzan and Jane and into a healthier imagination and historical understanding of who I was and why I behaved the way I did. It allowed me to begin analysing the world in a way that was no longer ahistorical; it allowed me to speak my language with the confidence and respect it deserved. For those who have not met Mazrui, I would like to take this moment to introduce you to one of Africa’s and Kenya’s great scholarly sons.

He was also an early critic of the type of African communism that developed in the postcolonial era, considering it to be another dimension of western influence. More recently, he provided a critical assessment of African neoliberal economics while remaining committed to the notion of African liberalism as a concept emerging from the historical experiences of the continent and its diverse people.

Mazrui was born in Mombasa, Kenya, into a prominent Muslim family. His father was the Chief Qadi of Kenya, the highest legal authority on Islamic law. The Mazrui clan ruled Mombasa in precolonial times and enjoyed influence during British colonial rule.

Mazrui earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Manchester in the UK, a master of arts from Columbia University in New York and, finally, a doctorate from Oxford University. Mazrui was the head of the department of political science and dean of the faculty of social sciences at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, until 1973, when he was forced into exile by Idi Amin.

He then taught political science at the University of Michigan, where he was also named director of the Center for Afro-American and African Studies. In 1989, he was appointed as the Albert Schweitzer professor in the humanities and the director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at Binghamton University in New York, a position he held until retirement.

While pursuing his PhD, Mazrui served as a political analyst for the BBC. His radio voice was coupled with three books in 1967 that — in a short period — helped to redefine African studies and established him as an authority.

The first, Towards a Pax Africana, emerged out of the PhD thesis and retains its relevance today through the dream of a decolonised, unified and cohesive Africa. Mazrui wrote before the academic recognition of postcolonial studies and helped establish a southern hemispheric perspective through relentlessly challenging existing paradigms.

He was also an early critic of the type of African communism that developed in the postcolonial era, considering it to be another dimension of western influence. More recently, he provided a critical assessment of African neoliberal economics while remaining committed to the notion of African liberalism as a concept emerging from the historical experiences of the continent and its diverse people.

Mazrui was among the first to compare Israel’s occupation of Palestine to apartheid SA and was an early supporter of the anti-apartheid struggle. He was a steady critic of exploitative capitalism; US and European military interventions, including the Iraq and Afghan wars; and western intervention in the developing world.

Mazrui is immortalised through his contribution to academia and the world, which allowed many to imagine a postcolonial idea of Africa. I will always be grateful to my friend for her story that introduced him to me and I am indebted to his work from which I continue to learn.

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