It has often been an itching desire to write a book about Paul Zeleza, whom I have known since the 1980s. Of course, there are some scholars I can write an entire book on with a minimal amount of time-cum-work, including Paul Lovejoy, Mahmood Mamdani, Molefi Kete Asante, and, of course, Abdul Karim Bangura. It is mainly because I can claim to have read virtually all of their significant bodies of scholarly works. Recently, I asked Paul Zeleza to compile the materials that I do not already have, just to assist me in my quest about him. He graciously started the project. We began this ongoing interview, and I pushed him to the oral/written instead of the live podcast.
Tragedy, then, struck!
Professor Tade Aina, who triangulated at this terrible time, relayed the bad news: Paul had lost his only son to the raging pandemic! I was so frantic that I immediately called Nairobi, in fact, twice. I called on the day of the funeral too. I asked Cassandra, Paul’s wife, to let us assemble a team of seven to fast and pray for the family. She was modest about it, but I assembled the list without her knowledge, and we fasted as well as prayed. I felt intense pain, having lost a brother to COVID-19 too.
Paul Zeleza then did the most unusual, the most difficult, the most painful. He wrote a eulogy for his son, now a part of the body of his intellectual work, for the world to see. What a man!
EULOGY FOR MWAI L. ZELEZA FROM HIS DAD, PAUL TIYAMBE ZELEZA
Parents are not supposed to mourn and bury their children. The horrific pandemic that has taken Mwai from us, his beloved family, friends, and colleagues has deprived many of us, including me, his father, the comfort of even attending the service of his premature departure. But we refuse to be bowed by COVID-19. Wherever any of us may be physically, we are here together, in this moment, in mind and spirit to celebrate Mwai’s exceptional life.
Mwai was an extraordinary son, brother, husband, nephew, cousin, friend, and coworker. He was kind, warm, and generous. He had a passion for life and living. His heart was full of love. His mind was restless in its endless curiosity. His soul was ennobled by religious faith. He embraced everyone regardless of their station in life. He was impatient with intolerance, bigotry, exploitation, and corruption. He dreamt of a more wholesome community, country, and world. He relished the prospects of starting a family with his dear new wife, the love of his life, Sylvia Natasha Mwale.
I loved my son. I was proud of him. I loved him for who he was. A parent’s love for one’s child is as pure as love can be, unconditional, joyful, everlasting. That’s why the pain of mourning one’s child is so unfathomable, unnatural, unimaginably cruel. But like all of you who loved him, I’ll always cherish his memory, the privilege of having had him as a shining star of my life.
I took enormous pride as he grew into maturity, when he successfully completed his undergraduate and graduate education in the United States, when he started his professional life in Texas and Malawi, and when he entered a diplomatic career in Mozambique. We were all thrilled when he got engaged to Sylvia and when they got married, although the coronavirus pandemic deprived us of the big wedding we had eagerly anticipated.
The memories I’ve of Mwai are, of course, too numerous to recount. Let me share just a few. I remember fondly the time his sister, Natasha, and I drove more than twelve hours in harsh winter weather from Illinois to Alabama to visit him, and what a great time we had. And, of course, there was the graduation ceremony when I screamed myself hoarse, shouting his name and pumping the air as if I had never graduated from college myself. I remember when he told me he was returning to Malawi, the powerful vision he had to contribute to his country’s development, which influenced my own decision to return to the continent after spending 25 years in Canada and the United States.
Before my wife and I came to Kenya at the end of December 2015, Mwai and his cousin, Angela, joined us on an unforgettable Caribbean cruise. What a week we had visiting several Caribbean islands! Our nuclear family will always cherish the Christmas season in 2018 that we spent together in Columbia, Maryland, with Mwai and Natasha’s American grandparents. Then for Christmas in 2019, Mwai reveled in hosting and driving us around in his lovely Mercedes Benz. The highlight was Sylvia’s birthday in Blantyre, where he surprised her with her engagement ring. My wife and I teared up with indescribable joy!
