The place was a mixture of solemn, casual and joy.
As you ambled in you could hear clinking of glasses, alongside the oohs and ahas of chatting and the positive tension of waiting. For what?
For the ceremony.
You were checked in by eager attendants, Covid-19 masks on, friendly expressions. If you had a bag and coat (October is autumn and the cold already said hello), a room upstairs was available safely, for your items.
Followed other indoor attendants equally civil, solemn, casual. This mixed tone decorated the whole Friday evening. It was October 15, and we were invited to celebrate the life of Tanzanian academic maestro, Dr Farouk Topan.
If you do not know him, first wonder why such a respectful vibe?
Please keep on reading.
“Dr Topan is a household name in Tanzania,” said one of the speakers, an hour later, the zealous Dr Ida Hadjivayanis. She cited Dr Topan’s 1970 classic play, Aliyeonja Pepo ( A Taste of Heaven), which she briefly explained and summarised (with screen pictures) amidst laughter and cheers. Fifty years ago the play was huge.
That’s why Dr Hadjivayanis told her audience Dr Topan was popular. Ida (currently translating Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise novel into Kiswahili) teaches at SOAS – London’s School of Oriental African Studies.
SOAS has coughed some of the top 20th and 21st century thinkers. Among them Prof Walter Rodney, assassinated in Guyana (1980), legendary author of that historical masterpiece How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Dr Hadjivayanis: “I used to be Topan’s student, now I occupy the same office he used to be in. He was very supportive...”
There were several other speakers from the UK, Middle East, ad infinitum.
So as you ambled into the venue, you noted, wow! How so immaculate! Toilets as clean as the stairs , as well as the buffet area just like the hall where we would sit and listen to testimonies and “attestations” of this wonderful Tanzanian man-child.
Most-times we have to grieve before we can applaud great deeds of fellow humans. In death, we enjoy praise, choking tears of sorrow, narrating the glories of departed individuals. It is one of the biggest errors (and a misdemeanour ) to only celebrate those we love as they lie serenely in their coffins.
But not this Friday night.
London’s Aga Khan Centre (a facility for education, knowledge, culture and insight into Muslim civilisations) hosted a moment to appreciate the life of our retired scholar, Dr Farouk Topan.
While still alive, available and present!
As you sat with another dignified writer, the brilliant journalist, Ahmed Rajab, you rewinded to the mid-1970s.
Those days the late Kiswahili novelist (and another esteemed Tanzanian scholar), Prof Euphrase Kezilahabi, had released his collection of Kiswahili poems.
Kichomi was controversial and arguably the first free verse book in Tanzania. Dr Topan wrote an excellent introduction to the publication. It was daring as those days witnessed a fierce struggle and debate between free verse poets (washairi guni) and traditional metre verse poets (washairi wa mapokeo).
Now you relaxed listening to testimonies of the man, currently in his 80s , with his family, friends, fans and colleagues.
When Mzee Farouk finally stood to speak, we had already heard fantastic descriptions and episodes. That he was very well informed. A wonderful teacher , academic, storyteller and writer. That he is calm, soft spoken, relaxed, supportive, etc.
And to cement this magic he offered seven tales of his life. From 1968 at the University of Dar es Salaam, through Nairobi, the Middle East, Europe and London.
A journey told gently with humour and worth accompanying. A man who lived doing what he loved. Teaching and promoting Kiswahili, writing Kiswahili and English books, publicising the Tanzanian (and his native Zanzibar ) brand, while raising a beautiful family.
A life purposefully, attained.
Later as we all jostled and mingled, biting samosas and fried fish while infusing it with fruit juices and wine, it was what was expected. We were hugging a retired captain, here with us, smiling and listening and chatting.
This has a double lesson.
Praising the unsung champions of our lives as they witness the accolade. Two. Reminding readers home of the unknown, hard-working patriots overseas.
Twenty five years ago, there was another solemn event in Holborn, central London. A celebration of former Cabinet member, Honourable Mohamed Abdurahman Babu, who had just passed on, aged 70.
It was shocking, bewildering and lovely, listening to people from all over the world chanting praises of the late Mr Babu. Babu was exiled in London. Almost forgotten at home. But the life of the man had been pretty historic and many overseas acknowledged the Zanzibari son.
How much do we know and honour the real achievers of our communities?