Getting to the roots of family

I married my cousin. Before you judge me, let me explain. We are divorced (unrelated to above confession) but remain great friends — could this be because of a warm, familiar connection?

Much hilarity about this discovery aside, we are only seventh cousins, which means there are a few hundred years between us and our common ancestor. This might sound alarming but, apparently, if you still live in the general area your relatives did, it’s likely you have met, and perhaps even married, a distant cousin. 

Start looking into your genealogy, the study of ancestors and family history, and you are sure to find a skeleton or 10 in your closet.

I started my genealogy journey in 2019, inspired by the TV series Finding Your Roots. It is the creation of historian Henry Louis Gates, director of the Hutchins Centre for African and African American Research at Harvard in the US. His interest in genealogy came from the 1977 miniseries Roots. It made him dream of finding his African ancestry and helping other people do the same — not easy, because much African American ancestry is unknown and only found in slave-ownership records.

Finding Your Roots is a fascinating investigation into the lineage of well-known Americans, including artist Kara Walker, politician Condoleezza Rice and comedian Andy Samberg. Using records and DNA analysis, it shows humanity at its best and worst. Often focusing on slavery and African-American heritage, it is a sensitive study of the importance of understanding the past and where you came from. 

Following the line

My family tree is still a work in progress but I have unearthed fascinating stories that are interwoven with South Africa’s past.

I learnt that the women in my family were unbelievably brave and strong. Case in point, my three times great-grandmother, Margaret, was a “Kennaway Girl”. This group of 150 young Irish women were given the name because they travelled to South Africa on the Lady Kennaway ship in 1857 to start a new life as wives for a group of German former soldiers who’d settled in the Eastern Cape. 

I also discovered my two times great-grandmother, Mimi, died in an Anglo-Boer War concentration camp. 

Then there was proving who an illegitimate relative’s mother was. For the first time in 118 years, we proudly added her to our family tree. 

Court documents showed this courageous woman sued a man who promised marriage, seduced her, and left her pregnant. Scandalous in conservative 1904, she took him for everything he was worth, including a buggy and some sheep. 

Having recently lost my father, I’m grateful we could build our family tree together while he was still alive. 

Do it yourself

If you’re feeling inspired to do some ancestral digging of your own, there are some practical places to start. My first step was to start a free account on This non-profit platform is the world’s largest shared family tree, dedicated to helping people discover their family story. The site lets you build your own tree and puts millions of digitised records at your fingertips. is owned and run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). They have a deep involvement in genealogical research and believe it’s essential for people to strengthen relationships with family members (alive or dead), so they can be together after this life. 

Wayne van As, FamilySearch Southern Africa’s area manager, says: “We go out and negotiate with governments, churches and archives for their records. We then provide them with a mutually beneficial agreement and basically preserve their records. We also provide them with a digital donor copy of everything that we digitised for them, in exchange for allowing us to put these records on”

An alternative to FamilySearch is, the world’s largest for-profit genealogy company. Although it is pricey — it costs up to $60 (R1 000) a month — it offers over 30-billion records, including census, military and immigration records. Chatting to older family members — even if their memories are vague — was useful, because there is generally some truth in what they recall. 

Googling historic events that acted as a backdrop for my ancestors’ stories helped, as did online national archives. The result — my family tree now runs to the 1400s. I also did a course with Natalie da Silva of the Joburg branch of the Genealogical Society of SA. This is a great introduction to the extensive archives and records available, especially for those who are not comfortable with online searches and apps.

If research isn’t your thing, you can hire an expert to put in the hard miles. 

Heather MacAlister, a respected family tree and genealogy researcher, runs Of her work she says: “Clients come to me for all sorts of reasons. From helping people who are adopted to try and source original birth entries that home affairs can’t find, to naturalisations, to working with film companies to do research. And even aiding probate lawyers from around the world looking for heirs in South Africa.”

Henry Louis Gates’ dream of finding his African ancestry is not easily realised because much African American ancestry is unknown and only found in slave-ownership records

Not so easy

It would be remiss not to discuss what this ancestral-tracing process is like for black South Africans. When I spoke to friends of colour, a general thread was that they knew very little, despite having strong family stories and a tradition of family names. 

