The Chronicle Gambia

The Toyin Falola Interviews – A Conversation With Professor Paul Zeleza, Part 4

Education, Culture, and Philosophy 

PART 4 – A


(Unedited transcript)

Toyin Falola

What was your college education like?

Paul Zeleza

I remember my college years with great fondness. This is not just the nostalgia of aging, or because my experiences were necessarily all positive, but because I grew up in so many ways personally, intellectually, creatively, and politically. To begin with, it was a great privilege to be selected for university. At that time, the country had only the University of Malawi. In that year, two classes were combined for university entry, those who sat the last Cambridge school leaving certificate and those who sat the first Malawi Certificate of Education. I was among the latter. Altogether, Chancellor College, the main campus of the university, admitted 120 students. The names of the selected students were announced on national radio and in the newspaper. So our families and even neighborhoods or villages and districts where the students came from celebrated. It was truly exhilarating.

The college had its great fun moments. There were the parties, learning to drink alcohol, dating, and making friends, some of which have lasted to this day. We felt and were made to feel special. In 1973, we moved from Blantyre to a brand new campus in Zomba. Everything was immaculate, the grounds well-manicured, the food in the cafeteria delicious and abundant. Visiting the campus in 2014 to give a keynote address marking 50 years of Malawi’s independence was shocking: the campus looked dilapidated from years of neglect. My son expressed disbelief that this is the campus I had talked about so fondly over the years. As one of my colleagues in Kenya put it at a conference on higher education in Nairobi several years ago, for our generation going to university was like going to a five-star hotel; for the current generation of students, it’s like going to prison as far as their crowded and dilapidated accommodations are concerned.

Given the small composition of our class in which everyone was an A student, it was extremely competitive all through the next four years. If you failed one course, you were thrown out, “weeded,” as it was called. Out of the 120 students, only 65 of us graduated. The gender imbalance was highly pronounced. There were only 28 female students in our cohort. This, of course, negatively affected our dating opportunities on campus as young men!

Our classes were tiny, usually no more than a dozen students, which meant intense engagements with our lecturers and very high expectations. I remember in my English classes—I majored in English and History— for each class, we were expected to read a novel a week. Our lecturers consisted of young Malawians who had recently received their PhDs abroad and an assortment of expatriate academics, especially from Britain and the United States. Some from Zimbabwe, South Africa, and even Russia and Canada.

The rigor was so high that those of us who proceeded to graduate school in Europe or North America found our graduate studies plain sailing. My generation of academics was well trained. Unfortunately, one can’t say the same for more recent graduates from many African Universities, some of which are no better than glorified high schools. My undergraduate experience informed my teaching philosophy in later years as a professor: I set very high expectations for my students as I believe students don’t rise to low expectations. Setting rigorous standards is not only an educational imperative, but it is also an ethical imperative in so far as university education offers the only opportunity for students from poorer backgrounds to acquire the social capital essential for their personal and professional success and the opportunity to transform the lives of their families and communities.

At that time, lecturers were solid members of the burgeoning middle class. Hence, as students, we not only admired them as academics, but they showed us becoming an academic was not equivalent to making a vow of poverty as it became in the devastating years of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) in the 1980s and 1990s that wrecked African universities. From our second year, my closest friends and I started calling each other Doc, convinced we would follow the path of our lecturers by getting PhDs. And all of us did become Docs!

The early and mid-1970s was a period of great intellectual ferment for our newly decolonized nations. Universities were seen as custodians and creators of the national intelligentsia. They were producers of professionals for the Africanization or indigenization of the civil service, parastatals, and the economy more generally. But the euphoria of independence was fading, and discontent with the failed promises of Uhuruuhuru were rising. So as students, we were increasingly drawn to radical literature informed by Marxist perspectives to explain the contradictions of our societies, between the proverbial richness of Africa’s natural resources and the grinding poverty of its peoples.

