Tributes to Isidore Okpewho by ALA Members

Home is where you mend the roof: A Tribute to Isidore Okpewho

I had travelled on Black Monday from Limbe to Yaounde for my doctoral oral dissertation examination and Professor Isidore Okpewho had travelled from Ibadan to Yaounde to serve as the external examiner on the jury for the exam being held at the Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences). Ruth Finnegan’s Oral Literature in Africa (1970) and Isidore Okpewho’s The Epic in Africa (1979) were two foundational texts I had used for my field work and scholarly research on Beba Folktales. I had devoured every word of these two books. I walked down the steps of the amphitheater, made my way to the seat reserved for the candidate; the seat where the candidate sat and looked up at the men sitting on the stage; the men who would grill you for the next few hours! There he was, the man whose words I had read over and over. To my great surprise, he smiled, greeted me and was very cordial. Thus began my personal and professional relationship with Professor Isidore Okpewho. At the end of my exam in that amphitheater in Yaounde, I never thought we would cross paths again. We did. We both ended up at universities in America where as president of ISOLA (International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa) he recommended I join the association; where the agony of immigrant life pushed me to retell those folktales my family, and especially my mother, had passed down to her children. When I finished the book, my publisher reached out to Professor Okpewho and he wrote a Foreword to The Sacred Door and Other Stories: Cameroon Folktales of the Beba.

This to say what a kind and giving human being this encyclopedia of African (oral) literature was/is. He was a scholar-intellectual who generously nurtured many with his writings, his unpretentious bearing and genuine optimism for Africa’s place in the (literary) world. It is difficult to express what we have lost with his transition. When he read my book, Professor Okpewho understood how much I struggled with negotiating my being in America and my sense of belonging with the Beba/Cameroon. Here’s what he wrote at the end of his Foreword: “Makuchi may lament, as she does in her preface, that leaving her native Beba home in Cameroon has removed her from the warm, familial environment in which the tales in her collection were originally told, or that she has not succeeded in recreating with her children the traditional context of cultural education in which she was raised. But she is bringing that education to a larger, universal audience that includes her children here in North America who, in time, will come to recognize that—to paraphrase an old Igbo (Nigerian) proverb—‘Where you mend the roof, there is your home’.” Thank you, Professor Okpewho. These words brought me more peace than you could have imagined. They have contributed to my success as an African-woman-academic in America.

Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi, North Carolina State University

In Honor of Professor Isidore Okpewho I would like to thank him for the book Call Me by My Rightful Name that I bought at the ALA 31st Conference in Denver, Colorado in April, 2005. I still have the book. It is too priceless to lend to anyone. I will treasure it.

The book opened my eyes and unlocked a lot of things that I had refused to accept about myself. I had to travel all the way to America to understand myself as an African and reincarnations.
Farewell Professor Isidore Okpewho. Thank you.

Virginia Phiri, Harare, Zimbabwe. 7 September, 2016.

You stood on the tides
Even when there was blood on the tides
From humanity victims
Because you had to perform your last duty
At seventyfour your menopause still
As your creative sun stood still
May the ancestors welcome you with twentyone cannons
The Oracle's mouthpiece
I salute you!

