Eulogy for Howard University Professor Sulayman Sheih Nyang:  Memories of a Gambian Polymath

By Dr. Tijan M. Sallah

The news of the passing away of Professor Sulayman Sheih Nyang at the United Medical Center in Washington, DC, on Monday, November 12, 2018 came to me as a stab in the back.  It was sad, disconcerting and painfully unbearable.  Professor Nyang was more than a friend to me; he often told me he was the only child of his mother and therefore considered me his blood brother and I felt the same way towards him.  Although he had other half-sisters and brothers (one of the closest to him being Baboucarr Nyang, better known by his nickname, Papa Litty),  Dr. Nyang was a generous man who had a large circle of friends and admirers, who were his ‘honorary’ relatives.   Before his passing away, he had a massive stroke, which left him partially paralyzed but, given his perennial optimism, he slowly recovered and, for a while, he was released from DC Medstar Hospital and transferred to Genesis Nursing Home in Silver Spring, Maryland, where, with physical therapy, he slowly recovered but was speech-challenged and confined to a wheel chair.  Following substantial progress, he was released to go home and follow a steady regimen of physical therapy, which he did weekly in Rockville, Maryland and that brought further improvements.  However, determined, to regain his old strength, he one day attempted to stand up from his bed while his nurse was not near and he got physically unbalanced and fell and seriously injured his upper vertebrae.  This second incident proved so paralyzing he became bed-ridden and was never able to recover again.  This sadly resulted in his final journey to meet the ancestors.   Throughout this ordeal, Mrs. Mary Langley (daughter of the famous Gambian Independence era politician, Lawyer P.S. Njie) stood by him, daily by his bedside, ensuring that Professor Nyang got the best of care, and for this—all Gambians, who admire Dr. Nyang, should be thankful to Mary.  Reports have it that present in his final moments were his last wife, the Nigerian Eucharia Mbachu and his Gambian friend, Habib Ghanem.

In looking at Dr. Nyang’s life, it is not difficult to love him.  He was a man of inherent goodness.   He exuded warmth and enthusiasm for others.  He loved and valued people, and it was no surprise that people loved him back.  The large crowd that packed the mosque of the Islamic Society of the Washington Area in Silver Spring, Maryland for his funeral on Wednesday November 14, 2018 was a testament to the large number of peoples whose lives Dr. Nyang touched.  There were people of all races, colors, religions and genders, and the few that spoke gave glowing testament to his wisdom, character and outsized service to humanity.    Present at the funeral were a who is who of Gambians, Africans and other friends and admirers of Dr. Nyang (notably Dr. Sidi Jammeh, Mr. Mustapha Senghore, Ms. Sohna Sallah, Dr. Modou Sohna, Ms. Mary Langley, Marabout Ahmed Sy, the African American poet—E. Ethelbert Miller, Prof. Robert Edgar, Prof. Luis Serapiao,  to name a few).  His wife was in attendance, as well as his two previous divorced wives (the African American– Elizabeth Perry-Nyang and the Thai– Wiriya Noiwong- Nyang).  The current Gambian and Senegalese Ambassadors to the US attended, and so did Gambia’s veteran Ambassador to the US during the Jawara years, Mr. Ousman Sallah, all of whom gave tributes.  A Dean from Howard University also spoke about Dr. Nyang’s remarkable contributions and service to humanity.  The African American Imam Johari and a Pakistani Imam gave appreciative tributes and prayed.   Dr. Nyang’s own son, Sulayman Jr., gave a brief but touching tribute to his father and thanked the funeral attendees.  Dr. Nyang’s widow also gave a long glowing tribute.   Overall, it was a somber moment given the passing of a wonderful and selfless human being, but also a moving celebration of a highly accomplished life.  Dr. Nyang lived for other people.  He was an intellectual heavy weight who was committed to service to others, and he carried himself with the utmost humility.  Many people run away from other people’s problems; Dr. Nyang was the opposite—he welcomed people in need and did his utmost always to help.

