My dear teacher, Remy Oriaku @ 60
By Sunny Awhefeada
I first met Dr. Remigius Onyejekwe Oriaku in the last days of December 1991. I met him at the famous Faculty of Arts quadrangle of the University of Ibadan (UI). That day, the usual hustle and bustle of Yuletide was palpable. The haze which came with the dust of December hung over the entire University landscape that was screened off by the imposing faculty building.
The setting sun was gentle, so was the mild almost unfelt chill. This left a soothing and pleasant feeling on all. There was in the air a lot of optimism. Some were looking forward to Christmas and New Year celebrations. Others, especially my small group of friends and acquaintances were optimistic about gaining admission into the University that was billed to reopen in early 1992. It was the anticipation of our becoming undergraduates at UI that led us there. That was twenty-one years ago!
I ended up not attending UI. Providence led my questing feet to the University of Benin, (UNIBEN) Benin-City, which turned out to be Oriaku’s alma mater. Some of the eggheads who taught Oriaku in UNIBEN’s Department of English and Literature in the late 1970s were also my teachers in the 1990s.
It was through them that I got my first concrete impression of Remy Oriaku as my UNIBEN mentors call him. Professor Romanu Egudu in particular was untiring in his praise of Oriaku’s intellectual ability, strength of character and meticulousness. He praised Oriaku’s handwriting to the extent that I saw in my mind’s eye how immaculate it must have been. He described him as one of the best essayists to have passed through his tutelage!
When I started thinking of pursuing postgraduate studies I thought of going to UI and my UNIBEN teachers whom I told talked about Remy Oriaku. He easily became a beacon for me. It was therefore not fortuitous that when I visited UI to attend the ceremonies marking Professor Niyi Osundare’s 50th birthday in March 1997, Professor Austin Ofuani who was then the Head of English in UNIBEN, and who was also attending the event literally handed me over to Dr. Oriaku.
When I resumed for postgraduate studies at UI in May 1998, the phenomenon of brain drain had taken a severe toll on the university. The marauding dictatorial regime of Sani Abacha had subjugated the once idyllic ivory tower. The entire nation had been ravaged. Gloom enveloped Nigeria and tension was in the air. It was in that aura of dread and despair that I began postgraduate studies at UI.
It was in the foregoing ambience that we began postgraduate studies at UI. Dr. Lekan Oyeleye (now professor) was the Head of Department, but Dr. Oriaku directed matters that pertained to literature. In spite of the paucity of academic staff Dr. Oriaku and his other colleagues threw themselves into the task of teaching us with a missionary zeal.
They did their best to ensure that we had the best of postgraduate scholarship available in that circumstance. There were times we had lectures till dusk, because they had to also teach the undergraduate students in addition to my class as well as doctoral students to attend to.
Our first lecture was with Dr. Oriaku and it turned out to be a timely agenda setting encounter. In the course of that lecture he assumed the role of the concerned teacher, an earnest counselor, an elder brother all put together. He told us what to do and what to avoid if we were to have a successful outing at the end of the session.
As the semester and session progressed he gave us books to read and allowed us unfettered access to his house. His wife, Chika, who now holds a doctorate, was always untiring in playing the genial host. The number of plates of rice, eba plus egusi soup with stock-fish many of us ate in their then Amina Way residence is unquantifiable!
Dr. Oriaku’s contributions to literary scholarship at Ibadan and beyond cannot be quantified. He has since 1983 when he joined the English department remained a most committed teacher of teachers. He has mentored many generations of students across the three degrees, BA, MA and PhD, awarded by the department where he is now the longest serving academic staff.
Many of his students are now well established scholars in numerous tertiary institutions across the world teaching others what he taught them. Apart from being a dedicated teacher, Oriaku is also forthright and highly disciplined. I am convinced that he left something life changing with every student that read English at Ibadan.
He has also intervened to rescue many students whose academic careers would have been amputated, especially at the doctoral level. Together with another committed teacher and indefatigable encourager, Prof. Ademola Omobewaji Dasylva, Dr. Oriaku revived my doctoral research when my supervisor, Professor Sam Asein passed on in 2002
. Many other instances of Oriaku’s redemptive gesture abound.
Dr. Awhefeada teaches literature at the Delta State University, Abraka.