When, in spring 2007, I was sent an email informing me that the Mountains of the Moon University sought a new Vice-Chancellor (or President), I was nostalgic for weeks. I didn’t even know the Mountains of the Moon had a university. As it turned out, it was a young, small, private institution, but one that had already attracted a great deal of official Irish and Austrian aid; and its entire computer stock had been a gift from Liverpool Hope University in the UK. The civil war in the mountains had died down, and now was the time to begin building a bright new campus on land donated by the municipality. It would be an eco-campus and it would be full of optimism. I set about applying for the post and became, I think, the front runner – but I came to realize that nostalgia was not the best credential for a university being built on hope for the future. The mountains are actually called the Ruwenzori Mountains – they were

given the Moon tag by Victorian explorers – and they sit on the equator, on the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is even a derelict ski lift on Mt Marguerita, a snow-covered peak in the heart of Africa. The current Ugandan president, Museveni, had mobilized his young soldiers in those mountains. It is said they were blessed by the magic light of the area. It is said that, during Amin’s retreat from the advancing Tanzanian forces, his soldiers ate elephants in place of normal rations – and that the elephant nation had assembled and had marched in a long refugee column over the Mountains of the Moon to safety. When Amin fell and the reconstruction of Uganda began, all the senior

institutions and ministries were assigned to senior advisers and trainers. Two years on, part of the most junior (and derelict) of the ministries – Social Development and Culture – was thrust into my hands for its reconstruction. I was barely 33 but, even then, had become a veteran of Africa’s woes and triumphs. Among many others, the Ugandan adventure was in between my early participation in the transition of Zimbabwe from Rhodesian rule to independence, and my somewhat later efforts to help ministerial and parliamentary development in post-Dergue Eritrea and Ethiopia. Somehow, looking back, all those major projects were something of a failure. Zimbabwe has slid into a catastrophic melt-down, Eritrea and Ethiopia went to war with

each other, and Uganda has also begun its flirtation with authoritarian rule under the surface colours of democracy. But the Ugandan adventure was enough at the time to convince me that

the lies and deceits, false hopes and vacuous promises I had been required to spin as an international civil servant were not worth the moral asking price. Not that Uganda was a disaster to me – it was a triumph in many ways – but that the magic light got to me too, and I realized that when I came down from those mountains I could never be the same again. So I undertook to become an academic. Accidentally, there was a visiting fellowship at Oxford on offer and, after that, a lectureship at the University of Zambia. I wanted to write about the perfidies of international life, and about moral asking prices. When I left Uganda, I flew to Nairobi, took my first hot bath for quite some time, and resigned. There was something else about asking prices too. I had seen my share of

the effects of war in Zimbabwe, and would later see much more in Eritrea; there was something qualitatively different about Uganda. It wasn’t that people were prepared to die while fighting – it was that so many of the ministerial officers with whom I was working had lived in dread of being “picked,” that is led off to execution by Amin. Without having fought him or having the ability to fight for their own lives. This helpless dread was still a blanket over all of them, and I used to think about it when my academic colleagues, some time later, lectured on (and on) about moral choices, cosmopolitan values, and emancipatory theory. It’s a pretty armchair discipline, this I had chosen to join. But innocent and naïve enough. And the spires of Oxford, the (then) beautiful bougainvillea-strewn campus of the University of Zambia, the green hill-top campus of Kent, even the incomplete and patchy landscaping at Nottingham Trent, and the jumbled oasis of Bloomsbury in the heart of London – they have all made the quarter of a century since I left official international life tolerable. And, even though I soon came to combine Deaning with scholarly production, I always found enough time to maintain several private practices – advising African governments, running philanthropic projects, defending asylum seekers in court, and playing the public intellectual within the unending greed of the media for talking heads and sound-bites (within a carefully calibrated hierarchy of who gets what slots on which programmes). And a fair swag of non-academic writing too. I think that my restlessness, my razor-cutting of my time, have the same roots as my ambivalence towards the value of academic work. And to be fair to academic life, I would probably have felt this way no

matter which profession I pursued. I was the first-born son of refugee parents and grew up in story-book poverty and, upon being sent to school without any English language (in the robust and physical company of young New Zealanders), learnt English in two weeks flat. From a very early age there was a need to over-achieve to compensate being a minority of one – and to rebel, to be tolerant in the face of racism (but remember), and to protest against almost everything else. When 1968 and 1969 coincided with my first years at

university, I was the natural student leader and, even in New Zealand, protest marches had a habit of “engagement” with the police. When the prime minister libelled me, and got away with it because of parliamentary immunity, I left the country in 1976 and have lived in Britain or Africa ever since. There have been 19 changes of address in that time. But New Zealand was also an impossibly beautiful place in which to grow

up. The beach in the film, The Piano, was where I used to body-surf in my late teenage years and, aged 20, I made an “easy ride” to all the locations that later featured in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, revelling in the sparseness and beauty of it all – and writing a lot of bad poetry about it, about politics, but mostly about the typical loves and laments of almost every young man. That was, however, the basic problem. You could do anything in New Zealand. By the time I had completed my MA, I had also been the national student president, a veteran of countless protests, a much published poet and playwright, a publisher and newspaper editor. These things mean little outside a small environment where, in fact, a few people must do much to service a small population that demands, all the same, the amenities and performances of a normal Western life. But it meant a culture shock when hitting England – with its work-to-rules, job demarcations, and professional jealousies. I became most unpopular in the Commonwealth Secretariat, with its still

large contingent of Britishers and, anyway, I got a lot of things wrong. When I sent up a note, as the Tanzanians were preparing to invade Amin’s Uganda, stressing that the Tanzanians could not win – Amin had far more firepower – I mentioned not a word about morale, motivation, discipline, and officership. When the Rhodesian forces stormed the Zimbabwean rear base of Chimoio, I sent to the London representatives of the guerrillas an impossibly naïve and simplistic defensive system for the future. I learnt very quickly that book learning is one thing (I had completed a second MA at King’s in War Studies) but, when you have no experience of blood and death, shut the fuck up. And that is the key ambivalence. Should academics talk and write on a

basis so textually bound and so ontologically naïve? What is produced means much to ongoing Western and, to an increasing degree, globalized debate on liberty – even if that meaning is terrifyingly mediated by the spin-doctors of those who rule (who take the trouble to learn multiple vocabularies of discourse) – and means very little to those who are impoverished and oppressed, and who die without literacy, but who might have died anyway making a futile last stand before the camel-riding militias come to slaughter their families. But that is the key difference in experiences: Horkheimer and Adorno, in their determination that the concentration camps should never be repeated, reflected the determination of a generation that had survived and who could make record of all they had undergone and all that had, throughout the future, to be avoided. As academics we depend on the record, the text; in the case of Others without text, we impute text to them or, in recording their oral histories, commit all manner of epistemological impositions

(from our own texts) or impose ontological assumptions (based on our own experience) upon them. Hayden White’s proposition of a telos in our writing is not so much applicable to ourselves – for the simple reason that we interrogate writing, its contexts and meanings, and compare contrasting projects of telos. Upon the Third World we impose our own telos of concern, but are unable to test our project against actually lived suffering and sorrow.