Oji Onoko

If he wanted to shock me, the effect was even more devastating.

“I nearly did not mark your paper,” the bespectacled and smartly dressed lecturer announced as soon as I entered his office.
We had just resumed from the first semester break in my very first year in the university when I was summoned. I cannot now recall the exact words he used but it was to the effect that my handwriting was atrocious. I braced up for worse.
“Your writing had good stuff,” he then said, betraying a smile.
The relief that swept over me was overwhelming.

The year was 1982. It was on that ambivalent note that a bond developed between us, which flourished with the passing years. In 2009, it turned full cycle when my daughter had to stay two nights at his house to attend University of Benin post-UME test. Though she studied sociology, Prof. Muyiwa Peter Awodiya monitored her progress and when she graduated, he would always ask after her any time we spoke reminding me: “Your daughter is very intelligent, make sure she comes back to Benin for her post graduate studies! The university needs people like her…”

I used to wonder why he devoted so much attention to me in spite of his busy schedule but when I reached out to some former students while working on this material, I discovered to my surprise and admiration, that caring for his students – past and present – is second nature to him.

Their impression of the man range from the sentimental to downright hero-worship! To some like Hajia Hauwa Sodiq (1988 set), he was more than just a teacher while her contemporary Bridget Russel said he treated them as though they were his children. To many others he was a great mentor, a brother, a role model and a thoroughbred professional.

And asked why he bothers so much about his former students, the Professor of Theatre Arts said:“I have always been very confident about the products we put out to the community and to the world in general. I am very interested in monitoring the performances of the ex-students of our department in the outside world. And I have not been disappointed.”

A good feeling, no doubt, for a man whose dreams like a budding plant denied of nitrogen almost withered before getting to full bloom. He lost his father soon after his secondary school and barely one year after he gained admission to the University of Ibadan with his mother picking the bills, she also passed on! Inconsolable but resolute, he fell back on stipends he got working part time with Radio Nigeria and NTA Lagos. Later, he took a students’ loan from the federal government which he recalled made “me survive those gruelling times in the University of Ibadan.”

For his post-graduate studies in the United States, he secured a scholarship from his state government, the old Oyo State. Midway into the programme, however, his allowances were stopped by the embassy officials for his temerity to protest their questionable practice of delaying the release of funds to the students while putting the money in fixed deposits to mature for pecuniary purposes. Talk of a rebel with a cause. Left high and dry in a foreign land, he took to menial jobs to survive. He washed plates in hotels, did security service job as a security guard at a toy factory, drove taxi for a taxi company and at a point withdrew completely from the university. After working for three months night and day he was able to save for school fees that he needed to pay to complete his studies.

Once done, he strutted to the Nigerian embassy in youthful bravado to taunt the officials and show off his treasured certificate. But a new Sheriff as it were had taken charge-Ambassador Kazuare -who was not only sympathetic to his cause but directed that all his withheld allowances be paid to him in cash…

He worked briefly at the University of Ibadan before he moved to the University of Benin where he has spent his entire working career as a scholar, researcher, theatre manager and author moulding generations of students who are today his proud ambassadors
A firm believer in theory laced with practice, his appointment as General Manager, MUSON Centre, Lagos in the mid-90s, gave him an ample opportunity to prove the notion making year on year profit for the owners throughout his tenure.

By the time he returned to UNIBEN his teaching technique changed buoyed by his practical experience. Still, he is bothered about the management of our public art institutions such as the National Theatre, Lagos and Oba Akenzua Theatre, Benin among others which today are in parlous state. He believes these places can be properly managed to make profit for the federal or state governments that built them. Indeed, his Inaugural lecture, Managing our Culture; Securing our Future is a blue-print to turn around the culture sector in Nigeria…

On his post retirement plans, Awodiya with eight books to his credit and 65 journal articles who clocks 70 on August 14 this year, 2017 waxed philosophical with a tinge of pragmatism: “My post-retirement plans are in the hand of the Lord. However, I have alternative plans to aid the youths of Nigeria to imbibe our culture. To pass to the young generations what we inherited from our parents so that our culture will not perish. The other plan is to aid our Arts Managers to be able to run our Arts Institutions which unfortunately have not been run professionally and profitably too. Benin City has now become my second home while Ilesa still remains my first city of abode.”
-Onoko writes from Abuja