Jonas Akung

Professor Isidore Okpewho—In Memoriam

I have fond memories of Professor Isidore Okpewho: brilliant, humble, energetic, organised and personable. He was my lecturer in the 1970s, undergraduate and postgraduate, in the Department of English, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. Okpewho’s dossier as an outstanding academic already in oral circulation among returning undergraduates prepared the freshman/woman somewhat for a predictably impressive first encounter in class with the erudite scholar; and for some of his students it would have been a first experience with his preferred style of teaching. You were struck as a student by the scintillating wit and fluent delivery of his courses from memory without visible mnemonic aid; inevitably occasionally the extent of reliability of the human memory would come up for mention in class because of his interest and research in oral literature that included the extraordinary capabilities of the griot of African oral traditions and his academic background in Classics that included classical poetic legacy of epic proportions. Like the seasoned African griot and the famed Homeric bard, Okpewho’s power of recall of information was excellent. Once in an oral literature masters class Okpewho disclosed he had made an error in a point he taught in the previous lecture of the course; he set about correcting the mistake before proceeding with the day’s teaching. It was for a surprised admiring class an unmistakable lesson in humility and confidence as well as fidelity to excellence. Already a published author, his creative writing courses which he taught were exciting. Okpewho encouraged his students to write longer works of creativity some of whose publication in the then newly started Longman Drumbeat Series he supportively facilitated. His energy and industry were in evidence whenever you went to see him in his office and you found him at his desk either reading or writing and working on his next book; or after hours you chanced by the lawn tennis court right behind the Faculty of Arts building which housed his office and he was there on court nimbly moving and swinging the tennis racquet in play. He radiated self-confidence and optimism at play and at work. He was patently an organised person and loyal: when he visited Ogun State University, Ago-Iwoye, Nigeria, as an external examiner in English in the late 1980s, in private discussions he referred to his wife and children affectionately in connection with how it hurt him that he was having to decide to leave University of Ibadan and the country. Personable, thoughtful, jovial, not prone to flippancy, in a chance meeting during a brief visit to Gaborone, Botswana, in 1995 (he from USA, I from Swaziland) he mentioned that he was looking for a present to take back to his wife different from a gold item he had given her on another visit to some place. You could tell he was never so busy academically to neglect his family. A Titan of academia and the literary world has gone the way of all flesh: Professor Isidore Okpewho remains a shining star in the firmament of durable intellectual and literary legacies through his many seminal academic publications and the creative works as well as his positive influence on several of his students.

Lekan Oyegoke

The Last Breed: A Tribute to Professor Isidore Okpewho

Like many ALA members, both of us were shocked and deeply saddened to receive the sad news of the passing of Isidore O. Okpewho. His passing has turned the summer into a harmattan cold in the world of African letters, and the trees of the Niger Delta forest are shivering because of the fall of the giant iroko. It is therefore with heavy hearts that we write the following tribute as a reluctant note of final goodbye to our dear senior brother, friend, and mentor.

Isidore Okpewho was definitely one of the last breed of well-rounded Nigerian classists educated at the University College Ibadan, who went on to become distinguished scholars, writers, lawyers, and businessmen. So versatile a personality, he enriched not only Africa but also the whole humanity with his scholarly and creative work. He was a superb scholar of oral literature, an accomplished novelist, a dedicated teacher, and a cosmopolitan humanist. Okpewho brought pride to Africa’s traditional medium of literary expression: orature. His groundbreaking publications on African orality include The Epic in Africa (1979), Myth in Africa (1983), African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (1992), Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (1998), and Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology (2014). Especially with the first two books mentioned here, Okpewho no doubt redefined and reshaped the direction of the study of African orality, the field that had until his arrival on the scene in the late 1970s largely been dominated by Western scholars like William Bascom, Melville Herskovits, Gordon Innes, and Ruth Finnegan. Moving beyond the evolutionist and functionalist approaches of the old, colonial school, he led the way into a deep, critical study of the aesthetics of African oral poetry, tales, and performance. That decolonial approach to oral literature was the focus of the conference that Okpewho convened at the University of Ibadan in 1981, which resulted in a collection of essays that he edited under the title of Oral Performance in Africa (1983). The interdisciplinarity of his work is breathtaking. As an acknowledgement of his immense contribution to the field, Okpewho was honored by his colleagues who elected him President of the International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa (ISOLA).

Another aspect of his contribution to the study of African literature, which has not received much attention, is his focus on the foundational, organic link between oral literature and its written counterpart. In an insightful critical introduction to his poetry anthology, The Heritage of African Poetry (1985), Okpewho used oral and modern poetry from West, East, Central, and Southern Africa to foreground this link. As a novelist, he also drew a lot on the artistic resources of orality for his narrative techniques and character depiction even when he dealt with contemporary themes like the Nigerian civil war (The Last Duty), domestic conflicts (The Victims), environmental pollution and lack of public accountability in the Niger Delta (Tides), and transnational identity negotiations by diasporic subjects (Call Me by My Rightful Name). For his innovative narrative style, Okpewho received several literary awards, including the prestigious Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, and the ALA Fonlon-Nichols Award for Excellence in Creative Writing.

Okpewho was also a dedicated teacher who passionately brought into the classroom the breadth and depth of his encyclopedic scholarship without intimidating his students. All of us who were introduced to the study of African oral literature by Okpewho at the University of Ibadan owe him a great debt of gratitude not only for arousing our interest in the field but also for sustaining it with constant mentoring over the years. Before he fell ill in 2014, the year the ALA recognized his outstanding literary achievement with the Fonlon-Nichols Award, Okpewho attended our annual meetings regularly. As he once told Lokangaka Losambe, the ALA for him was more than a gathering of scholars. He saw it also as a family reunion forum where he met former students, colleagues, and friends.

