16. Garuba: Gentle Humanist of Great Intellect
Author: Toyin Falola
Publication: The Star
Date: 03 March 2020
Image courtesy of https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/379689-nigerian-literary-icon-harry-garuba-is-dead.html
We have lost an outstanding poet, great essayist, and famous literary figure. Professor Garuba was full of talents. Very well known in the literary world, his voice started to echo at Ibadan, crossing the Atlantic, and then detouring to South Africa where he and Professor Kole Omotoso – his fellow Akure citizen – joined in the transformation of the South African academy.
Harry Garuba, Nuruddin Farah (nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize) and Amina Mama (the pre-eminent feminist scholar) once hosted me. The conversations were elaborate. Harry and I plotted one more time to push Nuruddin for the Nobel. No luck, but the omission is a major one, similar to that of Achebe and wa Thiong’o. The University of Cape Town was a great place to be.
Fast forward – Harry and his colleagues were to appoint me to their faculty as an honorary professor. We invited Harry to Austin for a semester where we interacted intensely. He was a theorist with a limitless pool of knowledge. His lectures were well received.
I cannot reproduce his laughter. Glued to his face was his signature smile. Only a hand was free at a time, the other holding a cigarette. The transformation that preoccupied Harry created the path to our last meeting in Johannesburg.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo, the distinguished political scientist and eminent public intellectual, brought many of us together at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation on August 18 and 19 2018 to dialogue on “Curriculum Transformation in the Humanities.” My memory does not fail me in matters such as this.
Harry spoke on the Heinemann African Writers’ Series. At lunchtime, we sat together where I told him about a manuscript he had not read, the dissertation of Bode Ibironke of Rutgers on that same Series, subsequently published by Palgrave (Remapping African Literature).
And of course, a reminder about his long-awaited book, the completion of which he was always agonising about. “There was no death on his face,” as the Yoruba would say.
I had planned to see him in the coming weeks. Not any more. Harry was a secularist. I don’t know what he would say if I ask God to invite him to His side, but I seek this assurance.
Harry lived a glorious life. Harry had passion and zeal for poetry, the amazing source of his strength. He loved words, the spring of his awesome inspiration. He was both humane and urbane, his warmth and divine protection. When I wanted to tease him, I would call him Haruna. “I am Harry, not Haruna!” he would object. Haruna, you did well on earth. Harry, your mission has been accomplished.
Harry will continue to be with us. Harry would object but I will pray anyway: “Ya Allah, please remove all the pride and arrogance from my heart, forgive my major and minor sins and make me worthy to jannah.” Sleep well, great mind.
Professor Falola is in the Department of History at the University of Texas at Austin in the US