This got me thinking about what colonial and apartheid records are like for people of colour and what effect the migrant labour system and cross-border migration had on the genealogical record. I tried researching two friends’ families, one Pedi from Limpopo, the other coloured, from Johannesburg. This was harder than researching my own line — the paper trail is severely limited. 

MacAlister explains, “One also needs to distinguish between black and coloured and Indian. For example, coloured is much easier [to trace] than black ancestry.”

Most experts I chatted to had seldom been asked to research people of colour’s families. On this point, Van As says: “For a long time, people of African descent didn’t think records were kept but they were. If a person of colour had an estate, or if they have left something behind, their last will and testament is recorded at the master’s office.”

The department of home affairs also has records, such as death notices, births and marriages, of African people.  There are lots of sources of African records if you know where to look but, too often, people focus on European descent. 

Da Silva has been working on compiling a database of indigenous marriages in early Johannesburg. And FamilySearch is always looking for opportunities to digitise records. Van As says a good example of this is the apartheid-era “dompas”, or pass, records which the LDS church has been trying to track down for years, having heard there are shipping containers full of them somewhere. 

Van As advises a good way to get started is to contact family members. 

“Go back to the family village and sit down with the village elders to discuss your family. Find out who the first ancestors were and gather as much info as possible. Of course, bearing in mind many people have migrated from villages to the city, and don’t go back to their homes often. 

“Once you have that info, you can start adding it to 

“If you are allowed to, record the elders speaking — oral history recordings are important as it’s normally done in people’s own language.”

The LDS church has long recognised the significance of oral record-keeping. FamilySearch has been gathering oral histories in Africa for years, in over 14 countries and are expanding and looking to expand to several countries, including Malawi, Zambia and, hopefully, South Africa. 

“We have just done our millionth interview and from that preserved over 170-million names of people and their ancestors. This is something we are trying to do, so that we can provide an experience on FamilySearch for people that can’t get back to their villages, so then the village will come to them,” says Van As.  

He added, “We have over 10 000 field agents, who go to villages and do the interview on a cellphone. They also take a picture of the person, their family and the village. So, you have the pictures and audio. We then print out and bind all the info we have recorded, giving a copy back to the village and community.”

Cracking the code

Archival and oral history research go hand in hand with a DNA test. 

“The paper trail can be full of errors, so having your DNA tested will complement your paper research,” MacAlister says, “especially if you don’t know who your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were.” 

She recommends doing this on as it’s the best for an autosomal DNA test. Once you have got the results, you can download your DNA and upload it to platforms like MyHeritage, FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch, where you will find even more DNA matches.

The implication of DNA research is widespread and surprising. For example, the Continuum Project uses genetic science and the arts to explore the identity of African American children who descend from enslaved people. By testing their DNA, they can pinpoint where in Africa they originate from and instil pride in their heritage.

So, skeletons in the closet aside, researching your heritage, whether through oral history, archives or studying genetic makeup, is valuable. After learning about his ancestors on Finding Your Roots, actor Leslie Odom Jr said his search had led to a reimagining of himself. I couldn’t agree more — the roots of your family tree are like an anchor, keeping you steady in a storm.


The Beat Goes On: Melody Gardot in smoky jazz duo; a hot slate at the Drake, and more

The Beat Goes On: Melody Gardot in smoky jazz duo; a hot slate at the Drake, and more<br />

  • Singer Melody Garot teamed with pianist Phillipe Powell on “Entre Eux Deux.” She’s at the Academy of Music Sept. 11. CONTRIBUTED/MELODY GARDOT

  • Jazz drummer and composer Jonathan Barber and his ensemble Vision Ahead play the Drake in Amherst Sept. 8. COURTEST JONATHAN BARBER

  • Named for a glen in western Ireland, The Alt bring their unique Irish music to the Drake on Sept. 9. PHOTO BY DOUGLAS ROBERTSON

  • Matt Lorenz brings his one-man band The Suitcase Junket to the Drake in Amherst Sept. 10. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Jam band L’Eclair, from Switzerland, brings its deep instrumental grooves to the Drake Sept. 11. COURTESY L’ECLAIR