As a senior colleague, he was most affable and maintained a wonderful rapport with everybody. He was highly cosmopolitan, even as he kept solid ties with his native homeland. Either on the phone or when Tanure Ojaide met with him, they spoke Urhobo and talked about “home.” His father was from Oria-Abraka; he was born in Agbor, raised in Asaba, and studied and taught at Ibadan before coming to the United States. As a senior brother and role model, Tanure followed in Okpewho’s influential footsteps in many ways that have led to what he is today—his udje oral poetic performance scholarship, creative writing, and literary awards.

Isidore Okpewho was, above all, a great human being, all-rounded, polished, and global. He combined effortlessly his extraordinary talents as a scholar and writer with a keen sense of modesty and dignity. As he stated in his The Epic in Africa, “the hero represents the highest ideals to which society can aspire. The hero is a good citizen who has leadership qualities and has a passion for justice, fairness, and a sense of pride in the homeland.” Okpewho was himself a great hero in our “homeland” of letters; hence his recognition with many awards including the Nigerian Order of Merit. Though we will sorely miss him, his work will surely continue to have an enduring impact on us and future generations.
Rest in peace, our Brother and Mentor! Akpo edefa! (Till the next world!)

Lokangaka Losambe, University of Vermont
Tanure Ojaide, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Isidore Okpewho: The Scholar, Writer, Gynandrist

Oke osisi ada

The gong sounded and there was a throbbing ululation as the majestic baobab (Adasonia) swayed and gracefully bowed out. Today academics all over the world are beating the drum with the resounding echoes of a most distinguished life of towering scholarship, palpable poise, quiet dignity, effervescent humility and enduring empathy for OTHERS.

So much has, indeed, been said of this defining icon of the oral literary terrain but very little has been scripted of the other side of him which reflects his tender spirit and soul. This is evidenced in his unparalleled respect and love for his adorable wife, May. I had the first glimpse of his humane and selfless proclivities when I was a PhD student at the University of Ibadan in the mid 1980’s. The Catholic Church on campus was filled to capacity on that very Sunday. The gentleman par excellence practically walked his spouse down the aisle, seated her somewhere in front of the church and walked right back. I was utterly enthralled; such chivalry is rather uncommon in these climes. This incident constituted the prelude of the interview which he granted me in the course of my PhD research. My primary sources included The Victims and The Last Duty.

He effortlessly reached out to people both in moments of laughter and pain. He exuded ample fellow-feeling which was most palpable in his leadership in the stint as Head of English Department, University of Ibadan and President, International Society for Oral Literatures of Africa (ISOLA). I was privileged to serve as ISOLA Council Member during his tenure. He added substantial colour and matter to the ISOLA conferences I attended in Banjul and Lecce, Italy.

Visibly beside this award-laden scholar, prodigious achiever, dynamic leader, thorough humanist and mentor was his boon companion and life partner, May.

Much as the celebrated and erudite Professor Okpewho has passed from the realm of the temporal, he beyond question, lives and rests in the ethereal. Besides, his legacies are firmly etched in his profound philosophies, literary productions and indelible testament.

Na n’udo!!!

Chioma Opara, Rivers State University of Science and Technology, Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Punctuated Song of Celebration In Memory of Isidore Okpewho

Oke osisi ada-a. Big tree has fallen.

He is a novelist, literary giant, teacher, author and Distinguished Professor who bestrides Africa, the African Diaspora and the globe with literary blocks and ammunitions from the African to the classical and modern worlds. SUNY Distinguished Professor of the Humanities, Isidore Okpewho retired from SUNY Binghamton where he taught literature – from Africa to the diaspora and from Classical to the Modern and Postcolonial. He also taught Creative Writing and Jazz Studies. He was the former Chair of Africana Studies, SUNY Binghamton (1991-97) and Department of English, University of Ibadan (1987-90). He won awards and honors including his 1998 Dean’s Award for Honors Teaching Excellence, SUNY Binghamton; the 1993 (British) Commonwealth Writers Prize for his novel, Tides; and his 1982 Fellowship of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as well as many others that cannot be cited in this short piece. He was a good person and family man who passed on Sunday, the 4th of September, 2016 at the age of 74.

