2015 Aga Khan University Convocation, Nairobi, Kenya

Mawlana Hazar Imam speaking at AKU’s convocation ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya. Zahur Ramji


Trustees and President of the University,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Deans, Faculty and Staff of the University,
Parents, Donors, Supporters and Distinguished Guests,
and Graduands.

Hamjambo and Karibuni. Hongera, Wanafunzi wote. You see, I’m learning a little Swahili.

What a remarkable day this is, and what a joy it is to be here.

It is a singular pleasure for me because this is the first year that I have been able to attend an AKU convocation in East Africa. That means a lot to me because it was I, as your Chancellor, who first proposed that AKU should expand from Asia to Africa, to meet its chartered international mandate.

In the search for Africa’s development, it seemed clear that expanded knowledge would be the key to progress – as it has been throughout human history. And expanding knowledge, of course, is precisely the mission of AKU.

I know, too, what a special moment it is for all of you. I have always felt there is a certain magical feeling about a graduation ceremony. Think about it, all of you graduands! You walked in here earlier today as students of the Aga Khan University. And you will walk out of here a little later as graduates of the Aga Khan University – and distinguished AKU Alumni. Bravo!

The degree or diploma that you receive today is something you will take with you for the rest of your lives. The education you have achieved here is something that no one can ever take away.

We celebrate each of you graduands. And we also celebrate so many who have contributed to your success: your parents and families, friends and colleagues, and those who have contributed to your University life – faculty, staff, donors, trustees, and community leaders.

Like each of you personally, the University also remembers its heritage today.

That heritage is rooted in the rich history of Islamic intellectual accomplishment – including the work of my own ancestors in Cairo 1000 years ago, when they founded Al Azhar University and the Dar-ul-ilm, the House of Knowledge. This story continued for several centuries, as Muslim centers of culture involved and inspired people of many traditions and faith communities. A respect for diversity – a welcoming, cosmopolitan ethic – has been a hallmark of this heritage – an increasingly relevant legacy in the emerging “borderless” world that President Rasul has so aptly described.

It was this intellectual heritage that inspired my grandfather, as Imam of the Ismaili Muslim community, to make education a top priority. In fact, he started the first Aga Khan School in Africa over 110 years ago in Bagamoyo, Tanzania.

That same legacy was in our minds when we began planning for this new Aga Khan University.

I well remember our early conversations – as early as 1975, to be exact. We asked a host of questions, and a host of wise people responded. Harvard University, yes, my alma mater, developed our blue print. Our biggest question was whether a totally new university in Asia and Africa could achieve sufficient levels of excellence – measured by world standards.

Well, we decided to try it. The Aga Khan University was founded in Karachi in 1983 and it recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. And then, in the year 2000, we expanded into East Africa.

Today, the Aga Khan University remains the only privately supported University with major academic programs on both the Asian and the African continents.

Over a relatively short time span, we have extended our work into eight different countries. We created two degree or diploma programs in the 1980s, two more in the 1990s, and another 21 programs since 2000. Altogether, we have graduated over 12,000 students – over 2000 here in East Africa. And you will soon become the most recent!

Altogether some 1900 nurses have been trained here, almost half of them earning Bachelor of Nursing degrees. So have some 3000 teachers, including 250 with Masters of Education degrees.

But the most important point is the multiplier effect our graduates can have as you pass along your skills and your standards. I think, for example, of AKU programs which have trained almost 1000 head-teachers of secondary schools – in just one year – a striking example of this powerful multiplier potential.

The quality of our programs has been endorsed by many standard setters, including the World Health Organization, the UK College of Physicians and Surgeons and the US Joint Commission International. But the best endorsement, by far, is the success of our graduates, when they take licensing exams, or apply to other schools, or go to work for new employers.

In the end, however, our most important accomplishments are not measured by quantity, but by quality. It’s not so much that 12,000 people were educated at AKU, but rather that ONE person was educated here – and that this individual life-transforming story has happened – now some 12,000 times.

And what for the future? As I have watched the ups and downs of the developing world over the years, one central point has become increasingly clear. More and more, I believe, progress in improving the quality of human life in any setting is linked directly to the quality of Civil Society.

