The Chronicle Gambia

The Toyin Falola Interviews – A Conversation With Professor Paul Zeleza, Part 5

The Diaspora Experience



(Unedited Transcript)

  1. How did your path lead to living in the West?

My path to the West was long and circuitous. Like many among the new diaspora, it started in pursuit of graduate education, which was underdeveloped at the University of Malawi when I finished my bachelor’s degree in 1976. I belong to what the late Thandika Mkandawire called the second generation of Africa’s postcolonial intellectuals. The first generation, his own, received their undergraduate and graduate degrees abroad because there were so few universities on the continent; many countries didn’t even have a university or shared a single regional university as in East Africa or for Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe with the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

In those days, it was a common expectation that those of us who sought to pursue an academic career would go abroad. Our lectures often recommended the universities where they themselves had studied. Moreover, scholarships were mainly provided by institutions or agencies from the global North that demanded study in their countries.

The arrangement at the University of Malawi was for those of us selected to pursue graduate studies to be employed for one year as teaching assistants, or what was called staff associates. I was offered staff associate positions in the departments of history and English. I chose history because while my real passion was English as a writer and someone fascinated by literary criticism, I thought history would stretch me further intellectually. So for one year, in 1976-1977, I served as a staff associate during which I applied for graduate studies at the University of London. In the course of the year, I got a scholarship from the European Development Fund through the University of Malawi.

I chose the University of London because of the reputation and record of the two schools I sought to enroll in that had trained the previous generation of African historians and radical political economists. One was the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the other was the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

I arrived in London, my first trip outside Africa, in September 1977. The city was eerily familiar because as a postcolonial subject I knew a lot about it already. As the children of empire, we had been fed and brought up on a steady and suffocating British cultural diet. But it was also disconcerting to witness and experience daily racist denigration and the polite contempt reserved for migrants from the ex-colonies. In the one year I worked on my master’s degree, I lived in different parts of the city in a continuous search for the comforts of belonging—at an international students house in Regents Park, a house owned by a Nigerian in Haringey, and a shared student house in Hackney.

In the course of that year, I cherished making friends from all over Africa, and other parts of the world including those from the African diaspora in the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada, and from the post-colonies of Asia, especially India. This enriched my commitments to Pan-Africanism and internationalism. In Britain, I became both African and Black. This was the time of intensifying liberation struggles in the settler laagers of Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, and fierce civil wars between retrograde and progressive liberation movements in Mozambique and Angola. London was a major center in the international solidarity movement over Southern Africa. I participated in political rallies and intense debates on and off-campus, which I found energizing and intoxicating.

As graduate students, we also bonded over regular parties in our respective abodes all over London. In this mega multicultural city, one could find any community one was looking for from home and elsewhere. At the time there were not many African restaurants in the city, so we often went to the Africa Center, a magnetic cultural hub for the African diaspora where we went to sample mouth-watering African dishes, watch performances and exhibitions, engage visiting writers and artists, and listen to liberation fighters and politicians.

My actual academic studies developed their own interesting import and rhythm, although I never found them taxing. The seminars were intellectually invigorating as we, students, vigorously debated and engaged each other and our lecturers on the dominant theoretical paradigms, ideological discourses, and pressing geopolitical developments of the time. British politics was caught in the paralysis of post-imperial reckoning and the unraveling of the welfare state that culminated in the rise of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the muscular neo-liberal restructuring of Thatcherism.

I had a terrible experience towards the end of my studies. Driving home one night from one of our legendary graduate student parties I forgot my briefcase in the taxi. I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Of course, I couldn’t track the taxi. In the briefcase were my MA thesis, files of archival notes from the Public Record Office (PRO), and several books I had bought that afternoon including Alex Haley’s magna opus, Roots.

When I’m faced with a sudden crisis or tragedy, I had long trained myself not to panic. Panicking clouds one’s judgment and doesn’t solve anything. I had two weeks to go before leaving for Canada to start my doctoral studies. So that weekend I began reconstructing the thesis and over the following fortnight, I went back to the PRO and retrieved as much as possible of the archival records I had read. I submitted the dissertation to my supervisor the day before I left for Canada. A couple of months later, I received my master’s degree.

Canada offered relief from the racial aggressions always evident in Britain, the belly of the empire. It was also materially a richer and more comfortable country to live in certainly for a graduate student on a meager scholarship. The University of Malawi had refused to support me for a Commonwealth Scholarship because I had not returned home after my master’s degree. The real reason, I suspect, is that they knew I was involved in anti-Rhodesian and anti-apartheid struggles and that I fraternized with opponents of the Banda dictatorship. All the university had to do was endorse me; it was a Canadian scholarship.

As fate would have it, before the end of my first year as a doctoral student the History Department at Dalhousie University nominated me for the university’s most prestigious scholarship, the Killam Award, derived from an endowment established in memory of Izaak Walton Killam, one of Canada’s most eminent financiers from Nova Scotia who died in 1955 at the age of 70. It was given to students and scholars of exceptional accomplishment and character. I was the first African and Black person to receive it at Dalhousie University, one of the leading universities that disbursed the Killam fellowships.

The days of my doctoral studies were exceptionally rich. Not only did the History Department have some of the country’s leading historians, but the university also boasted renowned faculty in other departments and schools that constituted one of the country’s oldest Centers for African Studies. I worked under a fine supervisor, John Flint, a liberal scholar, and Africanist, who reinforced my own values of extensive research, rigorous theoretical understanding and argumentation, and clarity of writing. He didn’t agree with my Marxist informed analysis, but in the comprehensive examinations, he and his fellow examiners gave me an A. As a supervisor, I adopted his style. I tell my students that I don’t have to agree with their theoretical premise or ideological perspective as long as they thoroughly understand it and can back up their arguments with impeccable logic and copious evidence.

