When Jamaican Pan-African icon Marcus Garvey was a student in London, he found a mentor in one of Africa’s actors and political activists called Dusé Mohamed Ali.
Born in 1866, Ali was the son of an Egyptian father and a Sudanese mother. He was born in Alexandria, where he was trained until he was 10 when his dad started arranging to transfer him to England.
He would stay in England until 1882 when his father, an officer in the Egyptian Army, was killed in the Battle of Tel el-Kebir, between Egypt and the British military. He was 16 at this time and had to handle his father’s estate affairs as the family had been evacuated to Sudan. He then headed back to King’s College London.
Although he had wanted to be a doctor, Ali changed his course in school to study the arts. He took to the stage at 19 years old and would act for the next 24 years. However, the resentment started creeping in because of the tendency of being type-casted into stereotypical roles either as an evil Muslim or a slave because of his dark skin. This was despite the fact that he was the only English-speaking actor from the Arab world in English theatres at the time.
He took a detour in his career and became a journalist, thanks to his interest in politics. Some of his articles focused on the treatment of Egyptians by the British. He would travel the world in search of warm climate due to ill health, visiting countries like India, the U.S. and the Caribbean. During his voyages, he was able to see the impact of imperialism on black people and Arabs and made his mission to challenge this.
In 1912, he founded the first newspaper in England owned and published by a black person: African Times and Orient Review. The fund used in launching the paper was provided by West Africans living in London. The newspaper became famous for its Pan-African take and attracted the likes of the cousin of the first African-born president of Liberia, Irish writers and British explorers. Even women rights activists sent contributions to the newspaper.
It was through the newspaper that he established relationships with other black intellectuals throughout the world, including Booker T Washington and Alain Locke. He was able to meet Garvey and even joined his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) as a foreign secretary and head of African affairs.
The newspaper folded during World War I as it was banned by the British in India and in all its African colonies. Ali moved to the U.S. in the 1920s but after a series of failed businesses, he came back to the continent, settling in Nigeria.
He founded The Comet, a magazine which was ranked among top Nigerian publications at the time. In 1944, he would sell the magazine to a publication house owned by Nnamdi Azikiwe, the man who would become Nigeria’s first president.
Ali, who had written a number of books and staged a number of plays throughout his life, died on June 25, 1945.