Perhaps ‘tis kinder that vultures toil
To cleanse torch-bearers for the soil
Than eagles bare their living bone
Chained to an eternity of stone . . .
Kinder that, lured by cleansing rites
He fell, burnt offering on the heights
— Wole Soyinka
In the high noon of the ninth day of March 2019, Dr Pius Adesanmi, professor of literature and African studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, in Canada, posted the rather foreboding verses of Psalm 139: 9-10 on his Facebook wall: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” This has been rightly interpreted as Adesanmi’s foretelling of his death, especially when read together with the epitaph in his own hand composed six years earlier: “Here lies Pius Adesanmi who tried as much as he could to put his talent in the service of humanity and flew away home one bright morning when his work was over.”
Fly away home he certainly did on the 10th of March 2019. In the morning of that day, I woke up from a dream with the ominous sense that someone very close to me had died. For one inclined to the Freudian approach to dreams, who takes them as the continuation of waking life and so as the unrestrained but distorted expression in semi-consciousness of the desired or the repressed — in other words, one who would say upon waking “it is only a dream” — this was quite disconcerting. I just could not banish my fear of the demise of someone dear no matter how many times I muttered, “it is only a dream.”
This was the dream: I am asleep, with the bedroom door closed. Then I’m impelled to open my eyes and turn my face to the door, which opens on its own accord. A tall man, around middle-age, in orange overalls, the sort worn by Shell’s oil-field workers, is standing at the threshold. It appears all he desires is that I notice his presence for as soon as he is sure I’ve seen him, he disappears, without uttering a word. And I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that what I’d seen was the ghost of a relative, that he had come to bid me farewell. But the only person close enough to me to ground that fear, a cousin more like my older brother, had long retired from Shell and though still indirectly connected to the oil giant in his present employment, was, the ancestors be praised, hale and hearty as I quickly ascertained. So, it was really only a dream after all.
Except that it wasn’t. Dead was another brother, Pius Adebola Adesanmi, with whom I share no family blood ties, our shared human blood and twenty-five-year friendship sealed by a common citizenship and love of our hapless country being as strong. The Shell motif? Maybe because I had the dream in Shell’s residential estate in Warri, and that in Adesanmi’s only volume of poems, The Wayfarer and Other Poems (2001), Shell is portrayed unflatteringly for the havoc it does to the flora, fauna and people of the Niger Delta. Like the multitude plunged into inconsolable grief on learning that Adesanmi, travelling under his Canadian passport, was on the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 that crashed six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa for Nairobi, killing all aboard, the futility of denial — “No, it’s not true . . . Pius can’t be dead . . . he is not dead,” etc. — swiftly led to rage.
But rage against a machine, fragmented upon its thunderous impact with earth, some parts aflame, was useless. Still, I raged, blurting out a first mourning cry via Facebook and WhatsApp, two of the social media platforms he used so effectively and endearingly as a witty, acerbic and penetrating critic of Nigeria’s politicians, priests, and sundry powers, of even their victims, the masses, whom he often saw as too docile and complicit in their oppression.
“What or who do I curse?,” I cried? “The day? The plane? The makers of the new technology-driven aircraft on which my friend and my brother was flying from Addis Ababa to Nairobi? Ah, death! And the stealth and many ways it comes! But it should never ever have set its sights on Pius, again, having tried and failed last year. Ah, Pius, you survived that road accident, and marvelled that you did: ‘I still don’t know how and why I survived,’ you wrote to me. And death shamed that you had proved stronger than it on the road stalked you in the air. Ah, Pius, Pius, my brother Pius . . . From the campus of the University of Ibadan, to the campuses of Penn State University, State College, Pennsylvania, and Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, to that visit to Jersey City in 2007 when I was finishing my dissertation (here’s the photo of us together on the Hudson River Walk), and all the places too many where we were together alone or with mutual friends . . . I can’t bring myself to say rest in peace and yet I must wish your restless, fecund, passionate and patriotic (how much you ached and wrote to save Nigeria!) soul eternal rest. Well, then, rest. You did more in your short life than many can living the fullness of their days. Rest in peace, my friend, my brother.”
But back to that premonition of death. Professor Adesanmi, having consciously chosen the career of a public intellectual, set about it with uncommon zeal. He gave his life to the people, whether as one of the most widely read and admired columnists to come from his country with a rich history of intellectuals-cum-writers-and-social-critics, or as teacher and mentor to younger scholars. In all of Adesanmi’s engagements, scholarly, social or otherwise, he exuded an unmistakable secular conviction. So why did he turn to the bible to announce his death? And, really, was it just in order to give notice that he was flying away and that wherever he might end up, even if in the uttermost parts of the sea, God (Nigeria having failed him) would comfort him? I think it is beyond that. A full reading of Psalm 139 reveals a man still irrevocably bound to the land that vexed him to death.
He had railed and wailed relentlessly about every inanity of his people, but the more he lampooned and satirised and coldly analysed the more things degenerated. What was left but to seek a realm and a presence more assuring than his headstrong country? Where to find solace but in a return to his Catholic boyhood, and the words of another poet, King David?
We may argue if Adesanmi’s work was really done, even accuse him in our grief and guilt of offending the living by “choosing” to die, as Ali Mazrui accused Christopher Okigbo, another writer who famously foresaw his own death — “If I don’t learn to shut my mouth, I will soon go to hell: I, Christopher Okigbo, together with my iron bell” — and went to meet it at the Biafran warfront. But read verses 19-22 of Psalm 139 and you would see that despair drove Adesanmi to fly away, to directly ask God to “slay the wicked,” the “men of blood,” God’s “enemies.” Indeed, the vehemence of David/Adesanmi’s utterance towards the end belies the soothing comfort of God’s hand and ineluctable presence sought at the beginning. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” As if his intent could yet be mistaken, he declares: “I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies.” The enemies of Nigeria are the enemies of God, be they Christians or Muslims or non-believers; though as an altar boy Adesanmi had a special hatred of the sanctimonious money-changers, mammon-worshippers, miracle-peddlers or, simply put, scam artists who also go by such names as General Overseers, Men (mostly) of God but women also, who litter every street with “churches,” the names of many too ridiculously funny to evoke any sense of awe or the Almighty.
I began these brief reflections with an epigraph taken from Wole Soyinka’s elegy for Christopher Okigbo. I’ll end with John Milton’s poem “Lycidas.” Milton saw the death by drowning of his friend Lycidas, a priest, as analogous to the degeneration of the clergy in 17th Century England, which being a self-avowed Christian country, symbolised the degradation of the polity.
Adesanmi loved Nigeria to death, sang in full throat the many-strained and straining, plainly draining, sad song of our even more degraded land than Milton’s England. “Lycidas is dead, dead ere his prime,” without leaving “his peer,” Milton moaned, and added: “Who would not sing for Lycidas? / He knew Himself to sing, and build the lofty rhyme. / He must not float upon his watery bier / Unwept, and welter to the parching wind, / Without the need of some melodious tear.” Our only solace is that Adesanmi’s life underlines the saying, “It is not how long but how well.” For had he lived a hundred and forty-seven years and not a mere forty-seven, he might not have given a better account of himself.
Since he achieved under five decades what many can never hope for living the fullness of their lives, who would not sing for Adesanmi? Why shouldn’t we pause from our mourning cry and sing instead for a pious soul prematurely gone to join the ancestors? Adieu Pius.
Ifowodo, lawyer, poet, writer and rights activist was Assistant Professor of English at Texas State University and author of History, Trauma, and Healing in Postcolonial Narratives. His most recent volume of poems is A Good Mourning.