Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Sheikh

Sheikh Yahya Hussein passed away on on the morning of Friday the 20th May, 2011. He was 81 years old. At the time that I got the news- via Twitter- I thought I would wait a little bit before saying farewell. The occasion seemed to require a dignity that is not conferred by social media's minimalism.

The Sheikh and I inhabited different planets when it came to systems of belief, but I can't deny his influence as a public figure. If the position of National Mage existed- and why shouldn't it- the Sheikh would have been the only reasonable choice. His predictions have been a source of great interest and comment for years now, and his TV show had to be seen to be believed. Sheikh Yahya single-handedly brought numerology, astrology, phrenology, clips of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, werewolf movies, zombies, gemology and a host of other supernatural arts right into the homes of thousands of Tanzanians.

I admired him because he was unapologetic about it. This is a society in which interesting statements get made with no irony attached, such as: "It is our culture to believe in God!" and "Of course I don't believe in witchcraft personally, but I have seen things..." The dual character of the postcolonial African: one foot mired in your heritage, one foot slipping off the cliff of "modernity", about to do the mental splits and not sure what to cling to if anything. Sheikh Yahya suffered none of that confusion. His approach was to hold the door open: come one, come all, as long as you want to believe in something and have a little time to spend doing so.

How spiritually sound this approach might have been, is now between the Sheikh and his maker. In an era of perpetual religious fragmentation, I found him comforting. I will miss his democratic approach to matters of faith, not to mention the creativity that his social-spiritual entrepreneurship enabled. And indeed, how many countries could boast about enjoying the services of a public clairvoyant? Farewell, Yahya Magus.

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