A rosary for Tam David West
The first thing I did in memory of Tam David West was to say a decade of the Rosary for the repose of his soul. The Rosary is a prayer that is an expression of devotion and honour that the Catholic Church has in honour of Mary, the Mother of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It is one of the most popular prayers/devotions in the Catholic Church. Indeed, while the world celebrated the end of Communism with so much hubris and triumphalism, Catholics believed that their millions of Rosaries over the fifty years of Communism contributed to the defeat of Communism. It is significant to note that Pope St. John Paul 11 was a special devotee of our Blessed Mother and inspired millions of Catholics and non-Catholics to this devotion. The rosary was the special gift he gave out to millions of Catholics, non-Catholics, Communists, and Muslims who visited the Vatican. The champions of the collapse of Communism, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev, Mandela, Clinton, none of who was Catholic, all received Rosaries as special gifts from him during their visits to the Vatican over time. I recall an incident that took place in 1982 when the Pope visited Nigeria between the 12th and the 14th of February. After the Mass in Kaduna, those of us who had served as national officers were invited to the Apostolic Nunciature on 9, Anifowoshe Street, Ikoyi to be specially thanked by the Pope. We all gathered and were told that the Holy Father was going to greet us specially. There were many other guests, but the only person I will not forget was the ace NTA news Reporter, Ms. Lola Ogunbabi. There was a long queue of those who had gathered to shake the Pope and receive the special gift of rosaries. There was, understandably, a lot of pushing and shoving. Then, in keeping with the security around the Pope, Msgr. Marcinkus came forward and moved the Holy Father into the Residence and delegated one of the Cardinals to shake our hands and distribute the rosaries. Lola Ogunbambi threw tantrums. In her view, we were not only waiting to receive rosaries, but to shake the Holy Father and no one wanted to miss that chance. Immediately, the Holy Father realised the commotion and came back. Peace returned. And, Lola was not even Catholic! But, I apologise because I have digressed.
This is a tribute to the late Professor Tam David West, a great man that I had the pleasure of knowing. My memory is a bit blurred but I recall that I met him when I visited Professor Tekena Tamuno of blessed memory in his office in the University of Ibadan. I did not know then that both of them were from Rivers State. Professor Tamuno was very warm and praised me to high heavens for my articles and lectures. I was taken aback by his visible excitement given the intellectual and biological distance between us. We would later catch up again and again. One day, we met at the Ikeja airport. I think I was saying the rosary or so. He greeted me warmly, then put his hand in his breast pocket and pulled out his rosary and gave me a rather mischievous smile as if to say, Gotcha! Oh, Prof, I said rather slowly, I did not know that you were a Catholic. He moved closer to me, shaking his head and said: No, I am not a Catholic. But I have had a very long love relationship with the rosary. For over twenty years now, I have never, ever travelled anywhere outside my house without my rosary, he said as he dangled it before me. I do not want to call it a fashion statement or a talisman, he continued. I feel that my dress is not complete and I would feel totally insecure without it. I was quite taken aback. After this incident, I met Professor Tam many times at the airport and in public places and he developed a ritual which he always enacted each time I met him: he would first pull out the rosary gently from his pocket like a snake crawling in the hands of a charmer, dangle it tantalisingly before me, never really pulling it all out, mischievously smile, put it back and then we would shake hands or hug. I got used to it. He told me that his contact with the rosary grew out of his friendship with the late Bishop Fitzgibbon, the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Port Harcourt. The rosary was for him, a memorabilia of that friendship and he had grown to love it. I stumbled on the news of his death through the news trail on television a few days back. Professor Tam David West was as honest as you could be. I first stumbled on his name and found it quite curious in the 80s. I also read about him. He was a man of letters and he was proud of it. He was, as you could say of the Jewish Rabbi, very proud of his humility! You only needed to see his calling or business card to testify to this. He never got tired of reminding us that he had been the first Professor of Virology in Nigeria among other things. Truth be told, it was from him that I heard the word, not to talk of the Science. He was a mightily brilliant man, proud, confident but not arrogant.
When General Buhari appointed him Minister of Petroleum in 1984, we were all inspired by his deep patriotism and commitment to getting results. His subsequent ordeal was one of the worst moments of injustice in the military administration. I imagine, as it would later seem clear, he was a victim of collateral damage. He recovered and continued to serve the country without much bitterness. Given how much he stood for President Buhari during his days in the wilderness, I could not understand why the man never got an appointment, even if symbolically to underscore and return the commitment of a friend. But, what do I know?
It will be difficult to forget Professor Tam David West as a Nigerian, an academician. I was humbled by the thought that such a great man considered me not a student but a sparring partner and a friend. He visited my office at the Catholic Secretariat in Lagos around 1998 or so with his wife to request me to review a book he was going to launch. I was glad to accept but somehow, the event did not take place again. Nigerians and those who knew him well and worked with him will fondly remember him for many things. For me, he had élan, poise, elegance and class, handsome to the end. He was perpetually neat and classy in his traditional attire. Like the late Nat King Cole, he ironed his clothes well! Professor, I have said the Rosary for you and I pray our blessed Mother accompanies you to the Father. May his family, the people of Buguma, Rivers State, the University of Ibadan and the nation be consoled by the knowledge that he came, he saw, he stood straight and conquered.
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