Remembering Harry (1958-2020)

Chiji Akọma

Death came calling on Professor Harry Garuba in far away South Africa; a mere mortal he was, he answered, on 28th February 2020, aged 61 years. He was one of the sharpest minds of his time, and poetry, with its ever-expansive universe of words and imagery, laid out a canvas for him to remake the world in ideas profound and beautiful. Literary criticism was the slippery space that he traversed with nimble intellectual agility as he engaged African and African diaspora literary production with critical eyes that sought to place the discipline within larger discourses of politics and being.

I had met Harry through my friend Nduka Otiono. It was 1989, and I had arrived at University of Ibadan to begin a postgraduate programme in English. Nduka was finishing his master’s thesis under the direction of the late Professor Isidore Okpewho, who would eventually supervise mine as well. One day Nduka had invited me to a place he called Prof’s joint near the Institute for African Studies building. At first, I thought it was a visit with a professor who had no qualms toking with his adult students. It turned out to be a bar where the finest and most potent palm-wine was served by an ever-cheerful manager to a group of young intellectuals and artists pontificating on both the sublime and the profane. It was there I met Harry, in the company of a few young poets and scholars such as Sanya Osha and Chiedu Ezeanah. Some had graduated from UI by this time, but they regularly made the pilgrimage back to campus

There was a breeziness to Harry, a smile, shy-like, that danced on his face. For all the interweaving jibes and one jocular voice rising above another, he had his turns holding the floor without raising his voice. He listened keenly, seeming bemused, but with eyes squarely focused on his interlocutor. And when he spoke, you quickly realized, startled even, that he had been listening intently and thinking through the winding thoughtscapes of that conversion.

Those were heady days at UI. Poetry Club, of which I heard he was one of the founders, was blooming. Club members took turns reading either their works or that of others. Sense was good, but sound was better, as each reading was accentuated with a performance flair. Harry was a Lecturer then and attended those Thursday evening affairs religiously. It was not long after Afam Akeh, one of the vibrant voices in that “jocund company,” had just published his first collection of poems, Stolen Moments, a volume that had subsections with titles such as, “Four Gender Poems,” “To the Women I have Loved,” and “Words.” Also, at that time, Harry had edited a volume under the auspices of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), titled Voices From the Fringe, an anthology featuring young and upcoming Nigerian writers. Six years earlier, he had published his first book of poetry, Shadow and Dream & Other Poems, which had established him as an important voice in the waning days of 20th Century Nigerian letters, offering a fresh poetic sensibility different from the stuffy pretensions of some of his literary forebears. If in the recent past, Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike—the self-styled “Bolekaja Critics”—had ridiculed what they identified as the Euro-American pretentiousness of the Ibadan School of poetry of old, this new breed of writers were as keen about their politics as they were sworn to the eclecticism of their passions and poetic demons forged in the cauldrons of “Austerity measures” and military dictatorship. (See Otiono’s chapter, “Beyond Genre: Lyrics, Literature, and the Influence of Bob Dylan’s Transgressive Creative Imagination,” in the recent anthology he co-edited with Josh Toth, Polyvocal Bob Dylan: Music, Performance, Literature, for an examination of some of the eclectic sources of influence for Harry’s generation of poets.)

As accomplished as Harry was in poetry, he was unarguably also a most insightful literary critic. He read widely and voraciously. But it’s fair to say that he was deeply interested in drama and theatre and in Black Diaspora studies. I remember the number of times I’d meet him holding his precious copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a novel that Morrison had published in 1987.  Seth’s daughter, Beloved, as an abiku intrigued him deeply. As his days in the academia lengthened, the more he thought about African knowledge production against the backdrop of colonialism, discourses of power and marginality, apartheid, and higher education in Africa. UI would soon prove too stultifying a space for his intellectual sensibility. So, to University of Zululand, South Africa, he went. Then to University of Cape Town.

Our paths would cross once more. In June 2012 I was headed to University of Venda, South Africa, for the biennial conference of the International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa (ISOLA). But before heading up north on that trip, I had been invited by Professor Chuma Himonga, Warden of the all Africa House at University of Cape Town, to give a lecture on African culture in a global space. In the course of our exchange, I learnt that Harry was still at UCT; so, I called on him, both for old times’ sake and to pick his brain on what specific angle would resonate with my South African audience. Our conversation was unhurried and yet straight to the point. It may well have been because it was an international call, but at the end, we ended on music. The talk, “Auto-tune: African Cultural ‘Authenticity’ in a Global Age,” tried to connect Kanye West’s 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak,with new cultural formations in Africa that were based on consumerist attitudes and global hybridization. 808s & Heartbreak’s most prominent musical feature is West’s wholesale use of the auto-tune for vocalizations. By 2012, the brand of pop music being produced in Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal featuring a blend of West African highlife, American rap, and Euro techno had taken flight across African Diaspora communities. Later to be identified, incorrectly, as “Afrobeats,” the catchy, up-tempo music relies on a generous use of auto-tune processors for the vocals. I was identifying an African definition of its place in the world through an unabashed embrace of global trends as part of its own definition of its cultural identity.

After the talk on campus, Harry and I retired to a pub nearby for libations, and the long walk down UI’s memory lane began. But inevitably, we veered to the trouble with Nigeria, with Africa, with South Africa. He had lived in South Africa long enough to feel the pressure points. He had traveled to the West and seen the different sets of challenges there. But he had also grown to appreciate the ambiguities of geo-political spaces. This was a much mellower Harry, contemplating the business of the profession at midlife. He had had big bites of opportunities in teaching, research, and administration. He didn’t talk much about family. You met Harry, and the fullness of his genial personality stopped you from wanting to ask for more of him.

Now he is emptied of this world, succumbing to the cancerous ravage of his body. Night has come for a friend, his prodigious mind now shuttered. Let his words echo through time, alive in our hearts. Harry, have the last word:

Night

grief grips us all
clouds wrangle in the skies
the rain weary of its showers
moans in the slums and
darkness feeds on every face

 

in the silence of the soul
echoes the voice of a lost dream

 

a wasted rain, a wasted land…

 

(From “Three Moods, One Sunday)

 

Pix Credit: The Guardian

Chiji Akọma is Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Literatures, and Chair of the Department of Global Interdisciplinary Studies at Villanova University, US.

 

 

 

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