And this past Christmas, we celebrated together virtually through Zoom. That is the last time I saw Mwai. He and Sylvia were so happy, so excited about being back home from Tete as a married couple. They looked so beautiful, so in love. That’s my last image I’ve of Mwai, his hearty laughter, infectious smile, his eyes twinkling with exuberance and pride.
Mwai was my avatar. Everyone said we looked alike, except he was much taller and infinitely more handsome than his father!
Mwai, thank you for having lived among us for 42 wonderful years, for having graced our lives with your unforgettable presence of body, mind, and spirit. My son, may your soul rest in eternal peace, in the everlasting bosom of the heavens. We will miss your physical presence, but you will always be with us, in each of our memories as your family, friends, and colleagues, until the end of our own days. Amen.
INTERVIEW ANALYSIS AND REFLECTIONS BY TOYIN FALOLA
Misery again in the land of Malawi!
The only Royal son of Zeleza,
Found himself in a ditch of COVID-19,
A place of plague and darkness,
There, you see feet over two footages of colored linens,
The bed of pain, whose sleep is forever sweet bitterness;
Mwai wore the cloth of death to a funeral
He masked himself with the deadly virus,
The mask he took from the ramble as a dress matching sample,
Was written “Jesus saves”!
But COVID-19 snatched it.
Tears running through our nostrils,
Even the bereaved have mourned your demise
Your papa, Paul is in total sorrow.
We have called your sweetest name, Loveson
But here, you lay lifeless in the casket!
Mwai, this silence is too loud
But beyond solitude,
We wish you a hopeful life across the bridge
Nature and human philosophy often collide, even though the two are usually meant to maintain togetherness in most cases. Nature is powerful, and it often comes with occurrences that typically change and challenge human understanding and or their collective development. However, it is not a human thing to cede every action that guides or determines human values to natural experiences as, ironically, they are not only a product of nature themselves but also forces that determine its course and movement.
In essence, the latter, that is, human philosophy, is a result of humans’ observations of natural events and their attempts to produce working and effective philosophical structures in living. The very process of living attests to the fact that we are not mere observers in the events of our lives; we are conscious characters that shape life itself.
Two important things that the foregoing serves to reveal are these: the phenomenon of death, which, to a considerable extent, is to be seen as a natural phenomenon; and the perception that people have about occurrences that give them their philosophy. In the universal definition of death, death presupposes living, for no phenomenon, whether physical, concrete, or abstract, would die without having tasted life. In the African socio-philosophical landscape, death means different things to people, with minor variations from one culture to another. While death signals finitude to human concrete existence in its general sense, it is nuanced in African culture. The path to death is life! Ironically, since the dead can revisit the earth, as in the case of ancestor veneration and masquerade traditions, death can reproduce life, a symbiotic relationship that is captured in the myriad of stories on raptures by premillennial dispensationalists.
The passing away of Mwai, due to the complications of COVID-19, was an event that paints the African understanding of death in clearer terms. Of course, it was untimely, but the death of the people, including many others—who were suddenly taken away to the great beyond—means very different things to the world generally, and Africa especially.
Indeed, more than anything, it is an occurrence that paints a life of sacrifice for humanity to survive the horrific challenges imposed by nature. And this exactly is the point where nature and the human philosophy alluded to above, collide. The pandemic that cuts deep into the heart of humans generally was intricately a force of nature; however, the philosophy that children are meant to outlive their parents is the African-generated human thinking that comes from their observation, examination, and also the evaluation of their social environment.
Even though it was not avertible, the sudden demise of Paul Zeleza’s only son shows more about Africans social philosophy than the actual finitude to his life. Heightened by the dangerous and devastating effects of the airborne pandemic, COVID-19, imposed a new belief on the human minds and environment, summarizing why humans are perpetually vulnerable and sometimes helpless to the melancholic hands of nature itself whenever the latter decides to strike. With COVID-19, one is helpless, a disease that acquired the power of an invisible spirit, a name that one must not call in vain. And despite our advancement in science and technology, nobody knows the secret of, or to death.
