Anthony Agbali, Celebrating the Memories of and Unknown but Known: Professor Kay Williamson
In the 1950s and 1960s many Europeans and Americans headed to help Nigerian tertiary institutions. Among them is Kay Williamson who died recently, and whose death seemed diluted within the ululation of the Pope's death. However, she stand towering among the British and Americans, as well as nationals of Western nations who went to Nigeria to contribute to the academic development of tertiary institutions. Her name reflects a towering personality, and her luminary image is one that I can only but imagine, as in spite of my attempts in July 2000 to, I never had the chance to meet her.
In July I visited Nigeria, and following my decision to study the Ogoni Social Movement, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) specifically, and its counteropposed movements, for my dissertation. Since the arena was considered volatile, I consulted widely. But, I trusted that my friend, Linus Kpalap, an Ogoni man, and a Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Society of St. Paul (MSP), who was studying in Austria, and with whom prior to his travel to Austria, we were thinking about jointly doing a book project on the Nigerian minorities, would give me an informed opinion, and even tell me if my dissertation was do-able. Yes, he was a son of Bodo, a city whose militancy stretch into the Catholic Church, when around 1990, the doors of their Catholic Church was shut against its priest, causing enormous confusion, division, and friction. He was also fierceless and grounded in his ethnic identity, thus when he gave me the name of Professor Kay Williamson as "must see" I thought this was a significant person to see. He had warned me that Professor Kay Williamson, the distinguished linguist of the Niger Delta, was a workaholic, and would be difficult to catch. Well, I forgot this later remark when I went to the University in search of this erudite and restless woman of note.
Thus, on arriving Nigeria I decided to visit Port Harcourt so as to urgently begin some preliminary work, especially build rapport and seek information. This as it would be was my first trip to this City called "The Garden City" and the oil capital of Nigeria, which I imagined to be very beautiful. An expectation that was barely or not met at all, but I blame my imagination rather the reality of what I saw. Uncompleted and narrow roads, unplanned buildings, filled and overflowing drainages that made swamp of most areas, were for me eye sores. Yet, I found Port Harcourt bustling with life and activities. Yes, it was not surprising that Nigerians are termed the most happiest creatures on the face of the planet, even in the midst of decay they hold their own, and life goes on.
Prior to my trip to Port Harcourt, I met a priest, Fr. Joseph Abah, from my home diocese of Idah, Nigeria, during the ordination ceremonies of three Catholic priests. He resided in Port Harcourt and was the Registrar at the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA), when I discussed about my intended trip to Port Harcourt, he was elated to have me, offering me free room and board for the duration of my stay. He also offered to help by connecting me with the Center of Advanced Social Studies (CASS), founded by the late Professor Claude Ake, who died in a plane crash, whose circumstances are considered in some quarters as suspicious. As it is in Nigeria, it does not entail a phone call prior to setting off, of course, phone services can sometimes be a rarity. Also, as it so happened my priest colleague-host- did not have a phone at home but in his office, without voice mail or answering service/machine, therefore, if I had needed to call I would have to try and then when someone is in the office, or the phone is working properly. So, few days after our meeting and conversations I set off for Port Harcourt, thanks to my Moms generosity in allowing me to use her "Tokunbo" (used car) Mercerdes 200 car during my trip. The next headache was the fueling, since there was gas scarcity at the time, and the price was very exorbirant. Not minding that, I set out for Port Harcourt, and as God will have it, I found gas all throughout my trip.
When I arrived Port Harcourt, I missed my way driving through the city road that seemed too narrow, congested, and polluted, still wondering whether this was the city I had always dreamed and imagined. Well, stopping at local Catholic Parish someone helped to redirect me toward the route I had just come from. I was able to locate my priest colleague who welcomed me warmly. We talked that night, ate, and drank, and it was such a wonderful experience. In the morning having told him my intentions he took me to the Center for Advance Social Studies (CASS) .
Then upon our return while he headed for his office, I made for the University of Port Harcourt, Choba in search of the renowned Professor Kay Williamson. On reaching the University, I headed straight in search of her, but I was told she was home. I meet her secretary, and others who said, "she just left here." After waiting, I decided to go to the History department in search of an Ogoni historian Sonpie Kpone-Tonwe, whose piece "Property Reckoning and Methods of Accumulating Wealth among the Ogoni of the Eastern Niger Delta," I had read in Africa- Volume 67 # 1 (1997), and who also chronicled Ogoni history fand defended his dissertation on the same topic in 1990. In the interim I returned to the linguist department, which was around the same are with the history department, but Professor Williamson was not yet back, it was assumed that she was home. I then decided to go in search of her at the Choba residence. But before then, I managed, following on the offer from the secretary of the Ogoni historian as to whether I would like to make copies of his dissertation, I answered in the affirmative and thus was able to secure the rights to make photocopies of the dissertation. I have been wondering about the ethics of this thereafter, but at the time, it made sense to me to have something upon which I could rummage about the Ogoni history. Historical materials on the Ogoni was scant, whereas the rumbles of the MOSOP movement towered Ogoni consciousness in Nigerian and globally. Therefore, the offer was then perceived as an opportunity to have something concrete to use in understanding the Ogoni.
