Sophie Bosede Oluwole (1935 – 2018)
The demise of Prof. Oluwole would leave a lacuna in the diminishing circle of Nigeria’s burnt out academic community.
Mrs. Oluwole, who died about midnight of December 23, 2018, was the first Nigerian woman to earn a doctorate in Philosophy from a Nigerian university, and one of the very few academics who popularized African Philosophy. Through her frequent association with the mass media, she domesticated and gave public face and relevance to the supposedly arid discipline.
Fondly called Mamalawo for comparing her intellectual exercise to the enterprise of the Babalawo, Oluwole was an ordinary Nigerian intellectual who deployed her brutal frankness and conviction to courageously put the Yoruba culture in the global philosophical annals.
In a career that spanned nearly five decades of relentless research and consistent inquiry into African culture, Oluwole waded through professional flagellation of superiors who were acolytes of colonial intellectual tradition, and survived the sexist derision of a male dominated philosophical circle to gain acceptability.
What was her point? Her point was to do battle with an influential Western tradition that claimed Africans had no philosophy. She drew great insights from early twentieth century anthropologists, who argued that Africans had no sense of history and were bereft of the capacity to reason.
Certain Western scholars in collusion with Africans of the Oxon-Cambridge tradition had concluded that there was nothing like African Philosophy, in the same manner one could not talk of African Economics or African Mathematics. But she demolished all that stereotype
To debunk the claims of scholars who derided African culture as one bereft of sound, philosophical tradition, Oluwole volunteered a proviso: To posit that African Philosophy does not exist, one must examine the language and culture of the African people and the ideas expressed, and then on the basis of inferences drawn, conclude that African Philosophy does not exist. And since the critics of African Philosophy had not done that, she decided to test the efficacy of the analytic tradition she was schooled in, by critically examining her native Yoruba culture as an example of genuine African Philosophy.
The result of her sustained enthusiasm was her first major publication, Witchcraft, Reincarnation and the Godhead. Thereafter came other works discussing the oral philosophical literature, the Ifa corpus, African womanhood in relation to Western feminism, amongst others. A few years ago she stunned the intellectual community with a controversial work that compared Socrates of Athens and Orunmila of Ile-Ife.
Sophie Oluwole was born on May 12, 1935, in Igbara Oke, Ondo State, to Bini parents who traced their ancestry to a royal family of Benin, present-day Edo State. She was raised in Igbara Oke and had part of her early education in Ife and Ilesha.
After a stint as a teacher, she accompanied her husband in the late 1950s to Europe for further studies. With dashed hopes of acquiring degrees in Russia, Germany and the United States owing to marital responsibilities, she came back home to study at the University of Lagos, where she graduated with a combined honours degree in History, Geography and Philosophy.
Having settled for philosophy upon her graduation, she was employed as Assistant Lecturer in 1972. She later on pursued her postgraduate programme, which she completed at the University of Ibadan, with a Ph.D in philosophy in 1984. She later rose through the ranks to become a professor and also Dean of Student Affairs until she retired in 2002.
After retirement, Oluwole worked on contract at the Lagos State University (LASU) and became director, School of Communications. She also established the Centre for African Culture and Development under whose platform she pursued a productive life of post-retirement engagements, including adjunct positions in universities, home and abroad, and conference presentations on the subject of African Philosophy.
One of the products of this stage of research was the ambitious project of a comparative study of Socrates, the acclaimed father of Western philosophy and Orunmila, the progenitor of Yoruba philosophy.
The project, which led to the publication of her controversial bestseller Socrates and Orunmila: Two Patron Saints of Classical Philosophy, opened new vistas for more cross-cultural dialogues amongst intellectuals and cultural activists.
Oluwole was said to have returned from one of such engagements in Brazil, and her allegedly overworked and exhausted octogenarian body could no longer match the youthful vitality of her ebullience and sound intellect. And she passed on.
There are invaluable lessons to be learnt from the prodigious intellectual energy of Prof. Oluwole.
First, she demonstrated a tenacity for scholarship and consistency for research long after retiring from the academia. Such a quality, which seems like a tall order for new generation of professors, was in sync with her position as a professor.
Unlike many professors who frolic around the corridors of power in search of handouts and juicy sinecurist engagements in government, Oluwole exuded, even at retirement and old age, an academic culture and intellectual mien that confer value on professorship. Thus her life becomes a worthy example for today’s young professors, who upon their appointment assume that they have reached a cul-de-sac in their career.
The message is that professorship is not a status symbol or an ornament to be paraded like a necklace. It has to be continually justified by demonstrable products.
Furthermore, despite being a woman she sustained a position of relevance in public discourse with confidence and polite arrogance. By this, she was an example for female intellectuals and academics who have been cowed to insignificance by the challenges of their professions.
Compared to other disciplines, philosophy is one area lacking in profound female scholarship. How many renowned female philosophers can one truly count apart from those stationed as teachers? The myth Oluwole might have inadvertently debunked was that women do not have the capacity for profound ratiocinative scrutiny.
Moreover, Oluwole’s life signaled the fact that the true mark of scholarship is solving problem and breaking new grounds. To the problem ‘Does African Philosophy exist?’ Oluwole demonstrated her mettle by her products rather than joining the bandwagon on a merry-go-round of endless polemics.
With raw, shameless resolve, Oluwole put in passion and personal sacrifice to entrench her intellectual conviction on a global academe that had always been riddled with Euro-Western ethnocentricism and prejudice against ideas emanating from Africa.
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