The moment news broke out on Friday, February, 2020, that Professor Harry Garuba, had passed away after a long illness, the literary world was thrown into grieving. Though he died at in South Africa, where he taught for over two decades in the Department of English, University of Cape Town, he wasn’t like the fabled prophet unknown at home. Frankly, he was lionised from Ibadan to Maiduguri for his intellectual prowess.
It was even hard to believe for most people that Garuba lived only for 62 years, for his name had been ringing a bell on the Nigerian literary scene, especially, for over four decades, right from the time he became a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Ibadan, and as the spirit of the creative poetry club in the university, Thursday Club, which mentored up-and-coming writers like Godwin Ede, Nike Adesuyi, Chiedu Ezeanah, Sola Olorunyomi, among others.
The niche he carved in that regard wormed him into the heart of Africa’s biggest writers’ guild, ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors), which contracted him to edit an anthology of budding writers, Voices from the Fringe: An Anthology of New Nigerian Writing (1988).
Born in Akure 1958, Garuba began his undergraduate studies in English at the University of Ibadan, where he earned BA, MA and PhD, leading to the publication of his first academic treatise, Mask and Meaning in Black Drama: Africa and the Diaspora (1988).
Garuba was so good that UI didn’t want to let him go after he completed his studies. He was to teach in the university for fifteen years before migrating to South Africa for a stint with the English Department, University of Zululand, before moving over, in 2001, to the University of Cape Town, where he taught in the African Studies and English departments until 2019, specialising in African and postcolonial literature.
One of his most seminal scholarly works was “Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society”, his 2003 paper published in Public Culture in which he espoused the concept of animist philosophy as “a continual re-enchantment of the world” and that “an animistic understanding of the world applied to the practices of everyday life has often provided avenues of agency for the dispossessed in colonial and postcolonial Africa.”
As a writer, Garuba first announced his presence in 1977 as a twenty-one old when his one-act play entitled Pantomime for Saint Apartheid’s Day was published in the Festac Anthology of Nigerian New Writing, published to celebrate the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria.
Five years later in 1982, he published his first poetry volume, Shadow and Dream & Other Poems, which made the Nigerian literary establishment took notice of his potentials. Perhaps his scholarly work load slowed him down creatively, and he never published another poetry volume until 2017 when Animist Chants and Memorials (Kraft Books) was birthed.
In recognition of his brilliance, Garuba was made a member of the editorial advisory board of the Heinemann African Writers Series and one of the editors of the journal, Postcolonial Text. He was also a one-time acting dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Cape Town, and held research fellowships at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University and Emory University, all in the US.
Garuba’s genius didn’t go unnoticed at Cape Town where he was teaching before he succumbed to leukemia. He was valorised, in a statement released by the institution announcing his death, as “a masterful writer and poet” and “a luminary in the field of African literature and a champion of postcolonial theory and postcolonial literature”.
Furthermore, “His dedication to his field was critical in developing the UCT Centre for African Studies as a hub for research on the African continent. As part of the university’s Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG), Professor Garuba was committed to developing thinking about what a decolonised curriculum would look like in Africa and the global south and what a multicultural curriculum would look like in the West. He believed that the curriculum was a particularly good place to plant the seeds of transformation and these insights made him a critical part of the CCWG and the university at large.”
The university, in addition, declared that Professor Garuba was committed to teaching students to be analytical, to question, to engage, to ask difficult questions and to use their imagination in solving real-world problems.” Besides, “During his tenure as director of the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics and acting dean of the faculty, he was a strong leader who displayed wisdom and empathy, and will be remembered for his warm personality and commitment to a truly transformed university centred around its African identity.”
Associate Professor Lis Lange, Acting Vice-Chancellor of the university, recalled that the late scholar-writer was as “a genuine person who dedicated his time to moving the university forward and supporting his students” and his scholarship was driven by a deep dedication to his students and to decolonising the study of Africa”.
She described his passing as “a great loss to the university and the transformation project, but we must continue this important work in his absence and build on the foundation he has left.”
Lamenting his passage, too, the Dean of Humanities, Associate Professor Shose Kessi, said Garuba was “a beautiful soul with a kind and generous spirit—an African intellectual and icon. He was a mentor to many colleagues and young scholars at UCT. He was loved by many and will be dearly missed.”
Garuba also functioned as a public intellectual in his life time. He was a former columnist with the Lagos-based media outlet, A.M.News, and an Editorial Board member of defunct The Post Express newspapers, also in Lagos. The deceased intellectual left behind his wife, Zazi; his twenty-year old son, Ruona; and fourteen year old daughter, Zukina.