Anyi na ebe na asi, We are crying and saying,
Na Ndo-Anyi ana-a. That Our-Shadow has left.
Anyi echefuo na, We forget that,
O nwere nyekerekpotu, It is immovable/profound,
Na ime ngborogwu nya. In the core of its roots.

The demise of my rose-tree comes to mind as I thought about a tribute to Okpewho. In 2012, an unexpected weather trouble besieged Kansas and hit the city of Wichita very badly with extended severe heat and other afflictions and allergies. My beautiful rose-tree never came back to its full beauty and after years of struggle, we dug it out in the spring of 2016. Guess what? In the summer, we noticed fresh buds coming from the spot where we removed the roots. The experience taught me and my children the “lesson of deep roots.” It will take a bulldozer to uproot the house and the yard in order to get to the deep roots and maybe never get to the deepest roots that will continue to blossom thousands of years to come.

My Rose-Tree story has bearing to but not the same as my feeling and thinking about the passing of Our Teacher and My Mentor, Isidore Okpewho. This literary giant has left his marks on Women and Gender Studies through his visionary feminist novels, The Victims (1970) and The Last Duty (1976), which appeared during a period that many men did not think of gender and many women were afraid of the term, feminism. Some of his colleagues could have smirked at how the distinguished professor was thinking feminist but his literary stature could not be ignored and therefore attracted the first attention to the works. A cursory or even skeptical look at the novels demonstrated accomplished artistry in depicting patriarchal maneuvering in war and peace. This was a unique achievement. It drew my attention to this special gentleman before he wrote other distinguished and award-winning novels such as Tides and Call me by My Rightful Name. I discovered his academic complexity particularly his works on oral literature, which intersected with my study of traditional African drama and theater. I discovered African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. I discovered other works like Myth in Africa (1983) and its forerunner, The Epic in Africa (1979) as well as Once Upon a Kingdom and numerous essays. Through these works, I discovered Isidore Okpewho, the multi-award-winning Distinguished Professor of the Humanities.

Eminent people have immortalized their images and contributions and they live thousands of years after their departure from this living world. So it will be with Isidore Okpewho. His pioneering works on Gender and African Oral Literature will be studied, criticized, acclaimed and reframed forever and his smiling face will continue to grace many books, internet sites and especially the hearts and minds that he touched. What an amazing legacy.

Isidore Okpewho, Isidore Okpewho,
Na-a na udo. Depart in peace.
Ndi ichie na eche gi. The forebears await your return.
Igba na ada si ike, The drum is roaring strongly,
Ka anyi na ebe na asi, As we cry and sing,
“Dikwa ka anyi si mara gi, “Remain as we know you,
Mgbe I biara uwa nke-a ozo”. When you come to this world again”.
Ise, is, ise. So be it, so be it, so be it.

Chinyere G. Okafor, Wichita State University

Isidore Okpewho: An Intellectual Giant in a League of his Own

I do not recall exactly when or where we ran into each other the first time. But I will never forget my first impression of Isidore when I stood face to face with him the first time. It was like standing before the legendary Ozzimandeese and hearing him say to me in a booming voice: “Look on me and despair!” I stood staring at him and the only thing I could say was: “How come your head is square?” He laughed and said: “Stupid girl. How come you are so small? What is your name?” “Phanuel, but everyone calls me Fanny,” I answered. “I know one Fanny Hill,” he said. I looked at his name tag and asked: “What kind of name is Okpewho? I stressed WHO as in “Who are you?” “Crazy girl, it is OKPE-WO! He said phonetically. “WO” as in “Woe unto you brood of vipers!” I just bent double laughing. However, one encounter that sticks out the most for me, happened in Dakar Senegal. I was talking to a white colleague and when I saw Isidore, I called out: “Square Head!” and rushed over to greet him. He said: “I can see that you are cavorting with your white husband. And don’t call me “Square Head” to the hearing of those beasts! Bush girl, don’t you know the meaning of respect? You are sending the wrong message to those wild animals.” That is the man I remember -- Intimidating, blunt to a fault, an astoundingly overweening individual. Yet, it was delightful to be in his presence. It was a benefaction to have had him as an acquaintance, to have lived in the same era as he did. I will forever be very proud to say: “I knew Isidore Okpewho.” It is true that the term “Intellectual Giant” has been overused and abused, but Isidore belonged and remained in that “NOTORIOUSLY SNOBISH AND EXCLUSIVE CLUB.”

May Isidore Okpewho rest peacefully in the loving embrace of his Maker and his Chi.

