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Tribute to the teacher’s teacher, Ekwelie, at 80

Sylvanus Ajana Ekwelie

The year 1984 must have been one of the proudest moments in the history of Mass Communication Department, University of Nigeria, Nsukka. It was the year Kingsley Osadolor, a product of the department, had emerged the best graduating student, with a cumulative score of 3.84 out of a possible 4.0. At the convocation, he had given a valedictory speech said to be the best in the history of the university. Dr. Pat Utomi, another alumnus of the department, had just served as Special Assistant to President Shagari. At 27, he was one of the youngest Nigerians to serve in that capacity. Other alumni of the department – Innocent Oparadike, Osaro Isokpan, Ike Emeagwali, and a host of others – were making waves in their chosen fields. The department certainly had reasons to be proud. In October that year, we, the “new Jacksonites”, were even prouder to have gained admission into such a famed department.

The attainments of the products of the department were an indication of the future ahead of us. The lecturers we had were, perhaps, the best the university had in any department at the time. We had this charismatic young lecturer in his early 30s then, called Dr. Charles Okigbo, with about five degrees; Dr. Ralp Okonkwor, then the Orator of the university, as huge in physique as in intellect; Dr. PC Agba, E.N. Ume-Nwagbo; Dr. Idemili, and then the Head of Department, Dr. (later, Prof.) Sylvanus Ajana Ekwelie.

Professor Ekwelie, born in Achalla, Anambra State, in 1936, had graduated best student from the department in 1967 and soon after, had proceeded to the University of Wisconsin in the U.S., where he earned a PH.D in Journalism. He had taught in some American universities before returning to his alma mater to head the department in the early seventies.

Ekwelie took us, the first year students, in Introduction to Mass Communication and Elements of Journalistic Style, perhaps the most important courses for us at the time. He was always smartly dressed – dark suits and bright ties, mostly red. During evening classes, he dressed in short-sleeved shirts, properly pressed and tucked in. His sense of dressing was as impeccable as his clarity of thought. Just about 5ft.8ins, slightly balding and with a bit of “stomach,” he walked in very confident and measured steps, with his head held high in a literal sense. He once told us that his reason for taking us in the first year was to “smoothen the rough edges” we had come to the department with. He knew a bit of just about anything under sun. With him teaching us, we realized how little we knew. However, after every lecture under him, we felt an inch taller. No one needed to compel us to attend his classes. We knew what we would miss if we did not attend. He was determined that we would not leave his classes as “ignorant” as you came in. In the first few weeks, he had asked each of us to raise our fingers, and asked each person: “show me your pinkie. And your index”. It was astonishing how many adults did not know the finger called the pinkie.

In Elements of Journalistic Style, one of our daily routines as first year Mass Communication students under him was to rise by 5am to listen to the news bulletin on BBC World Service. He wanted us to know what was happening in the world, but more importantly, he wanted us to learn how words were pronounced. He was as much offended by wrong pronunciation as by wrong usage of words. From BBC he wanted us to learn the length people could go to ensure that names of people and places were properly pronounced. He believed that it was only laziness that could make a journalist not to pronounce a name correctly. For any name of person or place, there must be somebody familiar with the pronunciation. Seek out that person and learn from him. So he would normally ask somebody, “how do you pronounce your name?” And he would repeat it, with the right inflections and accents. No mistakes. He told us about the broadcasting greats like Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Barbara Walters and the things that made them great.

He was particular about how you wrote. One of his most famous quotes was from John Sheffield: Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well. And Professor did write well and still does. Short sentences. Every word tells. He had no regard for long winding sentences and people who wrote them. He would say they tried to “hide their ignorance in verbiage and grandiloquence”. He spent several weeks teaching the use of various punctuation marks. He would tell you, never get tired of using your commas at the appropriate places. Separate the town from the state, and the state from the country with commas (Nsukka, Enugu State, Nigeria).