  • Tall Heights, the Boston duo of guitarist Tim Harrington and cellist Paul Wright, combine their tight vocals in a Sept. 7 show at Race Street Live in Holyoke. CONTRIBUTED/DSP SHOWS

  • Amherst native Mtali Shaka Banda and his ensemble bring a mix of funk, jazz, soul and more to Millpond Live in Easthampton on Sept. 9. Millpond Live website

Staff Writer

Monday, September 12, 2022

In the musical world, it’s now a classic comeback story: how jazz singer Melody Gardot, then 19 years old, was struck by a car while bicycling in her native Philadelphia in 2003 and suffered serious head and spinal injuries, a broken pelvis, and neurological damage that affected her movement and memory.

She was also left with hypersensitivity to light and sound and had to learn to walk again once she finally rose from her hospital bed.

But Gardot, who comes to the Academy of Music in Northampton on Sept. 11 at 8 p.m., spent part of her recovery time writing songs, learning how to play guitar while lying on her back, and in general drawing on music as a vital part of therapy. In nearly two decades since her accident, she’s released six albums and earned legions of fans — notably in Europe — who are drawn to her smoky jazz/blues voice, piano playing and songwriting.

Gardot, who speaks fluent French and knows other languages, too, has traveled and performed extensively in Europe; she calls herself a “citizen of the world.” As such she’s soaked up a lot of influences, and on her newest album, “Entre Eux Deux” (Between Us Two), released in May, she’s distilled some of those down to a spare soundscape of her vocals alongside piano accompaniment by French-Brazilian keyboardist Philippe Powell — the first time she hasn’t played piano on one of her albums.

“If I had to sum up the record in a few words,” Gardot said in an interview earlier this year, “I’d say it’s a dance between two people who love and value the same things: deep poetry and solid melodies … it’s a peek into the world of two artists who just really dig each other.”

The album’s 10 songs, which Gardot sings in English and French, came out of an intense two-week workshop the two friends held in Gardot’s Paris apartment, with a view of the Eiffel Tower, at which they wrote and shared lyrics, melodies and ideas. In that sense it’s really a duo album, with Powell singing harmony on a few tracks and the two sharing songwriting credits on a number of the tunes.

It’s music for late, quiet nights and contemplative moments, with a few covers as well, including “Plus Fort que Nous” from the classic French film “Un Homme et Une Femme.” Jazzwise calls the album “good stuff, the best album Gardot has yet made. Give it a try, you might like it; and if you’re a fan of brooding torch songs, you’ll probably love it.”

French/American Jazz singer Laura Anglade, who’s drawn comparisons to Anita O’Day, Shirley Horn and Blossom Dearie, opens the show.

Since opening this spring, the Drake in Amherst has built a reputation for putting together a wide-ranging, eclectic lineup, and this weekend over four consecutive nights the downtown club hosts a jazz drummer, traditional Irish music, a one-man folk-rock band, and two rock bands with unique sounds — in that order.

Red-hot jazz drummer Jonathan Barber, voted the top up-and-coming drummer of 2018 by the readers of Modern Drummer, started things off Thursday.

On Friday at 7 p.m., The Alt — Irish musicians John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy, and Eamon O’Leary — come to the Drake to offer instrumental interplay that Acoustic Guitar Magazine calls “telepathic and miraculous.” Combining on guitar, bouzouki, flute, and vocals, the three musicians are all notable folk performers in their own right but together create a sound that “is really a celebration of friendship and song,” as they put it.

Then on Saturday, at 8 p.m., the Drake welcomes Valley favorite The Suitcase Junket, aka Matt Lorenz, who specializes in playing guitar and singing while playing a homemade drum kit with his feet. He’s also been known to play the cymbals while holding a drumstick in the same hand he’s using to strum his guitar. He’s a versatile man.

Finally, the Swiss instrumental ensemble L’Eclair, which offers the kind of danceable grooves alternately called “expansive” and “spacey” — SPIN describes the band as “jamming their way to instrumental bliss” — will be at the Drake Sunday at 8 p.m. Valley rockers Carinae open the show.

