The new man at the helm of USIU

Saturday February 6 2016

Renowned Malawian academic, Prof Tiyambe

Renowned Malawian academic, Prof Tiyambe Zeleza, has taken over from Prof Freida Brown as vice-chancellor of the pioneer private university in Nairobi. He talks about his career, vision and long relationship with Kenya. PHOTO| ROBERT NGUGI 

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If there was one question that Prof Tiyambe Zeleza wished he was asked during the numerous interviews he undertook before taking a flight from Connecticut, United States, to take up his new role at the

United States International University-Africa (USIU-

A),  is whether he knew how to take a selfie.

Taking a short walk with him from his office through the well-manicured lawns of the university in Nairobi to the library, it was hard to tell whether he was a celebrity who had come to visit or the new vice-chancellor taking the press on a tour.

“This was not part of the job description, but I have had to learn how to take a lot of these (selfies),” he chuckles as eager students stop him every few metres to introduce themselves and take pictures.

“Now I can’t leave the office without my jacket because Jane (the university’s head of communications) would not want me to appear in a photo if I’m not sharply dressed,” he says then bursts into more laughter before being cut short by an employee from

the maintenance department who also wants to introduce himself.

With 26 published books (some co-authored), it is understandable why students can’t get enough of the award-winning author, distinguished academic and renowned speaker. But beyond the niceties is work that needs to be done as the university enters a

new era: A post-Freida Brown era.

The Malawian academic this month took over from Prof Freida Brown who, for 21 years until December, was the VC of the university.

Under Prof Brown, the then little known campus of USIU-San Diego that she took over in 1994 with just 1,000 students, minimal infrastructure, and millions of shillings in debt, was transformed into a fully-fledged university and the only dual accredited

(Kenyan and American) university, with 6,000 students from 72 nationalities.


It is under this string of achievements by Prof Brown that Prof Zeleza is taking over. And first in his order of business will be launching the institution’s four-year strategic plan in April. The plan had already been written before he took over but the board

thought it would be wise if the new VC looked at it and made recommendations before it got final approval.

Nevertheless, even with the bar already having been set too high, the professor, who has spent the last 25 years teaching and managing various universities in North America, believes he has what it takes.

“You can only have one Prof Brown who had that opportunity to build and the rest of us will come after her to build on that legacy because she did an incredible job. Her vision, intellect and passion is what created USIU,” he tells Lifestyle.

“And she herself would tell you, I am taking over from a very strong base and my responsibility for the coming years would be to build on that base, to build on the legacy that she left in terms of the programmes and facilities that we have,” he adds.

But he says he is his own man and with him at the helm, the university will move to even greater heights.

He explains: “Given my experience in the academic field, the university is in safe hands but, of course, I will have to cultivate my own areas of contribution to what is a great tradition.”

Whether he is the right man for the job or not only time will tell. But with a career in academia spanning 34 years across four continents and an impressive CV,  there is very little that the professor, who has established himself as a leading African historian, has not achieved.

Before coming to USIU-A, he was the Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Quinnipiac University in the US. He had lived in the US for 20 years and taught in various universities after he relocated from Canada where he was also a lecturer for five years.

While in the US, he was the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles between 2007 and 2013 and before that, he ran the Department of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago for two years.

He was also at one time the Director of the Centre for African Studies and Professor of History and African Studies at the University of Illinois for eight years. He also had a stint at Pennsylvania University.

In between, he published more than 300 journal articles and presented at least 250 keynote addresses and public lectures at leading universities and conferences in 31 countries, a feat that made the  Carnegie Corporation in 2013 to name him one of the 43

“great immigrants” who have made essential contributions to American life.

This is on top of the various awards he has won for his books — including the prestigious Noma Award — A Modern Economic History of Africa (1993) and Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (1997).

But from his modest office at the university situated off Thika Road, Prof Zeleza remains unfazed by these achievements and instead focuses on his new job. It is a trait the first-born of nine siblings taught himself as a young boy shuttling between Malawi and Zimbabwe as his father, a carpenter, searched for economic opportunities.

“Southern Africa has a very interesting history in that the economies of that region are integrated in various ways. Some countries like Malawi are labour reserves for the South African mining industry, so migration is very common,” he explains.

“My father went to Rhodesia as a young man and my mother is Malawian too but had also gone to Harare to stay with her parents who run some businesses there and that is how they met,” he says.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza was born in Salisbury in May 1955. His parents then went back to Malawi in 1956 before returning to Zimbabwe in 1972. For this reason, a number of his other siblings were born in Zimbabwe as his parents moved back and forth

between the two countries.


It is through being constantly on the move that a young Zeleza decided to put all his energies in education, believing that it was the only way to redeem himself and his family.

“For me, there was no greater pleasure in my life than studying and writing because I got an enormous source of satisfaction by working hard in school,” he says.

By the time he was 19 he had already published his first book and at 26 he got a PhD in Economic History. And today at 60 he still believes African families and the continent as a whole, despite its huge resources, can only develop by investing in education.