I remember the electrifying impact reading Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa published in 1972 had on our collective imaginations and radicalization against European imperialism and colonialism and their neo-colonial legacies. In my English classes, we read Frantz Fanon’s trenchant treatise on the deforming psychological effects of colonialism in Black Skin, White Masks, and his searing indictment of the African ruling elites The Wretched of the Earth. We were exposed to great African, American, and European literature. For American literature, what left an indelible imprint were the novels of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin and the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, among others.

My generation were undergraduates when the honeymoon between universities and the postcolonial state was waning. Student activism was strongly discouraged in Malawi under its authoritarian one-party state. You couldn’t trust anyone as the ruling party had eyes and ears everywhere, even in our classrooms and dormitories. Things became so bad that several of our lecturers and even some students were arrested and put in political detention. Often, these arrests represented the politicization and externalization of internal professional and ethnic rivalries. They made students fearful and influenced some of us to remain abroad after completing our graduate studies.

However, this climate of fear also taught us resilience and the need to undertake resistance in subtle and strategic ways by adopting a kind of intellectual guerrilla warfare. I turned my energies to creative writing. I stumbled into creative writing almost by accident in the first semester of my first year when one of our English lecturers, Dr. Felix Mnthali, gave us the assignment to write a short story. Not only did I get an A for the story, but he also invited me to have it read on the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation for a program that he runs called the Writers’ Corner. After that, I became a regular on the program for the next four years of my undergraduate studies. For each program, we were paid MK10, so in a month, I would sometimes make up to MK40. This was a lot of money in those days, considering that our monthly stipend as students from the government was MK6 and civil servants made about MK100. This taught me financial self-reliance and that if you do well in the work you love, financial rewards will eventually come.

On-campus we formed the Writers’ Workshop that met once a week in the evening at which budding short story writers, novelists, poets, and playwrights discussed each other’s work guided by our lecturers. In my second year, a few of us founded the Malawi Writers Series under the auspices of one of the country’s leading presses. The first book to be published in the series was my collection of short stories written in 1974 when I was 19, entitled Night of Darkness and Other Stories. Like my colleagues, in my creative writing, we learned to use allegory and subtlety to critique the regime. When my collection of short stories was submitted to the Censorship Board for clearance, I was invited by the chairman of the Board, a thick and gruffly man, who demanded the removal of six of the stories unless I wanted to be accused of subversion and go to jail “like that subversive Nigerian, Wole Soyinka,” he said.

It took a lot of persuasion from my English lecturers to proceed with the book’s publication, which I felt was mutilated. They convinced me that it was important I begin my writing career by getting published, that I would have plenty of time to write what I wanted. They were right. A few years later, as a graduate student, I wrote my novel, Smoldering Charcoal, a bitter commentary on the aborted dreams of post-colonial Africa. This experience taught me that the cost of writing was not a bad critic’s review, but possibly your very life. It emboldened me, drove me into self-imposed exile, and reinforced my opposition to the pernicious tyrannies of the postcolonial state.

Photo: Professor Paul Zeleza at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in 2014

Toyin Falola

Why did you become an academic?

Paul Zeleza

It’s quite simple, really. At the heart of it all is curiosity. I’ve always had this insatiable curiosity, this hunger to know, discover why things became and are what they are, and how they can be changed for the better. Two people captured this abiding quest for understanding, for knowledge quite pithily for me. One was an African American artist I met in Oman in 2009 while researching my global African diaspora project. As he showed my research facilitator and me his spacious and tastefully furnished house, we went to his bedroom and on the side tables by the bed. Several books were open. I remarked that he seemed to read a lot. He smiled and said, “Every day, I want to know what I did not know yesterday.” He was 94. He captured my condition, the continuous search for knowledge, the endless quest to know.

The other was a guru from India, Jaggi Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru, who mesmerized a group of people who gathered at the Chancellor of my university, Manu Chandaria, the renowned Kenyan industrialist and philanthropist, a few years ago. Sadhguru said he was driven by a deep sense of ignorance, which constantly forced him to strive for the enlightenment of knowledge. He noted that people who are aware of their ignorance are less certain, less rigid, and less judgmental of others, more humble, more respectful, and more accommodating of otherness. Intolerance, he said, and conflicts and wars are often fomented by those who don’t recognize their ignorance and fervently believe in their self-righteousness.