If you’re looking for more musical variety, you can likely find it at Millpond Live, the free (donations encouraged) outdoor concert series that takes place at Easthampton’s Millside Park, which this year begins on Friday and Saturday with six bands playing everything from electronic fusion and R&B to Latin American rhythms to a variety of jazz. (Additional shows take place Sept. 16 and 17.)

Of particular note at the Friday concert, which runs from 6 to 10 p.m., is Mtali Shaka Banda and his ensemble. Banda, a saxophonist, is an Amherst native and the son of a Malawian refugee father and an African American mother. Growing up he also spent several years in Wisconsin and Georgia, then was back in Massachusetts in Brockton, followed by a move to Israel when he was 18.

Now living in Massachusetts again, Banda has absorbed numerous influences during his journeys — jazz, funk, soul, folk, R&B and hip hop — and his music also contains elements of travelogue, memoir and family history. One thing he doesn’t play, he says, is classical: “I have too much backbeat in me.”

Visit to see a list of other performers at the festival. 

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at For more Beat Goes On news about musical happenings around the Valley, check out the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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The uncomfortable lessons of the new Fourth Plinth statues Arts feature

The Revd John Chilembwe – whose statue will adorn Trafalgar Square from next Wednesday – is notorious for the church service he conducted beneath the severed head of William Jervis Livingstone, a Scottish plantation manager with a reputation for mistreating his workers. The night before, Chilembwe’s followers had broken into his house and chased him from room to room as he tried to fend them off with an unloaded rifle. Eventually, they pinned him down and decapitated him in front of his wife and children. It was the most significant action in the 1915 Chilembwe rebellion, a small, short-lived affair in an obscure corner of the British Empire today known as Malawi.

It says a lot about our times that a figure with Chilembwe’s record should be vaunted with a public statue. The Fourth Plinth Commission announced the decision in July last year, when dispute about statues was intense. The summer before, Black Lives Matter riots had erupted in Britain. Edward Colston was torn down, Gandhi and Churchill were daubed with graffiti. The Chilembwe statue was chosen to shine ‘a spotlight on important issues that our society continues to face’, said Sadiq Khan. In other words, it was a deliberate salvo in the already heated culture wars. But Chilembwe’s real story is an ambiguous one, and I wonder if the Fourth Plinth Commission has got more than it bargained for with this particular contribution to the vexed debate about our past.

The installation is actually a pair of statues: the second figure is John Chorley, an otherwise unremarkable English missionary who was Chilembwe’s friend. An iconic photograph exists of the two men standing together, and it is on this that the statues are based. The artist, Samson Kambalu – a Malawian professor of fine art at Oxford – has cast Chorley much smaller, to diminish him and exalt Chilembwe. Nevertheless, what is astonishing is that Chorley should be there at all: a white missionary to Africa is hardly a common subject for public statuary in the age of identity politics.

‘We have to start putting detail to the black experience… to the African experience, to the post-colonial experience,’ Kambalu has rightly said. And to that end, the story of Malawi is especially useful because it encapsulates so much of Britain’s imperial record in Africa. But it comes with a trigger warning: this is not a straightforward tale of black and white, good and evil. The detail is complicated, and sometimes uncomfortable.

Why is Chorley on the plinth with Chilembwe? Ultimately because British missionaries were essential in the formation of modern Malawi. Before their arrival, it was the land that fed the vast Indian Ocean slave trade, whose largest market was in Zanzibar. For centuries, the Arabs and their indigenous, Islamised accomplices had been capturing and trading slaves in incalculable numbers. David Livingstone called it ‘the open sore of the world’. The issue obsessed him and, in response, he stirred up one of the greatest moral crusades of modern times.

From the 1850s onwards, thousands of young men answered Livingstone’s call, and volunteered for missionary service in Central Africa. In the early years, they died in droves, mostly of disease, their graves scattered throughout the region, and still venerated today. But their sacrifice was matched by their achievement. The societies they encountered were near disintegration thanks to slave raids, war and the ensuing disorder and famine. When the missionaries proposed peace and goodwill to all men, their message was widely welcomed.

