Gratitude: Reflections on a Landmark Birthday

By Prof. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

My family had planned a landmark 65th birthday celebration for me in Atlanta, Georgia, where my daughter lives and a city we cherish. But the coronavirus pandemic put rest to those plans. Just as it frustrated preparations for my son’s long-anticipated wedding on 10th May in Lilongwe, Malawi. I certainly miss the opportunity to meet my relatives and friends on both occasions.

Prof. Paul Zeleza at his Nairobi home.

However, I’m infinitely grateful that they are all safe and healthy, and that I’m fortunate enough to have reached this milestone. I was born in the midst of Africa’s decolonization, the most important event of the 20th century, on a day, May 25, that later came to be marked as Africa Day. I witnessed the protracted liberation struggles of the settler laagers of Southern Africa, the region of my birth and upbringing. I was at Grant Park in Chicago, where I lived at the time, on the night of November 4, 2008, to celebrate the election of the first African diaspora president of the US. I experienced the end of the Cold War, and the onset of historic hegemonic shifts in the global order with the rise of China and emerging economies including many in Africa as the continent recovered from the “lost decades” of insane neo-liberal austerities in the 1980s and 1990s.

It’s been a rich life, with its predictable trials and tribulations, tragedies and triumphs. Most painfully the untimely deaths of four siblings, and losing my adored and devoted mother at 51 and my generous and dedicated father at 85. Most joyfully the births and graduation from college of my two children, Mwai and Natasha, who taught me the infinite power of selfless love. They have matured into beautiful people and admirable adults. And a long, loving marriage with Cassandra, the charming friend of my mind and muse of my heart, a relationship which has made me become a better man.

Professionally, there are the journeys and joys of studying and working in twelve universities in six countries on three continents and the Caribbean region. There is the privilege of finishing my PhD at 26 and scaling to full professorship in my late thirties, and occupying almost every position in academe including currently that of a university vice chancellor/president. There is the honor of becoming a recognized scholar and public intellectual invited to academic forums in dozens of countries and sit on numerous editorial and other boards. It is all truly humbling for a son of working class parents with little formal schooling.

My major remaining personal dream is to become a grandfather by any means possible. My daughter cheekily advises me to adopt! Professionally, it is to continue contributing to the development of higher education fit for our young people in the 21st century with its bewildering transformations and complex demands. Politically, it is to lend my intellectual voice to progressive Pan-African causes for the advancement and empowerment of my beloved continent and the Diaspora.

As I reflect on the amazing personal and professional expeditions of my life, I am grateful to my incredibly supportive family and network of friends around the world. To them all, eternal gratitude for enriching the meaning of my life. I know while I won’t meet many of them in person in Atlanta as originally planned, they are with us in spirit as Cassandra and I celebrate this special birthday, just the two of us, at our home in Nairobi, a city that we both love and have called home for the past four and half years.

I trust you will all continue keeping safe and well.

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