Wednesday, 10 July 2024 04:26

Banjo’s departing boon - Femi Osofisan

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Femi Osofisan Femi Osofisan

All men are mortal, we know, but it should not be so.

Some people are just too precious, too valuable, to be counted among the absent or departed when we need them. They should not be missing when mentioned; they should not be called and not be there.

I say this not necessarily because we have any specific request to make of them—a request which of course they would not hesitate to fulfil—but rather, because their presence alone is always like an umbrella over us, an unspoken guarantee of unstinting protection to us who know them. They are a constant and salubrious assurance of solace whenever the intractable storms of life threaten to overwhelm us.

That is why, I insist, there are some people whom Death, if it had any sense of shame or feeling, would just leave alone and go elsewhere to seek its victims.

Ladipo Ayodele Banjo, whose demise was announced recently, was such a man. Former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, eminent emeritus professor of English, and much more besides, was one of the sustaining totems of our communal household, those whose names alone held up the rafters of the family house.

But, so what, laughed Iku? All his fame and acclaim notwithstanding. Ayo Banjo, as he was simply known, the iroko of the forest, has been made to succumb too, like just another prancing sprig, to the inexorable hatchet of death.

Ah pagidari! O digbere! O digbose! What a loss!

The colossus whose name rhymed with integrity and good breeding, excellence and bienséance, with the Yoruba essence of omoluabi, has gone.

Quietly, just as he lived most of his life, our dear Prof Banjo left, in quiet dignity, without fuss or scandal, without tumult. He sighed his final goodbye and left us behind.

The irony was that we had just finished celebrating his 90th birthday. Indeed, the festivities marking the occasion were just rounding up, and many had not put their final full stop to their accolade when the news of his demise erupted like an earthquake.

But the celebrations will go on, perhaps now even more joyously than before, and the shock will be just a parenthetical interlude. For, in our culture, when a person has lived to a ripe age—by which Is meant anything from 70 upwards—he or she is said to have lived to the exalted status of an orisa, deserving of constant veneration. And when, moreover, this person has erected his or her own house to shelter their family, and also produced offspring, that person has fulfilled all the obligations of their coming to the world and paid back the debt of existence. There shall be no tears or wailing at the funeral. And instead of mourning, the family, children and friends all gather to serenade the departed with drumming and dancing, singing, and feasting. Thus, with song and fanfare, the farewell ends in a blaze of glory.

That is why, for a man like Banjo, whose life was virtually a catalogue of beneficent events, the encomiums have been noisily effusive and the testimonies abundant. Several of his children—among whom I proudly include myself—have given heartwarming stories about how Banjo’s intervention at crucial moments in our lives has been propitious.

As for me, it was a long relationship filled with several memorable incidents. Of these, three in particular seem to me to be the most symbolically nostalgic about my relationship with the great master.

My experience with Banjo started long ago, when as a young graduate, he came to teach at the Government College in Ibadan. He was young, handsome and debonair, like the hero of our adventure books. and all of us yearned to be his favourite student.

Thus, in the beginning, everyone struggled to be the one called to answer his questions in class. All of us would raise our hands and wave them frantically for attention. Then, when you were recognised, you would compose your best syntax, fetch your most impressive vocabulary and diction, and swagger forward with a defiant look at your unfortunate mates. And then, while you preened yourself on your performance and waited for the well-deserved applause, our teacher would say, “Well done, my boy, but can you please translate all that into English?

The second experience I recall was more sombre… and it occurred several years after the first one.

This time we were both already at the University of Ibadan, as staff in the Arts Faculty. He had been my lecturer in my undergraduate days. And when I joined the arts faculty and became the subdean of faculty, he was my dean. As you can imagine, we had quite a record of working together, I as his apprentice.

But this particular episode happened one early afternoon in 1984 when the exercise to choose the next vice-chancellor of our institution, the University of Ibadan was on.

Banjo had just then completed two years in the saddle as acting Vice Chancellor, finishing the term of the former incumbent who had unfortunately passed away before the end of his tenure. He was, naturally, therefore, one of the candidates in the running for a new head, and his chances were high on account of his recent performance in the post.

However, as is usually the case during such rites of succession in our higher institutions, the contest rapidly turned fierce and messy. Reputations came under the assault of rival candidates; mud-slinging and calumny  formed the principal weapon of some of the candidates.

Concerned that our teacher’s reputation could be tarnished in this scuffle, some of us, Banjo’s loyalists, decided to go and meet him to persuade him to quit the contest. A small delegation was set up and dispatched, of which I was one.

But Banjo, when we met him in the office, was calm and unfazed. He had entered the water, he said, and would swim it to the end. Speaking with a defiant self-confidence that we had never seen or noticed before, he soon turned our apprehensions into a trifle, and the meeting changed into an exchange of banter. What we saw was a self-assured fighter other than the diffident, polite and vulnerable man we thought we knew.

Needless to say, Banjo not only got elected to the exalted office on that occasion but was also re-elected at the end of his first term for a second term, such that he became the first VC of UI—and the only one so far—to Serve A Total Of Ten Full Years ‘In The Saddle’!

The third encounter, however, was very recent and has been the most perplexing. It happened shortly after his 90th birthday celebration, a couple of days before he went away.

That morning, when the phone rang, and his name came out on the screen, my first reaction, I confess, was of a spontaneous apprehension such as I had years ago in secondary school.

You see, he had not for months been the one to call me first, probably because I had made it my routine obligation to call him once every fortnight since he became homebound, to ask how he was faring and if he needed any assistance. So you can imagine how the unexpectedness of his call sent me back to those days at the Government College, Ibadan, when the then Mr Banjo had been our English teacher.

However, there was no need for those juvenile killers that day. He was not about to ask me to translate my words into English or punish me for failing. On the contrary: he had called to give me some cheering news about my writing and discuss the state of our literature generally in Nigeria. It was a topic we had not shared for several years, in fact since I first took over the chair of the Theatre Arts department! So you can imagine my reactions, first of surprise and amazement, and then of sheer delight.

My teacher was particularly upbeat that day, giving advice and caution, spilling with the kind of wisdom I had not heard for years. For about a half hour or so, we talked, and I was an eager student once again until he rang off.

But I have since wondered—why that call that hour, a few days to his departure? Nothing in his voice, I swear, remotely hinted that it would be our last conversation. Nothing suggested that, just a couple of days afterwards, I would be composing this obituary. How could I have known?

I know, and I am sure you know too that, as a secular humanist. I do not normally attach mystical meanings to the banal phenomena of quotidian experience. But still, that call, did it carry more intimations than its surface import? Was my teacher, on the eve of his exit, leaving me a—benediction?

Adieu, master!  I know that far and beyond this narrow time and space, the name of Ayo  Banjo will continue to ring and echo in the alases of loss ineradicable in the hearts of your numerous mourners.

** Professor Femi Osofisan, is an award- winning poet, playwright and essayist.


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