The life of Prof Ali Mazrui: 13 things you should know

Renowned Kenyan scholar the late Prof Ali Mazrui. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

1. He wanted to become a jurist in Islamic law, as his father was the Chief Kadhi of Kenya in the 1940s.

Though his father died when he was aged only 14, Prof Mazrui’s dream to follow his footsteps was hindered by his poor results after secondary school in Mombasa, with other students going to Makerere University for further studies while he was left behind.

2. His first job application was for a bank teller at Barclays, where he failed the urine medical test in 1948, though the diagnosis was later proven to have been wrong.

Prof Mazrui was then hired by a Dutch multinational company, the Twensche Overseas Trading Company in Mombasa, as a managerial trainee, though his tender age denied him an opportunity to be employed after the training.

He later was employed by the Mombasa Institute of Muslim Education (Miome) as a junior clerk and rose to be a boarding master.


3. His speech in 1952 in celebration of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday earned him a scholarship.

Prof Mazrui, while still working at Miome, spoke at an event attended by the governor of colonial Kenya, Sir Philip Mitchell. He was later invited to chat with the governor, who asked him about his educational plans.

He spoke of his interest in legal studies and though the governor discouraged him from pursuing law, he recommended him for a scholarship, first at Huddersfield College in the UK to finish his secondary education, then to a British university to study for a bachelor of arts degree.

4. He developed his writing and public-speaking skills through the media.

He worked as a local correspondent for the Mombasa Times and the Arab Guardian along with hosting a weekly half-hour radio show in Sauti ya Mvita.

5. He left Kenya in 1955 for Huddersfield College, where he met his first wife, Molly Vickerman.

Prof Mazrui and Molly met in a literature class and later married, siring three sons together.

Prof Ali Mazrui, as chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, confers a doctoral degree at a graduation ceremony. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

6. His firstborn son, Jamal, was born in the year when Kenya became independent.

Though Prof Mazrui and his wife had moved to Uganda and he was working at Makerere University College, his friends insisted that he had named his son "Jamal" because it was close to "Jomo", the first President of Kenya.

7. His third son, Kim Abubakar, adopted his wife Kay Forde’s name to become Kim Forde Mazrui and has professional links to his father.

The adoption of a wife’s family name was common in British culture, where a man from a lower-status family who married the only daughter of a higher-status family would adopt her family name.

Kim wanted to be a lawyer like his father while still young, but he went into the scholarly world, rising to become a professor at the relatively tender age of 32 (in the year 2001). Ali Mazrui rose to the rank of full professor at exactly the same age of 32 (in the year 1965). Both father and son have never been assistant professors since they rose from lecturers to professors.


8. Ali Mazrui married his second wife, Pauline Uti, a Nigerian teacher, and together they had two sons, Farid and Harith.

After their marriage, Pauline travelled to Mombasa in 1999 to meet Prof Mazrui’s family. This was years after their marriage, as she had not acquired permanent US residence that would have allowed her to travel outside the country.

9. Mazrui lived with his grandson, Little Ali, who is Al’Amin’s son, after Little Ali’s mother, Jill, died of cancer in 2004.

Despite Al’Amin being his first wife’s son, he and his son Little Ali had a good relationship with Prof Ali Mazrui’s second wife, Pauline, and her two sons, Farid and Harith.

10. Mazruicould not be hired to teach at Kenyan universities during the Kenyatta and Moi eras due to his record as a controversial scholar at Makerere.

In the 1970s, after resigning from Makerere, the then University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor Joe Karanja took Prof Mazrui for lunch at the Norfolk Hotel to explain why he could not hire him. He was allowed to give public lectures frequently, but when Moi became President, even the lectures reduced as universities were reluctant to risk the wrath of the government's disapproval by allowing him to lecture.

11. He was awarded the national title of Commander of the Order of the Burning Spear (CBS), First Class, by President Kibaki because of his profession as an educator.

The award was given to him by the then Minister of Education and Technology Prof George Saitoti.

12. He was once interviewed by his second-last son, Farid, for a school assignment in which he was supposed to interview a "famous person".

His son told his teacher he would interview his father as he had written many books and talked to many people across the world during his trips. Farid then talked to his father and interviewed him in the house for the school assignment where he asked him about his life when he was his age.

13. He produced a nine-hour TV-series, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage”, which was termed as controversial.

In its September 1986 issue, The People Magazine described the series “as one of the most controversial series ever seen on American television.”