The malaise at the Oxford of Africa

John Otim

Excerpts from forthcoming novel Strongman
by John Otm, Executive Editor, Nile Journal

Ali Mani the renowned African scholar arrived at the Ahmed Barak from a top American College where he was the head of the Institute of Global Culture. He came to give a series of public lectures all across Nigeria. Dr. Aziz arranged the show. Aziz had been a star student of Ali Mani when the latter taught at the Great Lakes University. At first Ali Mani was reluctant to come, but Aziz reassured him.

“Man! It is ten years since you been gone.” Aziz wrote to Mani. “You need the gentle caress of mother Africa!” Aziz wrote. “You need to eat pounded yam again. You need to renew your African credentials!” Aziz was all charms and in the end Mani agreed to come.

Ali Mani thought of himself as the top most scholar in African Studies and was a well-known figure in academic circles worldwide. But he was not yet the super star he already imagined himself to be.

The Marxist campus at the Ahmed Barak knew about Ali Mani and although they shared many things in common the Marxists of Ahmed Barak did not really love him. Two weeks before his arrival the Library put up a display of Ali Mani’s publications and they were impressive! Books, articles, novels, poetry, even plays. The collection included a magazine article Ali Mani had written on Kwame Nkrumah in which he lambasted Nkrumah as a Leninist dictator. The piece provoked outrage across Africa especially among the youth.

It was not clear whether Dr. Aziz, a fan of Dr. Nkrumah, was not now setting up his old teacher so that others can pull him down. There was no shortage of people prepared to give Ali Mani a run for his money. Ali Mani made enemies but Ali Mani enjoyed making enemies.

Professor Mani’s theme was Africa and the world. Mani, loved grandiose themes. Once on stage, the one place in the world he truly felt at home, he rejected the use of the microphone. His booming voice was part of his charms and he knew it. He wasted no time but took the battle to the other side. Mani loved to bait the Marxist. His sense of fun had no limits.

Oh, mother oh mother why was I born black?

He threw everything into the works. His robust frame and ragged good looks, his rich baritone voice, his quick wits. He brought them all to bear as he played on the words of the great poet. He knew the poet had used these words in jest. But what did it matter.

And now this mock line coming from the mouth of this great academic, threw the Ahmed Barak audience into confusion. Was the man serious? Was he joking? They did not know what to think. It was the response Ali Mani desired. Get them dazed and then strike!

From where I sat I caught the eye of Dr. Aziz. Aziz had a wicked smile across his face. Aziz knew what was going on. He knew his colleagues. Born again Marxists, hard core patriots, zealots. I began to wonder. Was Aziz setting his friends up for Ali to shoot them down? In that split second, Ali Mani launched his attack.

“Are we Africans fated to be our own grave diggers!” Mani was in his elements. “Why go on about how others have undeveloped Africa? We ourselves have done it!

“Look at the mess we have made of the paradise God gave us. We have turned the Garden Eden into the most inhospitable place on earth!

“But I have good news for you.” He put on his broadest smiles.

“Let us change our ways! Stop crying foul! Stop mistaking every shadow, every falling twig, for a nonexistent enemy. Change strategy! And all shall be well.

“Look at me!” Mani was utterly self-obsessed.

“Look at me! I am not alone. I am one of the many Africans now working in the West in positions of great visibility.

“Let us use this opening to bombard the West with our own message. For long, the West has penetrated Africa. Now we too can. Let us counter penetrate the West!”

Amazed, we looked at one another, and we looked at him. We heard his roaring voice.

“Let us, you and me. Let us bombard the West, with our own message. Let us counter penetrate the West.”

From time to time I stole a glance at the face of the lovely girl across the aisle. Ali Mani loved symbolism. The sexier the merrier. Ali Mani once wrote a poem about his own wife and himself. It was in the tender hours of the night:

She sensed that I was brown and she was white. I lost no time. Manhood was my law!

For Ali Mani had married an English girl. Now as he stood there on the podium with the audience before him, I found myself unable to free my mind, from the web of his erotic self-image. To my own shame I must confess I was enjoying myself.

When suddenly, all around me, in the great hall, the storm broke.

“Who do you think you are?” a man shouted at Ali Mani.

“What are you going to bombard the West with?” another asked. “When all you say is what they want to hear!”

 “Are you not the slave that does their dirty jobs for them!” a voice thundered.

“Tell us!” A woman shouted. “Who ploughed the ground for the coup that brought Al Harun to power?”

Comments, questions, insults, flew across the auditorium. The chairman lost all control.

I looked at Ali Mani. Standing there. To all appearances unruffled. I was amazed. Was Ali Mani having fun? Was this a show?

A professor of history, fully in the flow of the evening, thought she saw an opening. To finally bring down this rascal as she called him. Ali Mani hit back and the professor went into tears. Her sudden distress was the final straw. The Marxist campus went at Ali Mani full blast. The assault was massive and merciless. I feared things might get physical. I looked at Mani. I thought a cloud crept across his face.

A young Ghanaian professor in typical Ghanaian good sense attempted to placate the crowd. The crowd turned on him.

“Are you his father?” The crowd demanded.

“Foolish man! Shut your dirty mouth!” a woman yelled. And that was it.

As the crowd streamed out of the auditorium, its fury spent, I stepped forward, to shake hands with Ali Mani. We had never met. But we had corresponded. Now that Ali Mani was in town, I felt it encumbered upon me to introduce myself.

Ali Mani was courtesy itself. It was as though we had rolled out the red carpet for him. His courtesy deepened my embarrassment, at the great shame we wrought upon ourselves.

At that moment Dr. Aziz stepped forward to escort his guest. Aziz and his old teacher were men of the same cut. Regardless of what he thought of Ali Mani, Aziz was propriety itself. Aziz apologized profusely for the shameless conduct of the audience. Mani could not contain himself.

“Oh! Aziz!” Ali Mani roared with gaiety and hugged his friend. “You have never changed! But you and I know that this is our daily bread.” In the past I hated the man and his politics! But now I found myself in spite of myself beginning to like Ali Mani.