Thus, I became an academic because of my enduring craving to know about a deep sense of ignorance. I was inspired by my teachers, lecturers, and professors, who progressively turned me into a more informed citizen of my multiple worlds. I admired my academic mentors, their lives of the mind, their ability to produce and disseminate pieces of knowledge that enlightened students and society. What could be better than pursuing such a career, a vocation really, of constant discovery, contemplation, and public conversation, a life of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public engagement and service, invention and innovation—the four missions of higher education? And to get paid for it, earn a decent living reading, writing, and talking!

Photo: Professor Paul Zeleza

Toyin Falola

You have been to many universities in different countries, what has that been like?

Paul Zeleza

It’s been an amazing journey of opportunities for personal and professional growth. There have, of course, challenges as well. However, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without the experiences of studying and working at a dozen universities in six countries on three continents and the Caribbean region. Every time I went to a new country and joined a new institution, I was challenged to get out of the familiarities of my comfort zone, which stretched my intellectual, emotional, and cultural bandwidth. It forced me to develop tolerance and resilience, as well as coping mechanisms tailored to each context. The result is that I’m often comfortable wherever I am; I fully inhabit and embrace each space and moment. Without sounding grandiose, these institutional and intellectual sojourns have made me a citizen of Africa, the diaspora, and the world, which has enriched my life immeasurably.

Moreover, having been at all sorts of universities, both public and private, large and small, research-intensive and teaching intensive, old and new, secular and religious-affiliated, national and provincial, international and local, and in developed and developing countries, I have come to understand higher education in its dizzying complexities and contradictions, possibilities and pitfalls which has nourished both my scholarship and administrative leadership. I have carried the intellectual imprint of each spatial, temporal and institutional encounter into an ever-expanding repertoire of scholarly production and political engagements.

These rich and diverse multinational and multi-institutional encounters have progressively extended the disciplinary and interdisciplinary landscapes of my scholarship and activist passions. So, I write unapologetically about any subject, country, or world region I choose to focus on, about mundane local issues and pressing global challenges, and freely borrow insights from the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. In embracing the life of an anchored cosmopolitan intellectual, I have become free from many of the confines of academic systems and cultures, narrow and national specializations.

In each country and institution I have lived and worked in, the differences have struck me, but more often than not, by the similarities. I have encountered generous and mean people, bigots and liberals, internationalists, nationalists and nativists, and sexists, racists and fundamentalists, as well as feminists, non-racialists, and ecumenical. In the academy, I have seen the insecure bullies, arrogant superstars, and institutional workhorses, conscientious and lazy academics, insufferable ideologues and inspiring intellectuals, authoritarian and tolerant administrators, and backward-looking reactionaries and forward-focused progressives. I have come to a simple, almost banal conclusion: no country or institution has a monopoly on virtue or vice. I find this a reassuring testament to our common humanity.



Education, Culture, and Philosophy  

Having the opportunity to proceed to a tertiary level in the pursuit of academic excellence comes with varying degrees of celebration, especially when we consider the context where such experience happened. For Africans during the colonial and early postcolonial periods, it was beyond the acquisition of knowledge at an advanced level; it was also a marker of status in most countries. This is understandably logical when the circumstances that established the primacy of education are first factored in. The invading Europeans designed an educational system, popularly tagged “formal education,” away from the non-formal type available to Africans before the encounter. And because of this development, getting a quality education was almost synonymous with being at par with the Europeans. As such, those who enrolled in schools were automatically seen as potential leaders and forerunners who would be saddled with the responsibility to oversee the affairs of the people and the country.

It became redefined during the postcolonial time as showing why investment into an academic engagement was necessary and incumbent. Zeleza’s story shows the adrenaline feeling that comes with getting to the next level of education through admission into the tertiary institution.  When Zeleza got admission into the higher institution of learning, there was only one university in the country, the University of Malawi. This further confirms the inviolability of education and its significance in constructing a new identity for the Malawians and Africans in general. Thus, it was inevitable that the values attached to scholarship and those involved in its pursuance increase self-worth and create in them a sense of pride. Zeleza recounts the happiness he felt when offered the opportunity to advance his career at the university level. It was a grand celebration rendered for the few individuals who had the opportunity to progress that far. Acquiring education at this level was inherently desirable because it showcased the students’ brilliance without them trumpeting it themselves.