His sense of humour was unequalled and whatever he said had his signature humour. Once in a class, two students were arguing about the pronunciation of the word Zoology. One said it was Zuoloji. The other said it was Zuuloji. He just allowed them to monkey on. Then one asked him, “Sir, what do you think”? He responded calmly, with a shrug, “Nothing. Only that both of you are fools, because, this is the only country in the world where people argue about a word that is in the dictionary.” And then he raised his voice and continued, “the dictionary is there to teach you three things: the spelling, the meaning, and the pronunciation. Class, shall we proceed?” That was how he ended it. Another day, he had asked a question and answers began to fly around. After one person’s contribution, he kept quiet for a while and when he spoke, he said, “that is a voluminous display of ignorance”. And to the next person, he responded, “if you were to write the constitution, half the country would go to jail, because nobody would understand the laws of the land”.

Sometimes, his humour was self-abasing. Once, while teaching us how to conduct interviews, he had volunteered himself as the interviewee. And he had authorized us to “ask anything, no matter how foolish”. It became an opportunity to ask anything indeed, from the sensible to the inane. One asked, “Sir, did you have many girl friends while in the university and why”. His answer, “ No. I did not. In the university, I had three shirts and two pairs of trousers, and not particularly handsome. With that profile, you are not a darling with the ladies. So, I consoled myself with my books and it paid off”. Next question was, why he was not yet a full professor, despite his brilliance. Did he feel frustrated? His answer was that, earlier in life, all he had wanted to be was a headmaster in his village school. “Now standing here and teaching you, undergraduates and even some graduate students, I have come a long way. So, nobody is frustrating me”.

He was very a compassionate and observant lecturer. While recuperating from a malaria and typhoid attack, I had lost some weight and once bumped into Prof on the halfway of the department. He spoke to me, “ young man, you are not looking well. Is it hunger or disease or both?” It might have sounded rather caustic, but I was really impressed to know that he cared enough to note how I looked.

Prof. Ekwelie belonged to a generation that considered teaching a sacred calling and believed that the students under them were to be protected. As a much younger lecturer, he was known to have stood up to a much senior lecturer who was messing around with a student. Characteristically, he had told the senior, “sex is a conquest game. If you think you are handsome and rich, go outside the campus and impress women. But please, leave these defenseless girls alone”. He was also very fair and just. He was not afraid of scoring anybody an “A” or an “F”. You got whatever you merited, irrespective of the number in the class that merited those grades.

Like all very brilliant people, he had that impatience bordering on arrogance. He could not just stand unnecessary mistakes and people who made such. Once, he was rumoured to have refused to attend a meeting called by the Vice Chancellor. His reason: there were so many errors in the Notice of Meeting that he told them such could not have come from the office of the Vice Chancellor of UNN. At an event, he had risen from his seat to correct a very senior and highly respected professor who was mispronouncing the word “monkey”.

As his students, we felt bad that he was not writing enough articles in the newspapers. We wanted “the world to feel him”. But his decision not to write was deliberate. He said he did not believe in “vanity publishing”, and he did not want “some ignorant people” in the newspapers to “edit their ignorance” into his writing. He told the story of how some of them were trying to correct his writing and in the process made mistakes he called “abominable”. However, if he did not write much, the little he wrote was celebrated. He had an article on Traditional Communication in Africa (not exactly sure again), first published in the Journal of Communication. It was so powerful it was reproduced in numerous other publications. His later book, A Master Style Guide published in 2005, is perhaps the best book in that area, after Elements of Style by Strunk and

White, which was the book he had recommended to his students in those days.
He came back to us in our final year, as if to confirm that his labour in our first year would indeed bear fruits in the field of communication. His passion showed in the anger he displayed, when final-year student gave an astonishingly wrong answer to a question he had asked in the class. Without any trace of his characteristic humour, he spoke “in a few weeks from now, we will give you a certificate, telling the world that we have found you worthy in character and in learning. If you give that kind of answer again, I will make you do not get a certificate from this department”. He was that jealous for the honour of the department.

Over the years, Professor Ekwelie has produced and influenced generations of the best of breed in communication, marketing, finance, oil and gas, public service, the academia and indeed all walks of life.

Ekwelie turned 80 and last weekend, his family, friends and numerous former students gathered in his hometown of Achalla to celebrate his life. The great joy is that his life is being celebrated while is still alive. It is therefore a great honour to write this tribute to one of the most brilliant and accomplished teachers of mass communication this side of heaven. Happy Birthday, Prof.!
• Emma Esinnah, Mass Communication, UNN, graduating class of 1988, is Country Director of Curves International

In this article:
Sylvanus Ajana Ekwelie


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