Louis Nthenda was born in Chiradzulu in Malawi (Nysaland) in 1939 but all references to him in Oxford identify him as Zambian; the story behind this fact is interesting on its own.
In 1961 he was a first year student (BScEcon) at the University College of Rhodesia and Nysaland (UCRN). This led him to meet members of the Oxford Africa Society, when a team of PPE students visited the college to meet the economists and recruit a student research assistant. The team, directed by Bob Sutcliffe, senior member of the Society from 1961 and faculty at the Institute of Economics and Statistics in Oxford, intended to conduct a survey of Malawi; Louis was employed to translate the Questionnaire and administer the interviews during the break between the second and third term (it was northern summer).
1961 was also the year the Malawi Congress Party swept to victory in the country’s first General Election (August 1961). As part of a bigger project of secession from the Central African Federation, MCP ordered Malawian students not to return to UCRN for the new academic year starting in 1962. Louis waited, like other students, to be placed in alternative institutions. He sought and obtained a Junior Common Room Scholarship at Worcester College, but the Malawian government did not allow him to take it. Incidentally, the position would be awarded to Alfred Otieno, a Kenyan student and another former member of the Africa Society whose story we leave for another time.
In 1962, after the government failed to find an alternative for him to continue his studies in the Southern Hemisphere that academic year, Louis decided to go back to UCRN in May for the second term, effectively triggering a self-exile.
Malcolm X was born in Nebraska (USA) in 1925. His troubled childhood and youth led him to meet John Bembry, his first real educator, while in prison in the late 1940s, and to the conversion into the Nation of Islam following a correspondence with its leader Elijah Muhammad. Out of prison, Malcolm dedicated all of his energies to the ministry in the Nation of Islam, which predicated Black self reliance and a return of the African Diaspora to the motherland. By the late 50s, he was the most known member of the group and was on course to becoming one of the most influential African Americans of all time.
In March 1964, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism. Right after that, he flew to Saudi Arabia to complete the Hajj, at the end of which he visited Africa for several months and met all prominent leaders of the continent. On Monday 5th October, in between these meetings, Malcolm flew from Addis to Nairobi and sojourned at the New Stanley hotel, he was due the following day to meet President Jomo Kenyatta before travelling to Zanzibar. At dinner he met and chat with a young African man who did not seem to recognise him initially.
Louis graduated from UCRN in 1963 and worked for the Anglo-American Corporation (AAC), a mining company in Zambia. He was one of the first Black Africans to be given a managerial position, following a process of Africanisation that the mining industries initiated in anticipation of the country’s independence. However, he didn’t stay till the end of the traineeship, as he won (for the second time) a doctoral position in Oxford, this time at St. Antony’s. He had plan to sail to Brindisi, in Italy, and then travel overland through Italy, Germany and France to England. However, the military mobilisation called in July to counter the Lumpa Uprising and Prophetess Alice Lenshina delayed his trip. Louis then resolved to fly to Nairobi where he would have embarked on another flight to England. He stayed overnight at the New Stanley.
This is how Malcolm and Louis described their meeting at dinner, that evening in Nairobi in 1965.
“Met Louis Nthenda of Zambia at dinner. He was on his way to England (Oxford) and was very surprised upon learning who I was. Had studied the BMM and was talking to me about EM & myself without even recognizing me.” - Malcolm X, Personal Diaries, Mon 5th October, 1964
“I was sitting in the Hotel's Thorn Tree Restaurant that evening when I noticed one other person who looked like me although he could pass in the South Africa of those days for “coloured” or, with a little more grooming, for white. I moved over and once we established who he was the conversation veered to the Black Muslims (BMM) and their leader Elijah Muhammad (EM) who, the year before, had expelled Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam. All this background I knew. I didn't think much of BMM’s version of Islam and I said as much. I don't think Malcolm liked my tone of frankly criticising the hotchpotch of BMM’s Islamic theology - although I am sure it resonated with him - and he didn't fault my factual knowledge. On his part he was more interested in African politics and asked a lot of questions.
Among my fellow students and within the nationalist movements of Southern Africa we were experiencing similar divides as American blacks with regard to our oppressors. Malcolm had a greater following in my youthful circles than Martin Luther King because he presented a clearer dichotomy of black movements that was familiar. [...]
In the course of the conversation I told him I intended to be a member of the Oxford Union immediately upon my arrival and I would love to arrange for him to come to take part in a debate. He accepted my invitation. He gave me his contact phone number and address in New York. He said he was going to be on the road for the rest of the year but messages would be relayed to him.”- Louis Nthenda, 1964: A Personal Memoir
Once in Oxford, Louis kept his promise and mediated for Malcolm to participate in a debate, at the Oxford Union on December 3rd 1964. The motion being debated was taken from a statement made by Barry Goldwater, a USA presidential candidate, earlier that year: “Extremism in the Defense of Liberty is No Vice; Moderation in the Pursuit of Justice is No Virtue ”. Malcolm X argued the affirmative case.
In the famous Oxford photo, taken before the debate, there is Louis Nthenda on the left, talking to Kate Jenkins (Isis student journalist). In the foreground is Malcolm X and beside him is Eric Abrahams (Jamaican, Rhodes Scholar & Union President for Michaelmas 1964). Asked recently about the story behind the photograph, Dr. Nthenda said:
“I thought Malcolm X, of course, won the debate. He was not just articulate but the house was quite clearly on his side. I checked the records though and they say that despite a prolonged ovation after Malcolm X finished speaking, the motion, which was a quotation from Goldwater’s acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention of that year, was lost 137 to 288. Memory is a strange thing and can be fooled by wishful thinking.”
Malcolm’s intervention can be read here:
The debate for argued by three men on both sides but Malcolm was obviously the focus of the night. His closing is remarkable; with fine irony, Malcolm feigned a vague knowledge of Shakespeare, before reciting from memory one of the most quoted passages of his tragedies:
“I read once, passingly, about a man named Shakespeare. I only read about him passingly, but I remember one thing he wrote, that kind of moved me. He put it in the mouth of Hamlet, I think it was, who said “to be or not to be”. He was in doubt about something. Whether it was nobler, in the mind of man, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune— moderation—or to take up arms against the sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them. And I go for that; if you take up arms you’ll end it, but if you sit around and wait for the one who is in power to make up his mind that he should end it, you’ll be waiting a long time. And in my opinion, the young generation of whites, blacks, browns, whatever else there is, you’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change, people in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change. And a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. And I, for one, will joint in with anyone—don’t care what colour you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth. Thank you.”
Sadly, tragedy struck in February 1965 as Malcolm X was assassinated 10 weeks after the debate. His intervention at the Oxford Union was one of the last public engagement he had, and what a mark he left!
Louis Nthenda continued to live a very rich and successful life. After completing his DPhil at St Antony's he went to teach at Ahmadu Bello University in Northern Nigeria. Six years later, he moved to the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and from there to Japan where he has lived for the past 37 years. He now lives in retirement in a small town outside Tokyo but we hope to see him at the 60th Anniversary in June.
This is a snippet of the series of posts on the work of the Africa Society in Oxford over the years and how it has impacted the African Continent. As we approach the 60th Anniversary, The Society will continue to share more from the archives as we confront the future. Contribute to our fund-raising and help us find more of these stories here.