For me, my personal friendship with Professor Nyang goes back to my college years—about 40 years ago.   I first met Dr. Nyang in the late seventies in Washington, DC—when he was a young Assistant Professor.   He was the guest speaker at the annual Model OAU conference for American college students organized by his colleague at Howard University, the Nigerian Professor Michael Nwanze of the Department of Political Science.  The Model OAU was held that year at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (better known as SAIS).  After Dr. Nyang gave a brilliant Pan-Africanist speech—I introduced myself as a Gambian college student who also wrote and we developed instant friendship.  During my Berea College, Kentucky, years, Dr. Nyang would write to me and send copies of his publications and words of encouragement and I would share some of my publications in return.  When I visited DC, we will meet and chat about Gambian and African politics.  He was a great Pan-Africanist, brilliant and knowledgeable about the challenges of Africa and Africans and what needed to be done to unite the continent and build a better future for its peoples. When I moved to Washington, DC to work for the World Bank, our relationship grew even stronger.  I stayed with him first before I found an apartment close by him in White Oak, Silver Spring, Maryland.  And virtually, every weekend we will meet for long hours and hold rich discussions on wide-ranging topics and eat food and laugh, either at his apartment or at mine, and we will go to various events together.   Sometimes, some of his other friends—like his Sierra Leonean student Dr. Mohammed Bassirou Sillah or later Dr. Modou Sohna or Ms. Mammy Ndure or his Cameroonian student, Dr. Emmanuel Ngwaimbi Komben—would join.  We were truly great friends.  I recall meeting first people like ex-President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (who lived in the DC area long before becoming President of Liberia) and Dr. Amos Sawyer—(Liberia’s interim President from 1990-1994—who also lived in the DC area)–through events with Dr. Nyang.   Dr. Nyang helped and advised African leaders and ambassadors, including the prominent Ambassador of Uganda to the US from 1986-88, the late Elizabeth Bagaaya, Princess of Toro.  Dr. Nyang was a magnet for many prominent individuals who were later to become important leaders on the African continent.

What do we know about the personal and professional history of Professor Sulayman S. Nyang?   Having been so close to him, I was privy to a lot of privileged information.   In fact, in 1988, when I was an Assistant Professor of Economics, I wrote a 20 page essay on the life and intellectual contributions of Dr. Nyang.  The paper was titled, “Sulayman S. Nyang:  The Gambian Scholar and His Intellectual Contributions,” which was an in-depth critical evaluation of Professor Nyang’s scholarship, which he read and liked.  The paper was modelled after a paper Dr. Nyang wrote about our mutual friend, Professor Ali Mazrui, titled, “Ali A. Mazrui: The Man and His Works.”  In my paper, I noted that some commentators have ‘notoriously’ described Nyang as “the younger Mazrui.”  This was because, Nyang, like Mazrui, was an intellectual’s intellectual, an intellectual par excellence who had enormous agility with ideas and language, who played with words with the pen as with the mouth, who frocklicked with ideas through the written word as much as with the oral.   When I shared my Nyang paper with Mazrui, Professor Mazrui wrote back to me with his quintessential verbal agility, “Could it be that Ali Mazrui is the older Sulayman Nyang?”  I shared Mazrui’s reply with Nyang, and we both laughed about it.

