Urhobo Historical Society

Frank Ukoli: A Memorial Tribute

By Mark Nwagwu
Professor of Zoology, University of Ibadan, Nigeria

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Monday, January 3, 2005.

THERE are men and women who define their age by what they are; the metaphor by which the times are best understood. Such persons stamp their world with the strength of their character and beliefs which shine forth brightly for all to see and emulate. Amongst these, there are the select few, filled with love for their fellow humans. They are the ones the Holy Spirit sets apart for us so that we may all learn to find and serve God in those who are by our side. Professor Frank Mene Adedemisinwaye, whom I knew closely for over 47 years, from 1957 until his death on Tuesday, December 21, 2004, was a man filled with love, whose life enriched all who came close to him; a man of grace and candour, a man towering in moral rectitude. From him one gains clear insight as to the meaning of life.

I first met Frank in September 1957 when I came to the University College, Ibadan, to read Zoology, by direct entry, having passed the Higher School Certificate examination. He had been admitted also to read Zoology in 1956 and went on to the honours degree programme in 1957 so we were in the same class. He graduated in 1960 and completed his doctoral thesis for the Ph.D in parasitology, University of London, in 1964. I took my Ph.D. in developmental biology at the University of Stockholm in 1965. Frank spent a memorable week with my wife, Helen, and I in Stockholm in the summer of 1964 after defending his thesis. He returned to Ibadan thereafter and we followed in 1965.

At the time I was at the Federal Department of Agricultural Research, Moor Plantation, Ibadan. Frank visited us in our rooms at Lafia hotel, one afternoon, took a good look at myself, my forlorn wife and our two children, Ugochi and Uzoma, all looking like fish flung on to the desert sand and drove us straight to his flat in Kongi layout, as it was then called. We spent the next six weeks or so with him until our house at Moor Plantation was ready for occupancy. Professor John Ebie of blessed memory also lived in Frank's flat at this time. So big was his heart, he gladly accommodated the needs of his friends.

I left with my family for the United States in 1966, moving to Brock University, Canada, in 1969 where we were until 1974 when we visited Nigeria on sabbatical leave. Frank brought me to the Zoology Department and asked me to put all my efforts into developing the area of cell and molecular biology. At the same time, Dr. Ajovi Scott-Emuakpor, who had initiated the molecular biology and genetics programme was about to leave.

By now, Frank was a full professor of great influence and persuasion having served as the President of the Nigerian Science Association. He was clearly one of the brightest and best zoologists of his time. A foundation Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science and the first Nigerian Head of the Zoology Department, University of Ibadan, Frank developed teaching and research programmes that marked out the department for academic rigour and scholarship, a tradition which subsequent Heads of Department laboured to maintain, with varying degrees of success.

Out of his great zeal to give zoology a strong stamp of molecular biology, Frank convinced me to return to Nigeria, to Ibadan. The novel position of Reader in Cell and Molecular Biology was advertised and I applied in 1976. I finally returned to Nigeria, to the Department of Zoology, University of Ibadan, first as a temporary senior lecturer until my appointment as Reader in 1977. I was promoted to a professorship in 1982. These were exceedingly exciting years for me in teaching and research. As is thus obvious, Frank's life and mine met at so many points; in fact, they were interlaced, if you pulled at the one, you would be tampering with the other.

There are many great men and women we have not met and may never meet, and even if we met them, nothing much would happen between us for their minds would be far from us. Still, we wish we knew them. There are many others we know, good men and women, but we really do not wish to come any closer to them because their ways and ours do not quite match. Then, if we are fortunate, there are the few, the very few, who make us complete, giving us to ourselves, helping us to know ourselves better and better. They are those who roll their pounded yam the way we do, who write and speak English the way we do, or admire, or wish we could; who have a sense of humour and do not take themselves too seriously; who find joy in the simply ordinary things of life; who search for truth and speak the truth; who can dance both in the mud and in marble halls; who love and are forgiving. These are my friends. And I can count them on my fingers.

With a refined taste for the arts, Frank wrote refreshingly impeccable English, evidence of good schooling at Government College, Ughelli, in the 50s. He read whatever I wrote whenever he could and I struggled with limited success to write as well as he did. He read widely, always with a novel in hand. A keen sportsman, he was equally a jazz enthusiast. He introduced me to Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and others and had well over 200 hundred jazz albums by all the masters and their proteges.

When I had problems with vision in my right eye, I sent him a message telling him about it. His reply, on August 18, 2004, "Nwangwu, What? I can't believe it. Accept my sympathy. I hope u (you) can read with yr (your) left eye. Best to Helena. Collins". He delightfully called my wife, Helen, 'Helena' and mischievously called me "Nwangwu", with 'n' after 'Nwa' and before 'gwu'. No one else called Helen by that name and now she may never ever hear herself being called "Helena". Just as she was called, "Helen-not-of-Troy" by the late Professor Billy J. Dudley, another close friend, who passed away on December 23, 1980. Billy and Frank died just days before Christmas. Our world is slowly growing smaller and smaller. Alas! Our stature is diminished in the loss.

Another close friend, one of those I count off my right finger, also got the news of my ocular travails and after a meeting of the Nigerian Academy of Science I thought he would call me aside to express his sympathy. Instead he was dilly-dallying and I was getting upset but could not show it, or I would make a fool of myself. He had something else in mind - for us to spend the afternoon with him and his dear wife. Together with another one of my count-off-the-finger friends (when this one learnt of my eye problems he immediately developed some pain in the right eye too and had to see a doctor and wondered whether this was a case of suffering-in-sympathy), we all drove off to Lekki. Little did we know we were in for a soul-enriching treat, an afternoon I shall never forget; that taught me so much about true friendship, leading me to search for a title for an article on "Friendship": William Butler Yeats got it right when he said, "Think where man's glory most begins and ends. And say my glory was I had such friends". Some years ago, I got a birthday card from Frank with the ending, "I love you truly. Collins". You see the 'Ukoli' if 'Frank Ukoli' was anglicised to 'Collins'.

I quarrel only with my friends and occasionally Frank, regrettably, drank large cupfuls of my sometimes acerbic temper. But it did not matter at all. I am a very lucky man to have known him. A meek and humble man, he cultivated the company of the ordinary folk. And he loved children, no matter how untidy they were. He loved everyone. He was the most approachable of men, not like some of us who would meet your entrance into our office with a stern countenance that did not brook any disturbance. Not so with Frank; he had a kindly nature, warm, friendly, comforting.

When Araba, Frank's amiable wife turned 60, Frank had a breakfast party for her after morning Mass " Frank had converted to Roman Catholicism, was an ardent communicant and attended morning Mass regularly at Ibadan. Helen and I were there and good wishes were expressed for a happy birthday and a happy life. I did not want to add anything more but Frank said to me, "Aren't you going to say anything?"

Well, I obliged my good friend and saw sufficient light to say that blessed with our wonderful, charming and immaculate wives, who have given us a life of sheer bliss, the only thing that could top our experience would be to go to heaven at the end of our life; that we have no good reason whatsoever to miss heaven above, for we have indeed experienced the joy of heaven of this earth, thanks to our wives. All that was left for us was the heaven of eternity. It was my prayer then. It is my prayer for Frank now.