I decided to do my doctoral dissertation on Kenya after doing my master’s thesis on Tanzania for several reasons. First, when I left Malawi, I wanted to return and teach a region other than Southern Africa. East Africa was both close and far enough to expand my intellectual horizons. Second, when I got to SOAS the doyen of African history, Roland Oliver, the first lecturer appointed to teach the field in Britain in 1948, who invited each new graduate to prostrate themselves before him, asked me what my ethnic group was and how important it would be for me to write its history. I was deeply offended. Any lingering inclination to study Malawi evaporated in that encounter. Why was it okay for Europeans and Americans to study any African country or community they chose, but for Africans to study only their ethnic group?

Third, having written on Tanzania’s colonial economic history, I was intrigued to do a comparative examination of the economic history of its northern neighbor. Kenya was a settler colony and its economic history replicated features of settler colonial capitalism evident in Southern Africa and the European outposts of the Americas and Australasia. I thought it would provide a good testing ground of the prevailing Marxist, dependency, and neo-classical paradigms that were then all the rage.

The icing on the cake was, fourth, the fact that Kenya was the home of the great writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o whose novels I admired for their trenchant critiques of the pathologies of the postcolonial order. Additionally, Malawi’s own renowned poet, David Rubadiri, taught at the University of Nairobi. President Banda used to denounce him as a “rebel” for siding, while serving as Malawi’s first ambassador to the US, with the young ministers who rebelled within weeks of independence against Banda’s creeping tyranny and conservative policies. Above all, Kenya was home to the illustrious historian, Bethwell Alan Ogot, who had been an external examiner at the University of Malawi in 1976 who sought me out and endorsed my passing the bachelor’s degree with distinction.

I came to Nairobi in September 1979, a year after the death of the founding President Jomo Kenyatta and accession to power of President Daniel Arap Moi. The country was clearly in the political transition. Nairobi was then truly a city in the sun, orderly and clean. The country’s middle class was growing steadily, so was the working class. However, the stubborn legacies of colonial uneven regional development remained stark, and ethnic antagonisms appeared more pronounced than I had seen in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Corruption was also clearly on the rise.

I rented a bungalow in one of the newly established lower-middle-class neighborhoods called Umoja. My work at the Kenyan National Archives and interviews with various people and readings at the University of Nairobi library and other libraries were accompanied on weekends by the revelry of a young man in his early twenties. I sampled the delights of nightlife in the numerous clubs within the city and its outskirts. And I made new friendships. The University of Nairobi and the History Department boasted some remarkable radical scholars that I gravitated to. I recall the powerful academic vigil held in honor of the incomparable public intellectual, Walter Rodney, following his brutal assassination in Guyana in June 1980.

I almost didn’t return to Canada. I became increasingly perturbed by the idea of getting my Ph.D. in African history at a Canadian university. While I hardly had any qualms with my supervisor and the History Department that had treated me quite well, I was increasingly becoming troubled by the unequal intellectual relations in African Studies between universities on the continent and those in the global North. Ever since my encounter with Roland Oliver I had become acutely aware of the asymmetrical relations in the production of knowledge on and about Africa and the unsavory gatekeeping functions of white Africanists.

In the end, I did return fifteen months after coming for my field research which was supposed to have lasted a year. I was able to finish my Ph.D. dissertation in good time, at the age of 26. Writing the dissertation was exciting but also exhausting. For diversion, I would switch to writing my novel, which was on a broadly similar subject as my dissertation, about the economy and the lives and struggles of working-class people. History and fiction are both narrative arts, but they follow different discursive protocols of truth-telling. In the novel, I could imaginatively recreate the lives of my characters without the encumbrances of the verifiable evidence of the historical text. Working on my dissertation and novel simultaneously was quite stimulating and saved me from the tedium of dissertation writing.

The life of graduate students in the humanities and social sciences can be lonely as it mostly involves writing by oneself. As graduate students, we found considerable relief at the Grad House where we often gathered towards the end of the week for long nights of camaraderie and fun, sober conversations over what we were working on, and heated debates on contemporary events.

Some of my friends and I also made efforts to get to know the Black Nova Scotian community. That’s how I met my first wife who was a student at a women’s college nearby. Through these encounters, I began to appreciate that systemic racism was as entrenched in Canada as in Europe and other settler colonies. The Black community in Nova Scotia and the other Atlantic provinces in Canada was founded by loyalists from the American war of independence. Despite their contributions to the province, they remained marginalized. There were hardly any domestic Black graduate students at the university. Also missing were students from Canada’s indigenous peoples.

As African students in Canada, we faced overt racism and micro-aggressions on and off-campus. We were called a “Visible Minority”, but our people remained largely invisible in professional and political life. The university’s professoriate and staff, leaders in business, state government, and the media were almost invariably white. The stereotypes of Black Nova Scotians were often as vile as those in the southern United States. Given their relatively small numbers, and notwithstanding generations of civil rights struggles, Black Nova Scotians suffered from forms of marginalization that were assuaged in the United States by the sheer demographic weight of African Americans. Also, Canada’s two solitudes between the French and English, only allowed indigenous people, not other racial minorities, in the national discourse. In contrast, in the US the national discourse centers on the two solitudes of Black and White, often to the chagrin of other minorities.

So when I finished my doctoral studies, I was determined to work in an African country or a country that was predominantly populated by the African diaspora. I applied for jobs on the continent and got offers at a university in Nigeria and another one in Zambia, but my colleagues at Dalhousie and elsewhere from the two countries strongly discouraged me from taking either. In the end, I accepted a position at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.

In Jamaica, I was viewed and accepted as an African brother from the motherland. I was the only African lecturer on campus. I was proudly aware that I took the position once occupied by the great Walter Rodney. I readily welcomed frequent invitations to speak to the media, community organizations, political parties, religious groups, schools, and trade unions. I arrived in September 1982. The rebel Caribbean cricket tours to South Africa in 1982-1983 put the anti-apartheid struggle on the front burner in Jamaican political and media discourse, and I found myself addressing audiences about the evils of apartheid.

