“I am at an age now where I should be confident that, should anything happen to me and I quit this realm eternally, somebody like you would go out of your way to find Tise and worry about her welfare,” Pius Adesanmi wrote in a mail to a friend when he slipped in the snow and hurt his ankle in January 2017. The day he was to die, he put up a final picture, a warm smile and a note to the world from Psalms 139, that he was being held by God’s right hand. Perhaps he knew what we did not.
To one, a biological father; to others a son; to some, a friend and colleague; but to all, a shining light!
If there is one name on the lips of many Nigerians, a name that weighs down the tongue with peculiar grief, a name that warms the heart with humour from memories past, and pain of an unthinkable demise, a name that we will only now encounter its embodiment in dreams and the world yonder, that name will be Pius Adebayo Adesanmi.
Once American, now Canadian, but forever Nigerian. Adesanmi was a Nigerian-born Canadian professor, writer, literary critic, satirist, and columnist. Before his death, he simply referred to himself as a teacher, though everyone knew he was like many literary giants before him, as a prophet.
A ROCK OF LIMESTONE IN KOGI; A POOL OF OIL IN ONDO
Born in Isanlu, Yagba east local government area of modern-day Kogi state, Adesanmi also identified specifically with Ondo state. Why? The enigma was born in the early seventies, at a time when Isanlu was in the western region, and then Ondo state.
Kogi was created by a decree of Ibrahim Badamosi Babangida, head of state, in 1991, during Adesanmi’s final year at the University of Ilorin. Safe to say he had a majority of his teenage years in Ondo. Rather than take a switch, he identified as both Ondo and Kogi.
The academic is a resource to his town, nation, and the world at large — call him a rock of rare limestone in Kogi, or a pool of crude oil in Ondo, you will just be understating how much of a resource he was to the world.
THE MAKING OF A STAR
Adesanmi got into the University of Ilorin, after graduating from Titcombe College Egbe, in modern-day Kogi, in 1987. He went on to bag a first-class degree in French studies and Literature by 1992.
From Ilorin, he went to the University of Ibadan, where he got his Masters in French in 1998, and became a bright light among the literary gem that made Ibadan at the time. Adesanmi learnt from the likes of Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Wole Soyinka, just to name a few.
He went on to pursue a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of British Columbia and was certified a doctor of philosophy in 2002. From 2002 to 2005 he was an assistant professor of Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University, USA. As a brilliant scholar, he was quickly accorded the American green card.
Adesanmi joined Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada in 2006 as a professor of Literature and African studies. He was previously a Fellow of the French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA) from 1993 to 1997, as well as of the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) in 1998 and 2000.
MULTIPLE AWARD-WINNING SCHOLAR
Paying tribute to him after his death, Lola Shoneyin, an award-winning writer and friend of the professor, said when she and Adesanmi were were in their 20s, they promised themselves they would be important writers who travelled the world.
“My siamese twin, Pius Adesanmai, was an overachiever,” Shoneyin said.
As a highly sought after writer and speaker, Adesanmi won numerous awards in his lifetime, including the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing in the Non-Fiction category for his book ‘You’re Not a Country, Africa’.
He also won a 2017 Canada Bureau of International Education Leadership Award; and the Association of Nigerian Authors’ Poetry prize for his poetry collection, ‘The Wayfarer and Other Poems.’
His literary works include Naija No Dey Carry Last (2015); You’re Not A Country, Africa (2011); Wayfarer & other poems (2001), Youth, Street Culture, and Urban Violence in Africa (1997) and articles too many to list.
MOMENTS WITH TISE, MAMA ADESANMI
Adesanmi would often, on social media, talk about Tise, his 7-year-old daughter, and Mama Adesanmi, his aged mother. Despite his busy schedule, he had time for family, friends and strangers alike.
He would narrate stories from Tise’s earlier years and how Mama Adesanmi kept him abreast of happenings in Kogi. In 2016, when Tise went “paper yes” in school, it took Adesanmi reading a letter to understand that his super smart daughter meant “paperless”.
“‘Oh, Tise, the letter from your teacher says you are going paperless!'”
“‘Yes, Daddy, paper yes! Is that not what I have been saying?'”
“She gives me the chastising look that tells me I’m a slow learner. She runs away, screaming the excitement of her new “paper yes” world all over the house.”
CUSTODIAN OF CULTURE WHO MADE LITTLE THINGS COUNT
Despite spending years in the diaspora, and even acquiring Canadian citizenship, Adesanmi never lost touch with his root; the culture, language, beliefs and little things like sounds and superstition. He prides himself as a cultural scholar, and it was evident in his works. For one, he had written about how he had an argument with Tise, on how a Nigerian hiss should sound.
“Me: (to myself): It is not your fault that you think your Canadian hiss is civilized and what you are calling Yoruba chooo is bush. You have never been at the receiving end of a full cultural blast of the real thing from your grandmother or any of the women in Isanlu. That is why you are calling this Canadian sound you are making a hiss. When I take you to Nigeria, we will stop over in Ibadan for the Ibadan variant; then you will receive the Ogbomoso variant before you get the full Isanlu blast of ose. You will return to Ottawa with your definition of hissing culturally rearranged,” he had written.
Adesanmi lived and died for Nigeria, for Africa.
In one of his articles titled “You Have Never Been A Citizen Of Nigeria”, he talked of how he yearned for the Nigerian delicacy, as his taste but would not succumb to the Canadian version available to him.
“Sometimes in this freaking life of a diasporan, your taste buds can go rogue and suddenly develop a yearning for things available only in Nigeria. Oyinbo people imagine they have popcorn. They coat it in caramel or butter or maple syrup.
