The New Gong
Publishers of New Writing and Images
Peter Alexander Egom

“Who is this fellow who speaks English with such Cambridge elegance and
aplomb?” This was the insistent question which coursed through and assailed my
mind in the late afternoon of this crisp and early autumn day of October 1964. The
occasion was yet another effete attempt at establishing a functional African Students
Union at Cambridge University. And the venue was a well-lit and cozy hall somewhere
at Queens, or, perhaps, at Kings. But wherever it was, that day marked a turning
point in my life.

As this incredible fellow continued to talk his dyed-in-the-wool Cambridge English, I
could not but ask, thus, of the gentleman sitting next to me: “Who is this African?”.
He, thereupon, gave me an off-hand and slightly derogatory reply as follows: “He is
the new Mallam at Kings”. I was cut to the quick by this condescending response to
my question. And, I promptly gave this tart rejoinder to what I considered to be an
unsportly response to my question as follows: “This is no ordinary Mallam. He is the
Mallam of Mallams”. This encounter was, of course, not carried beyond that instant,
for it would have been caddish and bad form to do so. But, from that day, I secretly
admired Ibrahim ben Tahir as my Mallam of Mallams.

Then, as soon as the struggling African Students Union affair ended, I hurried off to
make the acquaintance of the new Mallam at Kings. I congratulated him on his very
urbane way of talking in English and he promptly told me that he was a BBC
broadcaster at Bush House on the African Service and that that was why he spoke
the way he did. There was simply nothing special about how he spoke, he said, by
his self-effacing way of passing over what I regarded as a great gift and I, there and
then, decided that this was my kind of guy, as the Americans would say.

I then asked him what he was reading at Kings and he told me that he had just
started off with economics in the Moral Science Tripos but that he was finding the
mathematics and statistics of it rather heavy-going and boring and that he was,
therefore, likely to switch over to a less dry and more people-friendly course in Social
Anthropology after the end of his first year. And I really got him talking when I told him
that I had just done a switch from the boring bones-and-stones of Archaeology to the
exciting sex-and-food of Social Anthropology because I felt that the latter enabled me
to deal with flesh and blood human beings in the living Nigerian societies, for
example. It was on this topic of Social Anthropology that our minds met. And so it was
that from that very Cox-Orange type of autumn day in October 1964, Ibrahim ben
Tahir, as I soon began to fondly call him, became a fixed daily feature and the larger-
than-life boon companion of  my term days at Cambridge until I went down from
Cambridge in June 1966.

What Ibrahim ben Tahir came to mean to me during and after my two-year stint with
him at Cambridge can be teased out from the following brief rehash of the state of my
mind at the time we met at Cambridge and what I thought about him thereafter. I had
clocked 22 on July 24, 1964 and was in October 1964 at the beginning of my second
year at Downing College. In my just ended first year, Cambridge had been a rather
dizzying experience for me. I was, indeed, left speechless and bowled over by how
zanily beautiful life could be on this earth. I had so much freedom to do as I liked and
the means to do much as I liked within the very elastic and “in statu pupilarí” moral
and legal order of Cambridge as overseen by the Proctors and my almighty College
tutor. And, the whole place was crawling with world-class minds on any subject under
the sun so that every social contact I made gave me the opportunity of widening and
deepening my curious and hungry intellectual horizon. Yes, I was really cut out for
Cambridge and Cambridge also for me , or so I thought.

But, after my twelve steady months of virtual King’s Street pub runs and gadding
about the Cambridge social circuit of sherry, port and white wine, it soon dawned on
me that there was more to Cambridge than met my eye. It became clear to me that
Cambridge and its elusive air of freedom-without-responsibility held out a very
serious challenge to me. Cambridge was telling me to begin to grow up and to,
hopefully, find and forge the moral and ethical template that would give direction and
substance to the rest of my life on this earth. And I had only two years left to do so! In
fact, this life-defining challenge to declare my stand on the human condition which
Cambridge brought me face-to-face with, at this time, had to do with my relationship
to God, on the one hand, and on whether I was an urban-and-bond-man of a British
cultural toady or a rural-and-free-man of a Nigerian Mbonu Ojike, on the other  hand.
And the story of how these two key issues of   my self-identity became very central to
my conscious life in October 1964 goes as follows.

First, my first twelve months of the elusive freedom at Cambridge had sapped and
destroyed the Roman Catholic ethical foundation and pillars of my adolescent years
in, especially, the rural Nsukka of Eastern Nigeria. Some wiseacres would, of course,
say that my faith in Christ was not strong enough at that time and that that was
precisely why the “wein , weib und gesang” of Cambridge got the better of my
religious piety. That could jolly well have been the case. But have mercy on this 21
year old! The new world of imperial Cambridge was so overbearingly tempting that I
did not even want to try to resist the worldly things that it had to offer me. And so,
month by month, I soon found myself drifting and floating away from my erstwhile
Roman Catholic ethical and religious moorings as I dug into the worldly freedom of
Cambridge. I had been brought up to believe in the Blessed Trinity and to attend
mass every Sunday and on every holy day of obligation. But, within twelve months,
the powerful lure of the very irreligious and very secular air of Cambridge had turned
me into a secular reed shaken by the wind and with no clear spiritual anchor to
steady my life. I had simply been derailed by Cambridge into a spiritual mess. And it
was only some thirty years after my going down from Cambridge that God gave me
the grace to crawl out of that spiritual mess and to recover my faith in Christ.

But, this was not a problem that I could broach with Ibrahim ben Tahir then ,or later
when I got to know him better. And, this was so for two reasons. One, he was of the
Muslim faith. And, two, my close study of his religious comings and goings at that time
told me that secular Britain was also making serious inroads into his Islamic religious
piety. But, he seemed to have rebounded earlier than I did. For, by May 1974 when I
was his guest ,also  at Kings where he was now doing a Ph.d in Social Anthropology
on Islamic Sufism in Nigeria, Ibrahim ben Tahir was all Allahu Akbar every so often.

