Honoring Those to Whom Honors Are Due
Michael O. Afolayan
January 28, 2017
Exactly one year, one month and six days ago today, I felt like a deified mortal chosen to be a beneficiary of honor in Dr. Toyin Falola's priesthood of generosity, a ministry he has continued to expand on through his unstoppable superhuman penmanship. It was a tribute I least expected, not even in the slightest of my imaginations. In all honesty, this was the kind of honor meant for the men and women of timber and caliber, the big trees in our vast wilderness of intellectuals; certainly not for the lowly village boy whose passport to the world outside the village of birth was divine providence; after all, kids who lost their fathers in the village at an early age like mine were not expected to make it beyond the horizon of the cocoa farmlands that surrounded the village landscape. Yet, out of uninhibited premonitions, Dr. Falola chose to celebrate me. I could certainly understand why he chose a celebrated, truly great scholar, Dr. Julius Adekunle, this past year but as for me, it baffled my inner being and tickled my fancy. Like some deep hallucinogenic effect, I am still dazed and floating in the clouds of the extraordinary proclamation. I can never thank him enough. It's no false humility, but I did not have the right emotion or even the appropriate lexicon at that time, or even now, that would simultaneously express my appreciation and project my undeservedness of such accolades, and do so without projecting the image of the Yoruba proverbial highway robber that snatches away the goods that belong to somebody else. Thank goodness, the akowekowura of our time, that is, the man who writes with the golden pen (and golden ink), Professor Ayo Olukotun, gave a well-deserved tribute to Professor Falola to cap off his extraordinary year of an inexhaustible harvest.
Today, however, I would love to pass this great honor to those who, in my mind, truly deserve it more than I do, did, or will ever do; thereby relieving my soul of the so great a burden I had carried upon myself in the last one year or so.
These last two years, there had been a thousand and one friends, colleagues and relatives who touched my life, and to whom I could rightly sing endless praises. For example, there were a bevy of individuals we've fraternalized together on routine bases, be it on the social media or in real life. There were the scores of schoolgirls - poor, shy, beautiful, innocent, scared, but eager to learn, in the northeastern part of Nigeria and their teachers (malimu/malima) or head teachers (shugaba magarata) whom, together with my research associate and I had the rare privilege of meeting and working with through the UNICEF's GEP (Girls Education Project) in one of the modern world's most dangerous environments this past year. What about any and all of my teachers from elementary to graduate schools? I could also have chosen my wife, my late parents, or my children. Indeed, I could easily have chosen Professor Falola himself, although it would have been tantamount to, or at least be misconstrued as, a sweet "retaliation," to use the Nigerian social speak. Yet, thank goodness, none in all these categories met my criteria. Like me, many of the people in the groups I just mentioned could feel embarrassed or unworthy of the tribute. Therefore, I have taken a totally different route. I have decided to pick four people. They are the only "folks" among us who would never be embarrassed for such honor and who would know that indeed, it's the least of what they truly deserve. These individuals are Chief (Dr.) Chika Onyeani, Engineer Tony Egbe, Dr. Valentine Ojo, and Professor Lavonda Staples, and what a better day to do this than on the anniversary of the burial of our friend, Lavonda Staples. Please come with me as I provide an abridged synopsis of each one of these heroes:
The Labor of Our Heroes Past
Dr. Chika Onyeani was the publisher of the African Sun Times a newspaper based in New York. He was a businessman and an ultimate agent provocateur being the author of the controversial book, The Capitalist Nigger, a book he said he confessed to have been written purposely to generate controversies and trigger good business. For him, and as he admitted later in an interview, "controversies pay." He was not afraid to face criticism. Dr. Onyeani was the first person I had a protracted argument with at the outset of our USA-Africa Dialogue discussion group. The argument was based on the spider doctrine, an economic model that he claimed to have helped many nations economically and which he recommended for the Black world. I ended up recommending his book to my graduate students and we had a good time with it. Truth is bitter, as the conventional wisdom has taught us. What he said was not palatable, but it was the truth, and you guess, the business guru made money out of telling the bitter truth. Dr. (Chief) Chika Onyeani passed away on my wife's birthday, December 7, 2016. He would be the latest addition to our song of sorrow, and the oldest of them all. The ace businessman was 73.