Fondly remembered and cherished by: Phanuel Akubueze Egejuru, Retired Professor of Modern Languages, Loyola University New Orleans-USA.

Memories of Isidore Okpewho

I remember first getting to know Isidore at the ALA meeting in New Orleans in 1991 although I knew of his work prior to that. As an ALA acquaintance, Isidore was often part of informal group dinners during various meetings. We found that in addition to African literature, we had a mutual interest in jazz, black poetry, and African American culture in general. Isidore told me about his jazz collection and the reception of jazz in Nigeria. Also, I had the privilege of attending conferences on the African Diaspora organized by Isidore and others at SUNY Binghamton, the first in 1996, and being asked to contribute to edited collections on the African Diaspora. Isidore was a meticulous editor and helped immeasurably in revisions of the work I contributed. His conception of “New World Self-fashioning” was innovative and ahead of the curve. I was also included in a RAL Special Edition he edited, “Oral Literature and Identity Formation in Africa and the Diaspora.”

Isidore was an influential member and former president of ISOLA (International Society for Oral Literature in Africa), an organization I joined when their conference was held in Trinidad. We also met at other international conferences, one in Israel and another in Argentina. I became interested as well in Isidore’s fiction works and read them with interest, such as his war novel, The Last Duty. When he was working on his brilliant novel Call Me By My Rightful Name, published in 2004, he gave a reading at Columbia University, and the subject matter, dealing with an African American central character who returns to Africa, was compelling and showed Isidore’s deep interest in African American culture. After the novel was published, I presented a paper on it at the ALA meeting in Colorado in 2005 and Isidore was in attendance at that session. We followed up with more conversations about the novel and questions of language and his close attention to aspects of African American culture, an extraordinary immersion and somewhat rare in first and second generation authors born in Africa. In popular interests, Isidore was a tennis enthusiast as well, and we shared conversations about the prominence and career successes of the “Williams sisters.” What I will remember most about Isidore is his intellectual scope and his genuine, friendly conversationalist personality.

His passing is an immeasurable loss. His work is indispensable to anyone researching African folklore or oral literature, and as an editor and novelist, he produced groundbreaking publications. My sincerest condolences to his family.

Joe McLaren, September 14, 2016.

Isidore Okpewho In Person

"Using language with style," the teacher mutters, looking away, "the Bible would say 'Adam knew Eve.'" Wait! Does the fleeting demurral come out of a sense of rectitude, of decorum to match the nuance appropriate to the topic at hand? Does the professor imagine that his students have no notion of the original sin as a bodily act? But, then, this is a class on the use of language, ENG 206: Language and Style. No prior familiarity with the Bible is assumed, although declaration of knowledge of figures of speech ought to come with the registration.

This lecturer has no affectations. No drama. No distractions. No false affability, calculated to court undergraduate following. Just competent, deeply informative, punctual attitude to the material at hand. Undergrads love that. No unexcused absence at weekly tutorials, and no late submission of assignments, most definitely.

At the University of Ibadan in the 1980s, Professor Isidore Okpewho's ENG 206 was one of those "Dugbe" courses (so-called after the largest market in Ibadan, because of the size of the enrollment) in which it was hardly possible for professors to know students by name. Chances were that you would make an impression if you spoke up during tutorials, usually with fewer than twenty participants. I took this course, attended tutorials when my involvements in the theater allowed it, and said what I thought, but escaped his attention largely because I was not an English major. Outside of classroom, my most memorable encounters with him were seeing him play tennis at the Staff Club (sporting his Mike Tyson hairstyle), and seeing him at the Arts Theater in October 1988 to observe rehearsals for Wole Soyinka's “Opera Wonyosi,” in his capacity as the chairman of the Organizing Committee for the UI@40 celebrations, for which a production of the play was commissioned.

All of that changed after I enrolled in the doctoral program at Cornell University. Somehow, he found out that I had a major interest in cinema, an area with which he was hoping to become familiar. When he and Art historian Nkiru Nzegwu planned for another volume in the African diaspora series (following the groundbreaking one he co-edited with Ali Mazrui and Carole Boyce Davies in 1999), he invited my participation in the symposium held at the SUNY Binghamton in April 2006. The volume that came out of that symposium was titled The New African Diaspora, published by Indiana University in 2009.

