Famous British-Nigerian scholar is no more
The Prof Who Loved Ijaw Language
By Maximus Uba
The great writer, Ernest CheGuvera, once described death as a frequent occurrence whose time one cannot determine accurately. Besides CheGuvera, a noted philosopher once stated that even though man is the highest being on the face of the earth yet he is a slave o the invisible monster called death. And just like these noted writers commented, the almighty death paid an unscheduled visit to one of the world’s most famous linguists snatching away what many describe as one the most precious jewels that put her life on line for the development of languages in Nigeria.
Prof Kay Williamson, erudite professor of linguistics at the University of Port Harcourt, succumbed to the cold hands of death at her Choba home penultimate week after a brief illness. A Briton by birth, “Prof Kay”, as we all called her arrived Nigeria shortly after the civil war. Her first port of academic call was at the University of Ibadan Nigeria, where she expanded and reformed the teaching of Nigerian languages. With the establishment of the University of Port Harcourt in 1977, Kay was among the few U. I. staff that volunteered to nurture the new university of Port Harcourt that had affiliation to the University of Ibadan.
Her mission was not to teach Foreign languages but to nuture and develop at least one of the myriads of local language existing in the Niger Delta. The university of Port Harcourt therefore provided a veritable platform to achieve a long wished ambition. Arriving Port Harcourt, he met the likes of Nolue Emenanjo, Nnolim, Okafor, who together gave birth to what is now referred to as the most verile faculty of Humanities in Nigerian education history. Prof Williamson was not done yet; she then put together the first department of a real African language not just to teach Nigerian major languages of Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba but Ijaw spoken by at least two third of the Niger Delta.
To the envy of scholars and indigenes of the then Rivers State, Kay began the exposition and development of Ijaw language, almost putting down a complete volume of Ijaw Dictionary. I once asked her after a lecture, one hot afternoon, why she preferred Ijaw language. Her answer was short and simple: “If you go the library you will see so many works on the three Nigerian languages, Ijaw you know is the fourth most spoken language in Nigeria even though at a rural setting but somebody must develop it, that is what I am doing. I love the challenges”.
Now familiar with her, I requested to visit her library and I was obliged even as I wasn’t a student in the department of linguistics. There I saw books in quantities I have never seen in one single collection. When prodded on why so many books instead of latest designer dresses, she said: “Those things called designer shoes and bags are perishable. I would rather spend my money on nonperishable things and books happen to be my choice”. After my graduation in the mid 80s our paths never crossed again as I rarely visited Port Harcourt after my convocation except during the trial of Mr. Ken Saro Wiwa sometime in 1994. Even at that, the location of the University in Choba town is kilometers away from the city.
It was therefore with stricken heart that I learnt of the death of the erudite Professor. I then put a call to Dr E.S Akama, my former lecturer for confirmation but couldn’t get through. It was only when I saw the obituary announcement placed by Bayelsa State government in one of the national dailies and signed by Oronto Douglas, now Commissioner for Information, Bayelsa State, that it dawned on me that indeed our own Professor Kay William had joined the saints triumphant by bowing to nature’s call and submitting herself to the harsh realities of death and judgement of the almighty. Many including this writer and other students who passed through the Faculty of Humanities (Abuja) can conveniently attest that even that even though Kay is dead, she lived a fulfilled life full of legacies which few can equate.
Said Mr Chidi Abraham: “Death remains the lot of all mortals but the difference between Kay’s death and others lies in legacies left behind by this Briton who professed African, imbibed Nigeria and celebrated Ijaw nationhood. It is by such yardsticks that people like Kay are given a pride of place in the mindset of the living”.
Another ex-unique, Lawrence Nworu, put it more philosophically. “Many die unsung, simply because their whole existence is mired in controversies and resentful acts that could attract puke as soon as their names are mentioned. But our own Prof Kay was a epitome of simplicity, industry, candour, humility love and respectability. We will miss her. Adieu Kay till we meet on the Resurrection Day.”
Last week, a few friends, officials of Bayelsa State government gathered at Kiaima, the homestead of Ijaws where Prof Kay’s remains were interred in fulfillment of her wish to be buried in Ijaw land. Prof Williamson was widely published and did far more than anyone else to develop Ijaw dialects and the language. It was in recognition of this she was bestowed with the Governor’s award of Excellence in Linguistic Development by the Government of Bayelsa last year. At the time of her death, she held the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Studies at the University of Port Harcourt
Suffice it to say that as we the living continue to mourn this selfless woman who opted for calling in Africa considered risky and less financially rewarding at the time, those of us who knew her personally may find the sober song of Adieu too grave, in fact too cold to sing for a woman who committed her entire energy, time and resources to develop not only young minds in Nigeria but the rare feat of putting an obscure language of Ijaw in the world map of prominent languages. Adieu great scholar, adieu the teacher of our time, Adieu Kay Willamson, we shall surely meet on the other side of the divide where I know you will remain a reference point for the worthy souls. Adieu my Prof Kay. May your gentle soul rest in peace and in the bosom of the Lord.
•Uba, an alumnus of University of Port Harcourt, lives in Imo State.
Good Night, Mama Kay
By Edem Vindah
In 1988, Professor Kay Williamson was asked by NTA Port Harcourt during an interview about her marital status. Her reply was simple and sharp: “I am married to Linguistics.” The interviewer and her viewers were surprised. To them, it was incomprehensible for a full-grown woman, well advanced in age and radiating warmth and excitement to live without a family of her own. To Mama Kay (as she was fondly called by her students) and those who have passed through her tutelage, this colossus of a woman was not only married to Linguistics (The scientific study of languages) but, to Nigeria in words and deeds.
Originally a British citizen, Professor Williamson took up Nigerian citizenship and ended up being adored by many ethnic nationalities. The Ijaws of Bayelsa state honoured her for helping to develop their dialect and language while other nationalities respected her for her pioneering efforts in developing other Nigerian languages. Professor Emmanuel Nwanolue
Emananjo, one Nigeria’s foremost linguistic scholars and one of mama Kay’s first students in Nigeria, once described her as a self effacing but meticulous woman with a large heart. According to the erudite professor, it was under Professor Williamson that he learnt the rudiments of Igbo, his own language.
Mama Kay was a nationalist whose works and deeds were eloquent testimonies. Her works also gave expressions to Nigeria’s yearnings for unity.
From another of her works, The Pedigree of Nations, She said from the study of historical linguistics, we learn that the enormous complexity of Nigeria’s languages has developed from a small number of original proto-languages, and thus that below the surface differences lie old and deep-seated similarities, which point to common origins. Even where the different language families cannot be shown, at present to have a common origin, as with Chadic and Niger-Congo, thousands of years of interaction have resulted in widespread borrowing and language shift, both of which show evidence of mutual accommodation. Thus it is not recently, but for millennia, that Nigerians and their ancestors have been working out the theme of Unity in Diversity?
She was at home Nigerian delicacies and it would be surprising seeing her savouring eba and egusi soup.To her students, Mama Kay was fun to be with as she affected everyone around with her intellect.It was from her we imbibed the culture of cherishing our books as a possession. Books, according to her were a treasure which must be handled with utmost care. A mere mishandling of the books or any book whatsoever in her presence could earn one a query.
Adieu, Mama Kay.
•Vindah lives in Lagos