So who was Professor Sulayman S. Nyang?  Dr. Nyang was born on August 12, 1944 in Bathurst (today’s Banjul)—the son of Pa Sheih Nyang and Yaa Fatou Bah.  His mother, Fatou Bah, came from the family of the late famous Imam of Banjul (and descendant of the historical Ma Ba), Muhammadou Lamin Bah, better known as Seringe Lamin, who was Banjul’s veteran Imam from 1953-1983.    The young Sulayman Nyang started his Primary School education in Basse and continued into Muhammadan School in Banjul, where he got initiated into Western schooling. From there, he passed through our then highly competitive and selective school system and made it to St. Augustine’s High School (then at Hagan Street) and ran by Irish Holy Ghost fathers. At St. Augustine’s, he nurtured his skills in reading, writing, Latin, Science, and Mathematics. Between western schooling in the English classics, he received a strict upbring, which entailed attending local Quranic school or dara under the tutelage of a handful of prominent Gambian Quranic teachers; namely, Pa Tijan, Tafsir Demba Ndow, Pa Kebba Corr and Seedy Taban.  The young Nyang was a precocious student and he distinguished himself as an able student, who memorized Quranic verses by rote and sometimes engaged in Quranic translation and interpretation into local Wolof tongue, a process known as “Wolofal.”

In 1965, the young Nyang left The Gambia to study at Hampton Institute in Virginia (an elitist predominantly black school) where he received a solid intellectual foundation and gained both exposure to black culture in the Americas and to the writings of the Greeks and the Medieval scholars.  He credited Professor Edward Kollman, who became the Dean of Faculty and who introduced him to classical Western thought and to the modern thinkers of the past century, as one of his most influential professors at Hampton. He earned at Hampton a B.A. degree in Political Science in 1969 with a minor in Philosophy.  Nyang’s eventual knack for broadly based synthesis of heterogeneous ideas in African and Islamic studies, one could argue, is rooted in those early years of his higher education.

Witnessing the 1960s in the United States was both exciting and unsettling, for it was a period of racial agitation for social justice and anti-colonial world social upheavals. The United States, faced with domestic demands for civil rights and public pressure against an unjust foreign war in Vietnam, witnessed a radical transformation of American persons and institutions.  For the rest of the world, particularly Africa, the countries had just emerged from colonialism and some were still struggling for independence.  Nyang’s own homecountry of The Gambia attained independence on February 18, 1965.  The impressions Nyang formed as a youth during this period (observing transfer of power in The Gambia from Governor General Sir John Paul to Prime Minister Jawara’s party) all later became political fodder for his privileged writings on the politics of both pre-and post-independence Gambia.  In the United States, Nyang’s witness of the civil rights movement as an African student in a predominantly black school; his media exposure to great social reformers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X (later Malik El-Shabazz), Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Toure) and others, and his own acute thirst for learning, all combined to launch him on a successful career as a student of black political affairs.

From the predominantly black Hampton Institute, the young Nyang entered the predominantly white and prestigious University of Virginia, where he earned his M.A. in Public Administration in 1971.  Both Hampton and the University of the Virginia, although in the same Virginia, came out of different traditions:  Hampton out of the tradition of Booker T. Washington and W.E. DuBois, and Virginia out of the tradition of Thomas Jefferson.  In fact, the University of the Virginia boasts the house of Thomas Jefferson on its campus and a historic rotunda, and trained the American ruling class whereas Hampton trained the freed people class.  In this sense, Nyang acquired the best out of two divergent educational traditions and experiences.

In 1974, the young Sulayman Nyang completed his Ph.D. in Government at the University of Virginia. His doctoral dissertation, Political Parties and National Integration in the Gambia, dealt into a meagerly researched area of African politics and therefore catapulted him into harbinger-researcher role, pioneering the way for subsequent researchers on Gambian politics.  Subsequent researchers on Gambian politics, such as Professors Jack Wiseman, Arnold Hughes, and Abdoulaye Saine all benefitted from the intellectual foundations that Nyang’s works laid.

Just before and after completion of his doctorate (ie., from 1972-75), the young Nyang was recruited as Assistant Professor by Professor Chike Onwuachi, the then Nigerian Director,  of the African Studies Program at Howard University.  Within a short period, he demonstrated his intellectual abilities and people’s skills to be elevated to both Assistant Professor and Acting Director of the African Studies Program.  With these experiences under his belt, the relatively young Nyang was called by his country to serve as First Secretary and Head of Chancery of the Republic of the Gambia to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1975.  In the Jeddah Gambian Embassy, Nyang, as diplomat, managed and promoted the interests of the Gambia and he began to observe the hiatus between theoretical focus of the classroom and “praxis” focus of the diplomat’s domain.  He travelled a bit in the Middle East region and got to meet many Gambian students, especially those studying Islam and Arabic (the so-called “Arabisants”) in the region.  When his stint as a diplomat in Jeddah proved dull, the intellectually energetic Nyang abandoned it and resumed his position at Howard University in 1978, where he subsequently rose to become the Director  of the African Studies Department and, after stepping down, remained there as professor until his stroke, which precipitated his retirement. (It should be noted that, since Nyang’s first wife was African American, motives associated with marriage compromises did also influence his decision to leave diplomatic service in Saudi Arabia back for academe in the U.S.).

Apart from his educational journey, what else do we know about Sulayman Nyang?   I will first discuss Sulayman Nyang’s marriages before I delve into his scholarship and intellectual work, which is what he is most famous for.  Dr. Nyang’s first wife, Elizabeth Perry Nyang, was African American and Christian, and they had two children (Sulayman Nyang, Jr., 43 years, who has an MBA from Wingate University and Edna “Dabba” Nyang, 39 years, who has a BA from Boston University and a Masters in Speech Pathology from the University of South Florida—and for some period was working in China).  The first wife Elizabeth Perry-Nyang received her Bachelors in Anthropology and Masters in Library Science from the University of Maryland and Seton Hall University respectively, and a doctorate in Family Counseling from Argosy University in Florida.  She, for many years, worked for the US General Accounting Office (GAO).  Through their daughter, Edna, they now have a granddaughter, Gabriella Nyang.  Following divorce, Dr. Nyang maintained cordial relations with his first wife as they worked diligently to support their children.  His next wife, Wiriya Noiwong-Nyang, was also supportive.  Wiriya, a Muslim lady from Thailand, was of Pashtun origin.  She received her BA from Chilalung University in Thailand and her Masters in Community Development from the University of Missouri.  She then became an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Social Administration at Thammasat University in Thailand.   As a Professor, she had the remarkable skill of translating the world-famous Nigerian writer’s, Chinua Achebe’s, A Man of the People into the Thai language.  When, in June 1998, I helped organize Chinua Achebe to give the Wolfensohn Presidential Lecture at the World Bank titled, “Africa is People,” both Dr. Nyang and Wiriya attended.  Wiriya gave Achebe then a copy of her translation of his novel, and the novelist was joyously amused.  “Thank you. I hear my novels are doing well in that part of the world, “Achebe retorted.  Wiriya also had the unique experience of working as an intern in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Change in Atlanta, and knew the late Coretta Scott King (the civil rights leader’s widow) and the late Daddy King (the civil right leaders’ father).    She met Dr. Nyang at a conference of American Muslim Social Scientists in which Nyang was featured speaker at the University of Indiana, Lafayette, where the two got attracted.  Dr. Nyang’s third wife, Eucharia Mbachu, is Nigerian and Christian, and of Igbo extraction.  Of all the three wives, the last wife was the one I knew the least. I only met her after Dr. Nyang had his tragic stroke.

Apart from his married life, what do we know about Dr. Nyang’s scholarly and intellectual work?   Dr. Nyang has published about 11 books and over 70 articles on wide ranging topics on Africa and religion, especially Islam, and on various aspects of the human condition.  His books include:  Ali Mazrui: The Man and His Works (1981); Reflections on the Human Condition (1984); Islam, Christianity and African Identity (1984); Islam: Its Relevance Today, coedited with Henry O. Thompson(1990); Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honor of John Mbiti, co-edited with Jacob Olupona (1993); A Line in the Sand: Saudi Arabi’s Role in the Gulf War, co-authored with Eva Hendricks (1995); and Islam in the United States of America (1999); Muslims Place in the American Public Square, coedited with Zahid H. Buhari and Mumtaz Ahmad (2004); Muhamad: The Universal Man of all Times (2012); and The Development of Islam in Bermuda, co-authored with Radell Tankard (2016).  He also served in the editorial board of several scholarly journals, such as Journal of Islamic Studies (Pakistan); Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (US); Current Bibliography on African Affairs (US); Journal of Asian and African Affairs (US); Journal of Negro Education (US); Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (Birmingham, UK); Journal of Islamic Law and Culture (US); Hamdard Islamicus (Pakistan); Journal of Peace (Ethiopia); Islamic Horizon (Indiana, US); Message International (New York, US); and Journal of Third World Spectrum (US).  In addition to writing books and serving in editorial boards, Dr. Nyang was a frequent commentator on African and Islamic issues on CNN, BBC, A Jazeera, National Public Radio, Voice of America, C-SPAN TV and several local and international tv and radio stations around the US and around the world.   He often served as examiner in inter-university dissertation committees and also spoke and provided advice on Africa and Religion issues to the US State Department, to African governments, to International Organizations and to the White House.  He was also a lead player on inter-faith ecumenical dialogue between the Abrahamic faith communities (of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Mormons) but also dialogue with the moralistic religions like the Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs.  For example, he was the President of the Interfaith Conference of the Metropolitan Washington, DC, and served in several Muslim and Academic boards, such as the African Studies Association, the Association of Muslim Social Scientists and the Academic Advisory Council of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (at Georgetown University, US).  He led the efforts to develop the Smithsonian Institution 1999 African Voices Project; advised on the development of the PBS 2002 documentary “Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet” and the Unity Production Foundation 2007 documentary, “Prince among Slaves.”   He was also co-director of the research project, “Muslims in the American Public Square” funded by The Pew Trust.  When President Bill Clinton celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the state of Israel in 1998, Dr. Nyang was the only major Muslim scholar invited on stage to speak at the White House.   In short, during his life, Dr. Nyang was “Mr. Africa” and “Mr. Islam” in the greater Washington area— the go-to person when one needed clarification or advice on how to handle the complexities of crises arising from these domains.

In assessing Dr. Nyang’s intellectual contributions, I will put them in three buckets; ie., his contributions: (1) in analyzing the pre-independence and post- independence Gambia politics; (2) to African and black diaspora studies; and (3 to the study of the world of Islam and the Arabs.  Many of these writings sometimes intersected.  On early Gambian politics, he argued in his papers that the Gambia’s quest for viability involved the ruling party’s (ie., the then People’s Progressive Party or PPP) pursuit of internal political stability by pursuing a strategy of compromise or cooptation, exploiting gains through the conflicts among big powers (exemplified in membership in the Commonwealth circle, the Western circle vis-à-vis being friendly with the East, and its membership in the African circle), and minimizing the likelihood of internal chaos by responding to domestic socio-economic demands.  He developed these ideas in subsequent papers by noting that post-independence Gambian politics was characterized by mergers, the decline of the opposition, and the triumph of the PPP under Sir Dawda Jawara as the dominant political party.  He later argued that political opposition under Jawara was a “game” and not a “serious challenge” to the ruling PPP.  In fact, he noted that the most powerful opposition party in early Gambian politics, the United Party (or UP under lawyer Pierre Sarr Njie) got crippled when Sir Dawda Jawara married the daughter (Lady Chilel Njie-Jawara) of the U.P.’s main financial backer, Alhaji Momodou Musa Njie.  That put a death nail on the coffin of the UP.

Regarding his second bucket of contributions—ie.,  African politics,  Dr. Nyang wrote about major African political leaders, from the pan-Africanism of Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah championing a united, federated Africa to the political thought of freedom fighters against Portuguese colonialism as Guinea Bissau’s Amilcar Cabral, to Senegal’s Leopold Senghor ‘s rapprochement with the marabouts to maintain social stability in Senegal, to Guinea’s Sekou Toure’s radical break (if not outright defiance of France) at Independence and his building of alliances with the Muslim world and consistent support of conservative Arab states, such as Morocco’s then King Hassan II.  He also wrote articles on culture and African cosmology and published them in the UNESCO Courier and also wrote on “millenialism in traditional African thought.”  In one paper, he argued that the African sees himself as a citizen of three different worlds: the world of concrete reality (animals, trees and inanimate objects); the world of social values (which governs social relations), and the world of the ineffable self-conscious (spiritual realm).  He argued (although this is contestable) that the Western concept of uni-linearity of time is based on an illusion, which is detectable so long as humans chase after the mirage of materiality.  To the extent that non-Westerners may not originally subscribe to this Western experience, he argued that it was a mistake to absolutize the concept of uni-linearity as developed out of the Western experience and impose it on the rest of humankind.  In other papers on African cosmology, he argued the presence of a supreme deity in African indigenous belief systems, which find expressions in proverbs, epigrams, prayers, stories and myths.   This supreme deity, for example in the myths of the Yoruba, Ashanti and Dogon is often portrayed as near humankind but, through man’s folly, the chief deity (or God) withdrew and so humans forfeited their privileges.  Of course, similar cosmological narratives are found in the Biblical and Quranic narratives of satan’s serpentine temptations which resulted in the Adam(ic) fall.

Apart from his contribution to the analyses of African leaders, African regional issues and to African cosmology, Dr. Nyang’s third bucket of contributions was on Islam and the Arab world, and in these– his writings were broad-ranging.  He wrote papers ranging from Pakistan’s role in the organization of Islamic Conference, to Muslim Minority Businesses in the US, to Saudi Arabian foreign policy towards Africa, to the Islamic factor in Libya’s Africa policy under Muamar Qaddafi,  to the Islamic concept of sin, to his most ambitious work about the African triadic experience, which constitutes the African’s composite identity—in his book, Islam, Christianity and African Identity (ICAI).  In fact, Professor Ali Mazrui once acknowledged at a Howard University event in honor of Dr. Nyang that he borrowed his concept of “Africa’s Triple Heritage” from the writings of Nyang.   In his paper on sin and his ICAI book, Nyang argued that the idea of “sin” is peculiarly Abrahamic, and African ontology says virtually nothing about it.  Sin is sanction imposed on the individual as negative remuneration for foul acts or thoughts on earth.  For the traditional African, however, the individual lives in a communal, vitalistic universe where success depends on human relations as well as relations with spirits of the universe.   He argued that whereas Christians view sin as endemic to our nature, as in Adam’s original sin, and its eventual redemption and salvation through the blood of Christ, the Islamic view is more optimistic.  For the Muslim, the human enters the world as a free agent, a tabula rasa.  He inherits no sin from Adam and Eve, and his salvation is through faith, good works and good thoughts.   In this classic book, Islam, Christianity and African Identity, Nyang argued that both Islam and Christianity have had positive and negative effects on the African.   Islam succeeded in creating a community of African believers who assimilation into Islamic culture integrated them into a trans-ethnic and trans-national world community.  Christianity, also—(except for Ethiopia and Egypt)—which came through Western European naval and military superiority, drew upon imperial resources and paved the path to African westernization.   Both religions, Nyang noted, were linked by the drive by their sending regions to engage in commerce, find spheres of influence, and accumulate wealth.   The cultural schizophrenia introduced by these different experiences prompted some African philosopher—kings like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah or Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor to search for a panacea for the African’s “aggrieved soul.”  Nkrumah, in his book, Consciencism, resolved the African dilemma not in nostalgic glorification of ancient ways but in Scientific Socialism and Pan Africanism.   Senghor, on the other hand, sought the solution to the African identity problem with the cultivation and assertion of Africa’s unique gift—the compassion for others; the gift of fellow feeling as contrasted with the European quest for individuality and hyper-rationality.  Senghor’s remedy, however, was perceived by leaders like Guinea’s Sekou Toure as too reactionary—the syndrome of the Frenchified African “puppet” unconsciously playing into the hands of the “neo-colonialists.”

In addition to intellectual work, Dr. Nyang was deeply interested and engaged with the political situation in the Gambia.   He was not only an ivory tower intellectual but an activist who advised African politicians on ways to improve their polities.   So when Yahya Jammeh and his associates carried out their July 22, 1994 coup against the democratically elected government of Sir Dawda Jawara, Dr. Nyang summoned a group of Gambian intellectuals and activists into a pro-democracy movement to help steer the young inexperienced military coup makers to hand over power voluntarily and pave the path for a constitutional conference to insert term limits into the constitution and hold free elections.   The Gambia pro-democracy movement included, amongst others, Dr. Nyang as Chairperson; Dr. Sidi Jammeh, Dr. Sukai Prom-Jackson, Dr. Karanta Kalley, Mr. Yusupha Crookes, Dr. Momodou Sohna, Mr. Ousainou Mbenga, Dr. Momodou Numukunda Darboe, Dr. Amadou Scattred Janneh, Ms. Sohna Saihou Sallah, Mr. Tombong Saidy, Mr. Lat Jorr Ndow, Dr. Abdoulaye Saine, Dr. Ebrima Faal, Mr. Alieu Demba, Dr. Mbye Cham, Dr. Jabez Ayo Langley, and myself.   When Jammeh sent a delegation to Washington, DC (comprising Captain Jallow, the late Koro Sissay, etc.) to meet with the Gambia Pro-democracy Movement, it was Dr. Nyang, Mr. Yusupha Crookes, and Dr. Sidi Jammeh who met with them  (on behalf of the Pro-Democracy Movement) to impress on them the clear message that the military junta (the AFPRC) should move expeditiously “ to re-institute in The Gambia a civilian government based on internationally accepted democratic values and principles, to lift the ban on political parties and their activities, to establish a neutral domestic election monitoring body and to invite neutral foreign observers for the training and deployment of the election monitoring body.”   Whether this made a major difference is a subject for future historians to assess.

I have attempted above to give a brief snapshot of the life, family and contributions of Professor Sulayman Sheih Nyang.  I recognize that, in such a brief space, one cannot do full justice to the wide breadth and depth of the life and ideas of a man who may arguably be, as far as I know,  the most important scholar and intellectual the Gambia has ever produced.   I will miss my friend and brother, Dr. Nyang.    He was an intellectual polymath.   He produced important scholarly work which was widely cited and discussed in academe.   He was a master at generating ideas and always open to their contestation.   I recall him one time advocating a research program for Senegambia—titled the “Wol-Mande-Fulbeh” civilization—capturing the similarities and intimate connections between the civilization of the dominant ethnic groups of the Gambia—of the Wolof, Mandinka and Fula.  When my good friend, Sidi Bojang, challenged him for being too “royalist” in his theorizing—I suggested to him to add also the Jola—and other marginalized ethnic groups—he flexibly agreed and noted— the “Wol-Mande-Fulbeh-Jol” civilization.  In the latter days of his life, he frequently repeated an anthropomorphic metaphor that “God is the greatest movie maker.”   The metaphor, I thought, was a limp human attempt to capture the Omniscient, but it was vintage Nyang.   I will miss Dr. Nyang.   He was a brilliant sage— a man who was not only of a vast source of knowledge but also a source of great wisdom.  Dr. Nyang thrived on ideas, and lived a life of utter modesty and humility, and of service to others.  My good friend, E. Ethelbert Miller, the African American poet, described him as “the Mahatma”—a reference to Dr. Nyang’s pacificist spirit and care for the needy.  He was indeed our “Gambian Mahatma.” When future generations study his life and thought—may they feel, as I have felt, that such a gracious human being walked among us.   As I write, I am already feeling our great loss and hope that the great God, who knows His creation more than we will ever know, will magnify his good works and grant him a final abode in Paradise.

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