Of course the slavers resisted, and an early attempt at armed confrontation ended in disaster. Thereafter, the missionaries operated mainly just through a heroic appeal to better nature. Only a handful of slaver strongholds were subdued by force after the British government had reluctantly established a protectorate in 1891. Otherwise, it is striking how peacefully slavery was extirpated from Malawi. The missionaries then established schools and colleges of towering academic ambition, which quickly produced the first crop of campaigners for independence.

The flip side to missionary endeavour was the colonisation that quickly followed. White settlers and entrepreneurs never came in large numbers as in Kenya or Rhodesia, but the society they created was nonetheless like those that existed throughout the Empire: capable of cruel exploitation, and always permeated with racial injustice. It was against this that Chilembwe reacted with violence.

Born in the 1870s, his mother seems to have been a slave, his father her captor. As a young man, Chilembwe became the servant of an unsuccessful, itinerant English missionary called Joseph Booth, who was to prove the major influence of his life. Booth was a born-again Christian, a socialist, and a fervent critic of colonialism. He was also an enthusiast of an evangelical American cult that believed Christ had returned to Earth a few years earlier and was biding his time until the Battle of Armageddon, scheduled for 1915.

In 1897, Booth took Chilembwe to the United States on a fund-raising tour. The pair were fêted by black American churches, and Chilembwe was sponsored to enrol at a Baptist seminary in Virginia. Two years later, he returned to Malawi as a pastor and founded his own mission. At first he prospered, but his radicalism – acquired from Booth and from America – put him at odds with colonial society, which regarded him with suspicion and disdain. He quarrelled with his white neighbours and denounced them and the government in his sermons. This was grudgingly tolerated until the Germans invaded the colony in 1914, and Chilembwe wrote to a local newspaper objecting to Africans fighting in a war that did not concern them. In response, the authorities decided to deport him. His health and business ventures had been deteriorating for some time. It was also 1915: the year appointed for apocalypse. In what seems to have been a knowingly reckless decision, Chilembwe incited his congregation to rebellion.

Besides the infamous decapitation, the rebels attacked another plantation manager and a business in the town of Blantyre. But far from rising in support, the local population responded with bewilderment and, later, even hostility. A further attack was attempted on a nearby mission station, with whose leaders Chilembwe had long feuded. But the rebels found the place already evacuated, apart from one sick child too unwell to leave, and a missionary who had stayed behind to look after her. The rebels tried to stab him to death, though he later recovered from his wounds.

Everything then petered out as government forces ruthlessly took control of the situation. In the aftermath, 36 of the rebels were sentenced to death, 300 imprisoned. Chilembwe fled into the forest where he was hunted down and shot dead by askaris. His final act had been to write to the Germans seeking alliance. Though the message failed to reach them in time, it was an unedifying gesture. Just a few years before, Germany had suppressed a rebellion in its immense colony to the north by massacring up to 300,000 people.

So why should Chilembwe be celebrated at all? It would, from one angle, be easy to condemn him as a murderous lunatic of little real consequence. And yet there is a poignancy to his example. ‘We will all die by the heavy blow of the whiteman’s army,’ he is reported to have said on the eve of the uprising. ‘The whitemen will think, after we are dead, that the treatment they are treating our people is bad, and they might change to the better for our people.’ In these words, there is dignity of purpose as well as real foresight by which it is difficult not to be moved. Chilembwe bequeathed an example of defiance, courage and sacrifice. The next generation took inspiration from this, though they chose mostly peaceful means in their pursuit of independence. When this was granted in 1964, one of Chilembwe’s own children was still alive to see it.

When you examine the detail, you can ignore neither the injustice nor the beneficence of Empire: both are essential to the story of Malawi. If we celebrate Chilembwe as a hero, there are many others we should also acknowledge, especially the British missionaries: ‘Men good and brave who, to advance knowledge, set free the slave, and hasten Christ’s kingdom in Africa, loved not their lives even unto death’ – to quote the plaque that commemorates them in Zanzibar’s Anglican cathedral.

It is these contradictions that Kambalu captures so admirably, and without rancour, in his pair of statues. Our sententious age needs urgently to be reminded that history is complicated, and the figures who have shaped it are seldom unproblematic. In atonement for his faults, perhaps Chilembwe can now teach us to learn from statues, rather than topple them. Let the Fourth Plinth be his cenotaph, and a place for us all to make peace with our past.

