Dance of liberating ideas

Friday March 06 2009
mago index pix

Singer Nawal from Comoros performs on the gala night. Photo/COURTESY

The dhows landed from far-away places. We looked at the strangers’ faces and lo, they were wearing our visage...

The worlds of the Indian Ocean are within us all.

This point was made on the Worlds of the Indian Ocean Gala Night by Dr Suki Mwendwa. The first Director of the University of Nairobi’s School of Arts and Design, holder of a doctorate in architecture and a respected scholar in multiple fields of basic and applied research, Dr Mwendwa answered the implicit question voiced by the sceptics: Why the Indian Ocean and what has it do with us?

Or as overheard articulated less elegantly, but more truthfully, in Nairobi: What is all this mhindi maneno?

Suki Mwendwa, in providing this answer, did not speak with her voice. She did not present an academic paper nor engage in theoretical speculation nor yet provide a case study comparison to make her underlying argument.

Instead, Dr Mwendwa danced.


She presented a classical South Asian piece with terrifying poise and ineffable beauty.

And what a dance it was — may all gifts from the Indian Ocean be received and regifted with such grace.

And what a sight it was, this hyper-educated woman with Ukambani roots in a classical dance sari speaking to us with her body of all our histories, all our intellectual traditions, and daring us to grasp them.

It left the room benumbed and stunned. It was a meditation and a prayer. It was a social analysis enacted with the body.

It was a commentary on culture and history, belonging and becoming. It was a merger of medium and message, thought and its physical expression.

By this dance, stereotypes and prejudices shattered on unwelcoming ground.

This was not to be a place where hostile glances accused the Other of being insatiably greedy wahindi or incorrigibly lazy Africans.

This was not to be business as usual, another drive-by in the academic traffic of ideas. This was a game-changing iteration, the university revisited, the rigorous and elegant 2.0. of academic and artistic thought, and pedagogical practice.

Come, let us reason together, and embrace our complex heritage with humility and awe. Come, let us dance together, with our bodies and our minds, and reimagine ourselves anew.

Because the Indian Ocean belongs to us all.

The whole of the Worlds of the Indian Ocean 2009 Festival — organised by the Aga Khan University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences East Africa — was just such a dance of ideas.

The faculty will open the doors of its Arusha campus in 2015, and the festival, in addition to marking the 25th anniversary of the university worldwide, was a presentation of the faculty’s signature institutional approach, with its commitment to intellectual pluralism and community-university relationships.

Accordingly, WIO 2009, which ran from February 19 to 21 at various Nairobi locations including the Kenya National Museum, was composed of both a scientific conference and a festival of cultural performances, mingling statistics and songs and rigorously logical scholarly arguments with luxuriously lyrical musical persuasion.

Alongside the anticipated complement of academics, pundits, specialists, and others who trail long lists of the alphabet after their names, were also activists, poets, singers, students, eco-warriors, lodge-managers, archivists and bureaucrats, from countries as diverse as Mozambique, the Comoros and Pakistan, from occupations as different as mining and musicology.

Many worlds were in motion at this event; many assumptions and familiar habits of thought were tested, reformulated and refined.

Artists were speaking to bureaucrats; hotel owners to philosophers — surprising each other with their commonalities and points of convergence and with the widening landscapes of unexplored territory opening up between them, awaiting discovery.

This was no mere happy accident, but rather the result of a careful presentation of unfamiliar juxtapositions and possibilities, the very incongruities calculated to explore new mental territory, serving as a crucible for renewed and refreshed concepts — and as a forge for outright innovation.

The convenors of the Worlds of the Indian Ocean event intended to hold a week-long celebration and examination of the Indian Ocean in a high-elevation hinterland city; they intended to have sari-wearing interns named Wamuyu; they intended to have the Maa invocation read in English translation by a young Ismaili man; they intended to throw disciplinary distinctions into disarray. Evidently, this is no ordinary Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This may be just as well, as we in East Africa do not live in ordinary times.

At WIO 2009, questions about which social and institutional conduits would lead to better societies were persistently raised.

Where are citizens produced? Where do we learn more productive ways of living together? How do we construct a promising destiny together, honouring our ancestors and unshackling our futures? Where do we make creative thinkers and leaders of moral integrity? Where do we find the answers we want for the society our children will inherit?

Inquiring minds want to know, and they raised their sails and set off across the reaches of the unknown idea and the unexpected thought... and landed on the shores of the Worlds of the Indian Ocean.

Nairobi, being noticeably inland, might well seem a strange place from which to launch this vessel of ocean-plying intellectual dreams and curriculum designs.

Yet, even this apparent contradiction was a carefully thought-out social and historical commentary, a point along a spectrum of intriguing WIO ideas.

