As I write, hundreds are gathered in Harare to bid farewell to my brother Sam, one week after he joined the ancestors, sent there from a New Delhi hospital by one of those wheeled demons that have struck before, robbing usof Africa’s finest. It’s been a dread week coming to terms with this loss. We lived on different continents for most of the 34 years we have known each other, but each meeting, sometimes after long periods of sporadic communication, was a joyous reunion of family and intellect.
I remember well our first such meeting, in the staff club of the University of Calabar (UNICAL) in Nigeria, where we had both been teaching. To this newcomer he offered a drink, a real drink, but I the teetotaller passed. His disappointment soon evaporated as we discoveredcommon ground, such as schooling in the interventions of a golden generation of African thinkers – Samir Amin, Archie Mafeje, Walter Rodney, Amilcar Cabral, Cheik Anta Diop, to name a few. And there was the mutual interest in liming and parties, though Sam’szest for life made me question my own bona fides: I was supposed to be the representative of Trinidad, island of liming and fete. Sam had visited, and seemed to have retained more of Trinidad’s spirit than I had. He introduced me to his favourite Calabar nightspot, where he would sit with beer, smoke and conversation at hand, discussing Nigeria and Africa’s present and future, in between marvelling at the movements of Efik dancers on stage, the most graceful he had seen in West Africa. When we could sit no more to the Highlife music, we moved with others onto the dance floor.
Not much older than his students, Sam had an easy rapport with them,and was highly regarded for the sharp intellect and rigor he brought to the classroom. More than age he connected with humility and charm, loads of it, which extended his popularity well beyond the student body. Young and old, men, women, children, Sam was a welcomed presencewherever we journeyed. He was warm and kind, he went out of his way to assist, he made people feel good,and he loved laughter. I introduced him to a Trinidadian nurse in Calabar, who should have been a stand-up comic, and was harassed thereafter to take him on visits to her place, where he could curl up on the sofawith laughter, requesting another, and another joke, none of which I can repeat in this forum.
But amidst Sam’s fun and laughter then there was sadness. A brilliant student, hewas part of a worldwide migration of Zimbabwe’s brightest, forced out in search of higher education by the inequities of settler colonialism. He excelled with his first degree in Sierra Leone. Graduate school in Canada followed and fieldwork in geography took him to southeastern Nigeria. When research funding ran out, he found employment teaching at UNICAL, which superseded his research. It brought a second unhappiness, further compounded by the unhappiness of a life in exile.Exile from family and friends who nurtured and grew with him in Highfield, a Harare township, from the Ndebele and Shona languages that were his own, from a future in which he could feel invested, as the Nigerians around him felt, at that time. Sam made community wherever he went, but it was not home. He returned to Zimbabwe in 1983 and was never uprooted again, even when things looked dire and some abroad tried to entice with job offers.
Years after his return to Zimbabwe, a Nigerian colleague from Calabar days asked me: ah, ah, is this the same Sam Moyo who is writing all thosebooks and articles, the one from the staff club, the guy who liked pepper soup and beer? And it was indeed the same Sam, liberated by the liberation of Zimbabwe, and still drinking pepper soup and beer. He had found new purpose and energy in the determination of countrywomen and men to build new lives and institutions, and clung to his search for an alternative world when contemporaries faded, sometimes lured by the power and acquisitiveness that access to the state and/or capital made possible. At the newly established Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies (ZIDS), he carved a space for his interest in Zimbabwe’s land question, long, long before it became the fashionable topic it is today, and never relented. In the years that followed, work became the glue that held Sam’s life together; it was his religion.
Workaholic Sam researched, wrote, and helped build independent institutions, from Harare to Dakar, guided by a passion for furthering the mission of national liberation, and understanding, like those thinkers with whom he was grounded when first we met, that with the attainment of juridical independence, the work had only just begun. Whenever we met, in Zimbabwe or elsewhere, the conversations about his latest research and thinking around the land question resumed with energy, as did those about the difficulties and joys of developing institutions like ZIDS, ZERO, SAPES Trust, CODESRIA and his brain child, the African Institute for Agrarian Studies (AIAS). All efforts at creating spaces where Africans could set the agenda in the pursuit of thought and knowledge about the world in which they lived.
On the land question, Sam’s voluminous scholarship revealed clear and consistent answers on the urgency of redistribution, and these weren’t centred only on calls for reparative justice. With deep roots in agrarian studies, he saw land reform in Zimbabwe’s agrarian based society as inextricably linked to issues of increased productivity, sustainable development, and popular democracy, in an age of global dispossessions by capital. From his perspective, the “willing seller, willing buyer” compromise of the Lancaster House Agreement that ushered in independence, and the intransigence of settler and foreign capital, weren’t the only constraints on the slow pace of land reform in the first two decades of independence.
He and his collaborator, Paris Yeros, who survived the accident in New Delhi, did not shy away from exploring the class character of political leadership in Zimbabwe in relation to land reform. One observation in their scholarship was the way in which many an elite bought into a discourse that saw large-scale farming, white and black, as productive and peasant production as unproductive. It was not an outlook that was going to send them scrambling to find ways of redistributing land to the people, unless the people intervened in making another history. One pillar of Sam’s scholarship was an abiding faith in the capacity of small producers, of ordinary people, to do seemingly miraculous things if provided the resources to do so. Land reform was a necessary beginning in bringing those resources to them.
In the heightened passions generated in Zimbabwe by a mix of fast track land reform, authoritarian politics, violence, and multifaceted interventions from the West, there were those who tried unsuccessfully to peg Sam as lackey to reigning power, often for not sounding like a human rights activist. But the Sam Moyo I knew was too unschooled in genuflecting to power and partisan politics for the label to stick. In Calabar, it was difficult to pin him firmly on a side in the fractious nationalist politics of ZANU-ZAPU. He debated as a Zimbabwean and was one of those who did not see support and critique as mutually exclusive exercises.
At home in Zimbabwe, he knew with certainty that he could not be part of an opposition platform that included the mobilization of settler capital in support of striking workers, and a conversation on land reform that was at best muted. And he also knew that while he was no trumpeter for ruling power, he was not going to let stand an argument on which right and left often converged: fast track land reform was nothing but a land grab by greedy and corrupt African elites, masked in anti-imperialist rhetoric.
The independent research of Sam and his AIAS blew that and other myths apart, revealing broad-based redistribution, with ordinary families charting new and improved lives on the land, in an economic climate that remains difficult. Now that researchers “from foreign” - as we say in the Caribbean - have begun to concur, the debate is shifting to the realities on the ground. Sam Moyo’s name will continue to loom large as the debates are engaged, in Zimbabwe and beyond.
Walk tall my dear brother; you left a mighty legacy.
David Johnson is a historian of Africa.