Samson Kambalu’s Fourth Plinth commission, ‘Antelope’, will be unveiled on 14 September. Alexander Chula’s book, Goodbye, Dr Banda, on Malawi and the West, will be published by Polygon in March 2023.


The 101 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

To help you make your next streaming selection at home, we’ve rounded up the best movies on Netflix.

For this list, all feature films are fair game. Here there are classic dramas and comedies; powerful small-budget fare you’ve probably never heard of; kids’ movies; lots of scary horror, pulse-pounding action flicks and thrillers; illuminating documentaries—there’s a lot of sexy stuff, guilty pleasures, some foreign-language offerings, and so much more. We’ve included Netflix original films, and the movies they’ve acquired.

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Governance systems can aid seamless leadership transitions


Moments of leadership transition reveal much about the governance systems and processes in an organisation. The more robust the institutional arrangements are, the more seamless the transition. Since leadership is custodial and not permanent, effective transitions also entail learning from those you are replacing and sharing insights when you are replaced.

Leaving an institution and a place where one has spent several years is always bittersweet. Whatever challenges one faces, one develops the beguiling comforts of familiarity. In my case, as I shared in the previous reflection, I also experienced the complex joys of leadership that left me with a certain wistfulness as I prepared for departure from the United States International University Africa (USIU-Africa) back to the US.

The ambiguous comforts of home

During my vice-chancellorship my wife and I simultaneously felt both at home and away from home, suspended in an ambiguous existential space that was mutually empowering and discordant.

We represented two faces of the African diaspora. As an African American, it was the first time my wife’s Blackness was valorised. As a member of the new diaspora, I relished the inconsequentiality of my Blackness. Both of us felt temporarily liberated from the persistent assaults of racism in the US. But we were always reminded of our foreignness, respectfully for her and grudgingly for me.

One of the things we missed most was the social conviviality with friends and work colleagues that we had previously enjoyed abundantly in all the cities we lived prior to moving to Nairobi.

Of course, in my official capacity as vice-chancellor (VC) I interacted with hundreds of people – state officials, corporate executives, higher education personnel, and ordinary people on campus, at their premises, and other venues. In the first few years, we eagerly hosted social events at our home or at restaurants, as we were used to, but they were rarely reciprocated.

Over the six years there, we never visited the homes of any of our university colleagues. Only one member each of the Board of Trustees and University Council and the chancellor invited us to their homes. Among fellow university leaders, we went for dinner once to the house of another vice-chancellor who was himself a foreigner.

Talking to other African expatriates, we realised this was their experience as well. So, we mostly spent our free time by ourselves. Every opportunity we had we scoured Kenya’s legendary tourist sites from the beautiful resorts in Naivasha and Mombasa to the breathtaking national game parks of Maasai Mara, Tsavo, and Nairobi itself. We savoured going for dinners and weekend brunches at the city’s fine restaurants.

Occasionally, before the pandemic, we would be accompanied by periodic visitors from Southern Africa, North America, Europe, and Asia. A glaring absence was our daughter, Natasha Thandile, who never visited.

The beauty of being in Nairobi is its accessibility as a regional hub. We took full advantage and jetted, whenever an opportunity arose, to Kampala in Uganda, Kigali in Rwanda, and Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and even more frequently to my native homeland, Malawi, as well as Botswana and South Africa, where I also have family and many friends.

We spent the Christmas holidays in the US, except in 2019 when we went to Malawi. It was magical, largely because my son, Mwai, got engaged to a wonderful woman, Sylvia. That was the last time I saw my son.

The Annus Horribilis of 2021

Besides the pressures of managing the pandemic with my colleagues, 2021 was personally a difficult year. In mid-January we lost Mwai to the pandemic. It was one of the most devastating events of my life.

The pain was indescribable, worsened by the fact that due to COVID-19 protocols in Malawi at the time, where he died while on vacation from his job in Mozambique, burial of COVID-19 fatalities had to be conducted within 24 hours and there was no way my wife and I could attend the funeral. We watched it on video, in the cruellest send-off to the unfathomable beyond.

