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Saturday, January 16, 2016

Unsung Heroes: Remembering Bonaventure Swai

Monday Mangvwat:

Closely related to Professor Temu was another Tanzanian Professor with whom I became closely associated. He was Professor Bonaventure Swai, a younger and more intellectually restless scholar whose Ph.D. thesis was supervised by the same Temu back at the University of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam. He had joined the history department at A. B. U. on the encouragement of his teacher who had recommended him to the Head of Department. He was excessively critical and tore apart almost every argument I was putting forward until Temu would calm both of us down. Professor Swai was uniquely well-read and knowledgeable but highly critical and impatient with any scholar who could not keep pace with his thinking. Together with Temu, they authored the famous book, Historians and Africanist History: A Critique published by Zed Publishers, London, 1981, while they were still in Zaria. Swai eventually left Zaria for the Usmanu Danfodio University, Sokoto, and finally left Nigeria for the University of Uganda, Gulu, where he took ill and passed on; may his soul rest in perfect peace. I will never forget him.

Obadiah Mailafia:

Ndugu Bonaventure Swai was one of the most profound thinkers of his generation in the philosophy of the historical sciences. As a student of Ahmadu Bello University and later Assistant Lecturer, I remember Swai as relatively younger but serious scholar in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences as it then was. For some reason, there were a few bookworms that featured prominently in the Sir Kashim Ibrahim Library. The library would always close with us at 11pm. One of them was Swai. Another was the great historian Mahmud Tukur, who died young. Believe it or not, one chemist was a constant presence in the social sciences section of the library. And that person was none other than the rather shy Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, who later became President of our great Federal Republic, as everybody knows. 

Swai was a quiet and self-effacing character. But he was a thinker and scholar of great moral force. Swai's work and interests were mainly in the area of historiography and the philosophy of history. I do not think he was a lesser historian because of that orientation. There are historians who are mainly story-tellers. There are others who are mainly philosophers. The greatest are those who combine both, from Herodotus and Thucydide to R. G. Collingwood, Geoffrey Barraclough, Eric Hobsbawm, Arnold Toynbee and Toyin Falola. The fact that Ndugu Swai concentrated mostly on historiography and philosophy of history should never be held against him. I was privileged to sit respectfully in their company in the University Staff Club where I drank from their fountain of wisdom. The older scholar, Arnold J. Temu, was a benign influence. Sadly, it was rumoured that when Swai moved to Sokoto he was rather unhappy in that provincial Saharan outpost, eventually succumbing to alcohol. Without engaging in stereotypes, we West Africans would tend to be baffled by the drinking habits of Eastern and Southern Africans. It would seem that we drink to socialise, but they seem to socialize in order to drink. Forgive me!

My own study of history never passed A'Levels, but for reasons I cannot fathom, I have made it a point to read all of the most serious historians of the world from Michelet to Braudel and Lord Conrad Russell. I never believe that anyone could be a good public finance specialist or statesman without a profound knowledge of history.

Swai belonged to a thriving community of exile Southern and Eastern African scholars at ABU in those good old days, which included people such as A. J. Temu earlier mentioned; economist John Sangwueme and political scientist Lloyd Mambo Sachikonye, both of Zimbabwe; political scientist Okello Oculi and medical sociologist Mukanga Tibenderana both from Uganda and novelist/literary scholar Njabulo Ndebele from South Africa. Together with a glitterati of scholars from other African countries and from the Caribbean, the United States, Australia and even Poland, Ahmadu Bello University was a truly cosmopolitan community of scholars. We had the best and we knew it!

Yinka Banwo:

Bonaventure Swai was my teacher at ABU. He was a great teacher, thinker and philosopher. We learnt a lot from him. He is one of the teachers we still talk about in any meeting with old school mates.

...
For some of Swai's papers you may check with the History Department ABU Zaria, part of the collection in the History department Seminar series. I think he wrote a paper on "Marx, Marxism and the Third World" for the Marx and Africa conference in Zaria, 1983; Another paper on Historians and Africanist History(Different with the book he co-authored with Temu), probably another one on 'Objectivity in History' (not too sure about this). You may also check with the History Department at Uthman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto. 

Malami Buba:

How sad and ironic for Prof Swai's move to 'that provincial Saharan outpost' to lead to alcoholism! To be fair to my hometown, Swai's sobriety was few and far between. The two memories I have of him as a lowly GA at UDUS was his 'my friend' catchphrase, and the warning for drinkers to obey traffic rules when sober, so that going home after a 'pub crawl' will be a safe affair! A quiet and gentle scholar, no doubt!

Ibrahim Abdulla:

Swai left Nigeria without looking back! He was not too happy in Sokoto. When he trooped back to East Africa that was it....
Bill Freund:

I was very interested in your query/note about Swai. I was a visiting lecturer at UDSM in the last months of 1979 in the History Department some time after leaving the equivalent department at Ahmadu Bello University (ABU). As to the Nigerian reference, Monday Mangvwat was a very bright young man, the best student I ever encountered at ABU although I know almost nothing about what he did professionally so I am grateful for the extract which will allow me to note and order his monograph. All those he mentioned in his acknowledgements as his colleagues were my students as well. I knew Bala Usman very well too and the formidable Abdullahi Smith a bit, who was not based in Zaria but had an institute he ran in Kaduna. So this was my world in the middle 1970s and it had a strong influence on my own intellectual development. Arnold Temu was our HOD for my last year at ABU and I also knew him very well and we are still in touch.

At UDSM, I got to know Bonaventure Swai quite well and we were really friends. He wrote a good if not very unconventional thesis and I liked his writing on Marxism and historiography in Africa very much. It is sad indeed if his book on historiography in Africa has been forgotten; it influenced me a lot. He was a voracious reader who (too many years ago to remember exact words, of course) was absorbed by the world he discovered in books he found persuasive to the point of exit from the real world but I have this trait too to some degree. You will of course know that practical life became very hard for Tanzanian academics around 1980 and after so individuals were inclined to emigrate. I knew that Swai went to Sokoto, a new campus in a very provincial setting, and eventually on to Uganda. I think psychologically this did not work for him and he probably felt very isolated. I felt very badly when I heard of his death. I am sure people of his generation in Tanzania must remember him well and Temu, with his own trajectory, certainly could give you much information about Swai and maybe something about the location of his papers.


Lawrence Mbogoni:

I had the privilege of being taught by Dr. Swai in my third year as an undergrad in 1977 in a course that required writing a senior paper. By his guidance and persistent criticism from a materialist viewpoint of history I was able to turn in a paper that apparently impressed him to want me to join the History Department at UDSM. After two years of teaching at Galanos secondary school, one afternoon Dr. Swai called me and asked if I was ready to join the department as a tutorial assistant. I accepted his offer and joined the department in January 1980. As a mentor and a colleague, Dr. Swai contributed greatly to what I have turned out to be academically. In the course of teaching together before I left Dar for the USA and he left for Zaria we became very close friends. As Malami says, he was indeed a quiet and gentle scholar.

As for his papers, some ought to be available in the East Africana Section of the Library at UDSM. I know he presented numerous papers as part of the History Department Seminar program. These were at the time bound and catalogued by the East Africana Section. 

May his soul rest in eternal peace.

Issa Shivji:

Swai was another of our unsung heroes who was not given sufficient recognition by his alma mater, UDSM.

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