The sudden death of renowned scholar and professor emeritus of Education, Professor Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa came to me, like every other person who knew him, as a rude shock.
A shock because even at a ripe age of 87, he was still very strong and alert both physically and intellectually, which was why the management of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN) considered him fit and appropriate to deliver the keynote address at this year’s convocation where he (Professor Fafunwa) would have been conferred with an honorary doctorate degree, in recognition of his immense contribution to the development of education in the country.
As Nigerians and lovers of education all over the world celebrate the passage of a true icon, I would love to join the millions of people whose lives this great Nigerian has touched to pay a tribute to a man that was my father in a very special way.
My relationship with Professor Fafunwa started during the early days of my career as a young reporter in the Vanguard Newspaper. My editor then, Mr Tony Okonedo had instructed me to get “big name” for the personality interview for that week. I went to the Library to research on several personalities that I could contact for the interview and as soon as I read through the file of Professor Fafunwa, I made up my mind that I was going to look for no other person except him.
I made up my mind to go after him because in the short profile that I compiled on him during my research at the Vanguard Library, he recorded several firsts. He was the first Nigerian to bag a PhD in Education in 1955., he became a Professor of Education in 1966, the year of my birth. He was the first Yorubaman to be Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria Nsukka.
He is the only educationist to have been involved in all the reform policies in Nigeria’s educational system. While still at Nsukka, he created what later metamorphosed into what is today known as the National Certificate in Education (NCE). The list of his major accomplishments as an educationist is endless.
But the one that really caught my attention while conducting the research was his pioneering efforts at ensuring that mother tongue is accepted as a tool of teaching and impacting knowledge in Nigeria’s education system. Many of his opponents shot down Fafunwa’s proposal on the grounds that it was practically impossible to teach certain subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Additional Mathematic, etc in Yoruba, Hausa, Ibo or Isoko language.
According to my findings, Professor Fafunwa in a bid to prove to his detractors that what he was proposing is not impossible, got together a group of students at Ife and arranged for them to be taught in their native Yoruba language. He monitored these students all the way through their University education and when they eventually graduated; over seventy percent came out with either first class or second class upper degrees.
Having proved that it was not only possible but indeed the best way to get students to learn and understand what they were taught in their native language, he finally had his way when mother tongue was adopted as a tool of teaching in the Nigerian Education Policy in 1977.
Armed with enough information about this great educationist, I headed for his Victoria Island home, even without securing any formal appointment. At his very neat but modest compound, devoid of the opulence associated with the residence of a former Minister of the Federal Republic, in the same neighborhood with then Ashland Oil now Addax Petroleum on Bendel Close, the security man simply asked who I was and what my mission is.
I gave him my business card which he took to the creator of what has become known today as the National Examinations Council, NECO, and few minutes later, I was ushered into his living room. We had a most wonderful interview session during which time he told me to ask any question I want to and almost two hours later, I was on my way to the office with an interview copy which made the cover page of the Weekend Vanguard that week.
And from thence, commenced a relationship with my family that climaxed in his being Father of the Day, at my wedding reception at the National Theater Iganmu Lagos, thirteen years ago on October 18, 1997.
It was really on that that the old man proved to me that he was indeed a special father to me. He along with the late Justice Akinola Aguda, who was the Chairman of the Reception, were amongst the very first to arrive the venue of the reception. In fact when the wedding convoy arrived, my big brothers, Nobert Young and Keppy Ekpeyong, who were the masters of ceremony came to me and my wife to “rebuke” us for keeping two great elder statesmen waiting for that long.
When I met the two great Nigerians to apologize for keeping them waiting, they could not be bothered. They stayed all through the program and were indeed some of the last to leave.
During the couple’s dance, a very observant Fafunwa noticed that my wife, who was two weeks pregnant, was very tired and exhausted from the rigours of preparation for the weeding and the long program of the day.
He drew closer to Justice Aguda, whispered to his ear andimmediately stopped the dance even when the “naira rain” was still falling and asked us to go back to our seats. Many people in the hall, including myself, wondered why the two old men would stop the dance party when almost half of those who came had not expended the naira notes they came with on our foreheads.
It was when we got to our seat and my wife had regained herself that she confessed to me that she was almost collapsing before the Chairman (Justice Aguda) stopped the band.
Professor Fafunwa’s advise to me and my wife during his speech is still our marriage creed till this day. And it is simply that: “as husband and wife, you will most certainly quarrel but do not allow a third party who may not be there when the quarrel started come and resolve it for you” Abiding by that creed in the last thirteen years has been the secret behind the success of our marriage.
As Nigerians mourn the exit of a “Teacher of teachers”, a Trainer of trainers, a marriage counselor and a father, a consummate educationist and a renowned reformer of Nigeria’s education system, I pray that the good Lord will grant the soul of a special father eternal rest and give his wife, children and immediate family, the fortitude to bear the loss. Adieu Professor Aliu Babatunde Fafunwa.
Blessyn Okpowo, a journalist lives in Lagos.