Tuesday, March 12, 2019

‘Wings of the morning’: Tribute to late Pius Adesanmi

Just how does one get over the fact of a friend posting Psalm 139:9-10 on Facebook with their picture holding a passport and a boarding pass, boarding a series of flights and, hours later, their last flight crashes, killing everyone onboard?

News of the crash of ET302 arrived through a whatsapp message just after 1030am on Sunday. It was from a colleague who was about to board a flight, with several other colleagues, from Nairobi to Lilongwe on 10th March, 2019. More posts on Facebook and twitter started streaming in, confirming news of the plane crash. Then just before 6pm, later in the day, a strange message appeared on the African Doctoral Lounge, a Facebook page for mentoring African doctoral students. The Lounge was founded by Professor Pius Adesanmi on 14th March, 2017.

The ominous message said: “Please will @Pius Adesanmi or anyone who has seen him react to this post please?” It came from Ajibola Adigun. Just after 6pm Kingsley Ewetuya posted: “I refuse to believe what I just heard regarding Prof Pius Adesanmi. Please tell me it's not true. Please!” At 6.30pm Hadiza Kere Abdulrahman posted: “Professor Pius Adesanmi please can you check in. Please?”

That changed everything.

Professor Pius Adesanmi, University of Johannesburg, 2015. (Copyright: Steve Sharra)
 Sometime in 2006 or thereabouts, as I was completing my PhD studies, I was invited by Professor Paul Tiyambe Zeleza to join the Zeleza Post as a blogger. I had followed the Zeleza Post from its inception, and shared Prof Zeleza’s posts on email listservs. That was before the era of smart phones and social media as we know it today. When I joined the Zeleza Post, I found two other active bloggers, besides Prof Zeleza. They wrote beautifully, argued powerfully, and engaged passionately in important African debates of the day. One was Wandia Njoya, a Kenyan literary scholar finishing her PhD at PennState at the time, and the other was Pius Adesanmi, a Nigerian professor teaching at Carleton University in Canada. After some years, Prof Zeleza discontinued the page, but we the bloggers had become good friends. Facebook was beginning to pick up then and that is how we mostly followed each others’ updates.

I wasn’t to meet Professor Pius Adesanmi until May 2015, on the Kingsway Campus of the University of Johannesburg. The university was hosting the 5th African Unity for Renaissance conference and Africa Day Expo, which began on the evening of 22nd May. I was teaching at the University of Botswana at the time and it was my first attendance at this annual conference.

Pius was slated to make a presentation on the opening plenary session, titled, in typical Adesanmi style, “Tragedy as Celebrity, Trauma as Diva: Communicating Africa’s Agency in the Age of Social Media.” Pius’ presentation was to come after opening remarks from Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, then Deputy Vice-Chancellor and now VC, University of Johannesburg, and Professor Mammo Muchie, South Africa Research Chair (SARCHi), Tshwane University of Technology.

In the event, Pius’ flight schedule prevented him from arriving on the opening day, so his talk was rescheduled to the following day. After his panel session, I approached him to introduce myself. I did not even have to tell him who I was. He greeted me the way you greet a brother you have known all your life but have not seen in a while. His warmth and enthusiasm were infectious, his laugh hearty. Later that afternoon he inboxed: “So great to see you today Steve! When is your own lecture?” I emailed him pictures of him that I had taken as he made his presentation.
Prof Adesanmi. Pic: Steve Sharra
 On Tuesday 17th July 2018 Pius was travelling in Oyo state, Nigeria, when he was involved in a car accident. He bled heavily and stayed for four hours without help, during which he feared the worst. He survived and recovered after hospital stays in Nigeria and Canada. I first saw news of the accident on the USA-Africa Dialogue google forum, posted by Professor Toyin Falola. It was also shared on the Africa Doctoral Lounge Facebook group. For several days there was no word from Pius, and there was palpable concern amongst members.

On 27th July I emailed him to check on him. I also wanted him to know that the University of Malawi College of Medicine had just held a week-long training workshop on PhD supervision. I was teaching at the Catholic University of Malawi, and attended the training. Could I invite the participants to the Lounge, I asked Pius? He responded on 30th July, the day he was discharged from hospital in Canada. “My brother Steve: Many thanks for yours. I was discharged from the hospital today. Absolutely, invite all of them to the Lounge. That's the idea!”

In December 2018 the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) held its 15th General Assembly in Dakar, Senegal. Pius was there, as was I, but for some strange reason, we did not meet. I arrived back in Malawi from Dakar on 23rd December, and three days later, on the 26th, Pius inboxed: “My brother Steve, we missed each other in Dakar. Are you able to join the Admin team of the Lounge? The place is expanding and we need new admin members.” I told him it would be an honour to join the team of admins. “Thank you so much my brother! Please send me a one-paragraph bio,” he responded.

I was transitioning between jobs so it took me a few weeks before I could send him the one-paragraph bio. Last week Friday, on 8th March, Pius posted on the African Doctoral Lounge Facebook page an announcement about the four of us whom he had invited to join as members of the admin team. It was his last post on the forum. The following day, Saturday 9th March, he posted a photo of himself at an airport, passport and boarding pass in hand. He appended the following verse from the Bible: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me - Psalm 139:9-10.”

It was beyond surreal. As discerned by another of this friends, Dr 'Tope Oriola, we will never know what went on in his mind as he chose that particular verse and posted it on his Facebook wall before boarding his flight. It was his last social media post, ever. We will never know what he intended, but it is, as expressed by Dr. Oriola,“one for the ages.”

Vigils and processions are being held in several Nigerian universities and in Canada. Tributes are still pouring in literally from around the world. That is how far Professor Adesanmi’s influence and aura travelled. His was a beautiful mind and powerful intellect; the leading scholar of World and African literature. “The most compelling public intellectual of his generation of exceptional African Diaspora scholars,” as Professor Zeleza described him. He was a Pan-Africanist in every sense of the word, whose brilliant thought penetrated the most stubborn obfuscation and clarified things with the sharpest of linguistic wit. According to CODESRIA, Pius was a key contributor to the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and he “took it upon himself to teach about this vision in the classroom.”

There will never be another Pius Adesanmi. Through his unmatched contributions, he has left the world a better place than he found it. May his wonderful soul take full wing into that eternal, blissful morning.