“Fundamentalism is about human capital, and human capital is all lodged in your ability to think, to be creative, to be critical and to communicate. A society that invests in its education will almost for sure move forward,” he says.

“It doesn’t matter how much in resources you have because for you to add value to them or make them benefit the population, you need technology and science and all those things come from education,” he says.

After finishing high school in 1972, Zeleza studied History and English at the University of Malawi then became a teacher for a while in his home country before proceeding to the University of London and later the London School of Economics for Masters degrees in African History and International Relations.

For his thesis while at Dalhousie University in Canada where he was undertaking his PhD, Prof Zeleza did a dissertation on “The socio-economic history of Kenya: 1895 to 1963”. It was this decision that would lead him to Kenya for the first time in 1976 and eventually create his love for a country he calls his second home.

“I studied a lot about the labour movement while here and from that time developed a very strong interest in Kenya and even after I went back to Canada, when an opening came up at the then Kenyatta University College (present-day Kenyatta University), I applied for it,” he says.

In 1984, the young academic came back to the country and joined the History Department at KU as a lecturer.

“At that time I had a baby girl who was seven months old and she is now 32 years old. I lived on campus and it was a very collegial atmosphere because we would visit each other,” he recalls.

The VC adds: “Intellectually, KU is one of my most formative moments in my life. I worked with Prof Bethwell Ogot, Prof George Eshiwani, Tabitha Kanago and William Ochieng who was the chair of the department.”

“Prof Ogot, who was my mentor, used to bring me to Safari Park to have lunch every Wednesday and we would sit for hours discussing history across Africa and for a young lecturer to have that kind of robust intellectual engagement, it is very transformative,” he says.


During his time at KU, Prof Zeleza did a lot of travelling across Kenya and to date the capital remains his favourite location. He loves Kenya’s cuisine and vibrant culture.

“Who doesn’t love Nairobi with all its nyama choma and nice places to visit?” he asks.

He left Kenya in 1990 and went back to Canada but his love for the country continued to blossom. While there he wrote two books Maasai and Mijikenda in 1994, which examined the history of the two communities and their socio-economic activities.

He says he has always had Kenya close to his heart and when an opening came up at USIU-A, he couldn’t resist applying.

His first impressions after being away from Kenya for 26 years?

“The changes are massive. The infrastructure has expanded enormously with the housing estates all over the place. Thika Road was one lane and I remember those days, if you wanted to buy fresh fruit, you would have to go to the city market but today, there are shopping malls everywhere,” he says.

“You notice immediately as a researcher that the size of Kenya’s middle class has expanded tremendously. Even on this campus, I see some of the cars and I’m like wow,” he says.

On the issues currently facing the higher education sector, the professor says the problems are not unique to Kenya but Africa as a whole. He says the continent is also witnessing massive institutional and enrolment growth and what we are seeing with lack of resources and funding are teething problems.

“The challenge for African universities is how do we grow strategically to ensure that the growth is catering for this huge hunger for higher education and at the same time provide quality education,” he says.

He believes that stakeholders have to think and plan strategically to allow continued growth in a responsible manner.

Prof Zeleza is married to Prof Cassandra Veney who recently started teaching International Relations at USIU-A and they have two children – Natasha Thandile and Mwai Zeleza. Natasha lives in the US while

Mwai recently moved back to Malawi.

He describes his wife, whom he met while giving a talk, as his best friend.

Prof Zeleza with his wife Prof Cassandra Veney.

Prof Zeleza with his wife Prof Cassandra Veney. PHOTO| COURTESY

“We found out that we have similar intellectual interests. My wife is a friend of my mind. We can move from talking silly to talking very serious matters within two minutes,” he says.

So now that they are both professors, do they refer to each other by their academic titles?

“In public yes, If I want to call her I will use her official title — then we will laugh it out when we get home,” he says.




1. In three words: I am passionate, committed and focused.

2. Although my son’s name is Mwai, I had no idea it would be the same as that of Kenya’s former president Mwai Kibaki. Actually, in my country it means ‘luck’.

3. I have taught in over 10 universities but none has got as many nationalities as USIU-A.

4. My wife and I really love travelling. There is nothing more interesting than being in new places, meeting new people and new experiences.

5. My daughter says I have a very backward taste of music because of my love for soul. But look, everyone is stuck in the music they grew up listening to.

6. Sauti Soul is so far my best music group in Kenya because they are one of the few artistes who are comfortable with their Africanism in their art.

7. The best thing I love about Kenya is its vibrancy and central location in Africa, which makes it a regional hub.

8. I cannot stay a whole day without reading a book. Actually I can’t remember a single day in my adulthood that has ended without me reading a book.

9. During my second stint in Kenya, I took part in the creation of the 8-4-4 curriculum by assisting in writing the history syllabus for high schools and primary schools.

10. Even though my immediate family is scattered across three continents, technology has made it so easy to be in touch. Any major family decisions can be made easily by phone.

11. I don’t know why but I can spend up to an hour just looking at a piece of painting and every minute I would find something new about it