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PROF. OLU OBAFEMI: STORY OF A HAWKER’S SON WHO BECAME ENGLISH PROFESSOR
A relentless social engineer. An accomplished scholar. A man who chooses to be a realist rather than an idealist. A pragmatic poet. An undulating voice that calms jarring nerves. His mien may not be majestic or his gait glamorous, Prof. Olu Obafemi shimmers in values and towers above others in intellectual stature. Like many mortals of great standing, the retired professor of English at the University of Ilorin has a theme and twists to his life’s
story, writes Funke Olaode
If poems were to be weighed in gold, Prof. Olu Obafemi’s winsome verses would be worth all the gold bars imaginable. Were the characters in his plays to have a real-life of their own, they would do eternal obeisance to a gracious genius as Obafemi. In an unassuming style, the retired professor signposts a quantum epitome of value, intellect, and simplicity. As a relentless social engineer, he lives up to the billing as a man who chooses to be a realist rather than an idealist. As an accomplished scholar, he lights the path for more knowledge.
An intellectual and pragmatic poet with an undulating voice that calms jarring nerves and torments greedy souls. His mien may not be majestic or his gait glamorous, Prof. Obafemi shimmers in values and towers above others in intellectual stature.
It is not impossible to know before you meet him. The affable professor leaves a shadow of himself in every form, in every place. He represents the humanity needed in every society. You can see the fire in his studious eyes and the humour in his expansive smile.
He made hard work look simple and brilliance as simple as ABC. What he achieved during his early years, the time he lived in and circumstances that surrounded them, Obafemi’s story illustrated audacity of hope
He was 31 when he bagged a PhD. About ten years later, he became a professor -a feat that many of his contemporaries in academia could not lay claim to.
The retired professor of English at the University of Ilorin is a rare breed. And if one’s humble background is the only way to attain great achievement, probably he would be in the farm tending to his crops having been born by a father, who was a renowned tailor-turned-farmer and a mother who hawked food. Obafemi a native of Kogi State rose above adversities. His intellectual ability coupled with hard work and providence were determinants factor that pushed him to the top.
Born on 4 April 1950 in Kabba town. His father, Pa Emmanuel Buraimoh Obafemi hailed from Akutupa while his mother, Mama Hannah Omorewo Omorewo, hailed from Ohura, both in Bunu in the present-day Kabba-Bunu local government area of Kogi State.
His father was a successful tailor known for his artistry. But because of his kindness and generosity, he did not make enough money from tailoring, a job he later ditched for farming. It was money made from farming that ensured young Obafemi had a good education. His mother was a food vendor, hawking pounded yam with egusi. Despite his background, Obafemi, a child of destiny was determined to succeed.
While his early childhood revolved around farming, Obafemi had begun to inherit her parents’ artistry beyond the rustic realities that surrounded him.
He said, “My parents’ natural disposition to the arts and history unwittingly set me on the course of my chosen career as an artist. My father was an oral historian. He stored up the story of our clan and district and the Okun nation in his head. Just tap him, on any subject; kingship, wars, descent, and he gives you a run for your money with amazing narrative competence. Mama is a singer and simply a dancing worm. She was the choir mistress in the Apostolic Church, Kabba in the fifties before she became the Iya Egbe, female Chairperson.
“At over 90, hardly walking, her voice is shrill sharp, her head is full of songs. We all took after her. Every one of my siblings is a dancer. My female siblings, the four of them, have won dancing competitions at one stage or the other. Then, of course, the school.
“The concerts and performed recitations at the Methodist School Kabba where I performed annually.
“The school band where I became the bandleader. All this and my paternal grandmothers’ moonlight story-telling sessions, lived in my subconscious and impacted my later life in the arts.”
After his primary education, Obafemi attended Government Secondary School, Dekina, and graduated in 1969. He enrolled for his ‘A’ levels at Titcombe College, Egbe between 1970 and 1971. Between 1972 and 1975, he was at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where he studied English. He attended the University of Sheffield, England, between 1977 and 78 and the University of Leeds, England (1978–81) for his doctorate this time on scholarship.
Would he consider himself a lucky lad?
Even though his teachers in the primary school and neighbours often nudged his parents about the kind of future to expect and gave premonitory peps about some larger-than-life attributes about him, he believes the combination of industry and chance made him what he is today.
He said, “An old man, Pa Gurusa who owned the house next to ours in Odo-Affin used to call, hail me, ‘Jagun-Gogorogo’—which simply translates to a tall and huge man, a giant, anytime I passed in front of his house. The fact was that I was usually the smallest among my peers. To now mock me—as I thought then –as a giant, used to irritate me quite a lot. One day I was really upset and cried to my mother over this unprovoked attack on my person by this old man.
“After petting me a little, she said, ‘what an old man sees sitting down, a child cannot see by climbing a tall Iroko tree.’ I never understood this until much later in life. We were small children from a rural background, there was no way we could predict what our lives have become today.”
Speaking further, Prof. Obafemi said, “We began to take ourselves seriously when we began to prepare for the Common Entrance Examinations. The previous year, a few of us had gained admission into missionary colleges but could not pay the fees. The entrance to government colleges was our only and sure way of furthering our education. It meant working hard to pass the entrance. From then on, through the Higher School Certificate classes and the University, it was education through scholarship.
“You had to come on top of the class to win the only scholarship at Titcombe College, Egbe. You had to gain either state or federal scholarship to read for your degree. It was the opportunity opened to the very best. Yes, the compulsive industry and some talent were the roadmaps to our success. The rest was left to fate.”
