On the tenth of March 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, travelling between Addis Ababa and Nairobi, fell out of the sky, leaving 157 massive holes in the universe. Spaces never again to be filled. Cracks never to be mended. It is now the 11th of March 2019 and I am yet to come to terms with a particular death. Prof Pius Adesanmi. Kogite. Nigerian. African. Academic. Intellectual.
I never actually met him. Which is odd. He attended the university I practically grew up in. University of Ilorin. Better by far, they call themselves. And Prof Pius was definitely better by far. A towering intellect. He was a Professor of English and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. For us bookworms, he was a superstar, a celebrity. A prolific writer, whose words leapt off the page into our hearts, because he spoke to us of things we knew, in language we recognised, the acerbic wit of our people, but with such erudition that we could only be in awe and nod like agama lizards in agreement… even when we disagreed with him. So when my friend Kofoworola met Prof Pius in 2015 and got a copy of his book personally autographed by the man himself, I was so green with envy, I nearly turned into a third of the Nigerian flag. I said to myself, I will meet him and get my own autograph. My time time will come… It never did.
I sometimes suspect that being from Kogi State gives one an insight into the absurdities of Nigeria and postcolonial Africa. We are Northerners, a jog away from Ninth Mile, the gateway to the East of Nigeria. Some of us – Prof and I for example, are ethnically Yoruba, people more often associated with the South-West of Nigeria. And so I followed Prof’s writing as he unravelled and disrupted our understanding of our country, our continent and our world. He showed in his writing that critical thinking was essential to changing the world. Critical thinking was not a futile preoccupation that prevented one from action, but a necessary step to ensuring that the appropriate actions were taken. And Prof wrote down his thoughts, in his books, in his articles, and on social media. One particular Facebook post stands out for me. ‘This Business Called Africa’ where he recalls an encounter with a student:
‘Student: Professor, I have applied to volunteer in Africa next semester or next year. I really enjoyed your courses in the past. They were an eye opener. Are you able to write a letter in support of my application to so-and-so NGO or Foundation or International Charity that is sponsoring the internship in Africa?
Prof Pius: Ah, yes, that is wonderful. Sure, I’ll write a reference. But, pray, how come you took classes with me and you are still going to Africa?
S: Ouch. I’m sorry, Professor, I am going to Burundi or Rwanda or Tanzania or Kenya or Malawi. You warned us against just saying ‘Africa’ like it is one small basket.
PP: Exactly. So, why exactly are you going to the continent?
S: I am going there to help Africa.
PP: Didn’t you just say you were going to Burundi or Rwanda or Tanzania or Kenya or Malawi?
S:Sorry, again, Professor, I am going to help just one country.
PP: Better. But here is the deal. Your 19 or 20-year-old self is not going to help Africa or any country in Africa. You are too young and too small to be making such grandiose claims. I have been pouring my intellect and modest gifts into the Universities of Canada and the United States since 1998, it would be odd to claim that I came here to help these countries out – or to help the American continent.
You are going to Africa to be helped by Africa. You are going there to be increased. Your person will be increased. Your self will be expanded. Your horizon will be broadened and expanded. You will be introduced to new ways of seeing and being. You will encounter alternative narratives of personhood and society. You will encounter and engage different modernities. These are priceless riches you are going to gain from that encounter. Of course, the Burundians and Kenyans of your age bracket you encounter are also going to learn stuff from you. You will enrich them just as they will enrich you. You are going there for a process of exchange. You are not going to help Africa, okay?
S: Okay Professor.’
His book ‘You Are Not a Country Africa’ takes its title comes from a line in Abioseh Nicol’s poem, “The Meaning of Africa:”
“You are not a country,
Africa you are a concept,
fashioned in our minds,
each to each,
to hide our separate fears”
In prose, speech, humour, sarcasm, and poetry Prof always forced us to disrupt our seemingly settled ways of thinking. He was passionate about Africa, about how we thought about ourselves and our place in the world, about how we thought about the Diaspora. He seemed to be everywhere at the same time. Calling out intellectuals, politicians, activists without fear or favour. He made us better by challenging us. He did this despite a country, a continent and a world that did not deserve him.
And here we are, left behind, inconsolable in the shadow of his passing. Our hearts are breaking. Our crying rent the night. In the still air of the morning, we are silent, as we listen to the beautiful music of a soul as it finds its way to heaven, felled too early in the line of duty. Fighting a war that seems to be never-ending. How do we change the world…
And we are not ready for his passing. We are not ready.
In the fight for a better world, Prof didn’t just use one weapon, he used several. He emptied his arsenal.
He didn’t fight just one battle, he fought many. He fought tirelessly.
On the 10 of March, Professor Pius Adesanmi lost the battle with life.
But by leaving behind a legacy of passion for humanity encapsulated in the written and spoken word, he conquered death.
Rest in power Prof. You will not pass this way again. Your work is done.
Okun Prof, mo wa ghin.
Ikú ṣe ‘kà o! Ikú ṣe ‘kà.
You will not pass this way again,
But your words are with us,
We will remember you.