As Dr Mshai Mwangola, performance studies scholar and convenor of the WIO event, explained, while the Indian Ocean brought to the hinterland and to Nairobi our contemporary mix of cultural formations and architectural styles, our culinary and linguistic mosaic, and our diverse spiritual relationships to the world, so was the Indian Ocean also the hinterland’s primary gateway for our gifts to the world beyond.

Blessed are they who give...

On the waters of the Indian Ocean, East Africa has for millennia been sending its wisdom and ways abroad, to enrich humanity and to thicken the stew of global cultural ideas, to shape history and to craft great civilisations.

By these waters, our East African products and our East African people have left us and then returned, changed and yet similar, of us and no longer wholly our own. On these waters, we have entered the world, and the world has come to us.

Not only does the Indian Ocean afford the conceptual imperative for marine biologists to speak to social scientists, and for fishermen to speak to architects, but it also encourages the search for commonalities, of cultures and of perspectives.

It was only fitting that the scientific conference was held at the Kenya National Museum, the anchor of social memory and the showcase of our expressive cultural range.

Back to the dance of ideas:

In one session, participants debated how best to organise a pedagogical approach that would enshrine indigenous community elders as intellectual resources and incorporate diverse forms of knowledge into the structures of formal university thought.

In another session, spatial practices and the ways we use our cities were examined in walks through iconic Nairobi sites, from the interactive patterns exhibited in Toi and Eastleigh markets to the nationalist significance of Harry Thuku Street, downtown.

A sensual appreciation of the Egyptian group Mazaher’s Zar music elbowed its way into the same mental framework as a scientific discussions of coelacanth pups in Mozambique as consultations about the problems of early education in Tanzania were interspersed with a careful collation of best faculty and recruitment practices at elite institutions around the world. In yet another session, venerable archivists took notes on a centuries-old engineering principle of building dhows.

While listening to Dr Alex Awiti discuss the implications of resilience ecology on local communities or watching Jamil Dehlavi’s film Infinite Justice, and contemplating the emerging anti-terrorism discourse, participants might have experienced a curious stirring of the senses.

Perhaps, as Prof Onesmo Ole Moi-Yoi translated complex phenomena in natural science into imperative social engagement and pedagogical ideals, neurons fired with unfamiliar sparks.

Perhaps, as Dr Zulfiker Hirji presented his scholarly impresario deconstruction of the very notion of the Indian Ocean and re-ordered our conceptual frameworks into more historically accurate contours, synapses increased their connecting filaments of ideas.

The Indian Ocean, matrix of mixture, is a lens through which WIO invited us to understand the far-flung origins of our East African masala cultures and hybrid identities, and the staggeringly complex modes of articulation with the global economy by which East Africa situates itself in the world.

In an exemplary demonstration of this principle, Andrea Moraa-Mogaka, coffee connoisseuse, and Dr David Ndiii, political economist, demonstrated that coffee has always been at the heart of East African corruption and worldwide social trends, inspiring great poetry and even greater criminality all along the Indian Ocean’s shores and its hinterlands.

While the study of coffee is not unknown in other classrooms, not many educators know enough to teach about its historical depth and geographical reach by using its flavours, colours and scent as well as by statistical analysis of foreign exchange earnings and commodities trade.

But as Dr Hildegaard Kiel, musician and anthropologist, and curator of the Worlds of the Indian Ocean Festival put it, it is not enough to nourish and challenge the mind. Universities must nourish bodies and souls as well, refine hearts and sensibilities, feed spirits and imagination, awaken the whole person and invigorate our holistic paradigms.

Perhaps it would be watching As Old as My Tongue, a film about Bi Kadede, age “93 going on 16” a cultural icon and musical legend from Zanzibar, and then realising that Bi Kadede herself was present in the flesh at the WIO screening that would satiate the soul and awaken the new idea; or perhaps it would be the privilege of being present when Dr Njane Mugambi, musicologist, explained the provenance of ancient Giriama instruments, then launched into a musical collaboration with Nizar Lalani, a composer whose music is suffused with the mysticism of Sufi poets. Minds and souls working together, indeed.

The Worlds of the Indian Ocean made a powerful argument for an integrated and holistic pedagogical approach.

For the purposes of introducing an intellectual approach able to encompass historical forces of social change and disintegration, and the interconnections between human and natural ecologies, the Indian Ocean serves as an unparalleled clarifying rubric.

This is a powerful set of thoughts, a following wind.

A university is not a magic bullet, and the Aga Khan University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences will not sweep our troubles away.

However, and as part of the foundation of a chance for the future, however, the Worlds of the Indian Ocean 2009, in all its suggestive inclusiveness, its bold claims to multiple cultural histories, its interventions into diverse intellectual traditions and its insistence on global competitiveness, is a refreshing addition of possibility and promise to tertiary education in the region.

What happens to a dream not deferred? Perhaps it grows into an Aga Khan University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, East Africa.