However, Ibrahim ben Tahir was immensely relevant to me in regard to the second
matter that required me to declare my stand in October 1964. The issue here was
whether I should choose to become a British cultural toady or to be a full-blooded
Nigerian of Igbo ethnic and cultural origin; whether I should be an urban-and-British-
centered and outward-looking Nigerian or to be a  village-and-Nigeria-centred and
inward-looking Nigerian. For, in my youthful colonial years, mainly at rural Nsukka in
Eastern Nigeria, I had been brought up to look at Britain as the be-all and end-all of
human civilization and of whatever one could desire to be in life. The implication of
this was that I was made to look down on everything native, Nigerian and African and
to look up to everything foreign and British. But, in the twelve months of my first year
at Cambridge, I began to see, to my utter distress and embarrassment, that the
colonial propaganda of see Britain and die was a colossal exercise in deception. And,
so, if the Britain that colonial and post-colonial propaganda had led me to believe
should be at the centre of my social, economic, political and cultural life soon turned
out, under my close gaze and experience, to be an old tired empire that was falling
apart at all of its seams, what then was I supposed to do? Britain, I felt, had simply
betrayed my trust. And I now found myself in a big spot of trouble with regard to my
cultural anchor and bearings and what should be the social be-all and end-all of what
I should desire to be in life. And, it was at this juncture of my despair over the fact
that Britain did not have the type of cultural integrity  I wanted at the center of  my life
on this earth that Ibrahim ben Tahir came to become, without his ever knowing it, my
cultural pathfinder at Cambridge and thereafter.

This Ibrahim ben Tahir, my Mallam of Mallams, was a man of many excellent parts. He
charmed his way through high and low  social circles at Cambridge with his urbanity
and his sense for what every moment required in order to go like clockwork. He was,
indeed, a consummate actor and an impresario, to booth, who kept minute check on
how everything around him was panning out. But, Ibrahim ben Tahir was, by no
means, a schemer. On the contrary, he was too large-hearted and generous for that.
He always wanted to please and to be liked and that is why his psychological
antennae were always alive to pick up signals of budding dissent here and there and
then to quickly go to work to turn them into agreable signals of laughter and assent.
That was the Ibrahim ben Tahir that I knew and liked.

And, what particularly endeared Ibrahim ben Tahir to me was that he was never fazed
by any intellectual situation. The depth and breadth of his mind and learning always
gave him the elbow-room to wriggle out of any tight intellectual position that any of
his many adversaries often sought to throw at him. And, the more he vanquished the
many shallow minds which sought to trap him with intellectual bagatelles, the more
the fury his daunting personality evoked among those Africans in Cambridge who, in
Ibrahim ben Tahir’s candid opinion, came there, as quintessential British cultural
toadies, to see but not to find, to accept handouts but not to select and choose the
real Mac Coy of life at one’s leisure and prompting. This is why Ibrahim ben Tahir was
the real hemlock to many an African student, undergraduate and post-graduate
alike, in our time at Cambridge. For, they knew that he thought they were British
cultural toadies who had an uncritical attitude to the British way of life. And, it did not
help matters that Ibrahim ben Tahir was where all these British cultural toadies
wanted to be in the high societies of Cambridge, London and wherever in the British
aristocracy. But, here was an Ibrahim ben Tahir who did not set much store on where
he was in British society. The new Mallam at Kings was telling them to their faces that
they were betraying African values and culture. And this is the essential Ibrahim ben
Tahir that meant and means so much to me.

For, this Mallam of Mallams was an enigma whose outside was all motion but whose
inside was rock-still on cultural matters. He wove in and out of foreign mind-sets and
behavioral traits with consummate ease and skill but Ibrahim ben Tahir was not the
one to budge an inch on his native Hausa-Fulani cultural grounding. This was what I
quickly saw in him and which made me to instinctively use him as my cultural path-
finder in those critical years of my moral and intellectual development at Cambridge.
We hung about together much of the time so that through the eyes and mind of this
Mallam of Mallams, I got confirmation for the observations I had made in my first year
at Cambridge that the British were a people, who when push comes to shove, do not
really have anything authentic in culture and in general living to offer  a budding
African mind like mine. Rather, this Mallam of Mallams, got me to set maximum store
on my ethnic roots and provenance as an Igbo of Delta State origin, if ever I wanted
to avoid making shipwreck of my life.

It is because Ibrahim ben Tahir,  had his feet firmly planted in his native and African
cultural humus that many tended  to call him a radical- conservative. But, come to
think of it, any thinking African who wants to keep his marbles in post-independence
Africa has no other way to go than the radical-conservative way of Ibrahim ben Tahir.
For in this world of colonial and post-colonial hype and make-believe, it pays any
African handsomely to go to the global markets for culture with one’s native and
authentic wares rather than with borrowed and patch-patch wares of dubious global
origin. That was the key cultural lesson which Ibrahim ben Tahir taught me at

And, it is this lesson that has enabled me to resist the SAP-induced general pressure
on African minds to check out to any foreign land of the West in search for better
pastures. Rather, the Africa in me insisted that I should  plant my feet solidly in the
cultural soil of Africa and to sincerely work to incubate, promote and fund the rise
and rise of zillions of African radical-conservatives in the mould of Ibrahim ben Tahir
for the total emancipation and restoration of the black race in  continental Africa and
in the Diaspora. And, this is what I have been gladly doing since 1982 in the spirit of
Ibrahim ben Tahir, Mallam of Mallams and Talban Bauchi. So, fare thee well, Muna,
Muna, my cultural pathfinder.