Harry Garuba’s genius is incontestable. And as the news of his death continue to send shock waves across the globe, this great African scholar, poet and literary critic will be buried on 24 April, 2020 in Cape Town South Africa, where he lived and taught as a dedicated university lecturer before his demise.
An intriguing thing about this great man of letters, who passed on after a protracted illness, just about a month to his 62nd birthday, is that he will be buried barely two weeks after his first posthumous birthday. Garuba, who was born on 8 April, 1958 in Akure, South-West Nigeria, transited on Friday, 28 February 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa. He was married to Zazi, a South African and they had two children, Ruona and Zukina.
Still, there has been no end to the tributes and accolades that the greatness of his humility, scholarship and intellect continue to elicit from friends, associates and colleagues across the globe. Of, course, this is not coming as a surprise, given his rich, scholarly oeuvre, his ingenious creative works, the invaluable role he played mentoring writers and scholars and the greatness of his modesty and self-effacement as well as his deep infectious smiles that are reassuring and speak volumes. The University of Cape Town, where he taught in the English Department and African Studies Unit before his death, released an official statement, in which it lauded Garuba as ‘a masterful writer and poet’, ‘a luminary in the field of African literature and a champion of postcolonial theory and postcolonial literature’.
The university authorities reiterated the invaluable role Garuba had played not just in developing the UCT Centre for African Studies as a hub for research on the African continent, he was committed to developed thinking about what a decolonized curriculum would look like in Africa and the global south and what a multicultural curriculum would look like in the West. It also made reference to his intellection and commitment to students’ intellectual development and progress, a trait which everyone who passed through him at the Universities of Ibadan and Cape Town attests to.
“Professor Garuba was committed to teaching students to be analytical, to question, to engage, to ask difficult questions and to use their imagination in solving real-world problems. During his tenure as director of the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics and acting dean of the faculty, he was a strong leader who displayed wisdom and empathy and will be remembered for his warm personality and commitment to a truly transformed university centred around its African identity,” the statement reads.
Acting Vice-Chancellor of the university, Acting Professor Lis Lange, described Garuba as ‘a genuine person who dedicated his time to moving the university forward and supporting his students’. “Garuba’s scholarship was driven by a deep dedication to his students and to decolonizing the study of Africa … His passing is a great loss to the university and the transformation project, but we must continue this important work in his absence and build on the foundation he has left,” she said.
Jennifer Malec, Editor, Johannesburg Review of Books, who Garuba once taught African literature and philosophy during her MA at University of Cape Town, described him as an extremely kind, gentle man, with a wicked sense of humour and an extraordinary mind. “One of my earliest memories of Harry is when he failed almost our entire MA group for our first essay. We were all fairly shocked, because he was such a genial guy. Looking back I could see the funny side; I’m pretty sure he was trying to shock us out of our comfort zone. And it worked. He was a wonderful teacher and most of us ended up excelling in his class. He will be greatly missed,” she recalled
Professor Remi Raji, poet, scholar and former Dean of Arts, University of Ibadan, who Garuba taught at UI and supervised his doctoral thesis, described him as not only precocious and a compendium of knowledge but also raised in the best of the literary traditions, under Michael Echeruo, D.S. Izevbaye, Sam Omo Asein, Isidore Okpewho, Chiwenye Ogunyemi, Molara Ogundipe and Abiola Irele .
“In thirty-nine years of special connection, Harry G was my tutorial master, teacher, friend and supervisor, brother, confidante and mentor; he was my grants advisor, my phenomenal sparring partner; and he was a good man, the undisputable prince and bridgehead of (Nigerian) letters. He wore the garland of excellence comfortably and was generous to a fault. He was a truly talented poet who endorsed others while he sought little recognition for himself.
“Your legacy is assured. Apart from being a major voice and influence in the making of third generation Nigerian literature, you bequeathed the term ‘animist realism’ to readings of African literature and theory, an alternative critique of magical realism. You were the master of critical methods and theoretical procedures,” he averred.
Raji also said the late erudite scholar and creative had a weakness of virtue. “Harry G, you had a weakness, and it was the weakness of virtue: you could not think of hurting a fly or taking the pound of flesh from those who had hurt you.”
Unearthing the past, the academic described the emotional moment when Garuba revealed he had leukemia during their last meeting in Ibadan. “The day you dropped the word, we were together in your room at the University of Ibadan Hotels some weeks after your 60th birthday. Leukaemia. You dropped the word and searched for something in my eyes. I hid a fear and drew blank. I asked if the thing was curable; Carl Ikeme survived the horror, I said; you were a brave man, soft outwardly but made of steel inside. You sounded so positive about the treatment that we relegated the mortal matter to discussions on your favourite subjects, the edifying nature and the immortality of art. We had the choicest of wine till the lean hours of the morning. You asked me to keep faith, that you would fight it, and I should not weaken the resolve by telling anyone or worrying,” Raji reminisced.
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, journalist, poet and playwright, while reacting to Garuba’s demise described him as the finest of minds. “Your generosity of intelligence remains unmatched, and all I can do for now, amid my tears, is sing a line of Kofi Awoonor’s ‘Song of Sorrow.’ ‘Death has made war upon our house,’”
Amatoritsero Ede, poet, and scholar also said Garuba, who led the Thursday group of poets at the University of Ibadan, was at the bridgehead of a new wave of Nigerian literary culture and scholarship. “For over 30 years, he sponsored, mentored, taught, supported and befriended that new generation of academics and writers. Always self-effacing, he never took or sought credit for his intellectual, financial, and moral generosity, a palpable example of which was the 1987 poetry anthology, Voices from the Fringe, which he organized and edited.
“One of the greatest souls I had the good fortune of having lived with, eaten with, drank with and laughed with since 1986. He was teacher, mentor, friend and confidant to many scholars who are themselves now legends,” Ede said.
Gaontebale Nodoba, Garuba’s colleague at the University of Cape Town, while reacting to his death said “the big tree has fallen … This was a man of all season, a mentor, a role model, a teacher, a source of knowledge, a selfless man, a true African elder, one of our finest intellectuals, scholar, prolific writer and researcher par excellence.”