Modesty and other virtues: The autobiography of Ayo Banjo
Author: Ayo Banjo
Publisher: Safari Books
Reviewer: David Jowitt
Read this book, and you will be sure, if you were not sure before, that Professor Emeritus Ladipo Ayodeji Banjo, JP, CON, NNOM, FNAL is one of the greatest Nigerians of our time. It is doubtful that he consciously set out to make himself one: his modesty – to mention just one noble quality that his autobiography makes manifest – would have prevented him from seeking any such accolade.
Professor Banjo may likewise not have intended that with Morning By Morning he would produce a literary masterpiece. But that is how it deserves to be regarded. As the book shows, he played a major role in the establishment of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) prize, and one cannot help entertaining this nice paradox: if the prize were to be awarded for autobiography, he would eminently deserve to win it.
A great quality of the writing which immediately strikes the reader is the limpidity of Professor Banjo’s style. It is always clear, apt, and simple, and the simplicity is of the admirable sort that enables the reader to comprehend any kind of subject-matter. It informs, and does not mystify; it engages and never repels. It is often humorous. Much of the time it serves the purposes of narration; and Professor Banjo’s great skill as a narrator might surprise readers who have so far been familiar only with his writing in the field of English linguistics, or who do not know another book containing his reminiscences, In the Saddle. He has two special gifts necessary to any good narration: for vivid description and for creating suspense.
A notable example of the former, which will naturally be of acute interest to all classes of readers, is the story of his unexpected meeting with the woman who became his wife, Alice Mbamali when he alighted from a train in the sleepy English town of Hereford in 1958. Examples of the latter are to be found in his accounts of the shenanigans that accompanied his appointment, after retirement, to the position of Pro-Chancellor of the Universities of Port Harcourt and Ilorin respectively.
Quite apart from its great literary qualities, the book shows what a uniquely varied and interesting life of service to his country Professor Banjo, now eighty-five years old, has led. To summarize it is not easy, especially as it has been in many ways emblematic of the history of modern education in Nigeria. Inevitably, academic success, in the form of qualifications and appointments, is one of its themes and so one of the major themes of the book.
Success began at Professor Banjo’s birth in 1934: for the meaning of the second of his names, Ayodeji, is ‘double joy’, and it was double because not only had a child been born but, also, his father had recently obtained a University of London external degree, one of the first Nigerians to do so.
The roots of his father’s family were in Ijebu, but Professor Banjo’s links to that part of Yorubaland have been slight because of the way both his father’s career and his own unfolded. His father held Anglican church appointments in different places and was later ordained a priest.
As such he belonged to a class of educated Nigerians that was largely Christian, concentrated in the South-West, and still small in the 1930s, growing rapidly thereafter with the foundation of excellent new government and mission secondary schools. His father is now the vicar of a church in Lagos the young Ayodeji went to Igbobi College. As at other institutions he attended, he distinguished himself academically, but he was also a good sportsman, and he also had numerous friends who later assumed prominent positions in Nigerian public life.
After Igbobi, and after a brief spell as a customs clerk, Professor Banjo gained admission to the new Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology in Ibadan, an ‘A’-level college. As was common and inevitable in schools and colleges at that time, very many of the teachers were British expatriates. Thanks to the coaching of the Latin master, Mr Ian Bowman, Professor Banjo obtained admission to the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom even before his ‘A’ level results came out.
So from 1955 to 1959, he studied for his first degree in English at Glasgow. His fees were paid for by his father, who had fortunately written a successful, royalty-earning textbook for teachers. There followed a Postgraduate Diploma in Education at Leeds, then a short French course in France. He returned to Nigeria in 1960, just after Independence Day. For the next few years, he worked as an education officer in the service of the Western Region Government, being sent to teach in the remote Niger Delta part of the Region, first at Abraka, then at Ughelli.
In view of his subsequent career, it was providential that in 1963 the Mid-West Region, in which Ughelli lay, was carved out of the Western Region. For he was brought back to Ibadan, and he began teaching at Government College, the alma mater of, among others, Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan. At about the same time he married Alice. She was the daughter of an Onitsha chief, while her mother was Itsekiri, and it is natural to suppose that these connections helped to develop Professor Banjo’s pan-Nigerian outlook and sympathies.
In his new environment, his hopes were awakened of joining the staff of what had recently become the fully-fledged University of Ibadan (UI). For this, he needed more qualifications, but again providence intervened. Friendship with the British Council’s Ibadan-based English Language officer, L.Moody, led to his being offered a scholarship to study first for a Diploma in English at the University of Leeds’ prestigious School of English, then for a Master’s degree in Linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles.
At both places, his already firm grounding in English studies was supplemented and substantiated by the study of linguistics, and at UCLA he encountered Peter Ladefoged, Noam Chomsky, and M.A.K.Halliday, who were or later became some of the leading contemporary authorities in the field.
Towards the end of his time at UCLA, Professor Desmond Maxwell, the Head of the Department of English at UI, offered him a job as a lecturer. The appointment marked the beginning of the Nigerianization of the Department, but also of his own distinguished career at UI. He at once registered for a PhD, with a prolific scholar, Harold Whitehall, as his supervisor. In 1969 he successfully defended his thesis, a contrastive study of the syntax of the English and Yoruba languages. He began to shape the lives of students who later achieved distinction, early examples being the literary critic Biodun Jeyifo, and the poet, also later Head of the Department of English, Niyi Osundare.
In the 1970s, Ayo Banjo progressed rapidly through the academic ranks, and in 1975 became a Professor. He also rose steadily in the UI hierarchy, becoming in turn Head of Department, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and finally, in 1983, Vice-Chancellor. In the now long history of the University, he is unique as having served for two terms. As he explains, not much attention is given in the book to this period because it has already been treated in the memoir referred to above.
Professor Banjo retired from university service in 1994 but was appointed Professor Emeritus, which carried no salary. With characteristic integrity, he declined to take a contract appointment, which would have meant earning a salary in addition to his pension. He nevertheless continued to make himself available to colleagues and students. He has also held numerous highly important non-UI appointments, the most recent being that of Chairman of the National Universities Commission.
Among his friends and colleagues, and slightly his senior in terms of personal academic development, is Professor Ayo Bamgbose of the Department of Linguistics. Both have played an important part in developing the study of the Nigerian variety of Standard English, and each has several relevant publications to his credit. This reviewer remembers attending a conference in Ibadan in 1993 concerned with the subject. The two Professors sat at the front, each quite large-sized and black-suited; a friend of mine whispered respectfully ‘See the two Ayos’.
In an Epilogue Professor Banjo offers some reflections on Nigeria’s education system as it has developed in the last half-century, which deserves careful attention. He is particularly concerned about the implications, for academic and other standards, of the combination of the great expansion of student numbers and inadequate funding.
A devoted family man, Professor Banjo is now comforted by children and grandchildren as well as many other relatives and a host of friends, even though his beloved Alice died in 2014. His Christian faith has undoubtedly been a deep driving-force, helping to explain his serenity, his balance, his breadth of outlook, his humanity.
His choice of the title of this magnificent book was appropriate: many readers will recognize the words as coming from the fine hymn ‘Great is thy faithfulness’. It was sung by those who gathered for the presentation of the book to the world, which took place at the International Conference Centre at the University of Ibadan on August 2, 2019.
• Professor Jowitt is of the Department of English, University of Jos. His recent book, Nigerian English, is published by DeGruyter Mouton.
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