However, the frenzy of going to school is only complemented by the personal dedication and abiding commitment of an individual to their educational course. While going to school automatically confers an individual the privilege of being literate, it does not guarantee that they would be educated because being educated is not necessarily the same as being literate. Quite contrary, to be literate does not require much effort or dedication, just the ability to scribble down ideas sometimes in a coherent manner. To be educated, one needs more.

Photo: Paul Zeleza with his family

Educational brilliance is the aggregate of human intellectual culture displayed on the different phenomena and strange ideas. Experience has demonstrated that what we know as humans cannot be compared with what we do not know, as unraveling events show why we are still in the infancy of knowledge advancement. Therefore, as one great philosopher once asserted, learning continues from the day one draws their first breath to the day they draw the last.

Having a conversation with Zeleza would not only immediately fling open the depth of his educational culture. Still, it would also reveal his philosophical and ideological convictions about life in one swoop. Apart from being an incurably avid reader, Zeleza is insatiable in his pursuance of knowledge. Although his inelastic search for knowledge must have been understandably improved by his interaction with a well-established reader, Oman, an African-American man whom he met in 2009, Zeleza’s educational culture has been planted from the very days when he was introduced to the significance and importance of education, especially in transforming human lives and also in making the society a beautiful and better place. Reading has been conditioned to his lifestyle, and he has been able to travel to countries and cities without necessarily leaving his spatial setting. Zeleza has a working philosophy, and that is the understanding that each day provides a man with a fresh opportunity to learn those things they have not learned before. Moreover, because this requires increasing one’s inquisitive behavior generally, he cannot but be identified as an individual dedicated to exploring ideas at every given opportunity.

As an educated individual, Zeleza observed the emerging trends in Malawi’s educational system and identified the management’s intergenerational gap or envisioning a better future. During the event to commemorate Malawi’s 50th independence anniversary, Zeleza gave a speech to express how traumatized he is by the obvious generational gap. He understands that something fundamental is wrong, and the dots are not difficult to connect. The generation who benefited immensely from the flowing advantages and promises associated with Africa’s political independence has shown a poor sense of management or an intellectual brainpower deficit, making it difficult to maintain the good academic culture they inherited. For example, the decline of infrastructural brilliance is attributed to the failure of contemporary leaders who cannot see the connection between the good and excellent management of the schools and the enhancement for productive youths. To illustrate, the system and culture that the generation managing these educational systems experienced gave them the necessary boost to make their lives better and improve themselves. Sadly, they cannot keep to the culture when they now occupy various leadership roles in society.

Photo: Paul Zeleza

Beyond the infrastructural dilapidation is the poor sense of human management displayed by the African government at different levels. Zeleza recalled that the students’ population did not numerically explode the school’s capacity or overstretch their systems during his time as a student. The admission of students to ensure that the available materials were equitably managed was not because no individuals were seeking to advance their educational pursuit beyond the high school, but because they prioritized the quality delivery of academic services than producing the number whose quality cannot be ensured. However, he was amazed by the disturbing numbers of students compacted in a classroom in the contemporary time, despite the exposure to more knowledge and information about the quality of education. The number of students in these classrooms makes it impossible for each of them to have a personal engagement with instructors as they would not only be unable to meet up with the numerical size of the students, they would also have been too exhausted in some cases when they intend to engage them. Meanwhile, there is a strong linkage between the production of quality graduates and their engagements with sound intellectuals in the form of their lecturers. Not admitting only the number that the school can adequately take care of overstretches the resources, and it comes with disheartening consequences for the people.

