News The African Way

From Grace To Grace, By Loretta Oduware Ogboro-Okor

As a girlchild growing up, I was most fortunate to have a father who invested his time, money, energy, and his very soul into raising his children. He made sure my growing brain and formative mind understood how much time God, the creator spent making me – fearfully and wonderfully with no other duplicate made. My father taught me that as the original prototype made in the image and likeness of God and given His free-will too, it means I can call things into being and create things as well. To perfect this act, I must just like God, value every creation and understand my place in the grand scheme of things. I must be ready to work and walk with others, to grow others. He also warned me, that there will be those who will come to tempt me, in my journey of life, despite my determination to walk the path, doing my work of self-actualisation and maintaining my avowed poise to tow humility without losing my Deoxyribonucleic (DNA) make up of self-esteem. He made it clear to me that, if possible, I am to be at peace with all men and women. The operative phrase here is “if possible”. Reason being, that sometimes when you do not wish to step on toes, some persons will ensure they bring their full leg(s) right onto your path, even add their bodies and heads sometimes. Daddy warned me that what you do in these extreme cases when they arrive, is to first get a ladder to climb over, try going around or outrightly, stepping on the presented anatomic obstruction.

Growing up in Nigeria at the time, I was quick to identify individuals across the world, whose lifestyle fitted in some ways (not all of course) into the bulk of what I have explained in the first paragraph. The lessons that my father infused into my psyche. I developed a discerning mind, to pick out those who matched against the childhood list given to and embedded into my mind by my father. Seventy percent is the pass score, that I deem the threshold to make them worthy of becoming my mentor. I pick what I perceive as that which floats my boat from them and leave what I perceive as not my cup of tea about them for them. Make no doubt, the stakes are high for you to make my mentor list; be thou far or near, virtual, or physical. Scoring this seventy percent from my assessment has not been and is “not beans” at all as Nigerians would say.

In Professor Grace Alele-Williams, I found the seventy percent and more. She was a daughter of her Sobe father from Edo State and her Itsekiri mother from Delta State meaning she emitted the full dogged spirit of Midwestern Nigeria and later Bendel. In her, I found a lot of my lessons at the foot of my father vividly come alive. Firstly, I respected the subject she commanded – because even though I studied Further Mathematics in secondary school, my brain often wondered who would be brave enough to tackle Mathematics head-on. She mastered this subject many, including myself consider a monster of the natural sciences to the extent that she obtained her Doctorate in Mathematics Education from the University of Chicago in 1963, while I was yet unborn, “floating in the streets of the heavenly places serving tea and biscuits”.  The regal poise with which this unique creation of God carried herself even till the final days in this earthly realm was another thing that made me sure that she must have found my father’s lesson notes even before me. Having found those lesson notes, she imbibed the fact that on the day she was made, God and the Angels did not make another person – her cathedral size deposit of self-esteem should not be confused for baseless pride but rather, should be emulated by every a girlchild.

When in 1985, Professor Grace Alele Williams became the first female Vice Chancellor (VC) of the University of Benin (UNIBEN) and by extension, first female Vice-Chancellor in an African University, there was no social media. This feat, which in her usual way, she made to look effortless would have set social media ablaze if it happened today. She was the one who made me realise that there was such a post as Vice-Chancellor. I never quite understood the import of the position of Vice-Chancellor before she came on the scene. She brought not only her glamour and her Midas touch but also her dedication and quest for excellence to “VC-ship”. For me, being her neighbour in Federal Government Girls College in Benin, Ugbowo where I was a border was a big blessing. At times when I found the rare opportunity to visit the University of Benin for mass or at mid-term breaks, I used to go to the car park in the Vice-Chancellor’s office (VCO as it is called) to sit and wait for when she arrives at the office in her car or is about to leave in her car, so I could catch a glimpse of this “diva and goddess of academia”. On three such occasions out of over ten times when I went “Professor Grace Alele-Williams gazing”, I saw her. Words cannot describe till this day, the joy I felt, the inspiration infused and the determination I mustered to succeed in life just watching her from a distance. Her regal poise and charming disposition were infectious. People need to remember me and many others like me when they attempt to measure her impact on humanity. The indices of her key performance in the lives of the girlchild and women education as well as men upliftment, will be grossly under-measured if it is done based on her numerous roles: directing the Institute of Education, being a Consultant to United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), a board director in Chevron-Texaco and the Institute of International Education Planning, as Vice-president of the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education and as Chairwoman of African Mathematical Union Commission for Women in Mathematics. Her impact on humanity may not even be measurable because it becomes exponential when the many Lorettas of this world, who have stood and who will come to stand (some are not yet born) on the shoulders of this giant and amazon of her time are taken into account.