I hosted on campus or at my house leaders of the South African and Namibian liberation movements, the ANC and SWAPO, respectively, on their solidarity visits to Jamaica. In addition, I often hosted African delegations to international conferences in Jamaica, such as the then prime minister of Tanzania, Joseph Warioba, while attending a conference on the Law of the Sea. It was all heady stuff for a young lecturer in his twenties. Thus, it was in Jamaica that I learned public speaking, turning complex histories and ideas into public speeches. It was also in Jamaica that I became a scholar of Africa, for people expected me to know and talk about the whole continent from ancient Egypt to contemporary Zimbabwe.

I recall one day, I was invited to speak to secondary school students in Kingston. A female student asked me how African economies looked like and functioned before the European slave trade and colonization. I was stumped for I had studied colonial capitalism, not precolonial economies. I was of course able to mumble some answers. But that question troubled me, so I decided to study pre-colonial African economic history. Ten years later I had a belated answer to that student with the publication of my book, A Modern Economic History of Africa. Volume 1: The Nineteenth Century. Some consider this my most important book, which won the Noma Award in 1994, then Africa’s most prestigious book award. This only shows that the inspiration for one’s scholarship can come from serendipitous encounters and innocuous questions by students.

The Kingston of the early 1980s was a vibrant city in terms of popular culture from reggae music to theater and dance. Almost every weekend I was invited to some party by colleagues at the university or their friends. The hunger for an African identity and connection was particularly palpable among the poorer segments of society and members of the Rastafarian community, who often invited me to talk about African history. I was always careful not to offend their sensitivities on Haile Selassie who I regarded as a tyrant. I particularly enjoyed meeting the reggae stars in a person whose music I had ravished as a graduate student in Britain and Canada, such as Jimmy Cliff, Rita Marley, and the Third World band.

One of the pernicious legacies of slavery in Jamaica and other parts of the diaspora in the Americas is colorism and the denigration of things African among some of the elites who often tend to be lighter in complexion than the vast majority of the diaspora population. I could see this on the campus where the proportion of brown and light-skinned students and staff was higher than in the general population.

The campus was an extraordinary center of robust intellectual activity. The Senior Common Room served as an endless seminar room. Intellectual and ideological debates in the wider society were articulated with the sharpness only academics are capable of. Each department held weekly seminars from which I learned that fierce disagreements didn’t entail personal disapproval, for we would often retreat to the SCR afterward and continue the debates with humor leavened by drink.

I regard my two years at UWI as the most formative of the academic and public intellectual that I eventually became. But I missed the continent. While it was flattering being the only African at the university and invited to address all types of audiences, I wanted the reality check of being among African scholars in an African university. So I packed my bags for Kenya, the country in which I had done my doctoral research. I wanted to be judged and accepted as a historian of Kenya among Kenyan historians and other scholars. I got a job at Kenyatta University College, then a constituent college of the University of Nairobi, which I joined in August 1984.

My wife and I and our eight-month daughter arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport exhausted following two nights of travel from Kingston, Jamaica, through Toronto and London. Traveling with a baby on long flights is not fun, so I don’t complain when I sit beside or near a distraught parent trying to quieten their crying baby. Fortunately, when we landed, Ali Mazrui, the late renowned Kenyan scholar, who was on the same flight and who I had first met in my class at the London School of Economics, introduced me to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Prof Joseph Mungai, who kindly arranged for us to go to his house to freshen up before going to a hotel. We stayed at the hotel of Utali College, then the premier training college for the hospitality industry in the country for three weeks while our house on the campus of KUC was being prepared. It was a memorable stay because that’s where my daughter started crawling. It was a wonder to behold when I saw her crawling towards me as I came out of the bathroom!

I spent the next five and half years at KUC, which became independent as Kenyatta University (KU) in 1985. When I started teaching there it was a relatively small university of a few thousand students. The classes were manageable. This changed following what was called the double intake of 1986 when the numbers exploded beyond the available infrastructure. Introductory classes that would have two or three dozen students suddenly had hundreds. There were no classrooms to accommodate such large numbers of students, so some hang on windows outside. It was like trying to teach at a noisy political rally. One could see teaching and learning standards slipping before one’s eyes.

Salaries were low. Fortunately, my wife got a job with an NGO that paid her a higher salary than mine. I also supplemented my income teaching as an adjunct at the Catholic University of East Africa on the other side of Nairobi. And I learned to hustle with consultancies. It became financially unsustainable so my wife and daughter returned to Canada. She would occasionally send me money as my salary was not enough even for me to live on, especially after my sister joined me from Botswana to go to college in Nairobi. Academic careers were being ravaged by structural adjustment programs that were imposed with religious zeal by the international financial institutions. At a conference of Vice-Chancellors in Harare in 1986, the World Bank brazenly declared that Africa did not need universities.

The devaluation of academic labor was part of the dismantling of the post-independence social contract, of the developmental state in the global South and the welfare state in the global North following the triumph of neo-liberalism and the demise of the postwar Keynesian consensus and the increasingly evident failures of the socialist alternative. As difficult as these years were, intellectual life, certainly in the History Department at KU remained robust. We maintained our weekly seminars, and the senior professors were exemplary scholars.

Professor Ogot became my most invaluable mentor. He would often take me to a nearby hotel for lunch during which we would discuss my research, and he would organize invitations for me to attend conferences of eminent historians locally and abroad. In 1985, I co-wrote a paper with him on Kenya’s decolonization for a conference in Harare that came out in a volume of prominent global scholars. In 1986, he arranged for me to be a rapporteur at a conference attended by the editors of the eight-volume UNESCO General History of Africa. To be in the presence of some of Africa’s most distinguished historians who commended my work was electrifying and empowering for a young scholar.