As an academic, this situation opens for Zeleza the opportunity to develop a worthwhile philosophical idea, and that is the imperative of increasing expectations and standards. Although the justification for the poor educational system in the contemporary time may be attached to dwindling economic prosperity and the simultaneous rise in numbers, what should be known, however, is that failure is always a willing companion of individuals who have failed to plan. African leaders, it appears, are unconcerned about the transformation of the political and socio-cultural conditions of the people but would pursue self-aggrandizement at whatever cost. Therefore, it is only logical that when the cacophony of greed submerges the voice of reason, the materials available for the advancement of the people’s collective development would be mismanaged. It was against joining the bandwagon that Zeleza developed the philosophy to increase the standards of his work and improve his work ethics. To do this, he placed a high demand on the students, as it was impossible that students who have been taken through the process would not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues from other socio-political backgrounds.

Undeniably, the decline of the country’s educational standards and systems came from the poor management of the people’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s. The previous generation had been groomed by educators who were self-sufficient financially, and their jobs as educators were their economic mainstay. They were models rather than riffraff. They were dream molders rather than dream killers. Because they were given strong socioeconomic positions in society, they were able to groom and nurture individuals in ways that would benefit them and society at large. The dwindling financial comfort of the post-independence time showed an accelerated reduction in the quality of the students in African universities in the contemporary time. Students were left to themselves, discouraged with no sign of their transformation or that of the society that educational institutions were meant to effect. Due to this abandonment, they failed to believe in the educational dream. Immediately Zeleza saw the shimmering connection; he was determined to imbibe a culture that would revolutionize the polity.

It appeared that the only instrument with which to engage this existential challenge is education, and Zeleza was ready. He became strong and focused, equipping himself with the knowledge of the environment and converting it to intellectually edible products that readers can masticate. Having been introduced to writing as an undergraduate, he created various ways of establishing himself in writing books. He networked his ways and writing career from the time in school so that cross-fertilization of ideas became a given to him at that young age. Even when political representatives made governance seem bad and discouraging, he was determined to continue to make an impact through writing. He was undeterred by the pervasive political activities of leaders who prioritized their personal ambition above the people’s collective interest. He had no reason to bow to their pressure. Instead, he was motivated to revolutionize the polity by developing brilliant educational philosophy to confront the long-standing anomaly that had taken over the academic space. To positively affect the lives of others, one would need to demonstrate having sufficient qualities; therefore, for people like Zeleza, the best way to do this was to show that he was essentially gifted and would always make an impact.

Photo: Paul Zeleza at dinner with Toyin Falola in Nairobi

For Zeleza, being an academic developed from the overall examination of the significance of teachers in the shaping of identity for society. Teachers occupy the cardinal position because without their expertise and constantly evolving knowledge. It would be difficult to project quality education into the younger ones whose shoulders rest the responsibility of moving the world to a greater height. Academics are social scientists, and their laboratory of professional practice has always been the society. They study society’s cultural and political conditions and give expert diagnoses, recommending the necessary and effective antidotes in areas where the people are seriously underperforming. To mentor people is an honorable profession that allows one to see through the nakedness of people’s minds, the innocence of their ignorance, and the seriousness of their helplessness. When people have the mental fortitude and the intellectual capacity to arrive at this position, they have been equipped with the knowledge that would be useful for transforming human society. Education makes teachers learners because they improve their knowledge through the fluidity of knowledge and the unfixed nature of meanings. It is in the process of this self-discovery that individuals unlock the key to innovative ideas.

Education inspires an enduring quest for the accumulation of knowledge to better people’s lives and the environment. It automatically confers on individuals the prospect of becoming the intellectual brainpower of the society who engage in research for a progressive scholarship. In improving themselves academically, people begin to engage the society, and they are assured to arrive at the most important end by putting into practice the accumulated knowledge that they have gathered. This is why researchers are central to the attainment of excellence in human society. When they have undertaken quality research engagements, they turn to society to engage them with productive services. Even though the school is considered their primary catchment area, they use the larger society to test their knowledge and make notable contributions to its development. As a result, teaching is considered an outstanding career and a call from nature to serve the people and expand the horizon of human society. Teachers cannot be repaid sufficiently or remunerated in the proportion of the services they render to society. It is impossible to have any aspect of human activity flourish without the impact of teachers. All these realizations informed Zeleza’s educational interest and developed an undefeated zeal in him.

