The times they are a’changing.” These and other related lyrics, like “Blowing in the wind”, are very much on our minds and lips these days, and you know the reason. They come from, or they were popularised by, Bob Dylan, the latest Nobel Literature laureate.
But the thought of changing times struck me earlier this week when I chanced upon a copy of a Makerere Faculty of Arts Handbook from the early 1970s. I was surprised to find that I was one of only three African lecturers in the Department of English, as it was then. The other two were Pio Zirimu and David Rubadiri.
The remaining dozen or so senior tutors were all expatriates. The situation in the other two Colleges of the University of East Africa, just then striking out as independent universities, was no different. Even the appointment of the three of us to the establishment was regarded as “progressive” for Makerere.
Incidentally, Makerere was earlier this week closed indefinitely following a spate of crippling strikes by both academic and administrative staff, and finally the students, who were tired of not being taught. The closure came through an executive order from President Museveni, presumably in his capacity as Visitor to the University.
Do you remember Makerere being ranked by a reputable organisation, not so long ago, the 11th-best university in Africa? How sadly things have changed!
Anyway, in our undergraduate days, as I was saying, practically all of our teachers in several departments were expatriates. I cannot say with certainty whether they were more or less competent than those of us teaching at these institutions today.
All I can affirm, though, is that there were some really remarkable teachers among those men and women who taught us through the first decade of uhuru, and a little beyond in some cases. I should point out here that I am referring to characters from all our three campuses, Makerere, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, since we interacted with all of them.
Many of them were remarkable scholars in their own right and they distinguished themselves on the international scene. Some had, indeed, made their name in scholarship even before they came to East Africa. One thinks of the Oxford historian, T. O. Ranger, the French-American critic Emile Snyder and the socialist English literary critic, Arnold Kettle, all of whom were our teachers at Dar es Salaam.
Even those who started their careers as young academics in East Africa went on to great things elsewhere. Wilfred Whiteley, the Swahilist, who was my first linguistics teacher, was at the time of his sudden death a professor at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Elizabeth Closs, also a linguist, is still riding a great career on America’s West Coast, and one of my Fench teachers, also in Dar, ended up at the Sorbonne.
My favourites at Nairobi were the curiously understated linguist, Tom Gorman and the English Department’s Jim Stewart, Angus Calder, Adrian Roscoe and Andy Gurr. I am sure Bakoki Chris Wanjala has heaps of stories about each of these scholars and many others, like the rather brash but really brilliant Margaret Marshment. I think she was Canadian, or was she?
Jim Stewart once hosted me at his house in Nairobi, although I cannot remember the exact location. Andy Gurr co-edited with Pio Zirimu the now sadly out-of-print text Black Aesthetics, and Adrian Roscoe distinguished himself with his two studies of African Literature, Mother is Gold and Uhuru’s Fire.
The Makerere cast we will spare for another day. We have severally mentioned actors like David Cook, Margaret Macpherson and some of the educationists. But my plum choice there would be the rather Dickensian-looking Brian Langlands. This amazing geographer from Ulster, with only a BA by way of academic qualifications, rose through the ranks at Makerere to a full professorship and even became Dean of Arts and Social Science.
My favourite professor is the Oxonian Shakespeare scholar, Molly Maureen Mahood, who founded the English Chair at the University of Canterbury. This was after she retired from Dar es Salaam, where she had taught me and sent me, with the late Joshua Angatia, to the University of York to study Shakespeare under the legendary F.R. Leavis.
I think Molly Mahood, or MMM as we called her, genuinely loved her Africa. This dazzling Anglo-Irish woman had, after her studies at Oxford, decided to go and teach at Ibadan in Nigeria. Now, Ibadan might have been an African “Ivy League” school, but it was not quite the “done thing” in the early 1960s for a young and single British lady of class to go and teach in Africa.
Anyway, Molly Mahood did, and she ended up teaching and being on first-name terms with the richest crop of the writers of the “golden age” of the African literary renaissance of the 1960s. Among her intimate friends, you could name Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clarke, Cyprian Ekwensi, Christopher Okigbo and Chinua Achebe. Does it get any better than that?
At Dar, when I fell critically ill shortly after joining the university, Professor Mahood took the initiative to inform my parents in Uganda. It was no mean feat in those days, when all there was by way of communication was snail-mail and a scattering of landline telephones.
Later, in 1972, when I was doing my lecturing attachment at the University of Stirling in Scotland, Molly Mahood invited me to Canterbury, to visit with her, as the Americans say, and revive our Dar es Salaam memories. Wole Soyinka had been the week before, and so had several other African literary heavyweights within the course of the year. MMM’s house was, apparently, a home away from home for the cream of African literati.
Professor Mahood was still active in academics when I last heard. Incidentally, she also once helped me out with a small loan to enable me to fly my fiancée to Scotland, and she obliged.
How far should acquaintances go beyond the lecture room?