In 1989, a festschrift was published to mark Prof Ogot’s sixtieth birthday, Modern History of Kenya 1895–1980: In Honor of Professor B. A. Ogot. I was the only author with two chapters in the book which received considerable national media attention. My active research and publication record did not sit well with some of my colleagues, who didn’t seem to like the fact that a person from another African country was becoming a recognized authority on the history of their country. They never seemed to mind the white scholars who wrote extensively on Kenya. Life in the department became increasingly intolerable for me so I began contemplating leaving.

I used to visit my family in Botswana and during one such visit, I began exploring with colleagues at the University of Botswana (UB) for a position. The university hosted many scholars from Malawi and other African countries. The Chair of the History Department asked me to draft a syllabus for an economic history course that I already taught at Kenyatta. I did, but when the job was advertised, I wasn’t even informed. They gave the position to a white historian who had spent years hoping from one African country to another including Kenya and Nigeria. But I had the last laugh as years later when I visited the campus after I had relocated to Canada I was told they used my book on African economic history. I joked that the students would have received the knowledge directly from the author without paying a fortune for the book!

I had no luck in the country of my birth either. After I interviewed at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) in 1989 I was offered a job in the Department of Economic History in which a couple of my friends who had been students with me at SOAS were teaching. I found the prospect of joining them and living closer to my family in Botswana and my relatives in Zimbabwe quite exciting. But the offer was for a lecturer position; I had been a senior lecturer at KU for several years already. I was told UZ was a superior university with much higher standards than Kenyan universities. I turned down the offer.

I reluctantly decided to go back to Canada. Fortunately, towards the end of 1989, I got a “Reflections on Development Fellowship” from the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. I was one of a dozen scholars who received the fellowship which allowed the recipients to undertake a research project anywhere they wished. In January 1990, at the age of 34, I left Kenya for Ethiopia to do research for a few weeks at the Economic Commission for Africa, en route to Halifax and my alma mater, Dalhousie University to continue working on the research project, which resulted in A Modern Economic History of Africa.

As it happened two months after I arrived, Trent University advertised for the only job that year in Canada in African history. Actually, the job was for African or Latin American history with an ability to teach European history. I applied, was short-listed, and got the job. At the end of June 1990, my family and I moved to Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario to assume my new position as an Assistant Professor. Thus, began my 25-year sojourn in Canada and the United States. A year later I received early promotion to Associate Professor and three years later I became a Full Professor. I was 39 years old.

  1. You lived in the diaspora for a long time, what prompted you to return to the continent?

In a sense, over the past forty years, I have circulated between the diaspora and the continent in between my studies and jobs. As I noted earlier, after studying in Britain and Canada and working in the Caribbean I went back to the continent to teach at Kenyatta University where I stayed for five and half years. As it happens, I left Kenya in early January 1990 and after spending more than twenty-five years in Canada and the United States I found myself returning to Kenya. In the interregnum, I had to reckon with my diaspora location and identity and the issue of return to the continent.

The issue came to a head in 1994. As a political exile, which is how I saw myself as I had stayed away from Malawi largely because I couldn’t go back unless I wanted to end up in political detention or worse, the end of the Banda dictatorship posed an existential quandary. All along, I had expected, indeed, convinced myself that I would return home once the Banda regime was gone. My life hangs in permanent suspension of the anticipation of return. I lived under the proverbial packed suitcase of the exile who longs to return at a moment’s notice. When the opportunity suddenly presented itself, I realized that I had actually been living and building a whole new life in exile, in the diaspora. I had a good family; I had a comfortable job; I had developed new affiliations of belonging. I had even taken up Canadian citizenship. The home was no longer confined to Malawi.

I welcomed the political transition in Malawi from dictatorship to democracy with elation. In the early 1990s, as the winds of change for the “second independence” began blowing, I became involved in Malawian exile politics.  Several of us based in Canada and the United States formed the Malawi Action Committee (MAC) to lobby the Canadian and American governments against supporting the Banda dictatorship and channel support to opposition forces organizing on the ground and in the neighboring countries. I was on the executive committee of MAC. I believe that it was partly because of my diaspora political activism that I was contacted by the leading opposition party, the United Democratic Front (UDF).

One day in the middle of the night, I got a call from Malawi. I thought it was my younger brother, and I started cursing for being woken up. Didn’t he know the time difference, I asked? Was there a family emergency? The person on the other side said he was Brown Mpinganjira, an old friend of mine, who was one of the leading figures in the UDF. He said he was calling on behalf of the president of the UDF, Mr. Bakili Muluzi, who wanted to speak to me. I got out of bed. Mr. Muluzi told me he had been following our political activities in the diaspora. He wanted me to join his Shadow Cabinet that would form the next government should his party win the election. I said I would think about it and get back to him.

Later that day, my young brother called with the surprising news that at a massive political rally, Mr. Muluzi had announced the Shadow Cabinet and my name was included as the Shadow Minister of Industry and Energy! I screamed in disbelief. I had not accepted any such appointment. In the next few days I was inundated with calls of congratulations from friends and family in Malawi. I must admit, I found it all tempting. However, I was not going to make a decision, upend my life and that of my family on a whim, however enticing and flattering. So I wrote the Secretary-General of the UDF a long memo inquiring about the position of the party on a series of issues from economic to foreign policy, women’s rights to environmental management, public appointments to the powers of ministers. President Banda was notorious for humiliating his ministers in public and dissolving the Cabinet at will. Consequently, ministers became embarrassing sycophants, who would even kneel for the tinpot autocrat. I never got a response to the memo.