“I laugh. In all the countries I have been to in this world, there is nothing like Nigerianpopcornn. And the ranking of Nigerian popcorn, there is nothing like guguru oloyin sold in Garage Offa or Gaa Akanbi area in Ilorin. And that is precisely what I am craving, trapped in snow in far away Ottawa, Canada.”
In another article titled ‘An Archeology of Nigeria’, Adesanmi said he was writing Nigeria’s story to serve as a reference point for archaeologists in the future.
“I write basically these days for the purposes of archaeology. A thousand years from now, archaeologists would be interested in how some people called Nigerians lived in the 20th and let centuries. If they dig and excavate, I am hoping that fragments of my writing survive to point them to the fact that not all of them accepted to live as slaves of the most irresponsible rulers of their era.”
Beyond the classroom, Adesanmi was a teacher to many—even from a distance. He had a circle of many young Africans he mentored. Apart from his work as a teacher in Carleton, he curated the African Doctoral Lounge— a meeting and networking space for African doctoral students, African post-doctoral fellows, early career and mid-career faculty.
On his Twitter bio, he described himself with just one word, “teacher”. Many people learned a lot from his Ted talks, Twitter and Facebook posts, and columns. He was ordinarily extraordinary, an easy switch from an academic to a comedian.
This moment, he is talking about the intricacies of politics and governance, and the lecture he had with his students on neo-colonialism and in the next piece, he is talking about his palm wine tapper in Isanlu. He was free like air.
THE NIGERIAN WHO GAVE UP HIS AMERICAN GREEN CARD
In one of his interventions on Nigeria’s 53rd independence anniversary, Adesanmi narrated how he gave up his American green card, reputed as one of the most respected travel documents in the world.
In his speech, “Broda Nigeria, bros naija,” hosted by Tunde Bakare, pastor of the Latter Rain Church and convener of the Save Nigeria Group, Adesanmi employed giving up his American green card as a metaphor in narrating the soul of Nigeria and the United States, and how the elite can earn the respect of Nigeria again.
HE DRIBBLED DEATH WITH DEXTERITY
Adesanmi dribbled death in July and came out as a victor. But never again. He was involved in a ghastly auto crash that nearly claimed his life on Ilorin-Ibadan expressway. The accident left him bedridden for months and when he bounced back on his feet, he started writing series of articles he titled “Injury Time with Pius”.
The professor spoke and wrote on variety of issues including governance, education, philosophy and life. Little did we know he meant what he was saying when he titled his final series of writing “injury time”.
Now the ultimate referee has blown the whistle, and his injury time is over. His sunset at prime, when the Ethiopian Airlines jet he boarded to Kenya crashed six minutes after take-off. Like the timing of the crash, many have described Adesanmi’s death as too early. When rumour of his death started spreading, many went to his social media handles to call out to him, begging him to debunk the speculations. But not this time. The king of boys was gone.
ADESANMI ‘SAW GOD BEFORE DEATH’
If perhaps, there is any joy in death for most people, it is the belief that they get to see God when they die. But Adesanmi “saw God’s face” before he died. Writing on his near-death experience in the 2018 accident, the scholar said he witnessed the manifestation of God in his life through the people that scampered around to ensure that he survived the ill-fated incident.
“I saw God’s face in this experience. I am not talking about an outer body experience. I am saying that God does not come down to help us. He already made us in his image so His face is the face of the women and men whose undying, unconditional and unalloyed love he uses to expand and enrich the meaning of blood and family in our lives,” he wrote.
He was already making a detailed recount of his experience in a book he may have titled “Serpent’s Son, You May Set Forth at Dusk”.
“This is the last I’ll post about this accident until the book is published. I need to return to the political trenches because we still have a country to rescue from the vultures,” he had said.
Like the Yoruba man will say, Iku a pa eni a npe, Iku a pa eni toun pe ni –– Death killed the one we mourn, and takes the ones who mourn; death takes us all. Only last year was he filling the condolence register of a colleague who died. Today his register is being filled, home and abroad.
IN OUR HEARTS LIE PIUS ADESANMI
In his birthday message posted on Facebook on February 28, the professor said he felt “God spared me because He has decided that 2019 will be the year of drip drip drip of good news in my life”.
“I’ve written so many “eniyan l’aso mi” updates after moments like this. I’d sound like a broken record deploying that trope yet again. So, I am just going to say thank you for making my day memorable yesterday. Like I said, this birthday holds a special significance because I wasn’t meant to see it.
“Nearly a year later, I still wake up in the dead of night, shivering and shaking because of nightmares, of reliving the scene that nearly took me, of remembering those who didn’t make it. So, I thank you for all your kind words yesterday, whether here, in my inboxes, phone, on your own Walls.
“My spirit tells me that God spared me because He has decided that 2019 will be the year of drip drip drip of good news in my life. And the year of drip drip drip of good news in your lives too. May we all be here to celebrate the drip drip drip of good news in our lives,” he wrote.
Despite his hope for and belief in life, many have wondered if Adesanmi saw his death coming. In his last post on Facebook, Adesanmi posted a picture of himself seated with a Canadian passport and boarding pass in his hand.
He captioned the picture thus; “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me – Psalm 139:9-10”.
As a writer, teacher, and prophet, Adesanmi predicted many of Nigeria’s reality, long before they happened. Even much more than that, he prophesied his own death more too many times. In August 2013, nearly six years before his death, he wrote his own epitaph:
“Here lies Pius Adesanmi who tried as much as he could to put his talent in the service of humanity and flew away home one bright morning when his work was over.”
Fly safe, pro(f)phet.