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Sunday, July 5, 2009

At Least Not In My Lifetime: Prof. Haroub Othman

It was saddening, indeed shocking, when I received a text message on a Sunday morning about the passing of Prof. Haroub Othman. Pass the message to Prof. Issa Shivji, the text said. “What?” another text message queried in disbelief as more texts flowed in as if to shatter our denial.

Time seemed to stand still. I sat in front of a laptop, my main gateway to the Pan-African world, and wondered as I reminisced. It was only three weeks before that I had seen the ever composed professor at the Dar-es-Salaam’s International Airport now fittingly renamed after Julius Nyerere whom he admired and worked with. As it normally happens to me when I see one or both of the ‘professorial couple’ – for his wife, Saida Yahya-Othman, is also a professor – I wondered how do they manage to keep that healthy and tranquil at such age in this fast-paced age.

As we waited for our plane, I took my time to observe from a distant the ‘gentle giant’, hoping maybe to pick a leaf or two, unnoticed. Upon boarding the plane, I decided to go to his seat to greet him. That was when I realized we were heading to the same place to attend the third European Conference on African Studies (ECAS). Well, I told myself, at last here is someone from Tanzania who is interested in my field of study – a field that is associated with that colonial legacy of studying and exposing Africa to capitalist and imperial forces – so I thought we might get to discuss about why the University of Dar-es-Salaam (UDSM) is not into that field per se.

Little did I know that the conversation we had on that trip – in the plane and on transit in Dubai - was to be the last. I only saw him afar at ECAS when Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza was delivering a contentious ‘Lugard Lecture’ on ‘Pan-Africanism in the Age of Obama’ but somehow I lost track of him. Yet I thought I will meet him in Dar-es-Salaam and get the discussion on African Studies in Tanzania going. Such is the unpredictability and fragility of human life!

In moments like these the best some of us can do is to reflect on the lives and times of those who have inspired our talk(s) on, and walk(s) toward, a better future for the Pan-African world which, in essence, is a Pan-Human world. I, for one, knew of the professorial couple since I was a little kid as I was growing up within the UDSM campus. However, my real personal intellectual and activist encounters with Prof. Othman came very lately and so briefly. Ironically, most of those encounters had to do with upholding the legacies of those inspiring icons who had moved on.

One such encounter was after the famous Palestinian poet, Mahmood Darwish passed away. We had a session at the Soma Book Café on 5 October 2008. This was a special day chosen worldwide to commemorate his legacy. Prof. Othman gave a solemn presentation on the plights and struggles of the Palestinian people as poetically portrayed by Darwish. One could sense his desire that the sons and daughters of Tanzania could know more about this poet of liberation. To that end he asked me to write a Kiswahili article on the event so as to reach a wider audience.

Gosh, it was one of those stressful moments when I have a lot on my plate! But that gentle professorial passion inspired the touched me to wake up very early in the morning and come up with a tribute titled ‘Ulimwengu Wamlilia Mshairi Mahiri’, that is, ‘The World Mourns A Brilliant Poet’. “Asante sana”, that is, ‘Thank you very much’, was the response from Prof. Othman as he notified me that he has also sent it to editors of two other local newspapers. Such was his passion for the dispensation of justice in all corners of our so-called global village.

Another encounter was when we had a ‘day vigil’ in memory of Tajudeen Abdul-Rahim. Prof. Othman, as passionate as ever for the need of the current crop of Africa’s/Tanzania’s intellectuals and activists to always remember our historical struggles, asked, nay, reminded me, about sharing those memoirs with our online forum of ‘Wanazuoni –Tanzania’s Intellectuals.’

That was the same day he gave me a pack of ‘Zanzibar Legal Services Centre (ZLSC) Publication Series’, lamenting that one of the publication by his colleague, Prof. Chris Maina Peter, was out of stock and that he will make sure I get a copy as soon as new ones arrive from Zanzibar. It was only when we arrived at ZLSC on our way to his funeral that I realized what these publications really meant to him and his colleagues: “Transform Justice into Passion.”

The Prof. indeed transformed his vision and mission into passion. He was ready to side with justice even when the champions of democracy were siding with injustice in the Middle East and Latin America . When the right wing was talking the language of rights while shoving unjust neo-liberal policy pills on our throats he was ready to be among ‘what is left of the leftists.’ He talked and walked left. I can still vividly see Haroub and Saida, after listening to Oliver Mtukudzi’s revolutionary songs, going back home in their car with a sticker: “The leftists have rights too”!

In brief this is the Prof. Haroub Othman I knew of. Ours were such brief, albeit memorable, encounters. They were indeed filled with lasting humane impressions. In a way it was the Prof.’s way of passing the baton of his generation to our generation which, as Frantz Fanon reminded us long time ago, “must, out of its relative obscurity, discover its mission then fufill it or betray it."

Yes, it was his sagacious way of saying here we are the generation of the Rashidis of his Baraste Kipande homeboy Shafi Adam Shafi’s Kuli ,who said ‘Yana Mwisho Haya’ as in ‘This Will End’, passing the mantle to your generation of the Wanazuonis who should say ‘Lets End This.’ The lingering question is: Are we ready to seize the moment? Shall we make an end to injustice?

Here was a professor who was so passionate about the ideas and ideals of Pan-Africanism such as peace, justice and unity. No wonder, in the recent Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival, he thus said of the debatable union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar that formed the United Republic of Tanzania: “It will not break at least not in my lifetime.” What a subtle prophecy!

That was Prof. Haroub Othman’s ‘parting shot’ to all those who are stalling the Muafaka/Accord and silencing the call for a government of national unity. It is a call to ensure that the upcoming 2010 election does not break Zanzibar let alone Tanzania . We must not break. Africa must unite!

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