Not many Nigerians know Professor Theo Vincent. If I did not thrill to the bounty of the written word, I probably would not know him or care. When I first met him, I actually did not care. I admired him, but for a different reason.
I did not meet him in flesh and blood. As I write, I have not. I met him in the form of a book on poetry when I was a teenager in high school and preparing for my school certificate exam.
Poetry was beautiful tyranny in my eyes. Words came together in an opaque assault. I was expected to hollow out every poem, but I was hollow at the end of every exercise. Vincent’s book, A Selection of African Poetry, defogged the material. He compiled African poems with K.E. Senanu. At Government College, Ughelli, we called the book Senanu and Vincent.
I forgot about the man, as many do their teachers when they have moved ahead in life. But a year after, I was glued to the NTA on a Sunday afternoon, and I saw a man clutching a book, and he spoke with an accent of rare sonority. I knew he was Nigerian, if his accent betrayed his foreign exposure and education. His voice had a low, rhythmic tenor. His lips moved with a slight tremor as though praying for the listener to lend an ear. But it was not a beggary tone. It buried a vitality of intelligence and confidence in the humility of its rendition. Now celebratory, now melancholic, it tore the book apart. I lent an ear, then my mind, then my heart. It became a regular for me every Sunday afternoon after church.
When my father, Moses, observed my surrender to our pint-sized television set with this fellow, he asked everyone at home to grant me my 10 or 15 minutes with Theo Vincent. I remembered his chin hid inside a voluminous goatee. His eyes were sober behind a pair of glasses, and he held whatever book he reviewed with a sort of subdued flourish.
Even though I passed my school certificate and GCE in literature at an elite grade – I had an A1 in GCE – Professor Vincent’s Sunday classes tore than my vanity. I knew from him that literature was an open-ended survey of words, and it was not about words but society. It was no mystery, but a power of enquiry. It provided a platform to interrogate society’s failings and potential and to celebrate our humanity. It was the nexus of words and myth, the playground villains and heroes.
He gave me the first true introduction to literature. I gained admission to Ife a year after and had great teachers in my literature classes I took as electives. The teachers helped my flame to a ruddy colour, but Vincent lit the spark.
He has been a subliminal figure in my consciousness. When my friend, Professor Hope Eghagha of the English Department at the University of Lagos, spoke fondly of him, my heart quietly zipped back to his feast on television.
I followed his career with aloof gratitude and was happy he became vice chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt.
Somehow news about him fizzed away, and in my subconscious I thought he was in retirement until I saw a report in The Punch about him. The writer Chux Ohai titled it with an alliterative flair: Battered, Blind and Broke.
I have read the piece a few times, but I could not understand why such a man, who has given so much to the society, should be allowed to pass his hoary years not only in penury but in neglect. According to the report, he is blind, and lives in one of the dingy neighbourhoods in Lagos where area boys, pimps, loafers and other never-do-wells thrive in dirt and darkness.
There are speculations why the man cannot afford to live in a comfortable environment, or even get proper care with his eyes now locked in perpetual night. The Universities of Lagos and Port Harcourt issued statements that they have done well by him according to the law. They have paid all his entitlements. What that means is that he is left to his sightless devices.
The universities are saying it is not about compassion. It is about the law. It reminds me of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, who asked with aghast illumination when he was cornered, “Is that the law?” In his case, he wanted to use the law to take a pound of flesh. He lost many pounds of honourto the bargain. The universities are losing pounds of goodwill to this bargain. Whatever led to the man’s state, even if it is due to personal indiscretions, he should not be left in that state of increasing immiseration. We should not allow him regret his many years like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of the Salesman who died with neither substance nor love after sacrificing his vital years to the service of his employer.
He was a stellar professor, and also a vice chancellor. The fact that he is so poor shows that he did not take advantage of his lofty position for unlawful self-enrichment. He was an activist of the word, and played a great role in installing Nigeria’s top literary accolade, The NLNG Prize for Literature. As some people say, a man like him ordinarily should be bedecked with the Nigerian Merit Award.
Men like Vincent indict our society. They have given service. They have served with their minds and might. We look back coldly.
He did not leave the university environment in a scandal. He is not like the character in Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, where a professor quits a United States university over a racial slur or disregard for other ethnicities. Or J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace, where a professor quits for taking advantage of a female student in his bedroom.
The least this man deserves is a decent home and a regular living allowance. I appeal to the President to step into his case, or any Nigerian with the means to do so, especially men in high positions in government. I recall that Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and former Governor Babatunde Fashola came to the rescue of Nigeria’s best soccer hero Haruna Ilerika. Tinubu also built a home for Fatai Rolling Dollar.
Icons stand for the best in us. We should do well to serve them when they are no longer in a position to serve us.