FAREWELL BENJAMIN OLORUNTIMEHIN

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Jacob K. Olupona pays tribute to Oloruntimehin, a scholar of repute

I join hundreds of mourners at home and abroad to pay homage to our departed senior scholar, a great and experienced administrator, and a fun-loving person, Professor Oloruntimehin. I owe my first academic job as a Faculty Junior Fellow at the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) partly to him when he was the Dean of the Faculty of Arts (1975 to 1977). His wisdom and sagacity were on full display in the story of how I came to join the university’s Religious Studies Department in 1976 and his subsequent role in my career. Let me limit this tribute to him to just one of several episodes.

In the mid-1970s, Religious Studies at Ife faced a leadership crisis, and Professor Oloruntimehin as dean came in to fix the problem. When Dr. Doi, the Head of the Department, went on leave in India in 1976, Rev Dr. Kayode was appointed Acting Head by the Vice-Chancellor, and the faculty was instructed to recruit two junior Fellows on the training line. I was among the four young scholars shortlisted for an interview.

The plan, as was the practice then in many Nigerian universities, was to recruit two of the Ife graduates invited to the interview. The interview had all but ended before they called me in. As I entered the room to face a panel of six intimidating professors, including several deans from other faculties, Professor Oloruntimehin (who chaired the session) grilled me on my CV requiring me to confirm the authenticity of the two articles I had published as an undergraduate in ‘Uche: University of Nigeria Nsukka Journal of Philosophy’ and ‘Gangan, the Western Region Cultural Magazine’. While Dr. Uzodima Nwala had edited the former publication, the latter essay had been published by the Ministry of Information, Ibadan. The same magazine contained three different articles by Professor Afolabi Ojo, Professor E. Bolaji Idowu, and the late Timi of Ede, Oba Adetoyese Laoye, among others. Professor Oloruntimehin’s interview still resonates with me to this day because it turned out to be an unusual academic exchange between a prominent senior scholar and an academic neophyte.

‘What is the difference between Religious Studies at Ife and at Nsukka University?’ Prof. Oloruntimehin asked. ‘You mean University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Sir,’ I responded? There was raucous laughter, and his was the most boisterous. After answering that Religion at the UNN is rooted in social sciences and Ife’s religious studies approach is rooted in the Arts, he sent a second salvo; what did that mean for the two institutions? I realized I was in trouble with the Ife dons, and I quickly replied with some rich vocabulary to explain what we had learned at UNN. I named Religionswissenschaft (scientific religious studies) and phenomenology of religion (philosophical religious studies) as my primary methodological foundations, thanks to two of my UNN teachers who taught us well. Both Professor Edmund Ilogu and the late Professor Ogbu Kalu had insisted in class that students use the proper language and discourse in talking about religion in academic circles.

At the end of the interview, Ife decided to hire me, thus joining my Ife colleague Andrew Igenoza, who later became a Bishop of the Anglican Church. They probably thought it would be unfair not to invite me to join the Religious Studies staff after what they must have considered an excellent performance at the interview, even though I was considered an Nsukka boy and an outsider. From all indications, Professor Oloruntimehin took a special interest in recruiting and promoting young scholars who can make a difference in the university. I guess this was what Professor Oloruntimehin and his colleagues saw in me by encouraging an ‘outsider’ with a different type of intellectual perspective and training in religious studies from UNN to the Department of Religious Studies at Ife. The humanistic social science perspective of UNN was a perspective he welcomed and encouraged. For me, the abiding lesson is the difference an extraordinarily independent and focused intellectual and administrator such as Professor Oloruntimehin can make in institutions and the fortune of their scholars. Second, our universities must overcome the culture of inbreeding, the “son of the soil” culture that hardens innovative and creative leadership in our institutions. But for Professor Oloruntimehin’s visionary thinking and the providence of a dynamic department head, Rev. Dr Kayode, I would have been denied a place at Ife.

As announced by the President, Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL), Professor Francis Egbokhare, FNAL, Oloruntimehin, FHSN, FNAL served meritoriously as the President of the Academy between 2014 and 2016. “He travelled far and wide undertaking educational visits and Visiting Fellowships in the United Kingdom, France and the United States of America. He was widely published both nationally and internationally with eight books and monographs, ten edited books, contributions in 15 books, 30 journal articles, and reviews of over 14 books to his credit. He also served as Editor/Editor-in-Chief or Member of Editorial Board to a number of journals,” Egbokhare wrote.

We younger scholars who knew Professor Oloruntimehin and loved him would continue to cherish his many talents and attributes, including his perspicacious mind, cosmopolitan outlook, interdisciplinary training and outreach, and his penchant for uplifting scholarly careers under his care. He was undoubtedly a brilliant scholar and a caring teacher, full of compassion, witty and humorous. While he enjoyed working hard, as many have testified, he also enjoyed having fun, particularly sitting under the Ife Staff Club’s almond tree.

May his place of rest be of glory.

Olupona, FNAL, NNOM, is Professor of African Religious Traditions, Divinity School and Professor of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University