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In Memoriam: Abdul Samed Bemath: A Committed Librarian

(The following is a post by Eve M. Ferguson, Reference Librarian, African Section, AMED.)

Abdul Samed Bemath passed away in South Africa July 2020

On Friday, July 31, I received an email that shattered me. It was four lines from Ghalib Tamim in Kenya, one of the major contributors to the recently formed (and constantly growing) Mazrui Family Collection of ephemera in the African and Middle Eastern Division. The collection gathers books, speeches and the prolific papers by Ali Al’Amin Mazrui, as well as books written by other family members on the legendary legacy of the Mazrui clan.

The email read: “I hope all is well with you and your family. I have just received the sad news from Professor Alamin (Mazrui). Our good friend, Abdul Bemath, has passed on in South Africa. May his soul rest in eternal peace.”

Abdul Bemath’s contributions to Africana Studies are widely celebrated. As an independent library consultant, bibliographer and indexer in South Africa associated with the London-based Financial Times, Bemath compiled at least four volumes and contributed chapters on the works of the renowned and revered African historian, Ali Al’Amin Mazrui, who passed away in October 2014.

Bemath said in a statement:

“I met Professor Mazrui at a conference in 1985 and asked him whether I can compile a bibliography of his works. He agreed to this. I was working at the London based Financial Times (FT) newspaper and he posted to me his 54-page CV. I was more familiar with his books and his CV listed 514 articles written by him.

I did a worldwide search for his articles and have over 700 articles written by him and close to 40 of his books in my collection.

I spend close to two years every Saturday and Sunday compiling short abstracts of his books and essays and articles.”

Ali Mazrui was a prolific author focusing his copious writings on African and Islamic studies, African politics and North-South relations. Mazrui became a household name with his BBC/PBS television series, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage.” Beyond African studies his scholarship significantly advanced understanding about African history and heritage – and it did so in ways that will continue to shape and influence the thinking of successor generations, in and beyond African studies.

Mazrui, also known as “Mwalimu,” which means “teacher” in Swahili, was also a friend of the Library of Congress. He first participated in the Library’s celebration of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s iconic novel “Things Fall Apart” on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication. The historic occasion was co-sponsored by the Center for the Book, the Africa Society of the National Summit on Africa and TransAfrica. (View the recordings of this three-part event here: morning session, afternoon session, evening program.)

In 2011, Ali Mazrui returned to the Library to launch the “Conversations with African Poets and Writers” series which continues to this day, featuring award-winning and budding African and African diaspora authors, as well as the recipients of the annual Caine Prize for African Writing. Mazrui was also a longtime board member of the Africa Society, a vital partner in the ongoing Conversations series.

When Mwalimu Mazrui passed away, the Library hosted a memorial program in his honor. At that program, I presented a tribute, “Ali Mazrui and the Library of Congress.” Word got out in the Africana Studies field, and I was contacted by Abdul Bemath via email from South Africa. He wanted to include my paper in a book of tributes to the great historian and writer who had redirected Bemath’s own life’s work. In 2016, that paper became a chapter in the monograph, “A Giant Tree has Fallen: Tributes to Ali Al’Amin Mazrui.”

Thus begun a fruitful relationship, via email, that started and filled out the Mazrui Family Collection, a conglomeration of ephemera from the storied family that produced Ali Al’Amin Mazrui. The Mazrui family is a historically important, intellectually rich and monetarily wealthy dynasty in Mombasa, Kenya. Many family members held office as the regional rulers of Mombasa, a significant center of Swahili culture. Ali Mazrui’s father was the Chief Kadhi of Kenya, the highest authority on Islamic law in the East African nation. Mazrui credited his father, and his family’s renowned heritage, for motivating his drive for debate.

Photo from the Association of Southern African Indexers and Bibliographers (ASAIB).

Abdul Bemath painstakingly guided me through the process of converting my paper into a full-fledged book chapter, and then began forwarding materials to create the new collection honoring Mazrui and his family. He also encouraged other family members, many who have achieved high offices and academic accolades themselves, to contribute materials as well. Last summer, with the assistance of University of Virginia history major intern, Quentin Jepson, the collection was inventoried and a draft finding aid was created.

Abdul Bemath and I corresponded via email over the years discussing a variety of things, via email, from the swearing in of the new Librarian of Congress, to the legacy of Ali Mazrui and the history of the family. Bemath never spoke much about himself. We became fast friends, although we never met. He invited me to South Africa to speak, but I was unable to make that trip. Likewise, he offered to introduce me to Mazrui family members virtually and in person in Kenya. The latter was also postponed. Now sadly, we will never meet in person.

“Abdul spent a lifetime writing about others – apparently very little has been written about him,” Tamim said. But I found this gem written by Iqbal Jassat of Media Review Network about Abdul Bemath’s final contribution, published last year: “Ali A Mazrui: Reflections on and by an Africanist, Scholar and Poet: An annotated and select thematic bibliography 2003-2018.”

“The corpus of (Mazrui’s) published writings, documentaries and advisories is so profoundly rich and captivating, that not to collate it as meticulously as Bemath has done, would be a grave omission. The recent annotated and select thematic bibliography 2003-2018, consists of 180 entries and is divided into ten sections. These range from memorial seminars and symposiums to publications, academic articles, discourses, media, tributes, awards and major works on Mazrui… It is thus not surprising that Bemath’s mammoth task has been acknowledged with gratitude and profound appreciation by many leading scholars, academics, historians and political heavyweights alike.”

Bemath was a consummate, committed and constant librarian and he will be missed by many more than me, who knew him only by his works and his words. Yet another giant tree has fallen. Rest in peace Abdul Samed Bemath.

Click here to view a list of publications by or about Ali Al’Amin Mazrui in the Library’s Online Catalog.

Works by Abdul S. Bemath:

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