What single thing – besides its huge economy – makes America a great nation? It is its influence on almost everything in the world. The rest of the world has been reduced to copying America – from the English language, pop culture to its venerable institutions of democracy.
Over time, the US has produced some of the best and worst combinations of mentors and mentees. Its various leaders of thought, culture, and presidents deliberately or inadvertently influence the rest of the world. It behaves as if it is a geopolitical re-incarnation of ancient Greek city-state of Athens whose sense of self-righteousness and disdain for others led to destruction in the Peloponnesian War.
Out of the chaos, there arose a peculiar teacher-student mentorship between Aristotle, the mentor, and Alexander of Macedonia, the mentee quarrelling over the spread or monopoly of knowledge. Only rulers, Alexander insisted, should have special rulers. Similarly, American disdain for others ended up in destructive wars in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and within the US. They, too, want to monopolise and control knowledge.
President Donald Trump has negative mentorship influence. When not disappointing, the US inspires. Its critical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the constitution, the pamphlet on civil disobedience, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, FDR’s ‘fireside chats and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ provide points of global reference. People like Malcolm X, John F Kennedy, and Theodore Roosevelt portrayed such focused vigour in leadership which is emulated to date.
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, for instance, admired Roosevelt so much that in his 2020 Mashujaa Day speech, he quoted the American on the need to get involved and fail rather than watch and criticise. Roosevelt believed that the presidency was a ‘bully pulpit’ to get things done; increasingly Uhuru seems to have adopted similar ‘bully pulpit’ beliefs in pushing his legacy.
Outside governance, in academia, mentorship involves men and women of knowledge and experience showing the way. Although what the mentee does with the knowledge is often beyond the mentor’s control, the assumption is on the goodness perpetuating cultural attributes through education and specific knowledge distribution. Subsequently, knowledge production and control become tools, and essential aspects, of two competing forces within states. First is knowledge as a force of governance and second is knowledge as a tool of liberation.
In both objectives, history is critical. In Eastern Africa, probably the most influential historian was Walter Rodney with his ‘revolutionary’ teachings at Dar es Salaam University. The reason he wrote ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, he once explained, was because he was tired of pointing out to students that what was in the textbooks was not correct. Among his mentees at Dar was law student Willy Mutunga, a natural rebel, who became the first Chief Justice under the 2010 Constitution and gave up high office when he thought his time was up.
Rodney was not the first to question claims of European benevolence. W E B DuBois, observing that the Europeans used history as racial entertainment, attracted many mentees globally. George James, having accused the Greeks of intellectual thievery, multiplied the number of his mentees posthumously in the 1960s and 1970s with the proliferation of Black and Afro-American Study centres in American universities. Before there was James and Diop, there was Jomo Kenyatta, a friend and Pan-Africanist comrade of DuBois and Paul Robeson.
In the 1930s, Kenyatta hit hard on professional friends of Africa “who fleeced and pretended to speak for Africans”. Kenyatta’s role as mentor fused political and intellectual activism and attracted followers in both intellectual and political types of warfare, whether praising or criticising. At the intellectual level, these mentees included renowned Okot p’Bitek, Godfrey Muriuki, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ali Mazrui, and John Mbiti. It is at the level of political operations as a mentor, however, that Kenyatta was most influential in his Pan-Africanist and anti-colonialist activities. He inspired people to action who included Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Joseph Murumbi, Dedan Kimathi, Nelson Mandela, and Daniel arap Moi.
Mentors and mentees end up either controlling particular societies or liberating them.
-Prof Munene teaches history at USIU