By Niyi Afolabi
“You will always be my son, any day, no matter what!” Such were the re-assuring words of Professor Femi Ojo-Ade to me at an African Literature Association Conference at Macomb-Illinois, some 10 years ago, as I gestured regrets for not having stayed in touch for a while.
That may have been our last physical encounter before his sudden demise. A long time indeed to be dislocated and disconnected in a foreign land.
The American way of life has somehow partitioned us into small individual compartments as we sadly negotiate immediate priorities in the name of survival.
Even in death, he will always be remembered as a humbling spirit who encouraged us all as we pursued an undergraduate degree in foreign languages at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) in Nigeria.
Of course, he was a polyglot. French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Yoruba were some of the languages he negotiated with ease. One could not be with him and not be inspired.
He was an embodiment of inspiration itself. An avis rara by any conventional measurement of analysis.
He inspired us, encouraged us, mentored us, and paved the way for a great future for us by the simple gesture of living what he preached.
He exuded success in appearance and was quite disciplined to a fault as he taught us both during the day and on occasion in the evenings when his busy schedule took him abroad for official business and had to make up classes upon his return.
He was the second Full Professor of French in Nigeria after Professor Abiola Irele. We were fortunate in those days to have professors from Brazil, France, and Nigeria teaching us Portuguese and French—colonial languages of course and which Professor Ojo-Ade saw only as instruments of communication and not of brain washing.
We had the best in training thanks to him. He was definitely anti-colonialist and his works reflected a strong stance against all forms of oppression.
He wrote persuasively and stylishly. Above all, he fought bravely to prepare the future for us as his students.
We learned a lot. We often wondered then why an erudite scholar would come to class in snickers and African embroidered top on Jeans as if he were just an ordinary citizen on campus.
On top of that simple wear were white collar beads that gestured his spiritual loyalty to Obatala—the deity of creativity.
And a creator he was as he defied all the genres and labels: poet, playwright, critic, and a cultural historian, and political essayist—all rolled into one complex individual in ideology and personality.
He picked us up when his path crosses ours at the entrance of the university and took us individually to our residential halls.
He shared his books and journals with us after every return from his many visits abroad. In sum, he was our teacher and professional godfather! If his children are reading this, may they know that their father was a man of the people. He was vibrant, lively, and generous. There was no trace of arrogance in him despite his impressive lifetime accomplishments.
His signature institutional achievements range from the local to the global. First, as Head of Modern European Languages Department then in 1980, he harmonized the degree programs in French and Portuguese from 5 to 4 years so that students needed not waste the study abroad year but rather have it count as part of the 4-year degree program as it should be.
That reduction of one year meant so much to struggling families in Nigeria. It was one less year to spend at the university while still getting a sound education.
Second, he spearheaded the purchase of an exclusive University House for study abroad students from Ife-Nigeria to stay in a safe, secure, and friendly locality in Salvador-Bahia-Brazil.
Third, he encouraged many top graduates to pursue academic careers by retaining them for NYSC (National Youth Service Corps) as well as securing supplemental funding for them when they gained doctoral admissions abroad.
He was a gentleman but could also withstand any roforofo fight (à la Fela) if needed to uphold his dignity.
His sense of humor was contagious. I recall when as a member of the Executive Committee of the departmental student body we had protested the introduction of exorbitant fees for the study abroad program and invited him to a meeting with all students.
In his characteristic bemusing manner, he stated: “Who says you are traveling abroad this year? Who says you are not? And who says you are paying a dime? Hmmn! Hmmn! Awon Oloje! (bunch of schemers!)”
Not only did we not pay a dime, the close to $10, 000 per student investment then in the early 1980s would translate into at least $20,000 to cover tuition, room and board for students.
Despite a booming economy, that was quite a savvy negotiation with the university authorities to avert students wasting away in the middle of their degree program or changing into other degree programs for lack of sponsorship.
The humanitarian ventures did not end with ensuring sound education at minimal cost, he also shared his own travel allowance with stranded students in subsequent years when the university had instituted obligatory payment for students going studying abroad.
We all felt at ease with him and he was such a transformative agent with lasting impact on our lives.
We will never be able to repay his kind gestures and humane personality. He taught us by example and scolded us when we went off limits by qualifying us as rascals.
When it comes to scholarship, he is an institution in his own right when it comes to his strong positions on the Negritude movement as well as on pan African literatures and cultures.
Though often labelled as a “Professor of French” he was more than just that. He wrote not only about Francophone, Anglophone or Lusophone Africa, he crisscrossed the black world defending his own culture against the stifling grain of Western hegemony that tended to reduce Africa to the proverbial “dark continent” or “dark mind.”
Among his favorite authors he has written on are the following: Léon Damas, Aimé Césaire, René Maran, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Lydia Cabrera, Ferdinand Oyono, Jacques Roumain Abdias Nascimento, Aline França, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Barack Obama, and Claude McKay, among many others.
It is indeed instructive to cite the epigraph in his book, On Black Culture (1989) in which he invokes Claude McKay, who writes, “There is no white man who could write my book.” This opening of a book speaks volumes about his stance against racism and social inequalities.
In sum, Professor Ojo-Ade’s creative and scholarly oeuvre shares a commonality in his defense of black dignity.
He is the author of more than 25 books including Home and Exile, Of Dreams Deferred, Dead or Alive, Obama Phenomenon, Being Black, Being Human, Configuring the African World, Death of a Myth, Exile at Home, and Home, Sweet, Sweet Home.
If only titles alone could talk, one gets a sense of poignant quest for tranquility based upon the persistence of human dignity which does not come without struggles. Exile also echoes as a burden in which its pleasures are often met with its discontents in which many are pressured into becoming strangers to themselves.
As I was mourning my dear Professor Ojo-Ade, a colleague of mine in Nigeria hit at a sense of collective loss by forcing a modicum of truth that befits the moment: “Unfortunately, we cannot transfer all our degrees and achievements to our children. Better to face the reality of death whenever it comes.”
While easier said than done, of course, no one wants to die even when they have had a fulfilling life. As difficult as it is to prepare, we must be ready by setting our eyes on the crown of glory.
However untimely, Professor Ojo-Ade has completed his own journey. He is on his way to the next.
As we mourn him, we realize that the sting of death hurts and it is real. We are reluctant to prepare because this life is all we know.
The otherworld is uncertain. But as the writer of Revelations (22: 12-14) says of He who is yet to come: “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me to give to every man according as his work shall be. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.”
We truly miss you! Farewell, Mon Professeur par excellence!!!
Professor Niyi Afolabi teaches Luso-Brazilian, Yoruba, and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.