Professor Emeritus Eldred Durosimi Jones I knew
Never too late to pen a tribute in memory of an academic avatar, a fecund intellectual mind and a literary colossus, Professor Emeritus Eldred Jones. This assertion is true to the extent that the subject of this tribute remains a recurring decimal in the historical annals of literary criticism in contemporary African literature.
My association with Jones’ family took off in the year 2007 to 2009. Alongside a number of citizens from Nigeria, I was posted to Sierra Leone under the Technical Aid Corps scheme envisioned by the Federal Government’s technical assistance for the provision of requisite skilled manpower to African, Caribbean and the Pacific States. The scheme being an initiative of the Directorate of Technical Aid scheme of the Ministry of foreign affairs, I found myself and two other participants posted to the famous Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.
Upon resumption of duties at the college, my colleagues and I were allocated a flat at the senior staff quarters at Kortright within the college campus. In my journey to Sierra Leone I had another interest adjunctive to my primary assignment; to meet with two literary intellectuals, Professors Eldred Jones and Eustace Palmer. The latter I later learnt had left for overseas prior to my coming.
With the passage of time and have settled down, I realised that there was a mini Suzuki jeep brand, which always passed my colleagues and me on our way to the college. I realised also that the two occupants of the car were two elderly citizens, chauffeur driven and they had this tradition of occasionally making a stopover at the academic area of the college.
Not giving up on my intention of meeting Professor Jones, one day I inquired about the legendary Professor Jones from one Mr. Claude, a non-academic staff of the college and the occupant of the boy’s quarters of our residence. He told me both the papa and the mama always drove past in their Suzuki car. It was then I realized that Professor Jones and his wife, Marjorie, were the elderly citizens I had been seeing in the now-familiar Suzuki jeep.
Within a short period of time, I met Professor Jones and his elderly but elegant and matronly wife, Marjorie Jones. After the usual introduction, I introduced myself to the Professor and his wife. They expressed their delight at meeting me and stated in no uncertain terms their love for Nigeria. We struck a chord of friendship on that day. The couple then invited me to pay them a visit at their residence at Leicester, a serene community proximate to the college campus.
With the passage of a few months, I did honour the invitation and paid a scheduled visit to the Jones. The residence of the Jones is a study in peace, serenity serenaded by this feeling of godliness. The building sat atop a wide expanse of land. The Jones, as a couple, are very homely and a testament to good company. Prof and his wife were at their very best; the personification of conversationalists par excellence. Absolutely no dull moment with the Jones.
My visit to the Jones offered me first-hand experience sitting and listening to the avatar himself. Interacting with Prof. Jones opened my eyes to his literary accomplishments. I told Prof that as undergraduates of English and Literature at the University of Benin, we were introduced to his seminal work, The writings of Wole Soyinka, Prof. interjected and corrected me thus, it is not ‘writings’ rather it is ‘writing’ and stated that the appropriate title is, The writing of Wole Soyinka. Prof took me on a literary odyssey through a wide gamut of the nuances of the subject. However, one particular aspect of the discussion caught my attention. This was how he came to develop his attachment to the work of the Nobel laureate.
According to Professor Jones, he had finished reading Soyinka’s Telephone conversation and he was fascinated by the sheer brilliance of the poet and this laid the foundation of his interest in Soyinka.
Prof’s status as an iconic academic can be gleaned from his humongous collection of a forest of books (apologies to Okot p’Bitek). Prof directed his wife, Marjorie to take me around his library. I saw a rich collection of works spanning virtually all the various genres of literature. I saw rare books covering almost all the various ages in literary thought; Victorian, Shakespearean, metaphysical, classical, Elizabethan, old English literature, African etc. In summary, Prof’s collection is a treasure trove of the intellectual resource.
Prof. expressed his admiration for the Nigerian armed forces for their contributions in the restoration of peace and participatory democracy in Sierra Leone. He made specific mention of the efforts of Late General Victor Malu. According to Professor Jones the ECOMOG forces led by the late Malu had encamped and taken positions preparatory to engaging the elements of the rebel Revolutionary United Front led by Corporal Foday Sankoh.
The General had approached the Prof. and told him in no uncertain terms that he had to vacate his residence for a safe haven. Prof wanted to respond but the General had no time for verbal niceties. In the words of Professor Jones, Malu said: “Prof., we are sorry you have to vacate your residence” Prof Jones’ wife, Marjorie, interjected. “Ayodele by the time we came back not a spoon was missing from our home.” Listening to her, a sense of national pride overwhelmed me. It would be hyperbolic describing my feeling that day. It was a testament to how well our armed forces acquitted themselves in Sierra Leone.
