Professor Pius Adesanmi: One Year After, By ‘Tope Oriola
I got to Ottawa on Friday, March 15, 2019. The reality hit me as I took the escalator down to the arrival lounge. Pius had been there to receive and drive me home to enjoy his family’s hospitality only a month earlier. My eyes scanned the lounge for him and he waived. In his characteristic ebullient manner: “Tope, o ri mi ni (Tope, didn’t you see me?). I responded: “Egbon, oni idi ti mo se nlo glasses” (big brother, I wear glasses for a reason).
It is exactly one year since the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 that took the life of Professor Pius Adesanmi and 156 others. Many of those who read his works or knew him personally will forever remember where they were and what they were doing when they got the news. I was at Sunday church service in Edmonton. Phone calls and text messages began to pour in. The rapidity and sheer volume of the calls and texts could not be ignored. It struck me that the calls and texts were from friends and colleagues who didn’t necessarily know one another. I was deeply concerned. My friend and Edmonton-based lawyer, Idowu Ohioze, called and I knew I had to pick his call. I stepped out to the foyer of the church. Idowu told me the news that had begun circulating. There had been a plane crash in Ethiopia and there were concerns on social media that Professor Adesanmi was on board.
I needed to be sure of what was going on. Edmonton was eight hours behind Nigeria and that did not help. Former minister of Education, Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, sent a text message with the burning passion of an extremely concerned friend: “Tope!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Answer this call. Answer this call. Tell me it is NOT MY PIUS. Please, Tope. Tell me it is NOT OUR PIUS!!!!!!!!!!” I finally got through to the family in Ottawa. Unfortunately, it was our Pius.
I returned as many calls and text messages as I could to pass on the news. It was bad. I posted a message on the Facebook page of the African Doctoral Lounge convened by Pius: “The news of Professor Pius Adesanmi’s death is unfortunately true. Our hearts are broken. We have no words. This is hard to bear.” I sat down to write on getting home from church. I wrote the piece: “In Memoriam: Professor Pius Adesanmi”. Several other obituaries, op-Eds and articles followed from those who also knew Pius. The widow, Muyiwa Adesanmi, and I had a conversation a day after the crash. I got on my feet and told her: “I am deeply sorry about your loss. The world mourns with you. I have seen grown men and women sit down and cry like babies. Many who never met him are mourning like they lost a family member. Accept my sincere condolences. He was the best among us.”
I booked my flight to Ottawa for the memorial. The crash that took Pius’ life was the second of the Boeing 737 Max 8 within a space of approximately five months and no one was sure of what was going on. The specific model had not been grounded. Flying suddenly became really dangerous. The irony of flying to Ottawa was not lost on me. We mourned Pius Adesanmi. His lifestyle was akin to that of many of us. As several friends put it, “it could have been any of us”. That mortal possibility deepened our sorrow and perhaps in mourning Pius, we mourned ourselves.
I got to Ottawa on Friday, March 15, 2019. The reality hit me as I took the escalator down to the arrival lounge. Pius had been there to receive and drive me home to enjoy his family’s hospitality only a month earlier. My eyes scanned the lounge for him and he waived. In his characteristic ebullient manner: “Tope, o ri mi ni (Tope, didn’t you see me?). I responded: “Egbon, oni idi ti mo se nlo glasses” (big brother, I wear glasses for a reason). We laughed heartily and embraced. However, he was not there this time. It struck me that I was returning for his funeral a month after that happy occasion.
We will never truly know the extent of our loss. We are left to wonder what might have been. Professor Pius Adebola Adesanmi was an apostle of public intellectualism, an advocate for good governance, speedy fulfilment of Nigeria’s famous “potentials” and champion for the development of Africa. It is worth reiterating that Pius died in service to Africa.
Professor Adesanmi’s luggage never left Canada. It was delivered the night of Friday, March 15, 2019. We wish he never left Canada too. There was a group of Nigerians strategising about the next day’s memorial when the luggage was delivered. Muyiwa informed the whole house about the luggage. I looked at the life-size poster in the living room and shook my head in disbelief: “Oluwa O” (Oh, Lord)! I felt like saying to the image: “Tell us this is not true.”
The memorial was a sober and well-organised event. Adesanmi was honoured in death by many friends, colleagues and admirers of his work. Celebration of Life events were held at various locations around the world. At the Metropolitan Bible Church, Ottawa, where a Celebration of Life was held on March 16, 2019, top administrators of Carleton University, including the university president, Dr. Benoit-Antoine Bacon, faculty, students, the Nigerian community, among many other community associations and the media gathered for a farewell. The Nigerian high commissioner to Canada, Adeyinka Asekun, who also attended, was the epitome of modesty and professionalism. Omoyele Sowere came from the U.S., as did many others. I tried to put up a brave face during the service. As Nigerian journalist, Tunde Asaju, got into his speech, which was preceded by ijala (a special genre of Yoruba poetry rendition), I lost it. The overwhelming grief was transmitted live to the world. I am grateful to the preacher, Pastor Randy Jost, for not trying to rationalise the death of Pius Adesanmi.
Adesanmi’s death led many to reflect on their lives. His death changed the perspectives of many about life. I had approached my career up to that point with such singularity of focus to the detriment of virtually everything else and began to re-examine and critique every major choice I had made in life. Was it worth the effort? For what? What really is life’s meaning? What is the human essence on earth? Pius’ death shook me. It compounded my grief over my mother’s death three months earlier. I was in intense mourning. The healing process would take some time. (Those who have wondered about my prolonged “silence” with the exception of a couple of articles; there you have your answer). Pius’ death taught me to enjoy the little moments and joys. Nothing is guaranteed. Time is precious. My priorities changed that day. I decided I needed to connect with people a lot more. Not everyone had the natural ability to connect with people as did Pius.
We will never truly know the extent of our loss. We are left to wonder what might have been. Professor Pius Adebola Adesanmi was an apostle of public intellectualism, an advocate for good governance, speedy fulfilment of Nigeria’s famous “potentials” and champion for the development of Africa. It is worth reiterating that Pius died in service to Africa. Adieu, the Oracle of Isanlu, the terror of governmental misfits and the roaring lion against mediocrity. Orun, e ku alejo (thanks for the hospitality, you heavens).
Follow Oriola on Twitter: @topeoriola