In his days, Obafemi recalled there were no mentors or career advisers but by the time he was doing the HSC, activities, and events such as dramatic societies, Current Affairs Club, Debating Society, editor of school magazines, librarian—all these had begun to lead him in a certain direction. “In Titcombe College, I was called ‘Perm Sec’ (permanent secretary in our consciousness in those days, represented the highest position you could aspire to. By the time I was going to university, I wanted to be either a journalist or a Lecturer. In Dekina, we had been publicly caned for our ‘subversive’ writing in the School Reporter (the college magazine).
“In Titcombe, I narrowly escaped rustication for the so-called role I played in the first-ever college demonstration in the life of the college for supplying the revolutionary inspiration for the riot!” he narrated.
“Since then, I moved with the burning passion and desire to fight injustice; to take a message to the audience, especially the predated upon masses; I wanted to educate. I wanted to reach the audience by the shortest means possible and by deploying the most enduring tool; the media, writing, and the classroom.”
With his desire to achieve his goals, Obafemi headed to the university. He was first admitted to read English at Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Ibadan. He was also offered Journalism at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. But his parents were dissuaded from sending him to the east as the story of the Civil War was still fresh. His maternal aunt lived in Kaduna as head of the market women and also have cousins in Kaduna and Zaria. He decided to go to Zaria.
After his first degree at ABU, Obafemi began his career in the Department of English, University of Ilorin.
“University teaching chose me apparently,” he said. “With a second class upper in English at the time, the options were narrowed down. Even though I had employment in the industries and the civil service, they were made unattractive. The three months I spent at the Ministry of Information in Ilorin were boring.
“It was sheer drudgery with vital files for car loans and sundry files kept under the carpet of the boss. The bureaucracy was unsuitable to my restless temperament. I needed a stage and the press to express myself. The only routes attractive were the university classrooms and newsroom of the newspaper.”
His decision to pitch his tent with the ivory tower paid off. Between 1977 and 1978, he got a scholarship to study at the University of Sheffield, England for a Master’s degree in English. From there he moved to the University of Leeds, England in 1978 for his doctorate which he successfully completed in 19 81 at the age of 31.
Recounting his first time abroad, Obafemi said, “It was my first time in the air. On the plane, up in the sky, I remembered the story of Daedalus’ son, Icarus and my heart was in my mouth. Would the wax melt and the wings of the plane come off? Shall we escape the labyrinth?
“In 1977, where else would one have found the funds to buy a ticket and hop on the plane? Thanks to the Staff Development Fund of the University of Ilorin which enabled us young teaching Graduate Assistants study leave abroad, and the luxury of a plane ride.”
What was his experience like in England?
“In the seventies, racism was still quite raw, in spite of government diplomacy and anti-racism laws. In practice, it was bare-faced, brazen. You felt it everywhere; in the refectory and the buses, you were avoided like a leprosy patient with pork marks. Nobody wanted to sit next to you if you were black. In the classroom, of course, it was different, at least subtle, but it was there all the same,” he recalled.
Obafemi eventually attained the height his parents couldn’t reach. With his PhD, Obafemi headed back to Nigeria. But why did he return?
“First, it hardly ever crossed our minds to seek employment abroad. What would be the attraction? Material consideration? When I was going abroad, the naira exchanged for the pound at N995 to £1000. By the time I was leaving, the lecturer’s salaries in the UK and Nigeria were virtually at par. I was told there were one or two offers if I wanted but it was the last thing on my mind. There was still a huge justification for patriotism. I was being paid my salary while on study leave to supplement my study leave allowance.
“Most of who went abroad came back as soon as we finished our studies. Indeed, I came back the next week after defending my PhD. I knew my wife received a few nudges to persuade her husband to take the advantage to stay back. True, things were beginning to go under on the economic front back at home. But really, for me, staying back abroad, as a second-class citizen in a foreign land, was not worth considering,” said the retired professor.
He returned to Nigeria and went back to the department of English at the University of Ilorin. His intellectual flame was burning.
Obafemi’s intellectual prowess is constantly on display as he kept churning out relevant journals, publications, and several books written by this outstanding scholar. In 1990, Obafemi became a professor at the age of 40. It was a rare feat.
How did he feel becoming a professor at that age?
He said, “All my life, I have never really felt that I had achieved anything outstanding. Instead, I have moved on from one exploit to another, doing the little things I am able to do. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about it at all.
“Coming to think of it, given the numerous other engagements that took my time—running a theatre troupe, being in the leadership of the academic trade union and other change vanguards, university committees assignments, community service at my home’s local level and so on, it could have been a little faster, I believe. Truth is that I knew I had to work extra hard to get my promotions at the right time. As a unionist, I looked up to myself alone to shape my career progression.”
Obafemi as an intellectual has mass-produced his ilk. Dozens of doctoral students have passed through his tutelage while some of his students are retired judges, former and current vice-chancellors, professors, retired and serving permanent secretaries, captains of industry, and so on.
Obafemi as an accomplished scholar is also a loving husband and doting father. It has been 40 years since he got married to the love of his life, Grace Dupelola Obafemi, a retired chief nursing officer from the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital Ilorin.
The marriage is blessed with three wonderful children, His first son, Bamidele, teaches English in a private University. His only daughter, Morountodun, has a doctorate in Film Studies and Film Production and teaches in a state university and his youngest son, Lanrewaju, is a computer engineer and works in an IT company in London.
After close to 40 decades at Unilorin, Obafemi retired from the institution’s service with his head high.
“Not at all. These are moments of unquantified fulfilment for me. There were challenging moments as an academic but regrets are out of the question. Life is full of imperfections, some devolving on disappointments but I am always schooled by Shakespeare’s uncanny admonition that ‘do not for one repulse forgo the purpose,” he said.