24 - 30 June 1999
Issue No. 435
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Into AfricaProfile byGamal Nkrumah
He remains fascinated, today, by the continent that has preoccupied him all his life
He ushered me into his splendid study, a bright, airy place with a view of the Pyramids. Every wall is lined with books about Africa from floor to ceiling, most of them long out of print. He proudly pointed out a couple of celebrated titles. "The 1956 revised edition of Lord Hailey's An African Survey was my first real introduction to the world of African studies." He fingered the old classic like a mother stroking her child's back. The room has French windows which overlook the bustling Pyramids Road, but it's quiet inside. It is June, and the brilliant vermilion flamboyant outside is in full bloom. His study is his favourite room.
Open any book written by Professor Abdel-Malek Ouda and you find yourself in Africa -- or, to be precise, in the African political arena. "I have only ever written about Africa, African politics and the struggles of people of African descent in the Americas. I believe in academic and professional specialisation. Africa is my area of academic interest," he explained.
Ouda is the Africanist par excellence. Bespectacled, he is of a rather serious disposition. He is bookish, widely read and has a most inquisitive mind. Tall and lanky, though slightly stooped with age, Ouda still cuts a dashing figure. His hawkish sharp features are softened by the occasional quick smile. Socially, he is a man of few and sparse words. But he is a brilliant speaker, and students are usually enraptured at his lectures. He is a permanent feature of conferences and seminars on Africa, and is widely acclaimed as an authority on Africa and African politics in Egypt and the Arab world. He has taught many generations of Egyptian political scientists with a special interest in African politics; many lecturers and professors revere him as their mentor.
Strangely enough for an Africanist, Ouda read Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at university. His doctoral thesis was on Arabism and the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in the post-Bandung period, and as a junior lecturer, Ouda was given the task of charting the new map of African politics and anti-colonial and liberation struggles. "I was first appointed as a lecturer at Cairo University in March 1957, the same year Ghana gained its independence. Not surprisingly, my first ever published work -- a little pamphlet -- was entitled Ghana's Independence within the Context of the Commonwealth. When I read it today, I realise how little I knew then," Ouda says with a smile.
In the 1950s, African studies were terra incognita, but the continent appealed to him and he introduced the new discipline to Egyptian academia. A pioneering, albeit rather conservative, academician, Ouda's approach to African studies is somewhat devoid of emotion. There is no shortage of African artifacts and curiosities in his apartment, but the man is not passionate about Africa like some scholars who exhibit an embarrassingly childish infatuation with the continent. Ouda studies Africa from a safe distance -- rather like a surgeon would a patient on an operating table. But he works with clinical precision, visiting Africa periodically -- more like a conscientious medical practitioner who sees a patient for a regular medical check-up. And like any good academician, he does his homework, too.
Ouda is an early bird -- he rises at five, and retires to bed by nine. "Only during my trips to Africa did I sample something of the night life. And there, too, only once in a blue moon." Rather odd for someone who lives off the street best known for some of Cairo's most inviting nightclubs. But then he is the studious professor, the prolific writer -- straight-laced, but nice to know.
Ouda was born in Daqahliya province, in the vicinity of the eastern Delta city of Mansoura. He was raised in a provincial setting, and he is very proud of his rural roots. "Perhaps it is my background, perhaps it is my nature, but I am a family man and I enjoy being at home with my family. I am not one to paint the town red," Ouda confessed.
'There was an infectious air of excitement about the African institutions of higher learning in those days. They symbolised the new, boundless, up-and-coming Africa, and were imbued with the spirit of fresh hope that gripped the newly independent nations. I consider myself very fortunate to have glimpsed something of the enthusiasm that filled the air in those days'
We had been chatting for three hours, and the time passed most congenially. Now we turned to the subject of his many African trips. Countless conferences, seminars, lecture tours and sabbaticals all helped shape his academic career. "I have been to most parts of Africa -- east, west and south. I visited all Anglophone Africa, one Lusophone country, Mozambique, and a few Francophone countries including the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal. Generally I felt more at home in East Africa than in West Africa. The climate is less harsh in East Africa due to the high altitude, which tempers the equatorial climate of much of the continent. And nature is spectacular in East Africa."
Nevertheless, Ouda's very first trip to sub-Saharan Africa was to the western part of the continent. His first African trip was to Ghana, on the occasion of the country's first independence anniversary in 1958. "From Ghana I went to Guinea, where I attended the Guinean independence celebrations." Those were heady days -- France grudgingly granted Guinea its independence and the French forcibly removed all modern amenities installed during the colonial era, down to every telephone line and telegraph post. Still, Ouda found the country enchanting. What especially moved him was the breathtakingly beautiful scenery.
Africa's Indian Ocean islands left an indelible mark on Ouda's memory. For Ouda, Zanzibar and the Comoros were especially magical -- he remembers how a pale shaft of light from a full moon lit up a sweeping swathe of the Indian Ocean. The ocean turned silver with moonrise; the night sky was studded with stars, some as translucent as pearls and others harsh and sparkling like diamonds.
From Zanzibar, Ouda was off to Arusha on the foothills of Africa's highest mountain, the Kilimanjaro, where for the first time the new socialist policies of Ujamaa were officially adopted at a conference of Tanzania's ruling party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi under the leadership of Tanzania's first president Julius Nyerere. Egypt at the time had also officially adopted socialism.
So it was not only the panoramic views that appealed to Ouda. When he was first introduced to Africa, the continent was on the threshold of a new era -- colonialism was moving into a twilight zone and most of the colonies were on the eve of independence. This turn of events opened up a whole new vista. The newly independent African nations were full of confidence and hope for a better future. Brand new universities and institutions of higher learning were springing up everywhere. There was a new thirst for learning, for freeing African academia from the intellectual tyranny of European experts and their categorical definitions of African reality. African academics, artists and intellectuals were struggling to rid themselves of what seemed to be the last vestiges of European cultural condescension and chauvinism.
