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Monday, October 2, 2023

Dr Ibrahim Lowe: Educator, estimable and eclectic eminence


Hope was how I felt anticipating to attend his class, which was a trace too far from the uncouth cousin of hope: optimism. Yes, there is a notional difference between hope, in prospect infinitesimal and indefinite, and optimism, more realistic and certain. That was my sense, as I picked up two courses in a semester at the University of The Gambia (UTG) as a political science student. My sense of hope was more about the lecturer teaching the two courses – The Rise of Nations States, and African Tradition and Political Systems – than it was the lessons in store for me to devour. Weird, is not? I hear you ask. To a point, indeed it is: because a student should be more preoccupied with the package of the programme than the person parroting it in front of the class. In the programme against the panjandrum binary choice, I straddle both divides.

And, any student worth his/her salt striving to fore-charge the intellectual faculty to the hit, with full spectrum knowledge for a high-headed, high-minded and hard-headed brain, should always swing between the two. For a programme of study to be interesting, the panjandrum fronting it should be a mirror image on which students can project and road-test ideas on him – no matter how absurd, abysmal and abhorrent, and in academia, every idea is worthwhile to be explored – titillating a robust discourse and rigorous debate. That is what makes a university: a laboratory where ideas are considered, coruscatingly debated and, the carefully-calibrated ones, prevailed. That is how I like to conduct business at university. Ergo, my sense of hope, in a form of a rhetorical question was: would the lecturer teaching these courses; whom I have not encountered before, conduct the business of scholarship in a free-wheeling way? To my joy and amazement, he turned out to be the perfect fettle for the rigorous and robust university education I sought, a style that he fancied from Oxford University, where he studied Labour Administration and Human Resources, and fashioned it out at UTG. His name: Dr Ibrahim Lowe.

I have a sense of slithering of snakes in my throat, to use the expression of Greeks on a sense of foreboding, when I received a call from my great chum Jimmy Hendry Nzally, my university contemporary and allied in many grand projects we rolled out in Gambia, with a question: “ Think tank”, referring me by the nickname he has been calling me since bonded at Uni on the grounds of my ‘innovative policy brain’, which as a shrinking bile and naturally modest man I demurred to, undeterred he continued, “have you heard what is going on? My reply was terse non-committal of “Heaven knows what is going.” Our telephone conversations, like face-to-face, are characterized with banter. But before I get words out in edge ways, Jimmy, in a measured tone and cracking voice, informed me about the dreadful news. “Dr Lowe has passed away. I am in a hotel with my guests from Belgium. I just read the news from my UTG email.”

On a regular day, I would have shot an arrow across Jimmy’s bow, jovially giving him a ribbing over breaking our core credo of a covenant: not to be a sneering elites, and not to do anything that smacks of it. As PhD student from Belgium, where he moved after finishing his Bachelors studies at UTG, by staying in the hotel with his guests and not within ordinary Gambians, I was going to give him a teaser for creeping into the ivory-tower mentality. But I held my tongue. Instead, I cut to the chase. I probed and prodded him on the potential causes of Dr Lowe’s death. “I understand he was at UTG yesterday [Thursday, before he succumbed].” We expressed our deepest condolences, wished him the highest of heaven and, after promising to catch up soonest, hung up. I worked the phone. My mind went straight to my elephantine-mind soulmate Ousman Bah, also a political science student. Currently in The Gambia, after finishing his master’s programme in Turkey, Mighty, as I affectionately called him, was, and still is, a fellow intellectual fellow-traveller, brilliant, bright and buccaneering bacchanal. He and I share fond memories of Dr Lowe. As I was texting him about the sad news, exactly as my message was landing in his WhatApp inbox, his message of the same news, accompanied with a snapshot of a friend’s Facebook post on the great man’s death, whirred into my wire. You cannot make this stuff up? Hello, reader, it was as if minds were meeting and mourning at the same time. Perhaps that was the inordinate ordained of Allah. It could be our comeuppance for being the dispels of Dr Lowe. But, whatever the reason, it was as pointed as it was revelatory. That, and the central role that Dr Lowe, played in my intellectual journey, is what obliged me to write this tribute about his life, accomplishments and legacy. For that is what the big beast in the intellectual forest of knowledge deserved.

Before that fateful semester starts, forging my relationship with Dr Lowe on the anvil of potent pact-partnership, I read two books relating to the courses I was prepared, ready and willing to study. That is what I do to have a detailed perspective, thorough grasp of the issues and constellate the ideas, philosophy and values underlying the forces and factors to shape my thinking. The two books I read were: The Scramble For Africa, subtitled White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent by Thomas Pakehman, and Barbara Kingslover’s famous book The Poisonwood Bible, an excellent allegory on the Congo, and how that country went bear-shaped, told from the prism of a Christian-oriented family. So, if I want to have a better handle on my understanding of Rise of Nations States, and African Traditional Political System, these were the right codexes. Having read and dispensed with the books before the semester starts, I was armed, battle-ready and battle-tested for my courses, like a militant. As was my wont, I deliberately skipped the first class, which is used to outline the course programme. Because, as a journalist, editorial writer I have other important issues to concentrate my mind on. Knowing, mastering my course outlines are stuff I do even before signing up for a course.

