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Farewell, Othello's Countryman (Eldred Durosimi Jones (1925-2020) By Niyi Osundare

Published by Sahara Reporters on Fri, 10 Apr 2020


Niyi OsundareNiyi OsundareI met Eldred Jones personally for the first time in 1982undera circumstance I have found delightfully unforgettable.From his base in Sierra Leone he hadbeen invitedto the then University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University)fora professionalengagement. Butbefore leaving home,he never forgot to tuck in his travelling bag a file containing the manuscriptby a rookie academic, submitted and accepted for publication inAfrican Literature Today(ALT),Africa's influentialliterary journalfor which he wasfoundingeditor. His engagement over in Ife, Professor Jones set out for the University of Ibadan to see the author of that manuscript so as to clarify two 'issues' with him:one, the correct version of a Yoruba name as spelt in the manuscript, the othera debate as to whether thecorrectpunctuation mark in one sentence in the middle of the essay should be a comma or semi colon!Ittook nomore thana fewminutes to iron out these 'gigantic' issues, andProfessor Jones put back the manuscript in the file, the filebackin the bag, ready to go.But he didn't leave without commendingthe accepted manuscriptboth for its 'quality' andits'usefulness';for according to him,we needed more ofitskind of stylistic,language-based studyto further widen the scope of a journal that had become an authoritative platform for African literature in all its ramifications.Afew months later,African Literature Today,Number 13 was out, with my article,'Words of Iron, Sentences of Thunder: Soyinka's Prose Style',within its hallowedcovers.The impact of this first meeting with Professor Joneshasremainedwith me to this day.Witty, easy-going, and personable, he was the kind ofelderl/leader who put you at ease with a ready smile and sincerefellow feeling. One ofAfrica'srenownedscholars and university administrators,he carried himself with grace shorn of showy grandeur, simplicity ennobled by superb delicacy, a near-magical aura that announced his presencein the public squarewithout the effort ofanyMaster of Ceremony.A scholar and teacher with a monk-like fidelity to detail, Professor Jones taught anddemonstrated thatbeliefthat no academic subject was too insignificant for the scholar's investigation; no matter toolittle to attract theirmeticulousconsideration. Thus when Professor Jones sat by my side and engaged me in a finnicky differentiation between a comma and semi colon within the syntactic structure of a sentence,hislesson went way beyond the punctuational protocol of academic writing. That lesson foregrounds the ability to recognize the big in thesmall; thecuriousvisibility of unseen things; the ultimate fact that big things derive theirbignessfrom the concerted complexityof little things. Thatvery ability is itself the productand manifestationof an attitude which bodies forth as a propensity; ameticulous methodwhich becomes a habit.It is the kind of attitude that makes the difference between development and underdevelopment, success and failure. It is the kind of thoroughness so indigenous to old Krio culture and pedagogy inSaroland, the kind that many Nigeriansof my generationlearntfrom ourhigh schoolteachers,someof whom were proud alumni ofFourahBayCollege, Africa's oldestWestern-style university institution in West Africa.A Shakespeare scholar and acclaimed authorityin English lettersin alltheirastounding aspects, the author ofOthello'sCountrymenknew from both personal and professional experience the vital role of literaturein the shaping of a people's culture, therevitalization of their memory, the cultivation and maintenance of their sense of self andracial pride. In anutshell,he wasachingly consciousof the fact that for a people to be in a position to control their own destiny, they must,of necessity, be in charge of their own story. Africa's story and the critical responses to it had, for the most part, been shaped and determined by forces beyond the continent, and therise and evolution of written modern African literature as we know it today weresupreme attemptsat the redressing of a grossexogeneistandcolonial disadvantage. Eldred Jones was there at thebirthing of this literature, and up to the moment he breathed his last, he was one of its crucial nurturers and sustainers.This is evident in the readiness and enthusiasmwith whichhe poured his vast erudition,insight,incomparable energy, and organizational acumen into the editing and management ofAfrican Literature Todayfrom its infancy until it becameone ofthe most