Academicians in Diaspora
Let it be on record that I am a “runaway” academician, driven away not by ineptitude but by circumstances. So, I have no choice in style but to make this article more of a confession than a critique.
There is not much feeling of guilt though. This composition is an expression of sympathy for a noble profession in which we once invested a lot of hope, a yearning for an environment that we once regarded a home, and nostalgia for a congregation of dear friends and colleagues that we never anticipated will disperse. It is also a veneration to the bold who stood their guns, still struggling to hold the ivory tower in position, howbeit with immeasurable feeling of fatigue and exhaustion.
Our origin with them was the same. Few, if any, joined the university for material gains in those days when employment was abundant. Even before graduation, many of us, especially those from educationally disadvantaged areas, were interviewed and offered award letters to join administrative positions by our respective state governments. After the NYSC, we fought tooth and nail to become graduate assistants.
This was a decisive choice I believe. By abandoning the craze for corruption early in life, I assumed we were taking a wise philosophical stand for the future. Besides, no one then anticipated that the economy would take a nosedive straight into a black hole. At USS level 7, which was the starting point for novice academician, we were earning between N450 to N500. The equivalent today is about N50,000.00. I must say that with no cumbersome social responsibilities then, this was an ample sum.
We naturally fell in love with the system. As usual, there came the platonic dream: After a year, we will go for a Masters, then for a Doctorate. We will become reputable senior lecturers and professors, teaching, researching and attending national and international conferences. Amidst that romance, we reached a deal with the future. We promised it hard work while it assured us a life of decency and erudition.
While we tried to keep our own part of the bargain, the “future”, now past, was forced by circumstances to abdicate its own. Somehow we achieved our goals in qualification, but the opportunity to attain levels of recognition in scholarship under moderately decent conditions was denied by the disregard with which successive governments handled university education. Recognition in scholarship should not be trivialized to mean excellence in our local domain. It has to be attained at a global level. Without the basic requirements even for undergraduate research, achieving this remains a puzzle to me.
Also, by the engaging nature of their profession, scholars have the least time for social interaction in the wider society. So, they become easily vulnerable to hardship during periods of economic distress. As early as 1986, lecturers were finding it difficult to enroll their children in staff schools of their universities. After graduating thousands of students, the society is not grateful enough to compensate them by educating any of their children to graduation. No one could also guarantee their welfare. That year, I witnessed a devastating scene in Samaru. A fresh Ph.D. from an American university, lecturing at A.B.U., surrendered his wristwatch for a gallon of engine oil! I took a deep breath in sympathy, knowing very well that the poor guy was on his way to losing the car. Three years later, he was walking on foot!
A worse situation was to follow. The first generation of Nigerian lecturers has been due for retirement. Some have done so already. But to their stunning disappointment, they discovered that they couldn’t leave the university. They do not know any business and they do not own a house even in their villages. At 60, the society expects them to return to the same villages that they left five decades ago. To cultivate cassava and yams?
People then started to consider their options. Foreigners among us have left already. Do not blame them. They were not here on philanthropy. Some Nigerians with recognition overseas followed. Among the remaining, some started to consider offers in the public sector which they earlier rejected at graduation. Their terrorizing academic titles smoothened the way for their acceptance. So they left too.
When the conditions became unbearable, I was still on study leave. So I did not give a thought to joining the Diaspora. Early in the study though, there were some whispers in my ears but I did not pay much attention given the weight of the study at hand then. However, two events made me to finally listen and call it quit. Aware of the freedom I enjoyed as an academic, I opted to be on my own rather than join the public sector.
The remaining academicians today are divided into three categories. First, there are those waiting for the exodus train to return and carry them to the Promised Land. They do not know that some of us, who joined it earlier, have not yet reached even Canaan. They were dropped halfway. Many of us are still roaming in wilderness in the Sinai Desert with no manna from the sky to support us. The train did return on many occasions to the university. But there was always a stampede for seats, leaving the ‘less fortunate’ (but still desiring) waiting for over a decade now. The second category are those who adopted a one-leg-in-one-leg-out strategy. Though this may impair with their function as academicians, we must turn a blind eye. When circumstances are exceptional, human response could be exceptional too. Finally there are those who are conscientiously unmoved by the sickening economic difficulties of the academic environment. They may confess to us that the situation of learning is bad, but they are always resolute in their position, not to move an inch beyond the Main Gate. To them, I say Bravo!
Life in the Diaspora
We, the beaten, departed at different times and in different directions just as were our motivations. It is only natural that our fate today is divided as well.
Among us are those who joined the civil service at various levels and have maintained the traditional record and style of academicians. Either as top civil servants or heads of learning institutions, they have perpetuated a style of modesty, humility and hard work. Nonetheless, some have taken a gentle slide down the engulfing pit of materialism that has today left them in scandal and shame. These were the people who danced to the tune of injustice serving as advisers and representatives of oppressive regimes. Before the puissance of materialism and its evil temptation, they abandoned wisdom, their memory faded, and their courage melted away. In the temporary court of the Naira, their bodies and souls jointly bowed and said, “To thy Majesty, we surrender”.
Whether good or bad, we must confess again that few, if any, academicians in Diaspora do look back with regret. Some may feel that the university has missed the intelligent among us, but the reverse is equally true, if not more. Where are the daily challenges of lecture preparation and delivery? Where is the joy of admitting and graduating students? Where is the luxury of being in a continuous state of intellectual motion, living with books, attending discussions, seminars and conferences that extended our boundaries of scholarship? Where are the ideological polemics that often stood dissolved in sharing a cup of tea or coffee in the common room? Where is the joy of sharing the little that a colleague may have when the month is halfway? We have missed all these.
In Diaspora, the luxuries of today, legitimately acquired or not, have failed to revive the intellectual interest and moral satisfaction of yesterday. Instead, except for a few, the serene life of scholarship has been replaced by the competitive anxiety of materialism, pushing many of us to the borders of schizophrenia.
Does the university miss us? It must have missed the bright and the audacious among us, hundreds of professors in mathematics and physics, history and linguistics, medicine and sociology, etc. In addition, some vibrant young brains were also lost. They had the capacity, had the “future” met its obligations, of taking over the positions of their celebrated elders. Certainly, people like me do not belong to this category, because we barely qualified to start climbing the ladder when we noticed a rot devouring its legs. We got terrified and took to our heels.
For some, a return may be a utopia, but for others, a possibility. While in Diaspora, I have met colleagues who confided in me their desire to return had it not been for the hopeless situation on the campuses. Some did return, only to be driven away by the feeling of waste. Such souls, I am happy to discover, do exist. The few that played foul may soon find out that life could be empty at its advance stage; that it is better to die on the noble vocation they learnt and practiced in their youth.
But where is the way back? I believe, there are three options. One, as an interim measure, a double-carriage bridge must be constructed to support a shuttle to and from the university closest to us. In this way, a room is created for a gradual process of self-reclamation with minimum risk of ‘suicide’. Two, the Diaspora itself should be turned academic, attempting some intellectual discourse whenever possible. The third is a complete return. Nothing could be better when we become blessed with a government committed to investing tangibly in education, pulling the sector out of the black hole.
An ancient Arab poet tells me to remain optimistic. Forgive me, if you find my rendition poor:
God has many times
Brought together two lovers
Who lost all hope of reunion
April 12, 1999