And then the day came when my hopes were to segue into optimism. A short man, with a decently combed long hair, smartly dressed in a casual button-up long-sleeved shirt, tucked in his trousers, wearing a loafer shoe (that was his trademark style of dressing) walked in front of the class. Apparently, he was the lecturer Dr Lowe. Unbeknownst to me, he identified a student to present on the first topic of our Rise of Nations States class. That is how fast and far he moves with his business. Looking at how African states were formed, the presenter Musa Kah, a music-loving and talented artist in his own right, known as ‘Viper’ among colleagues, made an excellent presentation. In keeping with the spirit of a no-hold-bared, not-so-nugatory discourse, exactly as it should, Dr Lowe opened the floor.

I did not hesitate to intervene. To lance the boil, cover all the bases, bring out some important spectrum of views on the topic presented, I deployed a forensic firepower analysis on the cack-handed way African states were handled by its founding fathers, implying in my consolation that independence was premature. It was more a provocation as it was to test the mettle of the man himself to get into his political thinking, to know which creed he cleaves towards. Calmly and carefully, Dr Lowe engaged with the points I raised, and made a strong case for Africa’s independence in an eloquent, elegant and effusive way. He went on to rattle off the linkage of Africa’s liberation to the minority political movements in the US. From the off, I understood that he was knowledgeable and steeped into issues of subjugation and liberation, and from freedom to opportunity for all. I was like, in my mind, ‘voila this would be a scintillating class.’ And then it proved so throughout the semester. There and then I ticked it off into my head that Dr Lowe grasped the intersection between ideology, pragmatism and practicality, as opposed to furnishing students with utopian ideas, dystopian dingy-ideas that are banal and cobbled together in the Byzantine era. In my mind, from his appearance, a dead ringer of the US philosopher Cornel West of Harvard University, he embodied a whiff of the traditional and the modern, westernisation and Africanisation, idealism and realism. In the crucible of the intellectual arena, his moral compass bends towards what was workable, achievable and deliverable oscillating and vacillating between these competing strands – a clear sign that his stint in the US, where he studied at California State University, Sacramento, had a huge impact on him. That is what made him a towering figure. In essence that captured our hero, dear reader, in all his glory: he was rational, logical, sensible, serious, curious, realistic and, above all else, with a tranquil mind of effortlessly superiority, as is the education strapline of Balliol College, Oxford. He strove to prise open the traits traces that education should leave on the educated, through the quite free-flowing way he conducted his classes: innovation, creativity, resilience, character and grit. That is the measure of the man.

He brought to bere his compendium of knowledge from the Africa Dispute Resolution (ADR), an institution he, like a craftsman, shaped into being. He was in the room when, after writing sheaf of papers on its concept, it was given birth. He nurtured the baby ADR with his tenderness, guided it with a sense of duty into adolescence and led it into adulthood before he resiled it for the university. Helming the African Traditional Political System, he brought a refreshing air into the programme. I remember doing a presentation on one of the most successful alternative dispute resolution mechanisms ever established in Africa in the shape of the “Gacaca” court in Rwanda ( so-called, because hearings were held on the open grass).

Established after the Rwandan genocide, its conciliation and reconciliation nature healed bad-blooded and rift-ridden communities in Rwanda. My friend reader, because of such stability, President Paul Kagame is able to make that country an engine of growth, making enterprise to flourish and business thrive, churning out jobs and good living standards for his people. How I wish our country The Gambia can be on such path working for the grifters and grafters, scroungers and skivers – but that is for another day, and another piece. What is for today is the legacy of a man who fought tooth and nail to set a solid foundation stone for our nation’s progress. Salivating the story back on him, without meaning to digress, I channeled my conservative thinking on the significance of deterrence to dent crime by imposing heavy punishment, provoking him, again, to hear his view. On cue, he pushed the progressive case: that forgiving free the forgiver and the forgiven. In doing so he revealed a personal side of him too, which was that he was a conciliator as opposed to carpet-bomber, reconciliator as opposed to a reckless person, negotiator as opposed to a nihilist and pax peace-maker as opposed to a puerile purgatory.

Without no shred of a doubt, in the death of Dr Lowe, an Iroko tree has fallen in the rain forest of Gambia’s intelligentsia, a people’s man who germinated and showered the growth of the up-and-coming ones. He lived a dignified, decent and daring life by doing what is right. He adhered to, took heart of, and lived his life by the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s truism dictum: “the rational and free escape the empire of expediency by doing what is right.” Doing right would give him a peace of mind in the here-after. Because, in the end, in the mind there is peace. In a peace of mind, comes certainty. In certainty, comes eternity. And, of course, in eternity comes heaven. May his innocent soul rest there: heaven. And in peace. Amen. Until we meet again, Adieu Dr Lowe!

Amadou Camara was a Political Science student at University of The Gambia. He is currently based in the United States.

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