For too many Americans, Africa is a distorted collage of images from fantastic Tarzan films and horrifying famine footage. The Africans comes as a rude awakening. The nine-part series currently airing on PBS is a political tract delivered by Kenyan-born scholar Ali Mazrui, who blames Western colonialism for much that ails Africa, from unstable governments to telephones that don’t work. “Colonialism weakened many of Africa’s indigenous institutions,” he maintains. “We’re still dealing with artificial boundaries that were created when the European nations carved up Africa for themselves.”
Lambasting “Western sharks,” Mazrui warns that Africans will one day be powerful, and no longer be “pawns in other people’s designs.” He even suggests that after “a final racial conflict,” blacks will inherit South Africa’s reported atomic weapons and constitute “a black-ruled republic with convincing nuclear credentials.”
Mazrui’s radical views have made The Africans one of the most controversial series ever seen on American television. The Washington Post calls it “biased and preachy and didactic, and fascinating,” bringing Africa into “new, sharp…focus.” The New York Times slams it as “a pretentious fraud,” so intent on its position that it is “capricious about facts.” Lynne Cheney, the Reagan-appointed chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which helped fund the series, blasted The Africans as “an anti-West diatribe” and had NEH’s name removed from the credits.
WETA, the Washington, D.C. PBS station that co-produced the series with the BBC, defends Mazrui’s work. “It was always intended as one scholar’s view,” argues WETA president Ward Chamberlin. Mazrui himself is unrepentant about his West-bashing. “I believe I’m restoring balance about Africa, giving an African’s view that should be heard,” says the 53-year-old University of Michigan professor. “The United States is a great communicator, sending jeans, Coca-Cola and music around the world. But Uncle Sam is a poor listener, with a hearing aid he switches off to what the rest of the world is saying.”
American critics are most enraged by what they see as The Africans’ glorification of Muammar Gaddafi as a heroic leader. But, says Mazrui, many Africans don’t see the Libyan dictator as an entirely evil figure. “He’s a good illustration of how African nations might go from pawn to player in world politics,” contends Mazrui. “He used his country’s resource—oil—to make the West take notice.”
Criticized for implicitly threatening war by warning that black South Africa will become a nuclear plower, Mazrui responds that his message is antiwar. “The rest of the world seems to believe that nuclear bombs don’t belong in the hands of Africans or children under 16 years of age,” he says with a sly smile. “Maybe the West can be persuaded to give up nuclear arms when people like us have them.”
A quiet-spoken, gray-haired man with a musical, clipped accent, Mazrui reflects many of the influences that have shaped modern Africa. He was born in Mombasa, Kenya, the son of that nation’s chief justice of Islamic law. “My native tongue is Swahili, but I was educated in English and called to prayer in Arabic,” he recalls.
He is a product of Western education, having won a scholarship to the University of Manchester in England, earned a master’s in political science from Columbia University and a doctorate from Oxford. Returning to Africa in 1963, he taught at Makerere University in Uganda. He briefly became a favorite of Ugandan President Idi Amin in 1971, but within a year spoke out against the strongman and was advised to “shut up” or leave the country.
Choosing exile, he moved to the United States in 1973 and became a professor of political science and African studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where his lively lectures have made him a popular figure on campus. Until the BBC invited him to work on The Africans four years ago, Mazrui also spent six months a year teaching at the University of Jos in Nigeria and found time to write a dozen books on Africa.
Divorced in 1982 from his English wife of 20 years, Mazrui lives in a small, two-bedroom apartment with his 26-year-old Ugandan girlfriend, Brenda Kiberu, a graduate student at nearby Wayne State University, and her 22-year-old sister, Maureen, a Cleary College student.
Even as his career has flourished, Mazrui’s personal life has been buffeted by tragedy. In the past five years two of his three sons, Jamal and Kim, have been struck by Leber’s disease, an incurable genetic illness that can cause total blindness. “They have adjusted very well, but at first it was hard,” says Mazrui. Jamal, 22, is a graduate student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Kim, 17, is a pre-law major at the University of Michigan. Al’Amin, 19, is studying psychology at Michigan.
Mazrui’s pride in his accomplishments is tempered by an awareness of the contradictions in his situation. “Sometimes,” he admits, “I feel uncomfortable about living in such a rich country, America, while feeling so strongly about Africa, which is poor.” But he believes he has a mission. “I’m an ambassador from the continent,” he says. “Why should expertise flow only one way, from the United States to Africa?”