Before the symposium, I had occasion to meet him at another conference. He was no longer the formal, aloof professor using stylized language in a high-seriousness tone, but a lively, somewhat avuncular senior colleague, tickled by a former student's recollection of his demeanor in the lecture room. In early summer of 2005, he received a fellowship to spend a semester at the Smithsonian Institution and he needed someone to teach his courses for the fall. He reached out to me, proposing some enticing offers that I considered flattering; I had however accepted a tenure-track position at Indiana University, and regretfully declined.

Over the next half decade, until his illness in 2011, Professor Okpewho was one of the few senior scholars of African humanities with whom I had very close intellectual dealings. While the New African Diaspora volume was still in press, I guest-edited a special issue of Farafina, the new literary journal published in Lagos by Muhtar Bakare. Looking for writings suitable for the theme "Home and Exile," I came across Okpewho's presidential lecture at an annual conference of the International Society for Oral Literature in Africa, and decided to include an excerpt of it in the issue. It was his turn to be flattered: as someone who began his career in publishing, Okpewho was keenly interested in the promotion of creative writing. (Classics of Nigerian literature like Sonala Olumhense's No Second Chance and Lekan Oyegoke's Cowrie Tears were written for his Creative Writing class at Ibadan in the late 1970s.) With his current status as a foremost, much-prized scholar of oral literature he could not really keep abreast of trends in publishing initiatives. He hadn't known of Farafina, and in this new initiative he saw an opportunity for a Nigerian edition of his latest novel, Call Me By My Rightful Name. I played a mediator in this process also, although the publication did not materialize for reasons I can now no longer recall.

In those days, when he reflected on the fact of being edited and published by a former student, a student who learnt the use of figurative language under his tutelage, he would laughingly cite the African proverb that says "When a rodent attains old age, she is suckled by her offspring." His humility in this respect was far-and-away outstanding. Wanting to initiate a new course on African cinema, he sought my advice, and I enthusiastically prepared a synoptic idea of the thematics in the field, sending this alongside a list of titles that I thought would make a good introductory course. We jointly reviewed his proposed syllabus and discussed mechanisms for teaching films with running time longer than the duration of a class session. Video-streaming was still a new phenomenon for teaching purposes, and to add this to upper-level undergraduate instruction in a vibrant area of screen media would be ordinarily daunting.

Professor Okpewho more than rose to the occasion, and his email at the end of the semester was sufficient testimony: "My class on African cinema went VERY well this semester, and I definitely intend to make it a yearly offering. Even our Cinema department has crosslisted it. I just returned the portfolio of reviews put together by each of the 43 students."

Politically, he did not evince the fiery advocacy of a Biodun Jeyifo or the earnest passion of a Niyi Osundare. I was startled and embarrassed by a statement in the speech he gave during dinner at the Binghamton symposium, which suggested that new African immigrants in the US might just want to concern themselves more with self-improvement and less with political activism. Late in his career, however, and especially in writings modulated in a rather public voice, he appeared as becoming more mindful of global black creativity as operating in irreducible adversarial contexts, to use Wilson Harris' timeless phrase.

Akin Adesokan, Indiana University

Isidore Okpewho stands shoulder to shoulder with those scholars who cleared the path for our understanding of African oral literature as both performance and literature. His major works, The Epic in Africa (1979), Myth in Africa (1983), and African Oral Literature (1992) were positioned at the fountainhead of new research directions in African literary studies, and animated important debates, such as the lively dialogue over the occurrence of the epic in Africa. His legacy is to be measured not only in citations in several related fields of the humanities (studies of epic, myth, orality, performance, cinema, and literature), but also in the number of his former students who have themselves become leading scholars of African literature in major universities across three continents: Africa, Europe, and North America. The recent leadership of the African Literature Association belongs to that generation of scholars of African literature directly formed and informed by insights derived from Okpewho’s scholarship, as well as the friendship and collegiality he offered. Unfailingly courteous, and solicitous for the advancement of junior scholars, notwithstanding his own giant stature in the field of African literary studies, he remains a model of mentorship for this generation of scholars of African literature. Although he never became a member of the ALA EC, as far as I can tell, he did become president of a sister organization, ISOLA, the International Society for Oral Literatures of Africa. The insights he brought to our field, and his presence will be deeply missed by students and teachers of African literature across the world.