Natasha, isolated in Atlanta, was distraught beyond words at losing her big brother. We tried our best to comfort her, commiserate with her, and be there for her.

We couldn’t wait to re-join and live closer to Natasha and my wife’s family. A decision we had made six years earlier to serve one term suddenly acquired an uncanny prescience. The eager anticipation of reuniting with family and old friends gave us a semblance of solace in the suffocating cloistered life of the pandemic.

After a week’s bereavement leave, my work as vice-chancellor resumed at its unrelenting pace. As management we primarily focused on handling the grim ramifications of the pandemic. As I noted in a previous reflection, except for a few recalcitrants who sought to use the crisis for their own pre-existing sectarian and selfish ends, the university community rallied together – faculty taught, students attended classes, and staff discharged their administrative duties.

The management continued to work well as a team, drawing on the university’s existing business continuity plan and iterative crisis management strategies developed during the pandemic, derived from exhaustive internal analyses and external benchmarking with universities in Kenya, across Africa, in the United States, and elsewhere.

Such are the infinite mysteries of life that even in excruciating times, there are currents of personal and professional uplift. For me, these included the launch of my book, Africa and the Disruptions of the Twenty-First Century, on 25 March 2021, mostly written in 2020 during the pandemic.

Most gratifying was teaching my last class in the 2021 spring semester, which made me appreciate what faculty and students were going through during the pandemic. A particularly joyous occasion was the ceremony marking the donation of my personal library and archives to the university.

In addition, my family planned to set up an endowed scholarship fund in memory of my son. I asked the relevant manager to give me an estimate for 12 scholarships. We intended to fund two students from each of Africa’s five internal regions and the sixth diaspora region. I never got the estimates despite repeated requests.

It was a disappointing reminder of the underdevelopment of fundraising in African higher education that I discussed in an earlier reflection, which I worked hard to change at USIU-Africa.

For more than two years after our director of advancement left, we failed to hire a replacement because of the dearth of university development talent in the local market and lack of resources to recruit internationally. So overwhelming was the success in securing the unprecedentedly large scholarship and e-learning grants from the Mastercard Foundation, which I actively cultivated, that other opportunities were not pursued.

Still, there were more slices of professional joy. One was completing the strategic plan for 2020-25, which was approved, in fall 2021. Another was overseeing the completion of a new building for the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the largest construction project in the university’s history. I was also delighted to sign an MOU with a private property developer securing 1200 beds for student accommodation.

Preparing for departure

On my last day before taking my long-delayed leave pending the end of my contract in December 2021, I conducted an interview with the Sunday Standard. The journalist wrote: “When he walks you through the campus, one gets the sense of great achievement from a man proud of what he has done. But still, one gets a sense of a man who still has a lot of ideas for the institution.

Given the chance, would he stay on longer?

‘No. When I took the job my wife and I agreed that I will only do one term as the vice-chancellor, so I would like to keep my word,’ he says.

‘Plus, I think I have done all I could do. I do not want to overstay in this position of authority like so many of our presidents and corporate bosses. Sometimes you have to pass on the baton to the future generations.’”

I concluded that I had a life before I became a VC, and I would have a life afterwards. I didn’t believe in leadership that lasts decades depriving institutions of the oxygen of periodic renewal.

Besides, it’s good to leave when you still have the energy and inclination to do something else, to reinvent yourself. Thus, I looked forward to the next phase of my personal and professional life.

Neither in that interview nor in conversations with university colleagues did I let on that I had already informed the chairs of the board and council and the chancellor of my decision to leave at the end of my contract.

I wrote them on 1 November 2020, 14 months ahead of time. Although the contract did not require such a long advance notice, I thought it essential to give the university enough time to recruit my successor.

In the letter I reassured them that I would dedicate my last year meeting institutional priorities and navigating the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I would always cherish my experiences at the university, the opportunity to return to Kenya and the continent after spending 25 years in Canada and the UE. I shared with them how I found the energies, vibrancy, demands, and aspirations of the youth, who comprise much of the population across Africa, so uplifting.

I also noted I had come to understand more keenly the continent’s huge educational and developmental challenges, and the need to get our institutions right, our politics right, and our economics right for inclusive, innovative, integrated, and sustainable democratic development.

