IN THE EYES OF TIME – A TRIBUTE TO PROFESSOR O. U. KALU
By Isidore Emeka Uzoatu
The clement elements that paved my progress to Owerri the Imo State capital that mid-January morning portended good news – by Nigerian standards. The construction companies Julius Berger and CCC were busy “meeting” their convergent mandates of turning the infamous track road into a dual carriageway; there were intermittent stops and searches by a permutation of security agencies; more so, the phizog of fellow commuters radiated that selfsame communal augury of good tidings in spite of everything by which we are known. The enthusiasm in me heightened some more as I arrive my destination – the Imo State University – to the serendipitous embrace of Dr Emmanuel Iyama, a classmate I had not set eyes on since our school days close to three decades ago. A lecturer in the institution, Dr Emmanuel gave me three pieces of information in succinct order: that they were on strike, that he had only come around to collect something and that Professor O. U. Kalu died in a United States hospital on the7th of January.
The minute’s silence that followed was involuntary.
Professor Kalu was a cynosure of sorts to his students in the Religion Department of the University of Nigeria Nsukka. By 1980 when our set joined the now-truncated queue he was scarcely thirty and in our inchoate eyes already a professor for years! We looked up to him both literally and literarily – as if he gentrified our obscure department with his urbane presence and academic attainments. And he did. All these were to fade to an infinitesimal speck with our cutting of tails and initiation to his amiability.
His area of specialisation – Church History – easily became the course of choice for the young and dashing amongst us who saw in him what we could become if we tried hard enough. A kind of patron saint, he would often come to class dressed down to just a pair of jean slacks and a matching Cuban beach shirt to our amazement. Untutored, we had imagined that we would end up at the mercy of clerics wearing ankle-length gowns.
He was to expose us to contemporary issues in the history of the African Church that made the course not just relevant but important. For my first degree thesis he gave me the venturesome task of reviewing Professor Bolaji Idowu’s contribution towards the indigenisation of the Church. After publishing Towards An Indigenous Church, OUP (1965) following his radio talks on the theme in 1961, the eminent scholar and churchman had progressed to become Patriarch of the Methodist Church of Nigeria. Professor Kalu was of the opinion that he was a good case study having passed from scholarship to partisanship. Being a non-Methodist, the research entailed opened my eyes to the nascent field of ecumenism and just what was missing from modern African Christianity.
Perhaps the time is nigh to study Professor Kalu’s own contributions to this important debate. That is assuming if it has not been. Writing in the academic journal West African Religion Vol. 16 No. 2 in 1975 he had pointed out the need for a shift of emphasis in the protracted debate as denominationalism had bred enough insularity to derail the dream. He called for a redefinition of its goals to make a creative use of the past to domesticate Christianity in the African terrain – which he termed “traditionalisation”. A theme he re-echoed following the abortive moves to unite Nigerian Church. In his Divided People of God: Church Union Movement in Nigeria 1875-1966, NOK Publishers (1978), he chronicled the raised issues in his loud wonder at whether spiritual anger should be allowed to get to the marrow.
Though my path had crossed with that of Professor Kalu in our undergraduate days, they did not intertwine till I decided to come back for postgraduate studies. Under his tutelage we had been exposed to the rampant themes of Christianity in most African novels dating from the mid 20th century. Though in the ballot for supervisors I was allotted another, Professor Kalu in his spectacular magnanimity stopped at nothing to offer any help he could while I battled the fire that time. Often under the porch of his office in one of the prefabricated stockades that passed for buildings in post civil war UNN, he would deride me for not working hard enough – a ploy that always gingered me to want to outdo myself. Off the cuff he reeled out references from novels I must consult to make any meaningful contribution – Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, John Munonye’s The Only Son, T. Obinkerem Echewa’s The Land’s Lord, Ngugi wa’Thinogo’s The River Between, Ferdinand Oyono’s The Houseboy, Mongo Beti’s The Poor Christ of Bomba…
The field of modern African Church Historiography owes a debt to Professor Kalu as it concerns his fervent belief that the African had to have a say in the reconstruction of his history. More than baptismal and other records of the missions, he believed that everything that had an African imprint had to be reckoned with for the reconstruction of any peoples’ history for that matter – sacred or profane – to be valid. Raised in the days when the canons of history writing excluded the input of Africans on account of literacy, he was in the forefront of the drive to have the sources for African history widened in numerous academic articles to various international journals and successive books he edited: The History of Christianity in West Africa: The Nigerian Story(Ibadan, Daystar Press 1977); The History of Christianity in West Africa( London, Longman 1980).
Not restricted to his singular field, in 1977 he edited African Cultural Development in the Fourth Dimension Publishers Readings in African Humanities series. Brains are still touched by his contribution to the colloquium segment of the 1988 Ahajioku Lecture titled Under The Eyes of The Gods: Sacralisation and Control of Social Order in Igboland. His apt position of how the gods act as policemen to maintain moral and social order in the enclave was, in deed, professorial.
Nor were his abilities curtailed by attainment. When he had become everything possible here, he still ventured into new frontiers as visiting professor churning out books and articles. Of note is Power, Poverty and Prayer: The Challenge of Poverty and Pluralism in African Christianity 1960-96 and his most recent opus African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (OU P 2008).
*This tribute was published in The Vanguard on Sunday a Nigerian newspaperon Sunday February 8, 2009.