However, beyond the challenge of human philosophy, the ideology of communalism, which has been known to the African people from their long history, is brought to its litmus test in these trying times. Beliefs in communal ideas have been tested by COVID-19. In South Africa, the test is so strong that people fled hospitals and isolation centers to perform funeral rites for their parents. Communal ideology presupposes that humans are concerned about the welfare of their relations and neighbors, and would reach an unbelievable point in their quest to ensure their social safety because the sanctity of human well-being cannot be negotiated if a society truly intends to achieve peace and tranquility.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has imposed a compulsory distance between and among humans, as this has been the reliable strategy with which the pandemic can be stemmed or battled. While the observation of this new-normal could be relatively easy, it cannot be more difficult than it is for people who are used to socialize with one another or derive joy in the fulfillment achieved by the others. More insidiously, any victim of the pandemic faces a double jeopardy. While they would lose their lives to the brutish hands of death, they would be deprived of familial and cultural bonding, shown especially by Africans to their departed members as signs of final respect. Mwai falls within this category. It cannot be stressed further that it challenged the resolve of people around him, most especially his bereaved father (Paul Zeleza) and the siblings he represented as courageous and purposeful.
The pains from Mwai’s untimely death were sudden but much everlasting; for, the young man, in question, lived on in people’s minds because of what he represented while alive. He was a beacon of hope, a promising man, a curious mind and a figure, who was permanently antagonistic of such social vices as corruption, extortion, exploitation, and bigotry. Due to his beautiful qualities, he was unavoidably on the road to making huge contributions to the advancement of the society around which he found himself. His curiosity was a virtue, for he was hell-bent on improving his intellectual brilliance to advance the environment with what he had fed his brains. For consciously putting and keeping himself on the path of excellence, he severed the ties with delinquent social behaviors that could ground human efforts, irrespective of how magnificent they appear. He had an unusual urge for excellence, and his relentless pursuit of perfection was a telltale sign of his dedication to growth and change.
Mwai created a lasting impression during the short period he lived, and by becoming a part of the sacrifice humans need to pay to outlive the Coronavirus, he is considered a hero. Physically, Mwai has now maintained a permanent physical social distance from the world, especially the family he left behind; his address has been moved to Heaven. However, his sudden departure does not mean an erasure from the people’s memories.
It is the most expensive irony that the fact of permanently distancing socially and physically from his people does not equate to being away from them psychologically, for it is difficult to erase the human relationships and social experiences maintained from individuals to individuals strictly because of their forceful departure to the great beyond. Although, as Paul confessed in the eulogy, the love of parents to their wards is natural and pure; however, it is always multiplied when the children have consciously added values to themselves and are making impressive accomplishments in their contributions to the society. It is a joy to every parent. This is the kind of relationship Paul had with Mwai, and the fact that people in the society, both in the academic and political spectrum, have reached out to Paul to console him, means that they are not unaware of the immense affection between father and son. Knowing the damage that the untimely death of Mwai has wreaked on the family cannot be possible if one does not have a particular relationship with him. To his family members, he was a ray of light; to his friends, he was a cheerleader; to his wife, he was the love and life with whom she would share forever.
Mwai dreamed of a more wholesome environment where equity and justice would prevail and the ground would be more welcoming to the people and their engagements without discrimination or class attitudes. Perhaps he inherited this attribute from his loving father; he was an individual focused on improving his mind so that he would have something to offer to the society. To talk about how promising Mwai was to himself and the society is to express human discernment about his transition from childhood to adulthood. Unlike many Africans, he was exposed to various sociocultural and sociopolitical conditions that influenced his decision and choices in life. Having completed his undergraduate and graduate education in the United States of America, Mwai understood the place of identity in human sociocultural philosophy.