This invaluable experience had broadened, deepened, and would enrich my future research on higher education, as I now better understood the institutional, intellectual, and ideological contexts and constraints, perils and possibilities of African universities.

Specifically, working at USIU-Africa had been immensely gratifying because I met some wonderful people among students, staff, faculty and colleagues in the various governance bodies.

However, I had also been struck, I said, by a mindset of exceptionalism and entitlement, which could propel us towards excellence and continuous improvement in being the best of ourselves. But it also bred a troubling blindness to the realities around us, opposition to change, risk averseness, a culture of low expectations, of satisfaction with so little.

Overall, I stressed that my experiences as VC had been among the most rewarding of my personal and professional life. I had certainly given the position my all and learned much about the challenges and opportunities of university leadership.

Under my tenure the university had continued to make significant strides in its remarkable journey that began more than 50 years ago as Kenya’s first private, secular, and international university. I concluded that I was committed to working with the board and council for a smooth transition to serve the university’s best interests.

Moments of leadership transition reveal the strengths and weaknesses of governance systems and processes in a country or an organisation. The more mature and robust the institutional organs and arrangements are, the more seamless the transition.

There was no response to my letter, which I had sent before the annual November leadership retreat of the board, council, and management. I expected it would be discussed during the executive session. That didn’t happen.

The matter was also not discussed in the meetings of the council and board in February and March 2021. To no avail, I kept asking the council chair why there was no response to my letter and an announcement made to the university community, or the search process for my successor commenced.

The news of my impending departure came out of the bag, inadvertently, in late March when the vice chair of the council wrote the university secretary and another member of management asking them about university procedures for appointing a new vice-chancellor. That forced me to share the notification with my management colleagues.

I wanted the council to make an announcement and start the search. I was told the inaction was because of sensitivity to my grief. I found it deeply offensive since I had returned to work after the permissible five days bereavement leave, and besides my notice had been sent two and half months before my son passed away.

Several weeks later I broke the news to the university senate to avoid rumours. Only then did the council finally make an announcement to the university community. More than six months had passed since I served notice of my departure. Living in a culture where leaders cling to office past their sell-by date, I wondered if people were shocked that I would leave after one term.

If the council had acted with due diligence, a new VC would have been in place by the time I went on leave, and I would have spent time with him – or her – for a smooth transition.

In my administrative life I have always valued effective transitions, learning from those I’m replacing and sharing my insights with those who are replacing me. Because in the end leadership positions are custodial, they’re not permanent.

A couple of weeks before I left, it was announced that my predecessor, who had previously served for 21 years, would be returning as acting VC for nine months as the search for a new VC proceeded. There was no time for a proper in-person transition, and when I wrote to her immediately after I had resettled in the US, she didn’t respond. I did receive a WhatsApp in which she asked me to stop writing these reflections.

Individuals, organisations, and nations that are not confident enough to engage in vigorous self-critique are doomed to wallow in complacent, unredeemable mediocrity.

Excavating and exposing the complex and contradictory lived realities behind the facade of institutional branding is quite challenging, and even unwelcome to some.

However, critical assessment is essential for continuous growth and improvement.

As an historian, I believe more African leaders, whatever their sector, should write about their experiences as part of the historical record that might be informative and instructive to aspiring and future leaders.

In mid-July 2022, the appointment of my successor, another American, was finally announced. The new VC was scheduled to start on 1 September 2022, almost two years after I had sent my notification letter.

I left Nairobi on a lovely Friday night in late August, on my first flight since the beginning of the pandemic. More than 24 hours later I arrived back in my diaspora home in the US.

I looked forward to living in a new city and state, and what seemed like a new country transformed during the six years I lived abroad on my beloved continent.

I was eager for a fresh phase in my professional life without the all-consuming demands of executive leadership in a remarkable, ascendant, if resource-challenged university, which taught me, and to which I gave, so much.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza is currently the North Star distinguished professor and associate provost at Case Western Reserve University, a private institution in Cleveland, Ohio, in the United States. This commentary is the ninth of a series of reflections on various aspects of his experiences over six years as the vice-chancellor of the United States International University Africa and reflects his personal opinions. The original article has been edited and shortened.