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Taju’s love for young and old

I believe that Tajudeen loved young people because he could see in them the potential to transform society for the better before it transformed individuals for the worse

My last two discussions with Tajudeen occurred during a party he threw at his home in Nairobi the night before his abortive trip to Rwanda, and on the telephone the following day while he was being driven back from the airport having missed the flight to Kigali.

Tajudeen’s last dinner party at his apartment in Westlands was a truly happy occasion. Good humour was his trademark, and part of what made Tajudeen so very popular. But on this occasion he was exceptionally cheerful.

When Taju phoned to invite me to the gathering, I promised to bring some food. He told me: ‘Don’t bother yourself, just bring yourself’. Usually I didn’t bother myself. Famed for his culinary skills, as much as his very real gender sensitivity, Tajudeen always put on a feast. At the centre of this was always the Tajudeen special hot pepper soup, with which no one could compete. But this time, for some reason I couldn’t explain, I felt the urge to contribute something to Taju’s dinner party. I prepared groundnut stew and went out of my way to add plenty of fiery ojeηma (‘Scotch bonnet’) peppers so that Tajudeen wouldn’t ask for more pepper, as he did whenever he visited us at my mother’s house in London, from where I had moved to Nairobi.

Taju was delighted when I turned up at his dinner party with my two daughters, Qondi and Zandi, and two of their school friends. Qondi and Zandi adored their Uncle Taju and he adored them. In London, Tajudeen and his wife Mounira were practically our neighbours and the girls had known their daughters Aida and Ayesha from a young age. My daughters had known Uncle Taju for a few years longer than Aida and Ayesha because of his visits to Zimbabwe, where they were born and spent their formative years. We were amazed by the coincidence when we arrived in Nairobi and discovered that having shared a T-junction near our homes in London, I was sharing an office car park with Uncle Tajudeen in Nairobi.

During that last evening, as Uncle Tajudeen’s spirit soared, he joked at least three times that he was coming to the girls’ school to make a party for them. Qondi and Zandi warmed up to the joke.

During the course of the evening, we found time to discuss a book project that had been pending for two years. I was editing a series of papers given during a symposium I had convened at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), soon before I left London for Nairobi in 2007. I had organised the two-day symposium, ‘Reflections on 50 Years of Independence’ to mark the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence in a Pan-African context. Tajudeen had been one of the speakers and I had decided to name the book after the title I had given him for his presentation: The Political Kingdom Today. Other speakers had been Nkrumah’s biographer June Milne, Gorkeh Gamal Nkrumah, Yao Graham, Wangui wa Goro, Hakim Adi and John Christensen. Ama Biney was also due to speak, on Tajudeen’s recommendation. She was unwell and unable to attend, but sent her contribution later.

Typically, Tajudeen had given his presentation extempore. We agreed that we would meet the following weekend, upon his return from Kigali, and finalise his chapter.

The following day I phoned Taju to thank him for the dinner party and to ask him when I could come for my serving dishes. I had put the groundnut stew in some exquisite Tunisian dishes that Tajudeen had brought to Zimbabwe as a wedding present from him and Mounira when I married Sam Moyo. ‘Don’t worry, they will be there when I get back,’ Tajudeen joked. ‘Don’t worry’ was one of Taju’s favourite sayings, and though I was not ready to send my precious plates back to their givers permanently, I agreed to wait. He noted that I had added enough pepper to my cooking this time.

It was early Sunday afternoon and Tajudeen was on his way home from the airport having missed the flight to Kigali. He said he had been going to meet President Kagame but it was not a big deal since there was another flight that night. But, ever worried about the other man, he said he would drive himself and leave his car at the airport, as he didn’t want to disturb his driver again. There was no way of knowing that that characteristically thoughtful gesture was to cost Tajudeen his life. It was during that fateful last journey to Jomo Kenyatta International Airport that Tajudeen hit some roadworks and was fatally thrown from his car onto the airport road at Enterprise Road junction. The impact of the crash pulled his seatbelt out of its socket.

Hours before, during that last conversation, we talked about some trouble I had got myself into over a policy briefing paper about the DRC conflict that had displeased the Rwandan government. ‘Send Kagame my greetings,’ I joked. ‘I will tell Paul Kagame that your organisation doesn’t hate him,’ Tajudeen joked back.

We reminded ourselves that we would meet the next weekend following his return from Kigali to work on the book project. The title I had settled on was The Political Kingdom Today: Reflections on 50 Years of African Independence. ‘I only need one day to write my paper, but how to find that one day...’, Tajudeen had been telling me. We had agreed that we would sit down for a whole day and get his reflection out of his head and onto my laptop.

It had been interesting to observe at that symposium Tajudeen’s effect on young people. My young-teen daughters were in attendance, but had been dozing through the symposium, having travelled from a school trip to France the day before. But when Tajudeen took the podium to speak, they became alert and I was surprised to see them laughing unrestrainedly at his political jokes.

Tajudeen loved young people and they loved him. I got to see the Hauwa memorial college and the Pan-African Development Education Advocacy Programme (PADAEP) centre at Funtua when I travelled with Qondi and Zandi for Uncle Tajudeen’s funeral. They were the perfect Tajudeen projects, the projection of his character and his love for young people. I believe that Tajudeen loved young people because he could see in them the potential to transform society for the better before it transformed individuals for the worse.

Young people were convinced by his message because it was so genuine and free of artifice, and because he could connect with them at different levels and make them feel relaxed and valued.

It is also fair to say that Tajudeen respected the memory of elders and held the mother figure in high esteem. My octogenarian mother too attended the symposium at SOAS and, being a political animal herself, was thrilled by Tajudeen’s presentation. After I moved to Nairobi, Taju continued to drop in on my mother whenever he passed through London and his visits were like a tonic for her. I could hear their peals of laughter in my head as they shared memories of the Nkrumah years or debated the shortcomings of successive British governments.

It is so fitting that Tajudeen’s fourth anniversary, coinciding as it does with the 50th anniversary of the OAU/AU, should involve young students in a mock AU summit and include a prize giving at Hauwa Memorial College, which Tajudeen conceived to honour his mother.

Brother Tajudeen, your loving spirit is with us still.


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