In May 1994, I went to Malawi after many years in exile to witness the watershed multi-party democratic elections, which the UDF proceeded to win. Many thought I had returned to take up the ministerial appointment. A rich businessman offered me his Mercedes Benz to drive around. I was also offered more substantial enticements to “settle down”. I began to see clearly the traps and trappings of power. Two hours before the inauguration I met with the incoming president at his residence and I explained that I would not be joining his government. The UDF Secretary-General who had not bothered to respond to my memo looked at me aghast. Other people in the room smacking their lips with the sweet taste of impending power tried to hide their bewilderment. My relatives were shocked that I would turn down a ministerial appointment, depriving them of their chance to “eat”. Unfortunately, my misgivings turned out to be correct as the new government ushered in an era of unprecedented corruption.

I returned to Canada to my academic job, as clear as I had ever been that I was likely to remain in the diaspora for the foreseeable future. Ironically, my refusal to join the government gave me credibility that my political criticisms were not motivated by self-interest. I have continued being a principled critic of Malawian governments ever since. In the meantime, I became more immersed in diaspora activities. I was already engaged with the African Canadian arts community as a member of the executive committee of the Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists in Action which organized book launches, literary readings, exhibitions, and conferences for African Canadian artists and visiting artists from various parts of the African diaspora. I was thrilled with the publication of my stories in two collections, Voices: Canadian Writers of African Descent and Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African Canadian Literature, and my own short story collection, The Joys of Exile published in Toronto in 1994.

My acceptance of a diaspora identity as a key aspect of my social biography was reinforced by my immediate family. As my Canadian-born daughter, Natasha Thandile, grew up both in Canada and the United States, we had fascinating conversations about identity, hers, her mother’s, and mine. When she moved to live with me in the US, as a single parent, the conversations became much richer. Her friends in middle school and later high school always seemed pleasantly surprised to discover that Natasha’s dad was an African with a “cool” accent, meaning “strange”. Natasha came to describe herself as African North American.

When I remarried in 1999 to an African American woman, Cassandra, the two would sometimes gang up against me, the African, when it came to the issue of dating for Natasha. This was often in jest, but my diaspora household inspired my reflections on the diaspora condition, the relations between the historic diaspora, my wife, the new diaspora, me, and the bridge between the two, my daughter. The late Ali Mazrui called my daughter’s generation American Africans as distinct in their trans-Atlantic identifications from both the African Americans and African immigrants. Straddling both the continent and the diaspora, they were destined to build the affinities of meaningful dialogue and engagement. This has been borne out in the literary world. For example, Yaa Gyasi’s novel, Homegoing, is an astonishing multigenerational dialogue between Africa and the diaspora through the lives of the descendants of two sisters, one who was enslaved in America and the other who remained in West Africa. Yaa is the daughter of Kwaku Gyasi, the first faculty member I hired in the Center for African Studies at Illinois, so I remember her as a child, and I’m thrilled she has become such a fine writer.

In a significant sense, given my background, my diaspora condition and identity in North America was an extension of my southern African multinational experience and identity. It was therefore relatively easy to embrace my new diaspora identity as one that is not fixed in one place but circulatory encompassing multiple places. This was a major motivation behind my interest in diaspora studies. Quite simply, I wanted to better understand myself and my family and our multiple affiliations and mobilities. Interestingly, the crystallization of my diaspora research work took place in Nairobi in 2002.

I had gone to Kenya with my wife on vacation. While there I met my good friend Tade Aina, who was then working for the Ford Foundation office for Eastern Africa. He mentioned that the foundation had recently sponsored a group from the Indian African diaspora, the Siddis, to tour East Africa. He wondered whether I might be interested in doing a comparative study of African diasporas in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. I was intrigued. Three years later, in 2005, I wrote a proposal and submitted it to the foundation. I got the grant and for the next four years, I spent every summer visiting different countries, sixteen altogether, in South America and the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia. I was interested in three things: mapping the dispersals of African peoples in different world regions over the last two thousand years, the diverse formations of their diaspora identities, and the flows of demographic, cultural, political, ideological, economic, and iconographic engagements with their ancestral continent.

In 2012, I published a compendium of my travel diary recording my daily encounters and experiences in the various countries I visited, entitled In Search of African Diasporas: Testimonies and Encounters. The book led to my being invited by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to undertake a research project on the African-born academic diaspora in the United States and Canada, its demographic size, career trajectories, and modalities of engagement with African higher education institutions. The project, which was conducted in 2011-2012 was in two parts; first, it focused on the academic diaspora in the two countries, and second, on how they were viewed in West Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa by university leaders and academics.

The following year, after the research report was submitted to the CCNY at a convening attended by several foundations, African academic leaders, and intergovernmental agencies such as the World Bank, the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP) was established. It had a direct impact on my second prolonged return to the continent in forty years. While its intention was not to promote diaspora return or repatriation, but brain circulation between the diaspora and the continent, several fellows ended up returning permanently to the continent. Hearing their stories got me thinking about the possibility of my own return. It was in this context that I applied for the Vice Chancellor’s position at USIU-Africa which I assumed on January 1, 2016. In a sense, I wanted to be part of the brain circulation I wrote about and promoted through CADFP.

I welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the development of African higher education, a subject I had also written extensively about. USIU-Africa had its own attractions as the oldest private secular university in Kenya; the only university in the region that enjoyed dual accreditation by the Commission for University Education in Kenya and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the United States; it was the most international university in the region with students from more than 70 countries; an institution that took diversity and inclusion seriously; a comprehensive university with several schools and bachelor, masters, and doctoral programs; it harbored serious ambitions to become research-intensive and boasted quality physical and electronic infrastructure.

