On Thursday, April 16, 2015, the Performing Arts Theatre of the University of Ilorin was abuzz with a jaw-dropping performance in honour of one of the most versatile scholars, prolific writers and frontline intellectuals of this age, Prof. Olu Obafemi.
The students of the Department of English, coordinated and directed by one of Prof. Olu Obafemi’s many academic sons and scions, Dr A. S. Abubakar, staged the play in honour of the well-acclaimed Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters. The play, “Running Dreams”, was a premier of the latest brain-child of the prodigious professor of professors.
When I got notice of the performance while attending the African Peace Research and Education Association (AFPREA) conference, which drew participants from 40 countries, at the ECOWAS Parliament in Abuja, I assured myself I wouldn’t miss the conferment of honour on the academic giant aptly described as “larger than his frame”. Truly, if one’s frame were to be the actual reflection of one’s worth, Oga’s frame would be larger than that of the ebullient late Chief F. R. A. Williams!
My first encounter with Prof. Olu Obafemi began some 20 years ago when I was still a starry-eyed freshman in this University. What was first striking then was that Prof. Obafemi offered to teach 100 level students and my set was so fortunate. You don’t meet professors as a freshman, usually. We would often brag before our colleagues who were taught by junior lecturers that we had a Professor teaching us.
Perhaps what informed Prof. Obafemi’s choice was to “catch ‘em young”. Whatever it was, it worked for me as I could not afford to miss the lectures of that Professor of English whose compelling voice and eloquent diction tore easily like razor into the velvet air of the Africa Hall every week we had his ENL 104 or “Introduction to Nigerian Literature”.
Prof. Obafemi made the study of literature exciting. He would start each author’s work with his biography, creating a nexus between the text, the writer or the context. We learnt poems after poems till some of us became poets (and I went ahead to publish my first collection of poems before I graduated).
Whether it was Chinua Achebe’s “Refuge mother and child”, Funso Aiyejina’s “The harvest”, J. P. Clark’s “The flood”, Gabriel Okara’s “Spirit of the wind”, Christopher Okigbo’s “The passage”, Okinba Launko’s “End of war” or Wole Soyinka’s “Harvest of hate”, Olu Obafemi taught us all with unequalled passion. We studied Odia Ofeimu’s “A gong”, Tanure Ojaide’s “The fate of the elephant” and I was so enthralled by his own “Do gooders” and “The fly on the gangrene”.
Within a semester, we read the novels of Achebe, especially Arrow of God and A Man of the People. Then we studied many plays, from Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel to Obafemi’s own Naira has no Gender. It was a baptism of academic fire at the first year with the firebrand playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, columnist, literary critic, administrator, former Head of Department, former Dean of Student Affairs and former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors.
As a young lecturer in the Department a decade ago, Prof. Obafemi sent for me and my heart jumped a beat. He was so generous to tell me his impression when he read one of my articles, “The Unifying Role of English in a Multilingual Nation: The Case of Nigeria”. Being commended by the giant Obafemi with a firm handshake made “my head swell” and I was motivated.
It was for all his sterling qualities as a mentor and scholar that at age 50 in 2000, a fetschrift, Larger Than His Frame, was produced in his honour. At 60, an international conference that was convened here in Unilorin to celebrate his academic exploits. The academic world can’t wait for him to be 70 in 2020. Arogidigba, a seyi s’amodun o!
Ah, the sun set so soon for Yahaya
My last meeting with the late Mr Abdul Ganiy Yahaya was in the office of the Director of Academic Planning barely a week before his departure. I didn’t have a premonition that it would be our last encounter. For humanity to be deprived of a man so useful and impactful, yet so unassuming, gentle and humble, serves to shockingly remind one of the axiom that straight trees don’t last in the forest.
When the boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth”, he might have had Mr Yahaya in mind. His life was an embodiment of service to the system, the community and humanity at large. No wonder that on the days of his burial and fidau, his family home turned to a Mecca.
I commiserate with the family, the University community and Ilorin Emirate on the demise of this jolly good fellow and consummate planner who paid his rent in full, despite his age. May Allah grant him Aljannah Firdaws.