Thus, I made for Choba meandering through the staff quarters. I went to her house and knocked but no one answered. I decided to park my car and then sat on its hood (bonnet as we know it in Nigeria) awaiting Professor Kay Williamson. Then I realized that I was being watched, and later someone came out wondering why I was hanging around. Of course, I learnt that sometimes hired assasins and robbers lurk around that way for their target. The person who came out invited me to his sparse living room, I was wondering if the name and the scene correlated, except for the arrays of books the room's furnishing was below my expectation. He lived adjacent to Professor Williamson's house. This person was the indefatigible scholar, Professor Robin Horton. He inquired about my mission, and I introduced myself and told him about my mission. He was very cordial and we engaged in a long talk. He told me about how Professor Williamson and himself left Ibadan for Port Harcourt when the University opened. He told me about his own intellectual and academic journey from Britain to Nigeria, at Ife, Ibadan, and now Port Harcourt, where if I am not mistaken, he was then a Professor emeritus, and from his humble beginnings in Social Psychology at Cambridge to the field of religious studies.
As I write I think about the impact of Professor Williamson's death on his fellow national and neighbor, Professor Horton.
We dialogued at length, and when he was becoming too boring I diverted to his daughter who had just got a new compaq computer and was fiddling with it, as she did not know how to operate. It gave me an excuse to discuss with her the basics. Now, Professor Horton was talkative, but I regreted the improtu nature of his talk as he covered a lot of area of oral history that would be of interest to either an anthropologist or historian. Anyway, he was interested in my work though intrigued with the idea that a priest would be allowed to venture outside of the traditional fields of philosophy and theology to go so far afield. However, he noted he would inform Professor Kay Williamson about my trip. I left his house and headed for Professor Kpone-Tonwe's residence, whom I was able to see and talked briefly as we stood in front of his house, discussing my interest, and also expressing my desire for his help. After, that I went also to Dr. Ben Nanem, the renowned first secretary of MOSOP and refined academic and personality, who was very happy about my project and was willing to help me.
I returned again about two weeks later but still missed Professor Williamson, as she was noted to have travelled out. Well, I did not even meet my good friend, Professor Horton this time around. Therefore, though, I did not have the opportunity of meeting Professor Williamson in this life, I met her somewhere spiritual in the people, narratives, and stories of those who knew her and worked with her. This trip was indelible in encrypting her into my memory. In reality, in all the stories, I was told, she was depicted as an ebulient, hardworking, selfless, dedicated, and fascinating academic, who loved her work on the cultures and languages of the Niger Delta, considered reverentially as a veritable authority in her field, and about this area. She is supposed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge about most of the Niger Delta peoples and cultures. She was a genius of the Niger Delta, a phenomenon, somewhat like Suzanne Warner of The Priestess of Oshun at Oshogbo, Nigeria. I can only acknowledge another such linguist expartiate, the late American Robert Armstrong, but enculturated Nigeria, who was a titled Chief of the Idoma -the Odejo of Idomaland, whose study of the Yoruba, Igala, Yala, and Idoma was permeatively alluring and profound.
Unfortunately, due to a combination of factors, I have put my Ogoni project to siesta sleep for now, and embarking on something else. But the memories of my two trips in search of Professor Kay Williamson remain very veldish, and I would miss her input whenever, I decide to pursue the Niger Delta project again. See, what time can do! Now, I have lost a great mind but I know her memories and contributions are never lost, they live immortally dressed in the minds of those who remember, those she touched, and impact. In some sense, I am happy to have made that trip, though never opportuned to have met this great and endearing soul and soulful personality. I am glad, that it, made me come to know Professor Williamson, in a way I would never have imagined, through the rich narratives and pictures depicted of her, especially from my friend, Rev. Fr. Linus Kpalap and Professor Robin Horton.
Now, what lessons can the lives of the likes of the late Professor Williamson teach us. It is that in the spirit of humanity and selfless generosity of their lives, in their mission they enriched the human society, ones other than the society of their origin. They were received and accepted by the people of Nigeria, sometimes even given traditional chieftaincy titles of the ethnic groups they mainly focused upon. They operated in a deracinated environment. Today, many Nigerian academics and intellectuals are following such part in this globalized and globalizing world with its politics of racination and deracinated integration, struggle for relevance along the parameter of the identifying markers of the color line, and others have not always provided a conducive environment for these African emigre intellectuals. But they often continue to struggle, imprinting their legacies and marks, and stamping their presence on the American and European academic and spatial landscape. As we look forward to the future, many of these may never ever return to the land of their birth, but whether they would be recognized and integrated as the likes of Professors Williamson and Horton, were in Nigeria, is still a conudrum that the stretch of the future would help provide an answer.
In memory of Professor Williamson, and others like her who laid a solid foundation of cultural studies that bother on ethnic identities, cultural revitalization, and provided templates and almost uniquely textual archives by which these people could find themselves positively, sometimes negatively. However, such efforts and mission provide a building block or a pedestal for the articulation of their intellectual self-cognition, and through such means ensure cultural preservation, engender discourses and texts, whose work mediate their society, and in some sense actually validate and crown the efforts of these earlier pioneers, who are reverred and immortalized in the consciousness of those they helped nurture. Therefore, it is my prayer that Professor Williamson will find eternal rest and that her works and efforts will continue to add spice to the Nigerian reality, especially in delineating the linguistic and socio-cultural patterns of the complex societies of the Nigerian Niger Delta area.
As I think about Professor Williamson eternal homegoing, I think about the different scholars in different fields many of whom have returned to their aboriginal homelands, after some brief spell in Nigeria. These are folks such as Simon Ottenberg, James Coleman, J.S. Boston, Peter Llyod, Richard Skylar, Robin Horton, and many others whose contribution to the understanding of different ethnic groups in Nigeria remain vitally significant for present and future scholarship. You live on in your pedigree, the generations of Nigerian scholars who have taken the torch of scholarship from your hands, and keep in illumining it. Now, too, they too are bringing their own uniqueness and cultural identity to bear on Western society. What a world!!! Time changes the meaning of many things. Thus, the Romans say that "time flies but people remain." Yes, they remain somewhat whether alive or dead in the imagination of those who hold them dear.