Engineer Tony Egbe: The indefatigable character called Tony Egbe was a man with a prophetic tongue. I did not have much familiarity with him other than to read some of his writings, especially whenever he discussed technological processes and life philosophies. I recall - laughing out loud, when Tony hurriedly announced the passing of Nelson Mandela while the latter was still hale and hearty. Many yelled at him and the organization he represented. Tony did not hide under the blanket and shy away from his usual productive contributions to the net chats. My favorite of all his writings is this re-posting, an excerpt from his writing of Sunday June 6, 2010 (unedited), as he ruminates on the matter of death:
. . . Imagine the Logged Tree which dies from its existence in the forest to become more useful as Paper or as Furniture in our homes. Also, imagine the cotton wool in the farm which transists to become our bed sheets, and clothes, still serving a better function on another plane of existence.....and so is every other thing God created, and Definitely Human Beings are NOT an exception to this Natural Law of transition and existence in other Better Planes of Life.
The above could be the reason for the Religious Teachings of life of existence in Heaven, when we die. In conclusion, please, let us grieve less if possible, at the death of our Loved Ones. It is not how long we lived on earth that matters, rather it is the Positive Impacts we made while we lived on earth that matter Most. It is with these that we will be remembered for ever. May the Souls of all our departed Loved Ones rest in Peace!! (Tony Otoiheoma Egbe - Sunday June 6, 2010).
Tony passed away four years after the posting, in the last week of August, 2010, telling us that he had not died, just recycling.
Dr. Valentine Ojo: If I call Dr. Onyeani an agent provocateur, what does that make Dr. Ojo? He would be the superlative recipient of the same title. No one was immune to the doctor's fury. He provoked us, tamed us, yelled at us, and sometimes forced us to think outside the box. He angered many, silenced some, and ended up winning a few to his side. Yet, to his credit, he did so with the best of intents, and, boy, did he make all his presentations with good grammar and logical arrangement of facts. Our late friend, Dr. Ojo, was a polyglot to the core, speaking Russian, German, Italian, French, English and Yoruba on a quick prompt. Seriously kidding, to use the language of Ellen Degeneres, he dabbled into virtual politics, even forming an "Ojo 2015" presidential campaign with a simple but visually sophisticated and captivating insignia. As an enigma, he left us asking questions about his seriousness, or a lack thereof, of his intent on this political stint. Sadly, he never lived to see his target year. The year 2015 would elude him merely by a space of five months. What a rude extermination of a promising genius!
My connection to Dr. Ojo was not initially pleasant. I read his postings quite often and enjoyed his occasional showcasing of Nigerian folk music of the 1960s and 1970s but I saw him as a bully who used his intellect, brilliance, age, and life experience to intimidate others. He even went after Dr. Falola at one point but quickly backed out in his characteristic way. In my mind, he seemed impatient with anyone with a non-crispy thinking thread that aligned with his views or anyone who made public expression of religiosity; yet he had no problem identifying himself as agnostic or even atheist. At one of his usual outbursts, I summoned the courage to e-mail him, calling for a truce between him and a few of his opponents. He obliged, gave me a call and we became instant friends. On talking to him, it became crystal clear that the man who sounded like a bully on the social media was anything but that. His bark was worse than his bite. In fact, I could say his cyberspace persona was a complete opposite of his personal life. He was funny, caring, and even seemingly timid. While he lambasted the Igbo community so often, he was married to an Igbo woman whom he adored so much and called "Mummy." He claimed to be agnostic but no one talked more about God in conversations than he was, volunteering at his wife's church and at his daughter's religious school. I recall when he was sick, he constantly ended our lengthy conversations with the statement, "Please keep praying for me." He stopped calling me and disappeared on the net. It was when I e-mailed him that he confessed to me how what he thought to be a mere case of diabetes, following a massive stroke had developed into a Stage Four cancer. I promised to keep him in my prayers. I did not renege that promise, but the hand of nature is what no one can hold; and so death, the necessary end, visited our friend. He graciously bowed out of this world of miseries on August 23, 2014 – just a few days short of that of Tony Egbe. Dr. Ojo was 66 years of age.
