Isidore Okpewho: A friend and benefactor
A lot has already been written and, expectedly, will still be written about the literary excellence, creative genius and profound scholarship of Professor Isidore Okpewho. I can testify that he was a great scholar and, arguably, the leading authority on African Oral Literature. I am unlikely to add anything significant to what has been written and will be written in the days, months and years ahead. I can, however, provide a unique and useful insight into his humaneness, humility, generosity of spirit as well as his enviable social and family life.
I had known Isidore Okpewho by reputation before I joined the services of the University of Ibadan in 1976. At the University, we were in the same Faculty of Arts and, on account of our being from the same state and the inter-connectedness of our academic specialisations – African Oral tradition, Culture, African Philosophy and Thought Systems – we became increasingly close. Interestingly, his office was in close proximity to mine in the faculty building. From the late 70s to 1990 when he left for the United States of America, we had grown to be close friends and associates in academic and research matters.
Isidore Okpewho’s outstanding academic work increasingly gained recognition and earned him international reputation early in his academic career. Indeed, it was in 1976, the year he joined the services of the University of Ibadan that he won the African Arts Prize for Literature, the first of his numerous laurels, culminating in the award of the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) in 2010. It was not surprising, therefore, that he was lured to the USA where his works were already well received. His departure from Ibadan was a huge loss to the Department of English where he had been a very effective Head of Department, the Faculty of Arts and the University community in general.
Isidore Okpewho’s translocation to the USA did not diminish my interaction with the great scholar. We continued to communicate and interact on social and academic matters. Indeed, it was he who introduced me to the eminent scholar, Professor Ali Mazuri (now late) who was, at the time, Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York State. That introduction facilitated a sabbatical position for me, which I spent at the University in 1995.
My sabbatical year at Binghamton was a period of considerable and close academic as well as social interaction with Isidore Okpewho. It was a very rewarding period for me. I had so much confidence in his scholarship that I, regularly, gave my manuscripts to him to review and upgrade, especially those in the area of African Philosophy. That year, he proved to me that he was an invaluable mentor, a friend and, indeed, a brother.
Isidore Okpewho was the leading scholar in African Oral Tradition which is the foundation of African traditional Philosophy, my area of academic interest. It is, therefore, not surprising that I consulted him, regularly, and he always provided very valuable insights. I dare say that Isidore’s inputs helped to shape many of my academic papers and, indeed, the trajectory of my academic career. He was a serious-minded scholar and prolific writer whose work ethics was an inspiration to many of us at Ibadan. I made him a constant and influential referee in my applications for grants and placements in numerous universities and institutions.
I mourn a man who was more than an academic colleague. We were family friends, and we interacted so intimately that we could as well be said to be brothers. He was a warm and dependable man, disciplined and predictable, humorous and affable. Above all, he was a quintessential family man, totally devoted to his wife, children as well as his extended family.
The death of Professor Isidore Okpewho is a monumental loss to his family and friends, African literature, African Philosophy and to the academic community, both here in Nigeria and aboard.
May his great soul rest in perfect peace.
• Emeritus Professor Godwin Sogolo
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