Meanwhile, the world itself is constantly evolving and expanding its terrains. Any people or civilization that wants to be in tune with the modern time’s happenings would have to constantly improve their information generation capacity about their immediate environment and the distant places. This means that people’s success in contemporary times depends on their ability to expand their knowledge about themselves and the culturally and politically different people. This is necessary because the globalization agenda that has become part of the motivations and aspirations of the developed countries cannot be possible without having a good understanding of the world and their immediate environment.

In essence, it is demanded that for anyone to function maximally in the contemporary time, they would have to be multicultural in thinking, multidimensional in philosophy, diverse in political understanding, and also eclectic in human management approach. While it was an easy feat for people from the developed countries to understand the socioeconomic and sociopolitical trajectory of the world because of the efforts they have made in previous centuries to understand the world around them, Africans need an increased conscious effort in this regard. As such, many of us cannot but be involved in cross-country migrations to gain knowledge of the world and to help us shape the thinking of in-house Africans in our quest to build a competitive continent. Zeleza admits that this would particularly assist in human development needed so seriously to enhance Africa.

Photo: Lilongwe market, Malawi

Whereas the prospects of acquiring knowledge from different cultural backgrounds remain very glamorous, the sacrifice needed to enhance quality assurance is unarguably tough. While the people would be exposed to the market of ideas and philosophies used and practiced in the new environment, they would also have the challenges of cultural detachment from their indigenous culture and face other innumerable sociopolitical challenges. Getting an education in a diaspora environment is an added advantage for individuals from Africa, but the sacrifices are usually massive. The first challenge is how to develop a thick skin for the pervasive racial prejudices that would inundate them in the New World, and apart from this, they would need additional confidence to continue to showcase their African identity in a cultural environment where they are considered as the less privileged. Perhaps these are all the reasons the educational culture of Zeleza’s generation is notably different. Like him, many of them have been taken through the expanse of different cultures and have retained theirs regardless of the mounting pressure and predatory environment. In the process, several of them have to battle with identity crises because they could not delineate African sociopolitical identities from others. They were submerged by the pressure of host countries to modify their culture in the process of becoming.

However, for people like Zeleza, these various experiences have shaped his academic culture into an ever-expanding repertoire of knowledge production. These plural identities and diverse human experiences created a different version of him, informed his scholarly drive, and encouraged him to become the man he is, addressing biting issues and controversial topics that affect the continent and its people. It is impossible to have such an experience associated with Zeleza and not break these boundaries of intellectual limitations and academic confines that delimit the human brain’s functionality. He is eclectic and dives into local and international topics that have a bearing on the human development project so that issues that need utmost intellectual attention are not denied because of the narrow specializations that humans have formulated.

People are different culturally and religiously, as they are diverse politically. Therefore, it is important to celebrate these differences in Zeleza’s academic engagement, showing the beauty and fecundity of human diversity. However, beyond this diversity, he sees similarities. He notices that most people face similar socio-economic challenges that continue to frustrate their efforts towards self-actualization. Moreover, because this has been carefully imported into the culture of the people, individuals who are confronted with similar conditions or challenges, rather than speak in unique voices, are divided by racial, cultural, and, more insidiously, political identities. In summary, there is no group of people with the monopoly of anything.

Photo: Paul Zeleza with colleagues


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  3. David Wafula Nerubucha says

    Good day Professor Zeleza.

    There are so many nuggets of gold in this article worth storing in memory bank of my mind. A line I personally find of fulfilling interest as well as intrigue is as follows:

    “Educational brilliance is the aggregate of human intellectual culture displayed on the different phenomena and strange ideas. Experience has demonstrated that what we know as humans cannot be compared with what we do not know, as unraveling events show why we are still in the infancy of knowledge advancement.”

    The above statement is made reference to as an ‘economic’ rationale for advancing African unity is realized.

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