My mother is an academic professional.
She’s one of those people with so many academic distinctions that you begin to wonder what you’re doing with your life. Especially people, like me, who are very anti-school.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying education is pointless. I’m just against the current structure of the institutions through which education is disbursed. And I have been since I was old enough to pull an Encyclopedia off a shelf by myself.
This attitude only got worse once Encarta 95 found its way into the library and the 98 edition landed in our house. By the time I was toggling between Altavista and Google, I was barely listening to teachers.
They had this syllabus that was engineered to evenly distribute a set amount of specific information to a large group of students. Booooring. Every chance I would get, I was plucking books off shelves that had nothing to do with what I was being taught. I was reading my older brother’s literature novels and – and this is not a joke – even reading dictionaries cover to cover. I actually once started writing one.
Just because class was boring.
At least at the time I thought it was. At that age, I thought fairly little of teachers. But somehow regarded professors highly because of my mother. You see, she’s the one that kept feeding me books and unleashing me into libraries. She’s the one that bought Encarta when we really couldn’t afford it. She’s the one that encouraged my random reading and let me lose in her labyrinth of books – a bookcase in the house.
Which is where I saw Mazrui’s name for the first time.
There are 2 reasons I remember his name. First, it is because it was repeated on the spines of so many books that I began to pull them out to verify whether or not I was looking at multiple copies of the same book. I was not.
The second reason is because it was the first time a book made me feel stupid. I sat down and tried to read the first book and failed. It was entirely too much to comprehend for a prepubescent iCon. So I left it alone and that was that.
Until a decade later, when I had the great fortune to head out to New York for some seminar on Islam and Terrorism. The melodic Swahili accent was strong, and the calm and steady pace with which he was addressing us grabbed my attention and didn’t let it go until it was eased to a place of greater understanding. That man summed up in a few words what the rest of the panelists would yap about for the next 2 hours.
And I can’t recall what those few words were. But I can’t forget buying two of his books, looking at my bookshelf thereafter and remembering my mother’s.
That was when I got a deep interest in Kenyan intellectuals; especially those in the US. Every other university I visited (and I traveled A LOT) I would find a professor named Odhiambo here, a lecturer named Kamau there; a Head of Department from Kisumu, and sometimes, occasionally, on the walls of fame, I’d see a name on a plaque of distinction that was distinctly Kenyan with a place of birth that made me homesick.
So many names and faces that I can barely remember, that will never be acknowledged locally.
My mother still keeps a massive collection of books, a lot of those are still fellow Kenyans. Mazrui’s tomes still stand out by their numbers and if I’m honest, like many Kenyans, I don’t think I acknowledged the man’s greatness enough.
But one thing I do acknowledge now that I didn’t when I was younger is the invaluable contribution of the scholars we neglect. I understand now why teachers wanted us to understand the basics and why professors insist on us creating original regurgitations of already existing facts. The pursuit of knowledge is not a simple journey, nor is it for the faint-hearted. It is a selfless endeavour to better your society through yourself.
Which is why I was sad when the good Professor Ali Mazrui passed away. I could list his laurels and awards, accomplishments and regals in a shallow attempt to justify why you should mourn him too. I could copy paste all the amazing things that Prof. Mazrui has done and contributed to the worlds of academia, the understanding of Africa in a globalising world, or to demystify Islam in a world driven by terrorism.
But I’d rather not.
I’d rather challenge you to do two things. The first is to watch one of his interviews, read one of his articles, discover one of his books, learn more about one of his passions. The second is to share that knowledge earned with someone else.
Professors are the vessels through which so many of us attain the knowledge behind the power we aim to change the world with. When they fall, it is our duty to pass that knowledge forward and keep their legacies and sacrifices alive.
May you rest in eternal peace, Mwalimu. May your legacy live long and your family stand proud.
نَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعونَ