Gambian-born Howard University Professor Sulayman Sheih Nyang
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 excellencewho 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 ordaraunder 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.