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Azubuike Ishiekwene: The debt I owe


Azubuike Ishiekwene: The debt I owe

by Azubuike Ishiekwene

I’ve told this story many times before, but never publicly. It’s a personal story of two men who gave me a place to stand and whose lives have remained shining examples for me. I met the first one in 1985. I was one of the 22 or so students in the Mas 101 freshman journalism class and it was the first lesson and first encounter with the University of Lagos lecturer.

He wiped the board clean, wrote the title of the course and wrote his name, “Dr Olatunji Dare”. He then turned to the class and asked us to introduce ourselves and say why we were there. The first part sounded familiar but I thought the second was strange.

One by one we introduced ourselves, each with his own story. There were those who chose to study journalism to get a big chance to travel far and wide. Some hoped that a career in journalism would bring them face to face with rich, influential and powerful people. A few said they themselves wanted not just to report the rich and powerful but also to become rich, influential and powerful.

Dare listened patiently, showing absolutely no emotion, only motioning from row to row, until the last student had spoken.

Then silence. I still remember how he shook his head and with a serious look on his face, said it was either he was in the wrong classroom or many of us had missed our way. Journalism could take you places. It could bring you face to face with the rich and powerful. It could even make you famous if you worked hard enough, with a bit of luck. But those who thought here at last was the guaranteed route to money, riches and fame, should perish the thought. Our road would be rough and here was free advice to think again.

“And if it would make it easier”, he said, “I’m willing to help you get the faculty officer to arrange a change of course for you!” A number of us didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. No one was likely going to take up his unsolicited offer of help but that, for me, was the baptism needed for the journey ahead. Over the next three years, I developed a closer relationship with him, and was especially fascinated by his teaching style and commitment to his students.

He would pose out-of-the-text questions and challenge us to solve them; he would ask of journalists whose names we had never heard of, like Oriana Fallaci, and point us to her famous interviews with Ayatollah Khomeini or Moummour Ghadaffi. He would send us out to file reports about life on campus and, when we turned them in, he would return our scripts bleeding in red ink.

I still remember Dare refusing to mark our scripts once, and, when we pressed him, he responded that the copies were so bad he would have abridged his life by at least 10 years if he read them all! And boy, he was funny! He would walk into the exam hall and say there was no need to worry about failing. If you couldn’t answer the questions, he would joke, set questions of your own and answer them. No need to panic or faint.

I remember turning in a term paper in which I had boasted I would not score less than an A. As I submitted my paper in his office at the pre-fab of the Mass Communication building and made to go, he called me back. There was a visitor with him. “Azu,” Dare began, looking very solemn, “what have you been reading?” Here at last, I thought, was my chance to show off my new collections! “Oh, I have been reading David Copperfield, sir. Copperfield by Charles Dickens.”

He looked up from my script; shook his head, and laughed the only way Dare could laugh – from his stomach up and rocking with mirth. And then he said something like, “It’s not showing at all! I can’t see any trace of Dickens in your script. This is a classic example of disco journalism!” He handed back my script and gave me another chance to rewrite.

I left his office devastated but knew he meant well. The repeat copy so pleased him that he urged me to adapt it for publication on his watchful eye. It turned out to be my first published article in the priceless op-ed page of The Guardian. I’ll never forget.

I had been following him on those pages and on my own practised as a wannabe satirist. Once, when he wrote about stalagmites and stalactites in his Tuesday column in The Guardian, I couldn’t figure out where that came from, until I later found that he had a top grade in physics and had actually taught science subjects in a secondary school!

I still remember the note he gave me on the back of his complimentary card to Nojeem Jimoh, who was then editor of PUNCH.That note gave me a shot at my first vacation job in a newspaper in 1986. The note would not only land me a vacation job, and later a full-time job, it would also open the door for me to meet the former chairman of PUNCH, Ajibola Ogunshola, one of the men who would shape my thinking and career in the most profound way for the next over two decades.

This is my own thank-you note to Dare, as he marks his 70th birthday on Thursday, and a preamble to my next story about the debt of gratitude I owe another great man, Ogunshola, whose 70th birthday also comes up next week.

The payoff at the foot of the invite to the luncheon marking Ogunshola’s birthday, “We respectfully request that you send no material or financial gifts,” is as unusual as the man himself…

– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Azubuike Ishiekwene/Leadership

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