A few years earlier, my son had relocated from Texas to Malawi. He said it would be easier for him to have an impact and make money in Malawi, the country of his birth, than in the United States. I became intrigued by talking to some friends whose children, many of them equipped with MBAs like my son, also relocated to the continent. I read in an African magazine that 70% of African MBA graduates returned to the continent attracted by the opportunities of “Africa Rising/Rising Africa”. If my son saw prospects in the continent of his birth, why not me? The idea of being closer to my immediate and extended family including my aging father became increasingly attractive. However, some of my relatives and friends wondered why I would leave the world’s wealthiest country for a developing African country. But when I make up my mind, which often comes after serious thinking and consultation with my wife and family and trusted friends, I don’t look back even if I might come to regret the decision. And I have learned not to dwell on regrets either.

My impending departure for Kenya inspired me to spend nearly six months on a fellowship at Harvard University working on a book I had long planned to write, which came out the following year, The Transformation of Global Higher Education, 1945-2015. The book examines the development of higher education on every continent. Researching and writing the book gave me a much-needed opportunity to reflect on what I had learned as a university administrator at every level, on the verge of climbing to the last rung on the ladder, the college presidency.

  1. What do you think is the role of the African diaspora in African development more generally?

The African diaspora, both the historic diaspora and the new diaspora, are an integral part of African history and future. The historical diaspora comprises people dispersed to other world regions before Africa’s colonization, while the new diasporas are of more recent lineage, mostly going back to the post-independence period. For example, in the United States, the historic diaspora comprises descendants of enslaved Africans and those who relocated from the Caribbean and South America. The new diaspora is made up mostly of African migrants who have arrived over the last three to four decades. The number of African immigrants rose from 80,000 in 1970, to 200,000 in 1980, 364,000 in 1990, 881,000 in 2000 and 2,060,000 in 2015.

The two formations of African diasporas enjoy different connections and engagements, memories, and imaginations of Africa. However, they have each made and will continue to make mutually reinforcing contributions to the continent. Pan-Africanism was born and bred among the historic diaspora in which the collective racialized subjugation and the consciousness of Africanness first developed. Out of it were incubated the various territorial nationalisms led by leaders such as Pixley Seme, one of the founders of the African National Congress, and the founding presidents of Ghana, Nigeria, and Malawi, namely, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Kamuzu Banda who were educated in the HBCUs and socialized into politics by African American activists and movements. For others, such as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, they encountered Pan-Africanism in Europe.

As the struggles for civil rights brought political enfranchisement and the historic diasporas assumed greater representation and inclusion, they flexed their political and economic muscles on behalf of African countries and causes. The Congressional Black Caucus and organizations such as TransAfrica in mobilizing support in the USA against the apartheid regime are well known. The ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency and Kamala Harris to the vice presidency, as well as the steady rise of Black corporate executives and leaders in other sectors, including historically white universities, underscores the fact that Africa can only ignore the historic diaspora at its peril.

The new diasporas play important political, economic, social, and cultural roles in their countries or regions of origin and across the continent. They channel their activities through formal and informal networks in their countries of residence and origin as well as through the international system. Their motivation for engagement varies from generous to profit considerations to status-seeking in both the diaspora and homeland. Families, communities, and governments on the continent increasingly value the economic and financial contributions of the new diaspora. There’s hardly an African I knew in the US who didn’t know where Western Union and other money transfer shops were located.

In 2019, Africa received US$84,280 billion in diaspora remittances, the largest inflow of external resources, higher than the outlays from China, the EU, or the United States. Thus, the diaspora is Africa’s biggest donor. In many African countries, remittances are the most important and stable source of capital inflows, in some cases exceeding both ODA (official development assistance) and FDI (foreign direct investment). For the top ten recipients, remittances accounted for between 2.9% of GDP for Kenya and 9.9% for Senegal. The new diaspora has also become an important player in investments by purchasing equity on stock markets, lending to local businesses or setting up their businesses, or being a source of philanthropy and human capital for development. In June 2017, Nigeria pioneered the issuing of a diaspora bond for US$300 million to finance development projects, which was oversubscribed.

In recognition of the importance and role of the diaspora, in 2004, the African Union designated the diaspora as Africa’s sixth region, although this has yet to be fully translated into the formal structures of the AU. More than thirty countries now recognize dual citizenship. Diaspora communities are highly differentiated according to the social inscriptions of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, and ideology. Their engagements with their homelands are equally complex, contradictory, and always changing. Politically, they can exert negative influences by fomenting and bankrolling conflicts or supporting social movements for democratization and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

Diasporas also acquire and possess social and cultural capital—attributes and attitudes, skills and sensibilities—that can be mobilized to develop their countries of origin. However, diasporas often suffer from superiority complexes and display the insufferable arrogance of what used to be called in African literature the “been-to” mentality, or we can call the development aid mindset of donors. More recently, there has emerged digital diasporization, the rise of social media and streaming services through which diasporas perform their national and transnational identities.

Photo: Professor Ali Mazrui

Notwithstanding some of the inherent challenges of engagements with the diaspora, I believe they are indispensable for building capacities in African countries to realize the enduring triple Pan-African and nationalist dreams of self-determination, development, and democracy. Clearly, more than any other external community, the diaspora comprises people with the necessary effective commitments and social and economic capital so essential for the continent’s integrated, inclusive, innovative, and sustainable development.



The Diaspora Experience

Migrations to the West have always been a principal marker of colonial relationship and, by extension, colonial dependency. In the wake of Africa’s independence, the nationalist drive for an academic adventure was considered important in the quest for self-determination and political freedom. People concerned about self-government would not do so without solid educational exposure to managing multiple identities that colonialism brought to existence. Of course, Africa ruled itself admirably before the intervention of the West centuries ago, but the magnitude of leadership and the geography of control expanded the very moment the colonizers joined disparate civilizations together, and this has necessitated the fact that an informed system, which can be built by having strong education, is immediately needed for the management of the complexity brought about by multiple identities.

