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How Umukoro shaped our career path – Students

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Matthew Mevayerho Umukoro

Matthew Mevayerho Umukoro is not an academic, who wears his calling like a cross. Neither is he a lecturer, who will glide through a crowd of students breathing down on them like a demi-god. He is one teacher who will rather concentrate on his work than make noise about himself. He is a simple, silent worker and one of the standard-bearers of the University of Ibadan tradition of excellence.

Standard-bearer. Yes, standard-bearer.

A hero in his own right, he is a master, who expresses himself in all genres of literature: Prose, poetry drama and any medium he so desired. The greatest of all, he is a teacher’s teacher — one, whose joy is imparting knowledge.

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For the University of Ibadan community, the feel of who Umukoro comes in 2019 when he delivered The University Lecture, which he titled, ‘Restoring The Ivory Unto The Fading Tower Through Theater And The Humanities’.

Umukoro made it a historical lecture. There was pin-drop silence as his voice rose to speak. Just as the lecture ended, the applause was deafening. Many people took multiple copies of the highly informative lecture about the University of Ibadan system. Umukoro defended students, spoke truth to power and charted the way forward.

Last Friday, May 15, the man, some of his students gave the name ‘Magnificent Morocco’, a moniker from his initials, MM, and as well, to prove his efficiency and meticulous devotion to his job like the great wrestler of World Wrestling Federation retired from the University of Ibadan services, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1973 and a member of the academic staff in January 1980. He was former head of Theatre Arts Department.

Since he left university services, former students of the professor of theatre arts have been pouring tributes and encomiums on the literary artist who shaped their career path.

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According to Dr. Ola-Kris Akinola of the Performing Arts Centre, University of Limpopo, South Africa, “my 1989 set arrived the Theatre Arts department of the University of Ibadan into the hands of the then Dr. M.M. Umukoro and his other great colleagues. Unlike the other lecturers, who would joke and throw banters openly, even with students, Umukoro was very strict. We all wondered why. But then, when you are fortunate to be with him in his private space, especially when not official or with his ‘twin’ Prof. Lanre Bamidele, you’ll be surprised that he is a jolly good fellow who could laugh hard. I wish the great theorist and proficient academic a great 70th birthday and happy life after retirement.”

Yomi Olugbodi, a film teacher at the National Film Institute, Jos, Nigeria, had this to say of Umukoro: “He was the strictest teacher I ever had. Strict and disciplined, he was one lecturer we never went late for his lectures or behaved rascally, as we wanted! He was one teacher, who carried his bags and folders by himself, and never burdened anybody with such role.”

Olugbodi added, “when I realised that he was going to supervise my final year-long essay, I thought I was in trouble. But his approach changed my mind. He was not a “physically personal” supervisor, but a most meticulous academic who crossed all the t’s and dotted i’s for me. And if any student thought Umukoro does not study his students, the person would be in for the rudest shock of his life. One of his comments on my undergraduate project manuscripts was, ‘Abayomi, you write just the way you talk, always in a hurry’. Prof. Umukoro also supervised my M.A thesis and the product of that is currently being turned into a book on media management.”

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Olugbodi said, “the one that touched me most was during our class production of one of his plays, Nana Olomu. I was rude to one of my classmates and elder sister, Yemi Ayo-Ariyo, now Yemi Ayo-Faleye, who ended up reporting me to Prof. He called the two of us to his office, warned me in the strictest of terms and I only said ‘Yes sir’ and made to leave his office after dismissal, then he called me back and asked, ‘why are you like this?’. Well, he made me to shake hands with “Auntie Yemi”, as I now choose to call her and that was the end of the matter.”

The film teacher said, excitedly: “On your 70th birthday sir, please be informed that I am now a teacher and my students don’t come late for my classes. When they quarrel, I settle them amicably to maintain peace. The ones I supervise are mostly eternally grateful. Many of them see me as a very hard guy but when they work or walk with me they discover a goldmine that they don’t want to let go of… there is a Matthew M. Umukoro in me. Happy 70th birthday sir. I wish I could say all of this in Egba dialect of the Yoruba Language.”

Another former student of his, Abiodun Olufemi-Ogidan (former Biodun Wahab), said, “the first encounter with him was like the return of Moses from Mt Sinai. He handed over the 10 commandments as *thou shall not*. I wasn’t impressed with him at first encounter; I am sure most of my classmates were not, because we gave him all sorts of nicknames based on his stance. He had been away on sabbatical and the first impression he left with my class was uniquely unfriendly.”