Professor Lavonda Staples: Lavonda was a social media guru. My attraction to her came towards the end of her earthly sojourn, about the last one year. As someone who received (and still receives) hundreds of unsolicited e-mails everyday, my selections of who and what to read are always very limited. I read Lavonda's postings sporadically and enjoyed her postmodernist thinking and counter-arguments against some proponents of critical discourse. I recall a time when (Chidi Opara, I believe) wrote something about Professor Falola. Although the poet's intent was satiric, and actually lampooning the political apparatus that had failed to give credence to Professor Falola's mega-presence in the modern world of intellect, Lavonda took the matter literally and personally, lashing out at the writer. Some in the group tried to drown her voice; some ridiculed her; but she did not budge. Her insistence, and the strength to stand and maintain loyalty to a friend she called her mentor bought my heart. I sent private e-mail messages to her to assure her she did the right thing. She knew she did. I started reading all her postings from then on. Then, like that of Dr. Ojo, her postings suddenly stopped. Then, out of the blues, a scary posting surfaced, announcing Lavonda's battle again with a Stage Four cancer. She had no problem disclosing the extent of her terminal condition and relentlessly gave a systematic reporting of her progress in her blog. She called for donations towards her burial and her daughter's college funds. It was a shame for me when I realized that the only thing separating my home from Lavonda's was the Mississippi River! She lived less than twenty miles away from me, on the Missouri State side, while I lived in Edwardsville/Collinsville, Illinois! I contacted her to know if my wife and I could visit with her, and she yelled with enthusiasm, "Please come now!"
We drove to pay this lady a visit, and what a visit it was! A couple of family members were there to say hello to her. No exaggeration, Lavonda was beautiful – inside and out! She looked like a model. It was hard to see any resemblance of death in this great woman's demeanor, not even in her nightingale-like voice. You would think we, the guests surrounding her, were the sick ones because she was the only cheerful person in the room, chatting and encouraging everyone. She said she would entertain my wife and I with some musical selections as she played the piano for us and she played like crazy. Boy, was she good at it! She played classical hymns and those she composed by herself. We talked about Africa and she remembered the names of all those who had been communicating with her on the networks. She said she would love to eat the Yoruba akara, which my wife and I promised to bring her a few days after our visit, which, alas, would never happen! Before we left, Lavonda handed us some chocolate candies to give our teenage daughter, who could not make it because of a school engagement. I still have those candies carefully wrapped in my refrigerator today. Both her pictures as she played the piano for our pleasure and that of her body, cold and peaceful in the casket, are permanently stored in my laptop. Even though the former are not that sharp, I cherish them. I had never met anyone who minimized the sting of death more than Lavonda. I still have not met one since then. What a rare breed of humanity she was! She walked us out after the visit and gave us the warmest of hugs, the last ever! We called the family every so often to know when we could come back, but apparently the overwhelming stress of the imminent truncated attention to telephone ringing and so we never had the opportunity for future communications beyond the day after the visit. Then, one day, Ikhide posted Lavonda's last blog entry. It spoke volumes:
Dear Family & Friends,
If you are reading this, I have successfully made my transition to be with my Heavenly Father. I have Lived, Laughed, and Loved. I have shared most of my life experiences & lessons with everyone I know with the intention to help those without a voice. I am overjoyed that I was able to touch as many lives as I have. Believe me when I tell you that I suffer no more, and I am in a much better place. My ancestors and I have a LOT of catching up to do...
Always remember, life is what you make it. Make it your best...you only live once.