As such, the first generation of Africans who got educated was inclined to travel overseas to actualize this dream due to the scarcity of university institutions in the period. They had not many options except to go to the West in their quest for intellectual redefinition and regeneration. Among this category is Paul Zeleza, although he belongs to the second generation of African scholars, with similar circumstances but slightly different. He was educated in the continent but had to progress for his postgraduate studies in the diaspora. During this period, the Global North countries opened their arms to African countries or anyone with similar sociopolitical experience of colonialism to strengthen their relationship and deepen their mutual engagement in economy, politics, and other diplomatic avenues. However, the political infrastructure of the West has established a lopsided relationship between them and the African countries in their continuous association of Africans with barbarism and backwardness.

Before any African can travel abroad for whatever reason, their image, identity, and profile had traveled there ahead of them, and it is based on their examination of these transported attributes, as convoluted and contrived as they are, that the Global North countries established a union with these Africans, mostly on a relationship of master-subordinates that births racism or racial prejudices. In essence, one of the core challenges confronting African Diaspora is racism, and its existence has cut deep into the fabric of African identity, so much that it has continued to create a magma of complex problems in modern times. For example, it was because racial discrimination was, and still is, deep-rooted in the politics of the West that several Africans in the contemporary time deny their African identity or trash it in their quest to attain social or economic balance in their host Global North countries.

While racism is, therefore, a matter arising from the institutionalization of racial superiority pronounced in the era of the Atlantic slave trade and extended thereafter, its brainchild is a denial of identity, exilic and undamaged (to borrow the words of Edward Said), conditions that are associated with African immigrants. For Zeleza to survive the climatic conditions of London that were especially racist, he had to seek solace or assistance from individuals who shared similar color with him in the neighborhood. Although the experience of this blatant racism and the irritation that comes with it is limited temporally, the psychological consequences always linger on, predictably indefinitely. The seed of hatred for any group of people, provoked by the color of their skins, laid the foundation for regrettable postcolonial politics, which though masked by African diasporas, continue to dictate their involvement and attitude in the different diaspora communities.

Maybe it is unknown to the Global North (which I doubt very seriously) that the conscious and deliberate act of segregation against the Black people was an inspiration for creating a Pan-African identity that would be jealously guided and emotionally embraced by many victims of segregation. One of such instances is the experience of Zeleza, who, in the course of seeking an alternative arena that would entertain his blackness, came across individuals from different African countries and established a bond with them, bringing about the immediate creation of a nationalist agenda. Of course, racialization was targeted at the Black people and other individuals of color, but the experience was turned by Africans to the foundation of their pride and unity.

Beyond the advantage of bonding was an inelastic stretch of opportunity for mounting pressure on dictatorial governments at home in Africa. It was difficult to escape the pangs of neocolonialism and the wrath of its agents in Africa, as the postcolonial African leaders used the political power invested in them to pursue personal ambitions. However, the diaspora community was supportive of the people’s struggle for political equity for reasons that are not unconnected to physical distance. Apart from the distance that was physically erected between them and their home countries (that invariably protected them from being molested for airing their opposing opinions), their voice was quickly heard by the international communities, who could sometimes intervene in situations by liaising with necessary authorities in Africa who were oppressing the people and denying them of their fundamental human rights. For Zeleza, the struggle for true independence, especially from the captivity of these neocolonialists, was real and irrevocable, as it was the only hope to restore the Black people’s pride and confidence. The diaspora environment provided this opportunity, and he was one of the committed Africans who used it greatly. As a result, the diaspora community is one of the most suitable places for protest, where the voices of the subaltern could be heard in contemporary times.

More than the stings of racial prejudices were the experience of unequal treatment or asymmetrical relations between the knowledge productions of the Europeans and the Americas and their African counterparts. Africans were seen as subservient and not mature enough to claim knowledge generation and or transformation for all its worth. They were usually configured to function as appendages or subordinates to their Western colleagues and not as independent individuals in their own right. Zeleza discovered this from the implicit conclusion of a senior scholar who questioned the motive of his Ph.D. research so condescendingly and in manners that would not be tried with a European student. The racial bias is not exclusive to Oliver, as many similar racially hostile comments preceded his. It was a system of racial relationships that the supremacists have comfortably institutionalized for a long time. In other words, many scholars did not only show what they had against the African people; they also revealed the systemic problems with Black people, which had been entrenched into their bloodstream. As such, those like Zeleza had challenges, and going to the diaspora was the visa they needed to experience the ambivalence of human relationships. And because they were exposed to these attitudes, they committed themselves to the course of freedom.

However, beneath the determination to gather important knowledge and experience in the diaspora is the hostile environment that African countries have constituted for different revolutionary voices, where Zeleza incidentally finds an identity. Of course, they have acquired substantial amounts of information and gathered numerous experiences as exiles in places beyond the continent, but the determination to become equally valuable to the continent of their birth is usually crushed by harsh politics that has become the general threat to people in the continent. In Zeleza’s case, he is a vibrant voice, especially against dictatorial and oppressive regimes in Africa. His voice makes impressionable positions against the political administration of Banda in Malawi at a point in time, and this glued him into staying permanently in Canada. Meanwhile, his exilic condition could have been motivated by the country’s political situations. Nonetheless, it was an important part of the reasons for the indestructibility of the diaspora influence in the making and shaping of the continent. In this case, he contributed his quota through continuous intellectual engagement with the dictatorial government by constantly challenging, questioning, and making them accountable, basically because he was geographically far from their power.

Whereas the country’s situation commanded him to stay eternally away from his preferred abode, his ancestral background invariably created a new identity where affiliation with individuals and a hospitable environment forced him to develop another sense of attachment to the culture and environment that provided him succor. In essence, the concept of home became so flexible for him as, most importantly, other African diasporas of any time and age. While it is not untrue that they were exposed to series of political and economic disparagement in their new environment, they were nonetheless integrated by some fraction of the society who understood and appreciated their contributions. All these became the factors that make the diaspora experience a combination of good and bad.