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She added, “I was not immediately impressed by Umukoro’s style and approach towards relating with students and was quick to judge him by the standards of other friendly Lecturers. I noticed Umukoro didn’t seem to care about my class perception of him. His mission was mainly to ensure we participated in his practical class, and earn our marks, so he managed us and we managed him. Then came the compulsory production, Nana Olomu. I think the play touched Umukoro’s Urhobo/Itshekiri origin and that brought some friendliness out of him. He used the production to discuss about his passion for the arts. I immediately noticed his humility and unassuming role. All through the rehearsals, Umukoro flowed without any arrogance. I also discovered he has a rich Ègbá accent; I was shocked he could speak Yoruba fluently. He seemed to carry the typical ‘Niger Delta blood’.”

For the radio producer, “when, as students, we chose our undergraduate research topics, Matthew Umukoro was assigned to be my supervisor. I had no choice but to adhere to his strict rules. He made me work like a horse, keeping deadlines, inspecting research findings and following up on my thesis chapter by chapter. I remember he had to change my research topic after submitting my chapter three. That day, I wept and thought he was unfair but as God would have it, that research theme got me my first job at Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN), Ibadan as a radio drama producer.”

The lady continued, “within two years, I was able to contribute to the network service of Radio Nigeria. Being the only female producer contributing drama productions to the network service in the country, my name became a household one on the radio. In those days you could count on your fingertips the number of radio stations in Nigeria. Delving into other fields, I won several awards and scholarships in and outside the shores of Nigeria and my productions opened new frontiers for me.”

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Olufemi-Ogidan said, “today, I owe Matthew Umukoro gratitude for being a prophetic supervisor. Years after I left UI, I have met him at different fora, more at the monthly meetings of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). He is a very active member of the association and the stern disposition has dissolved. In 2014, the opportunity came for me to serve as the General Manager (GM) of Premier FM the pioneer FM station of FRCN in Ibadan. I met Matthew Umukoro at an event and recognised him as my university teacher, he was proud he taught me, I was prouder to be identified as his student. You know that feeling you get when you have to sit on the high table with your mentor and you can discuss as friends? He wasn’t as tough as I conceived him.”

She concluded, “today, I celebrate Prof. Umukoro, a resilient spirit, a committed and consistent personality, who has never failed to be true to himself. I respect your dedication to work and how you give life to the media aspect of Theatre. I respect your ability to keep to time, your attention to details and organised ways of doing things. Above all, I admire your Ègbá intonation when you speak Yoruba; I believe this is the only opportunity for me to say this. If I could reverse the hands of time, I would make you laugh more in our classes. You are not given to flamboyance or noisemaking, yet you achieved great results. I congratulate you on your retirement Dear Prof. and pray that God will bless you with good health, long life, more beautiful years and an Emeritus.”

Stanley Chukwuemeka Okereafor also had this to say of Umukoro: “Prof. Umukoro Sir. Where does one start? You are indeed unique in your ways. Firm. Focused. Dedicated. Hardworking. Humble. Go-getter. Who among my former classmates would deny that when it came to Dr. Umukoro, we all sat up? Who would deny that we all took your classes seriously because you had no time to mock around? Who would not attest that your sense of duty and purpose were all too glaring? Indeed you left indelible marks in our hearts and minds.”

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Okereafor said, “I remember as your student, we had a playwriting assignment. After submission, you called me to your office to review my play, titled, “To be forewarned…” While I shivered and panicked on my way to your office, interestingly, you were warm and friendly in your review of my play. You noted that the title of my play had no relationship whatsoever with the story. You advised that I do a review, I did. Waoh, this happened many years ago as your undergraduate student, and I still remember.”

He concluded, “as you celebrate your 70th and retire from a meritorious service to mankind, I pray the good Lord to keep and continue to bless you. You have built the lives of many, may your legacy continue to shine. I thank God for the privilege to meet you in life’s journey.”

Born on Tuesday, May 16, 1950, the second child of Patrick and Rose Umukoro, the professor of Theatre Arts, was head of the jury that adjudicated 2018 The Nigeria Prize for Literature. He holds B.A. Hons. English from UI, M.A. in Drama from Wales University; and Ph.D. in Theatre Arts from UI. He has a research focus on Dramatic Theory and Criticism. As at the time of retirement, he was head, Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan.

His works include, Dross Of Gold (a poetry volume), Nana Olomu (a historical play), Obi And Clara (a stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s prose classic, No Longer At Ease), The State of The Nation (A collection of essays) and many more.

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