Wendell Bell on Janet Rae Mondlane – Images of the future and action

September 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

Dear All:

I thought some of you might be interested in the attached speech by Janet Rae Mondlane, as she recently accepted her honorary doctorate from Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique.

Janet was an undergraduate student with whom I worked at Northwestern University during the late 1950s. Her then husband-to-be, Eduardo Mondlane, a son of a Tsonga chief from Mozambique, was a graduate student during the same time. From well before I met him, Eduardo was dedicated to the liberation of his country and had been working toward that end by giving speeches around the USA, even while he was in graduate school. (Although Janet mentions my name in her speech, she and Eduardo taught me much more than I taught them).

Their story is in part a vivid example of the role of images of the future (visions, dreams, or hopes) in shaping action that in turn helps
to shape the coming future. After Eduardo and Janet earned their degrees and after they married, they devoted most of their lives to the struggle for Mozambican political independence from Portuguese colonial rule.

Eduardo played a key role in organizing the Mozambican Liberation Front (FRELIMO) and became its first President. Working out of Dar es Salaam in 1963, he became a full-time revolutionary, leading an armed struggle against the Portuguese in Mozambique. In the end FRELIMO would be successful and Mozambique would become a free and independent state.

Unfortunately, Eduardo did not live to see it. In Dar es Salaam in February 1969, a bomb, sent to him disguised as a book, exploded and killed him. He is honored in Mozambique as a father of his country. Janet, who was by his side or working in her own way for the same causes Eduardo was, continued her life in Mozambique, raised her children, and helped in the development of the country.

I found Her reflections both instructive and inspiring. I hope some of you do too.

Best wishes


Wendell Bell, Professor Emeritus of Sociology
Yale University


Universidade Eduardo Mondlane
12 de Setembro de 2011

Sua Excelencia, Sr Presidente da República de Moçambique,
Senhor Primeiro Ministro,
Senhora Presidente da Assembelia da República,
Ilustres Representantes dos Órgaos de Soberania,
Magnifico Reitor da Universidade Eduardo Mondlane,
Corpo docente, e discente da Universidade Eduardo Mondlane,
Estimados amigos, caros convidados,

This is a proud moment in my life. I thank this university giving it to me.

While I was working on my Bachelor’s Degree at Northwestern University, I was doing various tasks for Eduardo to gain his Masters and Doctors degrees at the same university. No computers, no wonderful software programs, no Excel with its formulas. Instead, we used stiff paper cards with punched-in data (which we punched-in ourselves) and rattling sorting machines. There were finger-numbing typewriters. I watched him sweat academic tears and I participated in the mind-breaking data-gathering tasks for the doctorate thesis. As a result of this period in my academic life, I vowed I would never, ever do a doctorate degree. I went on to do the Masters in Sociology but never was tempted to break that vow.

But now, here I am, Doctor H.C, which I am particularly proud to receive, for this great Mozambican university bears Eduardo Mondlane’s name!  True, it has taken me a lifetime, with varied experiences in the armed struggle and nation building—but at the least I have not written that terrifying academic thesis!

This university, like all other universities in Mozambique, strives to carry out its noble tasks in a country in development, where there are fields of poverty with a few pools of gold, where the struggle to survive is the priority, where higher education is a privilege. The luxury for its students to receive and afterwards not to give back to their people is not a choice for this institution. This university needs to give us the men and women that will take us out of poverty: to build roads, bridges, industries, and great swathes of green fields that will feed us and our hungry neighbours on the continent. How do we educate more of ourselves, how do we cure our diseases, how do we maintain unity and equality in a world that seems to have gone mad with greed and division? A part of my dream for Mozambique came true, for since 1975 we can decide our destiny. The long road ahead will decide if Mozambique and its universities are worthy of the dream.

Not many people know that Eduardo’s dream was that after finishing the task of national liberation, he wanted to have time in his life to teach at a university, to have the privilege to interact with students and Mozambique academicians and all the people of the country that he would see born. I enthusiastically shared this dream with him, and a part of it became reality in June 1975. On that wonderful day of 25th June, we won the right to decide our own future. My Eduardo is not here physically but our off-spring Eduardo, Jr., Chude and Nyeleti are here in this hall.  I think without hesitation that the dream lives in every student of this university that wears the gown at the end of the course, with a diploma in hand. The long road that we have ahead is that we will learn from our good actions and our errors. Today, young academics have the challenge to bring peace and stability to our corner of the world. Tragically, in today’s world, human security has lost its priority. In truth, our sovereignty exists in the will of each Mozambican to embrace and defend the liberty that was won, with pride in our legacy.