Ouda could not help but compare and contrast universities in Egypt with the institutions of higher learning he visited during many of his trips to Africa. "What shocked and amazed me was how different universities in Africa south of the Sahara were from universities here in Egypt. Little things made a big impression. I marvelled at the way lecturers sipped whiskey and drank beer freely at lunch breaks and in the cafeterias. Posters advertising parties and dances were plastered all over the campus walls -- even in predominantly Muslim countries in Africa, even in Khartoum University. Social life in Africa was very different than what I was accustomed to at Cairo University -- a world far removed from ours here in Egypt. There was an infectious air of excitement about the African institutions of higher learning in those days. They symbolised the new, boundless, up-and-coming Africa, and were imbued with the spirit of fresh hope that gripped the newly independent nations. I consider myself very fortunate to have glimpsed something of the enthusiasm that filled the air in those days."
Ouda has many fond memories. His eyes twinkle and his face breaks into a broad smile. "I was fascinated by the new so-called red-brick universities that sprang up all over the continent in the 1950s and 1960s. I was impressed with the book shops packed with the latest publications, piping hot from the publishing houses of France, Britain and America. English spoken everywhere, left-hand driving in former British colonies, the brightly dressed Africans all amazed me. The frank and open interaction between staff and students greatly impressed me. Uganda's Makarere, Ghana's Legon, Nigeria's Ibadan, Nairobi, Dar es Salam, Lusaka -- these were great institutions that were founded in exciting and rapidly changing times."
The African literary and cultural outpouring of the 1960s clearly showed why and how political struggles had to be accompanied by intellectual battles. Ouda was quick to note the relationship between literature and politics. "The Heinemann African literature series served as an invaluable guideline to the very often confusing maze of African politics," Ouda explained. "For me, and for many others, African literature was an introduction to African politics. The works of Ngugi wa Thiongo, Peter Abrahams, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, among others, carefully documented the social milieu in which the struggle against colonialism, apartheid and, in the post-independence period, neo-colonialism flourished."
Ouda's academic interest in Africa also took him to America. He first visited the United States in 1965, and again in 1978-'79 as a Fulbright visiting professor at the State University of New York (SUNY). In America, he was interested in the African American experience, especially after his introduction to the charismatic African American revolutionary Malcolm X. Indeed, upon his return, Ouda wrote a short history of African American struggles against racial discrimination and segregation, with particular reference to Marcus Josiah Garvey and his back-to-Africa movement, the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Mohamed, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Ouda's was one of the first academic works in the Arabic language on African American politics.
Ouda has long been associated with one of Africa's most ambitious intellectual enterprises, namely the Encyclopaedia Africana project, launched in 1961 by the African American sociologist-historian, pan-African theoretician and activist Dr W E B DuBois after he was stripped of his American citizenship and moved to Ghana at the invitation of the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Ouda was chosen to coordinate the Egyptian sections and select writers to produce the Egyptian entries. DuBois had a clear vision of the work: "I propose an encyclopaedia edited mainly by African scholars. I am anxious that it be a scientific production and not a matter of propaganda... I want the proposed encyclopaedia to be written from the African point of view by people who know and understand the history and culture of Africa," DuBois declared in the early 1960s. From its inception, the encyclopaedia aimed at collaborative work with scholars from north and south of the Sahara. Ouda worked closely with the first director of the project, Dr Adelpheus Hunton, a distinguished African American scholar.
Ouda was well positioned to select the scholars for the Encyclopaedia Africana project -- he had single-handedly pioneered the introduction of African studies to Cairo University's curriculum. For the first time, African politics was being taught at Egyptian universities, and it was Ouda who had drawn up the curriculum.
The very first Egyptian academics to be interested in Africa were the geographers -- later, some anthropologists became interested in Africa and taught courses at the university. "I felt that Africa had to be introduced to the economics and political science departments. My single most important contribution may have been to establish African studies at the political science department of Cairo University," Ouda said. Egypt has some way still to go before African studies as an autonomous interdisciplinary entity capable of coordinating its curriculum in traditional disciplines is firmly established. But even then, Ouda's work will remain that of a pioneer.
"My job as a journalist with Al-Ahram newspaper and as an editor of several of its associate publications such as Al-Tali'a (The Vanguard) and Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya (International Politics), among others, complimented my academic work. Al-Ahram helped me tremendously, especially when it came to facilitating my travels in Africa. I was usually sent to attend summit meetings and conferences as a journalist, rather than an academician. I saw no contradiction between my work as a journalist and my academic career. Al-Ahram sent me to conferences across the African continent. Look at the archives from the 1960s and you'll see many of my articles, recording my travels. I used such opportunities to deepen my knowledge. These visits were invaluable to my development as an African scholar," Ouda explained.
Today, Ouda is highly critical of what is taking place. The headlines of his articles are revealing: Corruption Gobbles up Tanzania, The Map of Manoeuvres in the Zairian Crisis, The Difficult Situation in the Nile Basin Countries, The Management of Political Crisis in Kenya, The Machiavellian Streak in Sudan's Government... the list goes on. Is he disillusioned with the turn of events?
"I believe in political realities. I don't believe in emotionalism and sensationalism. We must think of new, non-traditional forms of political unity. Take the European Union, for example; the success of Europe should inspire us, in Africa, to devise ways of pooling our resources and charting a new political culture in Africa based on multi-party democracy and the respect of human rights."