Professor Jones expressed his love for the then University of Ife. He said he was a regular visitor to the university in his capacity as an external assessor at Ife’s postgraduate college. He also expressed his undying affection for the university of Ibadan academic community.
My acquaintance with the Jones also gave me an insight into Mrs. Marjorie Jones’ Nigerian maternal ancestry. In her words, “Ayodele, do you know that I have my maternal origin in Nigeria. My late uncle was your former head of state.”
She continued: “His name has escaped me. I dropped his name few days ago.” I asked if it was Ironsi to which she replied in the affirmative.
According to Marjorie, her late father was a District officer in the old Eastern region during the colonial era. He later married General Ironsi’s elder sister who gave birth to her. In her words, Ironsi’s middle name ‘Johnson’ was her father’s first name, which Ironsi adopted.
Prior to my departure in 2009, I paid a series of visits to the Jones’ home. I remember with nostalgia how disciplined the Jones are as a family. Marjorie Jones would always tell me, that anything 5.00 pm I won’t meet them at home. The reason being that Prof as a diabetic, observed a strict regimen of exercise of a long walk each day. The effect of Prof’s diabetic condition had left him blind. His blindness, I gathered was gradual. According to Ms. Zylette Domingo, senior staff at the college, the twilight of his blindness was marked by Profs resort to the use of binoculars in magnifying the printed word in order to continue reading.
Professor Jones’ immense and prodigious literary intellect was not majorly affected by the loss of his sight. This is because at the twilight of his blindness he had sufficiently learnt the rudiments of the Braille machine. This, he deployed to good use as he continued his writing ably aided by his soul mate Marjorie. I recall vividly the ceremonies marking the founder’s day celebration of Fourah Bay College in 2008. Prof delivered his speech, apparently extempore or using a pre-recorded speech. His speech on that occasion still reverberates in my subconscious, as it was profound, intellectually stimulating and suffused with the finest nuances of academic erudition. That was Professor Jones the avatar of African literary studies!
Upon the completion of my programme with the College of Law at the school, I paid a farewell visit to the Jones at Leicester and Prof made a request of me. He said, “when you are back in Nigeria try and get me Soyinka’s number or avail him of mine and tell him to call me.”
Upon my return to Nigeria on January 31, 2009, I decided to, in deference to and in veneration of Professor Jones to seek out Professor Soyinka’s number. This request I found daunting but I determined to get Kongi connected with Prof again. I reached Dr. Olu Agunloye, a known protege of the Nobel Laureate whom I had cause to interface within the course of my legal practise upon my return to Nigeria. When I couldn’t get it from Agunloye I sought an alternative. In furtherance of my quest, I visited the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan during Christmas holidays shortly. I met Professor Osofisan at his office at the university on a day he was about retiring from the university. We chatted and from there I sauntered into the office of Dr. Tunde Awosanmi, another protege of the Nobel Laureate. I intimidated him about my instructions from Professor Jones. He asked for Prof’s number with an assurance that he would pass it to Professor Soyinka. During one of my calls to the Jones, I inquired if they have heard from Soyinka. They replied in the negative. Undeterred, I kept hope alive and by a fortuitous turn of events, the opportunity came on a day when the Nobel Laureate was billed to present a paper at an occasion where Justice Ayo Salami, the retiring President of the court of appeal was being honoured at the auditorium of the federal ministry of Justice, Abuja.
The opportunity offered herein was almost lost because of the unprecedented crowd as the Nobel Laureate left almost immediately after his presentation. By the time I left, I found myself driving beside Soyinka’s car and as the driver screeched to a halt in observance of traffic regulations I pulled up signalled the laureate himself and consequently passed the number to him.
The laureate was delighted to know that Professor Jones sent me to him. However, months passed and a call to Sierra Leone revealed that the Jones hadn’t heard from Professor Soyinka apparently due to the busy schedule of the latter.
In the month of February during the trial of the convener of Revolution Now, Omoyele Sowore at the Federal High Court I met the laureate again. He had come to court in solidarity with the defendants. I walked up to him, reminded him of our last encounter. Professor Soyinka apologised for not reaching out to the Jones but promised to do so unfailingly. A couple of weeks later Professor Jones transited to the realm of the heavenly. Rest in peace icon of literary criticism. I earnestly hope the Nobel Laureate was able to re-establish the much-coveted reunion before his glorious transition.
• Dr. Gatta was formerly a lecturer in the Department of Law, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone
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