Despite having the propensity to gravitate towards different cultural traditions because of his diverse experience, Mwai did not refuse to pursue greatness for his African root. He foresaw a greater Africa where the establishment of a foundation and bridge between the Diaspora community and in-house Africans would create the synergy required for the enhancement of collective development. He understood the place of sacrifice in all these, and that he returned to Malawi is a confirmation of this assumption. In essence, it remains unchallenged that Mwai has been a demonstration of sacrifice to bigger courses. Apart from being a victim of the circumstances that teach us all the inevitability of sacrificial existence, he also dedicated his life to issues that would benefit others, even when they come at a personal cost.
Although he started his career in Texas where he gave back to the society that cemented his very academic brilliance, he had always dreamed of impacting the African society with the knowledge and skills he had already acquired. For someone that spent 42 years in human form, it would appear odd that he had not settled down with his own family, but Mwai was too focused on his personal plans and ambitions. He was not a man to venture into anything without having substantial preparation and the potentials required to survive there. He believed building a family and becoming a successful parent comes from the appropriation of practical philosophy and ideas that would help make the process a joyous experience. For this reason, the project of parenting would be comfortable when necessary steps are taken to improve one and make oneself important to one’s family. Unknown that while he was being philosophical about life, nature was there, smiling because its plan for him was obviously different. He was in Malawi and then in Mozambique, two African countries that felt his immense contributions in shaping the environment. Of course, that the society enjoins individuals who have added to their mental resources to consider impacting their environment was a force that influenced his home return.
While with us on Fanon’s “wretched” earth, Mwai demonstrated that love is the actual foundation for all manners of growth and development found in a place. He loved himself, loved his family, and loved his African roots too. In fact, it was a demonstration of affection to one’s origin that he took the courageous decision to invest his intellect in Africa, so that people would see the world through his well-developed knowledge. He was also not miserly with his affection; he gave it to individuals who could be seen as companions and friends, all of whom confessed to have generated light from the spark that Mwai ignited. He was a beautiful Soul. His newly married wife became the most important aspect of his future, and he dedicated maximum attention to the nurturing of their love affair and lives. His engagement to Sylvia brought out the best of him. He would smile affectionately when discussing her. He would jump to joy whenever they were exchanging views about life phenomena. He would always prioritize their peace and stability above every other thing. All these came with dedication and definition of purpose. He showed unequivocally that the life devoid of love and affection is bland and would always be absent of fulfillment, for it seems there is no greater joy than being useful for the course that promotes social well-being or contributes to their collective advancement and incidentally, a good family is an integral part of this process.
Though parents may usually influence their children’s decisions and directions, it is equally not strange that as these children mature and show an immense sense of control, they are influenced by the decisions they make. On one occasion, during the period of celebration and merriment, Mwai expressed his interest in returning to Africa for the development of the society to his father, Paul Zeleza, and this became the foundation for Paul’s resolution to go back to the continent too to give back in maximum proportion. Mwai talked about this with a great sense of understanding and accountability, too, showing his father why the continent desperately needs all human capital and resources it could get. He implicitly identified that one of the barricades that usually stand as an impediment to the African people is the inability to access quality and pragmatic education. Quality education because they were not given the educational system that reflects the environmental situation or political happenings around them, and this has thus created a lag, a communication gap that makes it virtually impossible to be useful to one’s own society. Pragmatic because they are not groomed in ways that would emancipate them from the pangs of colonialism and neocolonialism. Looking at the level of preparedness and the shown commitment to the said project, Paul reconsidered the prospect of going back to the continent that he, perhaps, had been dismissive of years before. Generally, it was the contagious spark in Mwai’s vision that became the motivation for Paul’s reunion with Africa. What an irony!