By Civil Society I mean the array of institutions which are neither public, nor profit driven, but which are motivated by voluntary service and committed to the public good. They include, for example, institutions dedicated to cultural enrichment, to independent public information, to protecting the environment and to religious faith. And they include, very importantly, the fields of health and education in which you will make your mark.

A healthy Civil Society is a meritocratic one, where ethics are honored, and excellence is valued. And the great question now confronting us in Africa is how rapidly the institutions of a healthy Civil Society can be established and reinforced.

In this process, AKU’s role can be central.

From the start over 30 years ago, this University’s blueprint envisioned a multi-campus, multi-continental university – comprehensive, broadly integrated, and research-led. That vision, as you have heard, is now coming true.

One milestone along that journey occurred last week when the Tanzania Government presented to me the certificate recognizing the founding charter of the Aga Khan University. It reflected, I believe, AKU’s record of producing outstanding East African graduates.

As we expand our work in Kenya, one of our highest priorities is to achieve international standards of healthcare – especially for non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Another special focus will be neuroscience, where the promises of stem cell technology must be brought massively and competently to Africa.

Our overall plan is for a nationally integrated health system, built on the strong foundations already in place at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi. And our overall goal can be simply stated: we believe that no Kenyan should have to leave the country to seek quality medical care.
All this cannot happen, of course, without an expanded corps of qualified health professionals. And this is where you come in. Our commitment in the years ahead is to educate an ever-growing number of medical graduates – at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels – who can perform, consistently and impressively, at world standards of excellence.

Let me mention some of the other AKU initiatives here in Kenya:

  • One of the newest is our Institute for Human Development, launched in Nairobi earlier this year, with a focus on children between one and three years of age. It is no secret to you that that is the age where the human brain grows most quickly.
  • At the same time, our new Graduate School of Media and Communications here in Nairobi will offer professional development courses, as well as a master’s degree program, in the fields of journalism and media management and NGO communication. Specialized reporting skills will be emphasized – in fields such as the Environment, Business and Finance, and the analysis of Social Impacts. The School will serve a broad range of students, from both the public and the private sectors, from traditional media backgrounds and the worlds of advanced information technology.
  • This new Media and Communications School will share a new building here in Nairobi with two other new Graduate Professional Schools, one in Leadership and Management, and the other in Hospitality, Leisure and Tourism.

Over 15 years, the total investment in Kenya for these programs will exceed US$ 350 million.

We have similar exciting goals throughout East Africa. As the President noted, we will open a new campus in Arusha in 2019 – home for our new Faculty of Arts and Sciences. And we also plan a new campus in Dar es Salaam for our Institute for Educational Development.

In addition to the three new Professional Graduate Schools I just mentioned, we are also planning new Graduate Schools of Government, Civil Society and Public Policy; Economic Growth and Development; Law; and Education.

Each of these Graduate programs is designed to advance a healthy Civil Society – in specific African contexts – and thus quickly accelerate improvement in the quality of human life.

As the East African Community builds politically, so will AKU become increasingly regional. Meanwhile, we will continue to expand our inter-university partnerships – across the world – lending further global credibility to our work, and to your credentials.

This is a long list of initiatives, but not an unrealistic one, any more than it was unrealistic to plan for an intercontinental University three decades ago. Let me emphasize that we see these various units as integrated parts of one University, working closely together – across academic disciplines, across nations and across continents – in our increasingly “borderless” world.

These developments also mean that AKU will continue to be a valuable reference point for you, as Alumni, with its Africa and Asia-specific research, and its Continuing Education opportunities. Even as the AKU story develops, so you can develop your relationship with AKU.

Let me put you on notice. This is not a Farewell Ceremony. In fact, an event like this is often called a “Commencement”, since it marks the beginning of so many great new stories. We hope that you too will share your stories with us, in the days ahead. And we hope that you will continue to be a part of the University’s story.

And so it is that we come together, today, both as grateful inheritors, looking back on an accomplished past – and as eager explorers, looking ahead to an exciting future.

It has been an honor for me to share this day with all of you.

Thank you.