As I said, here I am, standing in this one little space in Mozambique, long ago having come from another little space thirteen and a half thousand kilometres away in the United States.
When I was thinking about what I wanted to say in this ceremony, I decided to speak about why I did what I did and not about what I did. How did it happen?

The story of each one of our lives is composed of choices. Wendell Bell, my great friend, professor and important social scientist wrote in his latest book: that life courses [caminhos], both professional and personal, are often directed by unplanned experiences. At crossroads, which path is followed and which hard choices are made can change the direction of one’s future…. totally unforeseen events can shape individual lives…. despite our hopes and our plans for the future, there is also serendipity, feedback, twists and turns, chance and circumstance, all of which shape our futures with sometimes surprising results. Images of the future—dreams, visions, or whatever we call them—help to determine our actions, which, in turn, help shape the future,…The memories of these images of the future  linger and are often used to judge the real outcomes of [our] lives.

From whence comes the motivation that guides life choices?  I clearly remember incidents from early childhood, like shelling [descascar] fresh green peas for my mother, pretending I was freeing slaves from their prison cells; teaching my much younger brother how to fight the bully who lived in our neighbourhood.  Childhood games turned into background scenarios for future work as an adult.

It is important to say that I had a religious upbringing. From the age of 5 years old, Sunday School had an immeasurable influence on my growth. Sitting on a little chair in my best Sunday clothes, I was fascinated by the coloured pictures of African boys and girls (missionary influence). The teacher said we were all one people, under God. The years passed and as my mind developed, make-believe elements were diluted while the moral structure remained. The motivational framework stayed intact. As I entered teenage years, fascination turned to thoughtful contemplation of the world. I decided to make a difference in a corner of the world and go to Africa as a doctor. In 1951 I participated in a camp for young Christians, and there was a Mozambican lecturing there. There my direction in life changed. At age 17, I met Eduardo at the right place, at the right time.  I had decided my future, and he entered it with unbelievable moral smoothness. And I entered his.

I had images of the future, images which were identical to those of Eduardo Mondlane, images he described in a letter to me in 1965, in the midst of the liberation struggle:  “our lives have got to be lived like this.  We’re part of history…helping to shape up a new world…a world which our forebears built up– both rightly and wrongly.  Probably no one will notice what you and I have done and are doing, in the sum total of the things being done in the present world as a whole.  But I personally have [no] doubt that our actions will in some way influence the course of the history of at least the people of Mozambique, I hope to the good.  This is about the only consolation that I have in compensation for my long separations from the most beloved people in my life”.

One thought must be clear. What I accomplished in my life, I did not achieve alone. We were many. From 1962 until this present day, I say unashamedly that FRELIMO was my family; it encompassed, and encompasses, the comrades of my heart and mind. There were bitter moments.  But the ties are bands of steel and cannot be broken.

Has my motivational structure changed from the time of the childish shelling of the green peas, of loathing the bullies who fed upon the weak?  The foundations remained the same but it left my imagination and found solid ground in the world around me.

The memories of these images of the future linger and they judge the real outcome of my life. Now I am 77 years old. My work is a long way from being completed. Since I am older than the majority of people in this hall, I take the liberty of extending a bit of advice: never underestimate yourself. If you want to change the world, you can.

One day I was lamenting with my friend Dr. Bell [by email] that whereas he had obtained great academic recognition and contributed to the intelligence of the universe, I had not done that and rather envied him his accomplishments. He replied, “Oh yes, I did, but you helped to liberate a people”.

I accept this Honoris Causa with great humility. I thank the Eduardo Mondlane University for bestowing this honor. I share this recognition with my children who had to accept my decision, many times with enormous sacrifices for them. I also share this honor with my comrades of the struggle. In spite of the difficulties through which we lived, we knew how to bring victories that still live in the hearts of the Mozambican people.

Thank you.