Moradewun Adejunmobi, University of California, Davis

To & For Isidore

My dear brother-friend Isidore:

It’s been eleven days now since you began the journey to your final rest. And still, beyond calling your name “rightfully” over and over again, the dam of words and thoughts stubbornly refuse to break. I don’t know if that is good or bad. Instead, while I await the onslaught of the verbal tempest, I steel myself with memories of your voice and laughter echoing in my ear – like that gamy, rowdy, (near ribald) entertainment session you and Niyi regaled us with on the return journey to Fez from the Moroccan Roman ruins site. With every reluctant blink, I see you in a panorama of ALA and ISOLA annual conferences, more memorably in Dakar, Senegal; Banjul, Gambia; Trinidad and Tobago; Cairo, Egypt. But these fond memories of places and times pale compared to the precious and unforgettable “COMFORTER-PAR-EXCELLENCE/ATILEHIN” supporter role you played emotionally and financially behind the scenes and publicly throughout John Conteh-Morgan’s illness and subsequent death! You were kind and generous and MC-M and I thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your caring spirit.

I also thank you for “stopping by” -- to say “good-bye,” I think. Could it have been pure coincidence that I “saw” you for a brief minute and, bewildered, called you immediately to see how you were doing. I left a message. That was August 20, at 9:46 a.m. according to my phone record. But alas, instead of a return call first thing on Sunday a.m., September 4, my hasty firing up of my laptop was to read about (not hear) your final farewell.

Alas, gone too soon, my brother-friend, you’re gone too soon. The vacuum you’ve now left behind feels like a huge crater. But we take solace in knowing that more than half that crater is filled with your warm, generous and loving spirit and the HUGE literary legacy you left us to cling to. So, go to your rest my dear brother-friend. REST WELL!
Your Sister-friend,

Pam Smith

Statement on Prof. Isidore Okpewho

My knowledge of and association with Prof. Isidore Okpewho span my entire professional life. I first met Isidore when I was a graduate student in African Literature at the University of Ibadan, on a Commonwealth Scholarship, just having completed my dissertation under the supervision of Dan Izevbaye, Michael Echeruo and J.D. Elder, with a work titled Oral Tradition and the Anglophone African and Caribbean Novel. Indeed my interest in going to Ibadan was to work on oral tradition primarily and to study the ways that African oral traditions manifested themselves in the Caribbean. A heady and interesting topic that I discovered would have taken at least the 11 to 12 years it took Karin Barber. In the end, I reduced my expectations to the above. When I met Isidore, he had just returned from studying abroad to work at Ibadan with one or two small children. He lamented that he had not been there earlier to help me realize my objective. He was totally enamored of J.D. Elder and his longstanding work on Caribbean oral traditions and their African antecedents. And in fact years later, he organized a conference on J.D. Elder in Trinidad and visited his birthplace in Tobago.

Fortunately for us, I was able to meet Prof. Okpewho again, this time when I was a professional at then SUNY-Binghamton and we were looking for a new director and senior scholar. He was a visiting scholar at Harvard for a year and we met at an African Literature Association Conference and I told him about our opening. We were happy to recruit Isidore among several other applicants and there he served for many years at a very productive time in the history of the Department and indeed produced many of his stellar works on African oral literature.
One of the first conferences on The African Diaspora. African Origins and New World Identities (Indiana, 1999), one of his intellectual passions, is a testament to that at a time when the field in its contemporary incarnation was just taking shape. Indeed, he ensured that his colleagues, Ali Mazui and I, in particular would contribute to the introduction and be co-editors of the book which documented that conference and is still a mainstay in the field. This and a second work The New African Diaspora (2009) are testament to his support of the expansion of knowledge about the aesthetic and material production of African peoples on the continent and in the African Diaspora.

I can say with assurance that along the way Prof. Okpewho has been an exemplary scholar, colleague and friend in ways too numerous to recount here. He has also been an exemplary father, producing daughters who remain close friends of my two daughters (Jonelle and Dalia Davies) and who I have also had the pleasure of seeing grow into adults with their own children and families. I am pleased that he has been able to see his seven grandchildren though I am sure he would have wanted more time to help raise them. His love for his wife remains another important aspect of his full humanity. At every conference he would spend some time searching for a lovely gift for her – a pretty dress, I remember once when I complimented her on something she was wearing. More memories of his integrity in reclaiming his intellectual passions even after a devastating illness, reveal the kind of character that makes Dr. Okpewho a stellar individual, human being and scholar of African oral literatures, African Diaspora Studies and a creative writer on his own terms.

Carole Boyce Davies, Cornell University