Kotoka International Airport , Accra, was the last place I ran into Sam, seated in the departure lounge after a workshop on the land questions that he devoted his intellectual life to. We shared a beer, talked with intimacy about his life and mine, how both are inflected with the disparate ancestral and present-day contradictions that typify our generation, and discussed how these might inform both intellectual endeavours and activism. On this occasion, Sam reflected on the early days he spent in Calabar, Nigeria, and how the very different organization of land that he found In West Africa transformed his hitherto Southern African thinking. We reminisced too, recalling earlier visions of what the African scholarly community could become. A favourite we shared is the often-discussed dream of an ‘African Bellagio’ (which we would name differently, of course), possibly on the shores of Lake Malawi, where African scholars and researchers could overcome the vagaries of our variously precarious conditions, coming together to concentrate our best energies and skills, to re-inspire and re-connect, and to pursue the redistributive transformations that lie ahead, that we know must happen.
A complex personal history may go some way to explaining Sam’s remarkable, incisive and visionary intellect, and the manner in which this was coupled with all-embracing generosity of spirit. The rigorous scholarly work he carried out in collaboration with so many was driven by Sam’s deep commitment to serving, and facilitating the liberation of oppressed and marginalized peoples, across the South. His roots in rural Zimbabwe as well as in urban township communities lent him profound insight into the land-questions that continue to stall justice and democratization, but which -properly addressed – would end poverty and inequality in Zimbabwe, the rest of Africa, and across the former colonies of the South. His multiple racial and cultural identifications made him a voracious traveller who was able to engage deeply with people across ideological, cultural, national and disciplinary borders, to vigorously debate ideas wherever he went, inspiring and mobilizing across generations.
Few , if any, of us could pass through Harare without being invited home, to ‘gist,’ to drink and eat the pots of food he would produce with abandon. Sam stirred many things beyond belly-filling food. Chez Sam, we ate well, but most of all we feasted on the intense intellectual and political debates he also liked to stir up, stretching our minds as well as our bellies. Few of us will forget the winning embrace of his smile or the warmth of his big brotherly hugs – these earned him the affection that girded the respect colleagues, friends and community felt for him.
The African Institute for Agrarian Studies, established in 2002 was the pioneering initiative that Sam dedicated himself to for the last thirteen years of his energetic career, a remarkable endeavour that grew to span three continents, bringing together people-focused land expertise from African, Latin America and Asia. His death in India, tragic and shocking as it is for us all, occurred when he was doing what he was most committed to, what he most loved. Colleagues and fellow travellers, we owe it to Sam to continue to pursue his vision, and to collectivise the mission he discovered in the course of his brutally foreshortened life, for posterity, for the liberation of the still dispossessed.
Sam was no angel, as the women he has loved in the course of six decades of a life fully lived can surely testify. At the same time, his unadulterated joie de vivre was one of his most endearing features – even as we worried about his health at times! We need not have. Death was to take him away from us ahead of his old age, and at the prime of his activist-intellectual life. This tragic end also snatched Sam away from a new chapter in his personal life, with his equally courageous fighter for human rights, Beatrice Mtetwa. Beatrice, my heart goes out to you – your pain must be unimaginable, inconsolable. Know that you have the love and support of us all, and a life to live, people to serve.
Sam will surely live on in our hearts, our ideas, in our actions, and in our vision of a liberated and just Africa.
Goodbye Beloved Comrade.