I love you all forever,
La Vonda R. Staples
Our friend was gone before we knew it, literally. Lavonda passed to glory on January 24, 2014, exactly 8 years from the day my immediate older brother passed away. She was 47. I attended Lavonda's funeral on January 28. I was there in the procession that accompanied her body to the cemetery; I still have inside my truck the paper flag that hung on my Tundra on the way to the cemetery. I was at the tomb where her body was laid to rest. No need to spew out my emotion of that day; I wrote a report thereafter (please find it attached).
Gone But Never Going: The Ever-Rolling Stream of Time
How time flies! We will always miss these worthy comrades. By leaving us so soon, a part of us seems to have been snatched away forcefully. For Lavonda, it's been three years; for Tony and Valentine, about two and a half years now; for Chika, it has been about six weeks, and by the time we know it, another year would have rolled by. Our four heroes lived lives that could not but remind me of the penultimate stanza of the classical hymn of the great Isaac Watts, O God Our help in Ages Past:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
To its own error of judgment, death has unwittingly promoted our four folks and transported them to the pantheon of the ancestors. Although we may not venerate them behind the veil of the masquerade, they will forever be honored deep down in the bottom of our hearts. And so, with humility and a heart so palpably heavy, I bid our four friends, comrades, brothers, sister, and Internet masters, "So Long!" Our heroes were relentless in pursuit of excellence and they carried us along on their journeys. They made us, helped us or even forced us to harvest aspects of the seeds of knowledge they planted on our vineyards of knowledge and they did so on our electronic screens in the privacies of our homes and offices. They have joined the clouds of witnesses cheering us to fight on, and serving us the angel's cake with the urging to eat more and warning that the journey may be longer than we had anticipated. They came to us in a hurry and left us in a hurry but we honor them with the limited words from our mortal tongues.
Here is the layman's poem I wrote to revisit my memories of these four great minds. The words and lines may not be as deep as those of the Sage, Baba Michael Vickers; the Humanist penman, Toyin Falola; the structuralist analyst, Ademola Dasylva; the roaming Journalist, Chidi Opara; or the Philosopher king, Adeshina Afolayan. Yet, they come straight from the depth of my heart and it's no light talk when I titled the poem, "A Song of Sorrow."
Thanks for reading . . .
A SONG OF SORROW . . .
(A Quiet Dirge for Lavonda Staples, Tony Egbe, Valentine Ojo and Chika Onyeani)
The eyes of Mother Africa set aglow -
Beyond the horizon their battles rage;
Her generals are checking out of the battlefield
In quick successions they ditch.
Then, she covers her face in shame
Her head bowed in grief!
The Three Triumvirates have parted the fold,
And the fourth in the rank has followed suit.
The battle generals have left the field -
First Lavonda, second Tony, then Valentine, and now Chika.
The legend truly continues,
Mysteries yet unfold,
Leaving us to "wee" wonder - why, what, and wow!
The smoke of silence engulfs their ranks -
The cannon is quiet beneath the ruins!
Our literary icon is gone
Our techno giant is done
Our legendary polyglot has run
And the business tycoon, Sun of Africa, at last has waned
Twenty-one gun salutes, then, to the generals
Blues for NetAfrica's four stooges!
Stories yet untold . . .
Parables yet unraveled.
Wasting disease, who are you?
Spineless paralysis, what are you?
Cold, stinging hand of death, whereabouts did you come?
The bell has announced the toll of a parting day
Heads bowed, arms folded,
The village bemoans its folks as they answer the final call of nature!
Beneath the wreckage of dis, dat, and dose -
The cannon remains silent
The battle is o'er,
The pain is lost!
Their eyes are set upwards, way beyond the blue -
The eagle has landed,
The falcon is gone,
The caged bird is let loose, her spirit soars.
No more sorrow and no more pain,
On the wing of the eagle
Mother Africa has welcomed her own.
The quintet safely arrived
And the stage is set.
The best of them all,
Fare thee well.
The eyes of Mother Africa set aglow!
Michael O. Afolayan
(In Sackcloth and Ashes – Far Away From the Land of Lincoln)
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