In Africa tonight, a light went out

18 Nov 2020
18 Nov 2020

- Jonah Maghanga Mngola: A Remembrance -

By Hanri Mostert

Jonah Mngola hosted my first visit to Kenya, some five years ago. I recall us - Jonah, Mohamed Ruwange and myself - sitting under a lapa in the hotel cafeteria at sundown. It had been a dry, hot day, and the atmosphere was crackling with stray electricity. In the time it took to drink a Coke, we had gone from strangers to friends. That, I think, was the effect that Jonah’s exceptional humanity had on the people around him.

We were talking about the book I had invited him to write, along with his Kenyan colleagues. The book would lay out the law on minerals. Jonah’s eyes sparkled with an infectious passion. As the sun set, we psyched each other up, about having to think differently about how Africa’s mineral resources - and its human resources - should be harnessed in the design of a better future for the various corners of our continent. Less than a week after, Jonah tweeted about his first meeting with the collaborators on the Kenya volume of Mineral Law in Africa. He wasn’t going to burn daylight.

In the conference to which I was invited - and which Jonah had organised - there was an atmosphere of cheerful liveliness, very similar to the character of my host, but very unlike the conferences I had been used to up until that point. I looked around, from my seat in the first row, to try understand what was different. A quick scan of the room made me realise that I was perhaps one of the oldest people there.  I did not think of myself as particularly old, and found it curious to be so – well, senior. I wanted to ask Jonah about it. He was seated just next to me.

“Jonah?” I whispered.

He turned to me.

“Where are all the older people?” I asked, under my breath.

He gave a silent chuckle. “We don’t have any of those, Prof,” he said.

Further visits to Nairobi followed. The next time, the whole of the MLiA team went along, and Jonah and his colleagues hosted our visit at Strathmore University. A calendar shift had meant that our colloquium took place just a month or two before another big conference on mineral law, which Jonah was also organising. But nothing - not even two big conferences back to back - seemed to bring Jonah out of his stride. Simply no obstacle seemed to be a problem. I admired that about him.

Jonah had an immense capacity for living in the moment. I stare at the pictures of him talking and laughing to the friends and colleagues at the last MLiA event, the 2019 colloquium in Dar es Salaam. I try to imagine what it would have been like if Jonah was not there with us, like he now will no longer be. But his tall frame fills our pictures and his smile radiates far beyond them, sending a message out to us, to meet us in the future that is our now, and it tells us to cherish the moments we have with each other.   

Jonah had big plans for himself, his country and his continent. Already an expert and a respected figure through his work on problems in the extractives sector, he was going to channel his knowledge and experience into writing a PhD. It was a dream he had been nurturing for the time I had known him. We had spoken on several occasions about how Africa needs highly skilled intellectuals in positions of influence. I think that is what he liked about MLiA and what made him commit to our network of scholars so wholeheartedly: the view he shared with us about the need for intellectual leadership in relation to Africa’s natural resources.

We, his colleagues and friends, will continue to do the work about which we are as passionate as Jonah had been, although he was far more adept at showing it than we will ever be. We will continue the work, but it won’t be the same. There is a Jonah-shaped hole in the world. We cannot fill it, but we can honour the ideals by which he lived. And his passing will be a reminder to us that our time is running out.

In Africa, tonight, a light went out

It was a single spark, but all went dark.