authoritativeplatforms for the articulation of critical responses to African literatureand ' very important ' re-orientation of its aesthetic paradigms.As Syl Cheney Coker,the eminentAfricanwriterand Professor Jones's compatriot,has said most eloquently in his own tribute, barelyfivedecades after its founding,ALThasbecomea thriving arena for the finest critics ofAfrican literature and fertile catalystfor the growth and development of the literature itself.Thus, Jones facilitated the creative-criticalsynergy so fundamental for the evolution ofAfrican literature as a balanced, sustainable enterprise.Eldred Jones was not only an enablingforce andnurturerof a burgeoning literary tradition, he was also one of the continent's leading scholars and literary figures.His work,The Writing of Wole Soyinka,(1973),was the first book-length study of an author wholaterjustified Jones's vision and promise by becoming the first Black African to win the Nobel Prizeforliterature.But by far his most famous work isOthello's Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama(1965), a work whosescholarly and sensitive exploration of theliteraryrepresentation of the Africanestablishes a powerfulconcert of insights withstudies such asEs'kiaMphahlele'sThe African Image(1962),and Chinua Achebe'sgenerally acclaimed'An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad'sHeart of Darkness'(1977). And less than a decade before his transition, heendowedhis beloved city/countrywithan unforgettable memoir,The Freetown Bond: A Life Under Two Flags(2012).A staunchly resilient, personality, Eldred Jones led a life whose triumphs werealmost equaled by its travails. He was struck by blindness at the height of his professional powers, but he never allowed this adversity to dim the light of his mind or terminate his lifelong loveforbooksand ideas.He kept up his position as chairman of the NomaAward Jury, and was a prominent resource person on the AFRICA'S BEST 100 BOOKS OF THE CENTURY Selection Committeewhose award presentation took place in Cape Town in 2000. In the major literary session accompanying that event, Eldred Jonesheld us allspell-boundwith an erudite, wide-ranging, and currentlectureon African literature, even without a shred of paper anywhere around him! When the event was over and Iaskedhimin open-mouthed astonishment, 'how did you do it, Prof.'', he held up his wife's hand and said 'Ask Marjorie; she's the author of the magic'.Marjorie's smile bloomed intoradiantlaughter. There was so much tenderness in that laughter; so much beauty inits'author'. Over the years, I thought that the union of Eldred and Marjorie was made from heaven. African literature, nay the world's literary heritage,is the beneficiary of that union. For Marjorie was not just a wife; she was also a soulmate, helpmate, facilitator, most valuable enabler, and, above all, a warm and generous HUMAN being. We can never tellthefullstoryof Eldred Jones's rolein the evolution of modernAfrican literaturewithouta long chapter onthisAngelwithabundantearthlybeneficence.And so EldredDurosimiJones has crossedsevenrivers, climbed seven mountains, and landed softly in the valley ofimmortal ancestors. When in May 2016our documentary team paid him aworking visit in his hilltop residence in Freetown,he was 93 years old. But his boyish face, mellow manners, poignant erudition, and tenacious memory teased me into the illusory feeling that he was just too good to die.But as the Yoruba say,gbesen'iku. Yes, death is a debt.Durosimihas paidthat debtnow, and his reward isunvarnishedimmortality.Sleep well, Othello's Countryman. Here now, a snatch from that song I sang when you turned 71in 1996,andperformed personally for you in your Freetown homesome four years ago:Live on, then, my Scholar-Poet,Twilight shadows may be long,who does not know that Life is stubbornly l-o-n-g-e-r'Your vision now so internal, so eternal,keeps capturing the bird on tomorrow's treeRipening rice fields dance towards your tablethe raffia palm drops its honeyin the sanctity of your gourdin your garden of a thousand fragrancespetals bloom into doves and rainbow spacesLet rivers empty their burdens into the waiting sealet the moon wane and waxin the laboratory of its sky;your liberal wisdom sews the seasonsinto proverbs and silkylaughtersTeacher, founder, author of humane letters,Your drum throbs in the marketplace,gathering metaphors and leaping visionsyou who master the immensity of night,arriving, still, with vistas of new dawns Iyeyeluye AlugbinrinjankijankijanalugbinrinNiyi OsundareApril 9, 2020OpinionAddThis:Original Author:Niyi OsundareDisable advertisements:
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