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ALI MAZRUI - In his own words

He had poor grades, so Makerere rejected him. But he would later become its first African lecturer in Arts

Vast information exists on the life and times of Prof. Ali Mazrui. If you googled him, you would get 52,700 responses for him.

You would get information about his current position (Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York in Birmingham).

You would also get information on the many scholarly articles he has written, the awards he has won, his academic achievements in general. However, you cannot get information on his earlier life; where he went to school and what his early career was like. Did you know that he did not wear shoes to school?

Well, when I sat down with the celebrated 76-year-old professor in his room at Serena Hotel last week, I could not paraphrase his story:

Early failures

“I attended what was called an Arab school at that time in Mombasa. It was for Arab and African Muslim children. The colonial period divided people on race but this school admitted students basing on a combination of race and religion.

Africans that were Muslim could go there. It was a government school. I don’t know if you know that I didn’t do very well. At the end of secondary level, we took what was called the Cambridge Certificate. Unfortunately, I got a third class.

Normally that would have been the end of my career, the end of my association with Makerere too. Makerere turned me down naturally because there were students from Kenya with better grades.

I failed the Cambridge Certificate because I was less motivated at that time. I would not say I was a late developer. My teachers saw a lot of talent in me. European teachers kept coming to me, telling me to work hard; that this was the most important examination of my career, but I was unmotivated.

I was not achievement-oriented at that time. This turned out to be a catastrophe for five years. I tried to get a scholarship, but who would give you a scholarship with a third class? I tried all sorts of American universities and Pakistani ones, but there were Africans with better grades, so I never succeeded.

Mombasa Polytechnic was a technological school built by the Governor of Kenya, Sir Philip Mitchell who wanted to rescue Muslims from being distant from the 20th Century. All teachers in this school were imported and all students were Muslim.

The intention was to remove their suspicion of the 20th Century.
There was nothing significant for me about this school. A relative of mine talked to people there. He told them that there is this young boy who just finished the Cambridge Certificate and did they have a job? They did not but said that if I was willing to work, I would work for free. So you see, my first job was without pay.

Annual application

“At some point, there was a vacancy and I got appointed to the position of junior clerk. At that time, the institution was just a name, there were no buildings. Government was however keen on the project, so we were given office space in State House. I was sent to learn typing.

I did well as a clerk and was appointed boarding supervisor. While working at the institute, I applied for a scholarship every year. It became a joke amongst my workmates. They used to tease me: “Ali is writing his annual application”.

One day, when we were commemorating Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, I gave a little a speech which turned out to be the most important speech of my life.

The Governor was in attendance and was enormously impressed. Later, my boss told me that the Governor wanted to see me. In those days, that meant more than ‘the president wants to see you’. He asked me for my aspirations and I told him I wanted to study Law.

He discouraged it and told me to look at India; every lawyer was a politician and every politician a lawyer. They had no professional pride.

In reality colonialists distrusted lawyers. Once again, I applied to the Kenya Government for a scholarship and instead of an outright no, I was told to go for an interview. I left Mombasa on a train to Nairobi.

In Nairobi, I was interviewed by the Director of Education and his associate. The Director of Education is equivalent to the Minister of Education. Why would they want to interview this little unknown boy, Ali Mazrui? At that time, there was nothing special about me.

They asked me all sorts of questions. They asked what I wanted to do and since Law was out of the question, I said Journalism. They said that the best journalists are amateur journalists. They learnt on the job. They said that in journalism school, people read Shakespeare and it is on job that they learn how to cover the president.


I returned to Mombasa after the interview. Thereafter, an envelope labeled “On Her Majesty’s Service” arrived for me. I said, now this is it finally. Instead of saying “We regret to inform you,” it read “With great pleasure we inform you…” 

Instead of relying on the Cambridge Certificate which was believed to have misdiagnosed my mind, I was sent to Britain to complete secondary school and thereafter I would apply to university. (Prof. Ali Mazrui attended Manchester University for his B.A).

It wasn’t obvious to me that my career would be in academics. Columbia University, which I attended for my M.A was next to the UN. I wanted to work at the UN Secretariat. It was possible too.

Sojourn at Makerere

“However, a British professor from Makerere University came to see me at Oxford because he might have heard that “there’s this young person you might want to see”.

This professor (Colin Leys) wanted to do himself out of the job and needed me. He was persuasive even when I presented him with my two problems. One was that I wanted a career in international diplomacy.

He told me that I would still be as if I was working in international diplomacy as I would travel a lot as a lecturer. The other problem was, I was bound to go to Kenya for five years to work.

If you studied using the taxpayers’ money, then yes, you had to pay back. It was not unreasonable. The professor said that that was no problem since there were hundreds of Kenyan students at Makerere.

I ended up at Makerere and there were many white lecturers at that time. I was the first African professor in either Arts or Social sciences. Every other lecturer was either British or American.

Collin Leys, who was the Professor of Political Science, was eager that I succeed him. When he first talked of me being a professor, I was astonished. He had a lot to do with my becoming professor in less than two years.

He was supposed to become head of Makerere. Competition was between him and Yusuf K. Lule, and [then President Apollo Milton] Obote favoured Collin Leys.

Obote, however, became convinced that it would look bad in post-colonial Uganda to have a white man heading the institution. [But] he didn’t like the fact that Lule was a Muganda.

My Family

I have five sons. Three were born in Mulago Hospital by [my] first wife, Molly. The other two were produced by my second wife, Pauline. Molly was English and Pauline is Nigerian. There is a huge gap between my first and last born. The first is 45 years and the youngest is 15.

Two of my sons are successful but the third one is posse. I don’t live with them. They live in the US. The first and third like to hear my views on important news items, so they call me and we conference using the telephone.

My Epitaph

“I would want to be remembered the way Makerere wants to remember me. They’ve tried to convince me that I’m worth something. They believe this is somebody special. I’d like to believe Makerere is right. They’ve taken years and years to convince me.”


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