By Cliff Kawanga:
When the quartet of professors took turns to pay tribute to late Professor John McCracken, it was evident that their attempt to deliver his immense legacy in few hours was well done.
Professor Kenneth Ross’ simplicity in praising McCracken set the mood; Professor Kings Phiri’s recollection of his time with McCracken was emotional; Professor Klaus Fiedler’s own experience of McCracken’s work was enlightening while Professor John Saka’s kind words were befitting the occasion as he made reference to the teachings in the Bible reminding the audience that what we do today is what people will remember us for when we die.
There was no denying – through the speeches – that even in death, McCracken remains a colossus in research and Malawian history. In death, McCracken continues to inspire a generation of historians and researchers. It is not surprising, therefore, that McCracken’s collection of literary work about Malawi is a foundation on which most of the contemporary discourse of our country is built.
It is for this reason that when Phiri spoke, he praised McCracken for his love for Malawi and Malawians. Phiri, a professor of African and Black History, recollected how he met McCracken.
“I first met McCracken in the early 1970s, I was privileged to work with him for a period of 46 years. It was a relationship which began in Malawi and it developed without rapture during which McCracken served as my mentor, motivator, collaborator and friend,” he said.
Phiri said in assessing McCracken’s career, an account should be taken of what were clearly his positive attributes in the way he operated and interacted with others.
“His simplicity and friendliness, accessibility to fellow lecturers and students exemplary scholarship and balanced approach to the responsibilities of teaching, research and faculty administration,” Phiri said.
Rosssaid McCracken was “a principled scholar – infinitely conscientious in his supervision of students, in external examining and in the refereeing and reviewing that he did for such periodicals as the Journal of Southern African Studies; meticulous to the point of perfectionist in the preparation of his own published work; not much interested in University politics from a careerist point of view but ready to fight tooth and nail when he believed that scholarly integrity was at stake; passionately committed to the academic development of younger colleagues, especially the Malawian historians with whom he worked across four decades.”
With almost everything about McCracken already said by those before him, Professor Saka said thanked the family of McCracken for what he described as unique and impeccable service to the academy.
“This impeccable achievement should inspire all of us in the academy especially theology and history,” he said.
The celebration of McCracken’s life was spiced by the launch of the book Politics, Christianity and Society in Malawi–the essays in honour of John McCracken – edited by Kenneth Ross and Wapulumuka Mulwafu.
The book, thus, celebrates the contributions of McCracken who is recognised as one of Africa’s foremost historians. “After the first group of founding Africanist scholars had left in the late 70s,” write Ross and Mulwafu. “McCracken continued to work on Malawi and became the leading authority in setting the agenda for research and writing of history in Malawi.”
The book has brought together contributions from people who either knew McCracken or those who read and interacted with him over the many years of his work in Africa and the United Kingdom.
According to the editors, the decision taken to produce the book represents a modest attempt to express gratitude to a scholar who devoted almost his entire career to research and writing on Malawi.
“Just as he pioneered the development of knowledge and identified key historical themes, we believe that his influence on subsequent scholarship has been suitably reflected in the variety of themes covered in the chapters of this volume,” write Ross and Mulwafu.
About the book, historian and researcher Owen Kalinga writes: “This book reminds us of John McCracken’s major contribution to, and influence on, Malawian historiography since the 1970s. The editors must be commended for ensuring that authors of the essays are both locally and internationally based but equally significant is their inclusion of the latest of generation of Malawian scholars, which would have pleased John immensely. In addition, their impressive work gives direction to guide and inspire future scholarship in Malawi.”
Although it is indeed difficult to find a better way of paying tribute to a man like McCracken, Dr Joey Power believes the collection is a fitting tribute to John McCracken.
“Its contributions reflect and expand on his scholarly legacy in the economic, social and political histories of Malawi while reflecting his deep commitment to and affection for the land and its people. McCracken would have been much moved in heart and mind by this project.”
McCracken was born on July 1 1938 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and died on October 23, 2017.A memorial conference was held in Scotland in 2018, when several papers were presented in his honour. The organisers of the conference assembled and revised some of the papers into a book edited Politics, Christianity and Society in Malawi: Essays in honour of John McCracken’, which was published by Mzuni Press in 2020.