In Africa, there is a common understanding that humans have premonitions about their exit from the face of the earth, and it is this possibility that makes them engage in some activities more actively than expected of an ordinary being. There were a series of events that Mwai fondly engaged in in the prelude to his emergency exit. He celebrated with his family at every given opportunity, and never did he allow a moment of communal celebration slip away from his grip. On the occasion of his wife, Sylvia’s birthday anniversary, Paul recounted how Mwai was especially active and how he made the event a memorable one. He volunteered to personally do the running around, including conveying people to the select destination for merriment. Obviously, Mwai was bidding the world a farewell in a language that would eventually be deciphered in a very sorrowful way. Of course, these moments meant big things to Mwai, and it is not difficult to see that he would combat death if he had the power to save himself from the imminent melancholy that could throw his loved ones into sorrowful disarray.
Mwai was recognized by this social and cultural attitude to his immediate family. He was not unknown as an outstanding being among his colleagues and superiors. He was so exceptional to the extent that people all around him never doubted what he could become in the grand political spectrum. His life of dedication and seriousness foregrounds his positive attitude towards human development. He was that affectionate, prescient, and uniquely foresighted. He had decades-long plans, oblivious of his nearness to the final breathing of oxygen in his human body. His life was a template for growth and an uncommon urge for making a difference.
No matter how old one passes on. In life, it is a universal behavior that people decry the death of their loved ones. The situation is usually more appalling when individuals who are taken untimely mean much to their people. This is descriptive of Mwai and his lovely family’s situation. He was everything good and represented the African identity in a positive light. Being a model, therefore, means that people around him would be devastated by his unannounced exit from the face of the earth. Meanwhile, he showed that the existent situations in Africa could be sardonic because of the incompatibility of government policies and their socioeconomic realities. He considered himself an instrument to rewrite the continent’s history through dedicated efforts to reform the polity by rebuilding the human resources available for the benefit of the people. He did not believe that Africa would achieve greatness without corresponding challenges, and for this reason, the onus of any revolutionary actions depends largely on people who can see promises where it is not entirely obvious.
While the pandemic has wreaked and is still wreaking untold havoc on us, we do not fail to demonstrate that we are resilient and are always ready to weather the storms regardless of their ferocity. Paul is in this category, for he has remained undaunted by the situation and committed himself to the cause of the continent. His loving son, Mwai, might have been a victim of circumstances; however, he remains in his memory, serving as an energy to him, motivating him to give all necessary moral and ideological support for the advancement of the African society and the world at large. Mwai was very exceptional and was essentially outstanding. He demonstrated these attributes in the ways that he communicated his ideas. Through this, he erected into people’s minds, the picture of a man who is unafraid to break new grounds in the quest for personal and collective actualization.
Although having this sort of determination comes with extensive sacrifice, there was no doubt about Mwai’s readiness to continue to offer the necessary energy to rescue the situation. Giving all it takes for the attainment of success and excellence was the working philosophy of the man, and the first four decades of his life were dedicated to such a life of service. This is why the protruding encomium showered on him after his departure was considered complimentary to his services and goodwill. Nature has dealt with the continent by its intransigence to forcibly take individuals who are very important to the actualization of the continent’s agenda, but then there is a consolation that these human resources who are being taken untimely have duplicated themselves into the coming generations in ways that reveal that the future of Africa is secure. Eventually, the people would always rise beyond the challenges and every situation that tests their philosophical resolve.
We share in the agony of the respected Paul Zeleza and his nuclear family because when circumstances like this confront people, its psychological effects could only be managed and not prevented. We marvel at his maturity in handling the situation. This is not only because he shows a sense of self-control when discussion pops up about his son’s demise, but also because he engages in different activities that reveal that despite his horrible experience, he is not backing down in the quest to take the continent to a greater height.
Adieu, Mwai Zeleza! We will always remember that you lived well. The people you left behind will not suffer. We will always remember your address in Heaven. You will always remain a part of us, our humanity, and our never-ending journey.