At a workshop in 2013, the Nigerian writer Chuma Nwokolo came up with a thought-provoking exercise: He asked the more than 40 assembled African thinkers to inscribe their own epitaph.
“Here lies Pius Adesanmi,” one wrote, “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.”
On Sunday morning, during a layover in Addis Ababa’s airport on his way to a conference in Nairobi, Adesanmi again wrote what seemed like a foretelling of his own death, this time a reference to Psalm 139, on Facebook: “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost part of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
Adesanmi’s death, along with 156 others, on the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed early Sunday has spurred waves of mourning across the world. In Adesanmi’s native Nigeria, tributes to the well-known professor, author and cultural critic have overflowed from all corners of the country’s exuberant literary world.
In videos of speeches he gave, a picture emerges of a man both in love and at odds with Nigerian culture. In front of rapt audiences, he would decry what he viewed as the “mediocrity” widely accepted by his countrymen, while also employing tender phrases in Yoruba and pidgin English, two of Nigeria’s most widely spoken languages. He had no trouble enthralling a whole room.
“Beyond his indelible place in the hearts of family, his greatest life was lived on record, with an industry and perspicacity that a flaming jetliner cannot efface,” Nwokolo wrote of Adesanmi in a remembrance. “He spoke his truths fulsomely, without calculation, with an honesty and courage that drew people to him. His writing pops with life, even now when he sleeps with the ancestors.”
In his last column, posted the day before he died, Adesanmi ruminated with characteristic aplomb on Nigeria’s current affairs. That day, Nigeria held state elections that observers criticized for alleged military interference. Two weeks earlier, President Muhammadu Buhari was reelected in a poll marred by delays and violence.
“Sadly, I think our people have been psychologically defeated and have come to accept and love these things about Nigeria. They turn on whoever tries to awaken them. Nigeria’s irresponsible rulers have us where they want us. I write basically these days for the purposes of archaeology. A thousand years from now, archaeologists would be interested in how some people called Nigerians lived in the 20th and 21st centuries. If they dig and excavate, I am hoping that fragments of my writing survive to point them to the fact that not all of them accepted to live as slaves of the most irresponsible rulers of their era,” he wrote.
The Nigerian Canadian professor taught at Carleton University in Ontario. More than 40,000 followed him on Twitter, where he sparred with Nigeria’s feisty readers. He was a mentor to many young African writers.
“My intellectual life was built by him. He supervised me, mentored me, and yet he always treated me like a colleague,” wrote Wandia Njoya, a Kenyan writer. “I cant imagine thinking or writing without him. My heart is crushed.”
Adesanmi’s second book, a collection of essays called “You’re Not a Country, Africa” (2011), received the inaugural Penguin Prize for African Writing in the nonfiction category. In July, Adesanmi was involved in a traffic accident that left him bedridden, but it was during that time that he began writing his most popular columns, which he labeled “Injury Time.”
Benoit-Antoine Bacon, president and vice chancellor of Carleton University, said in a statement, “Pius was a towering figure in African and post-colonial scholarship and his sudden loss is a tragedy.”
"Some of the students have been hanging around the makeshift memorial at the Institute all day. They can’t believe he is gone. Pius lived well. He affected a lot of people. He made time for his students. He listened and believed in them,” Bacon told Nigeria’s Guardian newspaper.