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Published On: Thu, Oct 16th, 2014

A tribute to Ali Mazrui (1933-2014) (II)

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By Toyin Falola

Identity is central to this language use: how Africans see themselves, how others gaze upon them, how they are represented. Mazrui had to define himself, and language enabled him to do so. Then he had to define his continent, again falling on the power of language to do so.Turning again to The Power of Babel, specific elements emerge in how Mazrui and his co-author presented language in terms of its acquisition and usages, its universal nature, its connections to ethnicities, and its linkages to identity and nationalities. The way and manner that words are used can reveal a lot about people and places.

Mazrui presented the creative aspect of language in many ways. He used language to inspire heroism, as in his celebration of the career of poet-president Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was nominated many times without success for the Nobel Prize for his command of French (written and spoken), and his poetry and philosophy. To Mazrui, the love for John Milton’s Paradise Lost is said to have influenced Apolo Obote (1925—2005), president of Uganda, to adopt Milton as his first name. Mazrui was full of praise for Julius Nyerere, the late president of Tanzania, who translated William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Swahili. Mazrui valued these translations for advancing the modernist agenda of African languages.

Politics was always central to Mazrui’s philosophy. Indeed, just as he saw politics as influencing language, he saw language as also influenceing politics. He linked the end of the Cold War and the fall of apartheid to the possible decline in the use of French, Russian and Afrikaans. Charting the rise and fall of European languages in Africa was like playing “a chess game with African cultures. Will the African languages be Europeanized or will the European languages be Africanized?”

This “chess game,” as Mazrui explained, dealt with choices and options, negotiations, and brokerages. The game was played in the context of globalization. Power had to be extended, as part of imperialism, which involved the imposition of language. Power, too, had to be resisted, in the nationalism that called for self-assertion, for which, as Mazrui saw, language, too, was crucial. To him, no matter how the issue of control or resistance is resolved, language becomes the critical part of that resolution: the very possibility of co-existence within national frontiers and of cooperation between frontiers involves language.

Back to Mazrui and the “chess game”: as individuals struggle for influence, resources, money, power and more, we are drawn to those very institutions and structures that society puts in place to resolve our struggles. The state’s structures and its coercive apparatuses use the language of law and order to legitimize their violence. In the fabric of society itself, where these conflicts play out intensely, language mediates the struggles between men and women, matriarchy and patriarchy. The language of respect recognizes boundaries between the youth and the elderly, resolving conflicts of interest in favor of older men. What we call persuasion is grounded in idioms, metaphors and similes that appeal on the basis of culture. The language of persuasion is of course different from that of threat.

To an extent, my point is that at the very heart of politics and political discourse is the deployment of language. This language, in words and texts, communicates processes and actions. Each action has its own characteristics. The word, as Professor Ademola Dasylva of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, is fond of reminding me, can be transformed into a spirit—as in words of prophecy, of curses, of wishes, of incantations. If many political scientists ignore language, Mazrui recognized fully its association with political discourse, both in the context of politics itself and the texts used to communicate its contents.

I began with autobiography as foundational, and I want to close with a celebration of this genre. Mazrui deployed various first-person narratives in his presentations. He defended the preservation of traditional institutions, but he was not a traditionalist. He was a man of multiple cultures, but he celebrated identity. Amazingly, he lived in the West, but he translated Africa. He was, on the one hand, an autonomous scholar but, on the other, he was imbricated in the “arrested development” of Africa. Mazrui was a Creole, with a style that showed how to accept the cultures of the West while retaining an African identity.

Mazrui was the Griot of critical narratives, an agent provocateur of deeply-rooted intellectual discourses. Never before have we seen an African intellectual so controversial, yet so loved by the same critical mass that pointed to his “controversiality.” What he wrote about, what he spoke about, how he wrote about them, and how he spoke were often the bones of contention—a fact that underscored the power of the spoken (and the written) word as observed in the life of this departed giant!

As a Creole, he maintained a stream of dialogue with the colonizers and the “globalizers”: he rejected de-personalization; he rejected de-culturalization; and he rejected de-Islamization. In sum, that is our Mzee—our Nana—the indomitable Ali A’lamin Mazrui, the teacher, scholar, global citizen, the embodiment of refined African-cum-Western cultural being, and, above all, a tireless and incurable pan-Africanist.

Let us proclaim today as the beginning of a new ideology: Pax Mazruiana! Jazakumu Allahu Khayrain!


Toyin Falola, a scholar and historian, is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, USA.


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