Their stay in the diaspora became the proverbial license needed to establish a foundation to uproot all the bad elements in the political community in Malawi. It provided the opportunity for eggheads to combine their intellectual and economic forces to drive miscreants away from political involvement in their homeland, which has been the greatest impediment to the development of these countries. As such, the fortifications of their political infrastructure in Malawi once actively depended on the level of international influence they could muster by dialoguing with a superpower for their interventions.

Being in the diaspora is very important in the making of African countries in contemporary times. Against the oppressive Banda regime, the irrepressible voices of people in the diaspora pushed individuals like Zeleza into the political limelight. He was duty-bound to play an important role in building a good country for his people. The opposition leader recognized his outstanding contributions to the enhancement of a democratically responsible government that he was invited officially by Mr. Bakili Muluzi, the opposition leader seeking to take power from the claws of Banda. However, because he had been groomed by the practicality of colonialism and the postcolonial politics, which have combined to inform his knowledge and personal philosophy, he declined the juicy opportunities to represent at the political level. The incomparable corruption that the United Democratic Front (UDF) represented eventually would later justify him.

Photo: Alex Haley

Individuals who found themselves in the diaspora communities are bound to create another set of African diasporas with different identity colors from their own. They are caught in the web of creating individuals (their children) whose identity straddles between being Africans and being Westernized. Their political and socio-cultural affiliations with Africa could not be compared with that of their parents because they are developed in the said environment and barely have anything that can associate them with their indigenous epistemology. As such, being exposed to the New World culture, it is difficult to pin down the identity of trans-Atlantic products who were not migrants themselves but offspring of migration (of their parents, for example). Due to the uniqueness of their situation, they have constituted another dimension of the African Diaspora that must be considered in the discursive space of identity politics. As these individuals become more mobile and unfixed, the fixation of their identity equally becomes very difficult. The patterns of migration and or the retention of familial connections, despite age-long mobility, are fertile ground for interesting research, open to transnational and diaspora intellectuals because the intellectual space is always wide and open for exploration.

Photo: Alex Haley

It is impossible to deny the place of the diaspora in the making of the African political movements. The importance of the unity of individuals who are not living on the continent is huge. And because of the uniqueness of the case with Africans, diaspora communities are very pronounced in shaping many things that concern Africa. For one, they provide geographical solace for individuals who are tormented by their indigenous environment, and in that process, it enables them to criticize or plan carefully and artfully for the installment of good and reliable representatives so that they can collectively move forward as a people. Plus, being in the diaspora environment has exposed them to plural ideas and extensive philosophy.

Conversely, the new diaspora class constitutes people who voluntarily travel away from their cultural environment in the quest for a better life, protection, advanced knowledge, or purely out of voyeuristic engagement. The combined population of those who belong to this category forms a demographic confraternity that forces different and new thinking and engagement of the diaspora affairs. We cannot pretend that the unprecedented increase in the number of people who have migrated in the last five decades projects the diaspora in a different light and, incidentally, shows the level of internal shortcomings either in the political or economic system that constitutes the centripetal forces keeping people away outside of the continent. Both the historical and new diaspora have different but complementary feelings about Africa because their reasons for leaving the continent differ proportionately. Despite the difference in their time dispersals, they have used the medium made available by the diaspora community to bring about a few desirable results in their African homes.

Pan-Africanism, for example, started as a product of diaspora affairs developed by the revolutionary actions of individuals who combined their intellectual and political energies to fight for liberations. They used the movement as a political tool to enable positive democratic actions, as a power to project themselves in environments that were hostile to them as a result of skin color or that were needlessly repressive of their opinions because of imperialism. It produced remarkable success, as we see in the careers of Du Bois or Kwame Nkrumah.

The place of the diaspora in the making of contemporary Africa cannot be underestimated as nearly all the founding fathers of the African political nationalism were developed from the diaspora environment. They attracted the world’s attention because of the level of brilliance they exuded, the confidence displayed, the perseverance they demonstrated, and a lot of other qualities shown. It was these earliest generations that birthed a number of the African diaspora who equally birthed advocates of civil rights like Martin Luther King Jnr, Malcolm X, and different others who were involved in the fight for political enfranchisement in the diaspora and were instrumental in the remaking of those lopsidedly biased societies. Therefore, their efforts yielded a form of political inclusion that promoted participation and quality representation.

Consequently, the diaspora experience has constituted a permanent index of African history, and because of this situation, it has inevitably made itself an integral part of the African future. There is the impression that minor influence can only be contributed to a people from the outside, but this has been challenged with the level of international influence that African diasporas continue to exert in their home countries. While some make economic contributions through the monies sent to their indigenous countries, others make political and intellectual additions in how they engage their countries and invite international communities to the discursive space where ideas are debated, argued, and collectively examined to advance their common interests. These generations duplicated themselves in different countries, and their products are also seen from a different category of diaspora debates. Essentially, the historical diasporans are the ones forcefully taken from the comforts of their homes. In the course of being disconnected from a cultural and religious nucleus that their different countries constituted, their identities continue to change according to the transformations of their host environment.

As the world continues to gravitate towards the consolidation of knowledge systems to understand human diversity and intricate identities, the opportunity that location in the diaspora communities introduced to scholars is unending. Apart from making them constant go-to sources whenever knowledge about indigenous Africa is required, they also become actively involved in reconstructing African identity to the world. As a committed intellectual on diaspora studies, Zeleza’s vast experience and knowledge are usually sought by different organizations seeking to consolidate their knowledge about others. For example, he was handed the opportunity to research the patterns of migration of people in South America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia so that the world would understand their demographic flows from one place to another and how this has contributed to the identity struggles that come with such mobility. Thus, through a culture of research and the diagnosis of African problems that include but are not limited to lack of brain circulation, Zeleza could recommend workable solutions to the continent and invariably became a part of the process by returning home to make concrete contributions to Africa’s transformation.

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