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An evening with a giant of African history

By Vision Reporter

Added 14th October 2003 03:00 AM

Letter from Toronto

THE occasion was a fundraising dinner organised by Friends of Makerere in Canada (FOMAC) who are seeking $150,000 to build Friendship House at Makerere University to accommodate visiting academics in the future. At $100 a plate, FOMAC needed something that would d

Letter from Toronto

THE occasion was a fundraising dinner organised by Friends of Makerere in Canada (FOMAC) who are seeking $150,000 to build Friendship House at Makerere University to accommodate visiting academics in the future. At $100 a plate, FOMAC needed something that would d

Letter from Toronto

By Opiyo Oloya

THE occasion was a fundraising dinner organised by Friends of Makerere in Canada (FOMAC) who are seeking $150,000 to build Friendship House at Makerere University to accommodate visiting academics in the future. At $100 a plate, FOMAC needed something that would draw the crowd to the dinner table. After all, what good was the specially catered menu of steamed fish and tender chicken in Mornay sauce if nobody showed up to eat?

But, FOMAC, founded in April 1992 under the leadership of Prof Charles Olweny who teaches Oncology at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, could not afford to lose money.

The Toronto organising committee made up of Makerere alumni Edgar and Allyce Mutungi, Jones Mugulusi, Steven Ruhinda, Isaac Kawuki-Mukasa and Annie Lwanga Kakooza, therefore came up with Prof Ali Mazrui, one of the most respected scholars of African history and political studies, and a very staunch supporter of Makerere University.

Prof Mazrui fitted the bill in many respects. He spent a decade of his early teaching career as head of Makerere University Department of Political Science and dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Secondly, his sharp observations and understanding of Africa, Islam and world politics has made him a much sought after international speaker.

And Mazrui did not disappoint, weaving, spinning and peppering his lecture with witty charm and wry observations. For an hour, he professed his theories with great clarity.

Globalisation means the world is fast becoming a village where science and technology have shortened distance and united cultures. Humanity now shares more in common than ever before — the same joke that an Englishman laughs at will likely humour a Zulu tribal chief in Transkei or a village teacher in Kela in western Mali near Guinea.

Globalisation is both a positive and a negative force. When it uplifts and reaffirms humanity, it’s for the good. It was a good thing that President Yoweri Museveni backed the Rwandese Patriotic Army led by Paul Kagame in 1994 in order to avert a larger genocide in Rwanda.

However, it was decidedly negative globalisation when Uganda went west into Congo and appeared only to foment trouble rather than solve it. And while Museveni has been the positive voice for forging regionalism with neighbours, he is less successful at home in solving the northern crisis which is moving closer to the second decade — almost a generation.

Mazrui extended the same argument on the larger canvass where America is doing a positive thing by encouraging its citizens to study Islam.

The negative downside is that America routinely violates the civil rights of Moslems and people of Arab descent. He shared the story of how, while returning from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago where he was the keynote speaker at the country’s Emancipation Day Celebration in August, American security officials at Miami International Airport stopped him from boarding the New York bound flight.

Mazrui, who is the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at SUNY — Binghamton, and who also teaches at Cornell University, was interrogated for the next seven hours by three separate US agencies about such things as jihad, terrorism and so forth.

A permanent US resident since 1974, Mazrui was asked whether he had met with Trinidad’s radical Islamist leader Yasin Abu Bakr who in July 1990, held hostage the Prime Minister of Trinidad and several ministers. Mazrui said he stunned his interrogators by answering, “No, but I did try to meet him.” Asked why he would meet such a man, “I said it’s my business to know about Muslims because I teach that.”

True to form, Mazrui did not shy away from controversy.

For instance, he pointed out that the world seems to think it is okay for Israel to “act in self-defence, but not the Palestinians”. “How could we condemn suicide-bombing when we have not offered the Palestinians an alternative to resolving their oppression by Israelis?” he asked the visibly startled audience. Few people in North America today would dare utter such “heresy” with courage and conviction mainly because the masses have been persuaded that Palestinians do not have a right to self-determination, he argued. The audience applauded.

Then someone in the audience asked Mazrui how the emerging globalisation would judge the current debate for a third presidential term in Uganda. Mazrui replied that the two-term concept was an American invention, which came into effect in 1951. As such, Uganda needs to decide whether the presidential term limit suits its purpose in nation building. “Whether or not Ugandans choose the two-term limit should be evaluated on whether they feel Museveni is the person to continue with nation building. Is he, for example, the person who can bring resolution to the conflict in northern Uganda?” he asked.

In a moving tribute, Toronto pediatrician Dr. Muniini Mulera called Professor Mazrui the greatest gift Africa gave to the world. As Mazrui returned to his seat to a prolonged standing ovation, the glitter in the eyes of the audience said it all— Mazrui is one of the living intellectual giants of the 21st century and he is one of us.

oloyao@ycdsb.edu.on.ca

An evening with a giant of African history

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