She earned many labels in her time, as strong intelligent independent female minds are prone to be given. However, one label and name given by the social commentator for good governance Dr Tony Agbons, has resonated with me and it is “VC emeritus and ambidextrous academic polyglot of motherly proportions”. He recounted how in 1992, the students at the University of Benin, were demonstrating due to some ills, laid at the foot of the University management and the Government of the day. They were set to go on a riot or “Aluta” as it is called in Nigerian local parlance. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Grace Alele-Williams arrived and walked right through the angry crowd of students with the confidence only she could muster. She came without the paraphernalia of police or bodyguards and yet melted through the crowd as hot knife would cut through butter. He recounted how the sheer aura of her presence parted the mob like Moses parted the Red Sea. Grace the Professor walked through and then gracefully climbed on the concrete slab the angry mob had converted to their podium. She nicely requested the public address system from the leader of the crowd, who had no option but to hand it over. Then, she took over the makeshift podium, addressing the volatile crowd. He recounts how her speech commenced with her saying “I come before you, to join you and be with all of you, not as a Vice-Chancellor, but as a mother…”. He explained how her words though very firm, were very inspiring and soothing to the raw nerves of the “Aluta” crowd. She then gave them the public address system and asked them to make their requests known. The Professor not only spoke but she also listened, and she took notes. Following which she then decided with the students, the needs she could meet from their list, within a jointly accepted time frame. On that occasion, the students felt heard and very valued that they gave up on their “Aluta” move. Dr Agbons went on to tell me that what will be remembered most by all the students, was that she actualised the agreed action points from the day within the promised time frame.

A retired Professor from UNIBEN, currently in his early eighties whom I spoke to a few days ago, wept like a baby at the passing of this National treasure. He said there were many who said she ruled UNIBEN with an “Iron fist” while she was Vice-Chancellor behind the “Iron mask”. However, in his opinion, the reason many of the mediocre minds labelled her that way was because they could not keep up with her lifestyle of and her administrative flare for excellence. In between tears, he told me how she facilitated scholarships for lecturers, training, and capacity building in other universities abroad.  He reinforced how fiercely loyal she was as a friend and how humane she was at her core, with enormous value for human life. Mama Orode, as he called her, was one of his best critics who never hesitated to tell him whenever he goofed as much as she did not withhold praise any time, he merited it.

On the 25th of March 2022 when I saw the message from the current VC of UNIBEN, Professor Lilian Imuetinyan Salami that this great slay queen and colossus of academia had taken a final bow, I felt an oxymoronic sadness and feeling of joy at the same time. The sadness was the vacuum created by her exit – just knowing she did it, she was there, and I did not see her with two heads or eyes was enough propellant for me all those many years ago when I went “Professor Alele-Williams gazing” and now, she was gone. The joy is that the new world, social media and virtual spaces will again, now chronicle her works and value properly, giving them wings to fly and live in younger minds that hitherto, did not know about her. In all, she lives! Even as the UNIBEN flag billows at half mast, I in my capacity as President of the University of Benin Alumni Association, United Kingdom Branch, join the entire Staff, Students, Associates, Friends, and Alumni of UNIBEN Worldwide, to celebrate this iconic and cerebral slay queen.  I solidarize with the message her daughter Dr Orode Williams-Doherty put out on behalf of the family – “let us not mourn but celebrate an exceptional life, a blessing of a mother and grandmother, dearly beloved daughter of the Most High God, outstanding academician and first class daughter of Nigeria”.

I could not help but juxtapose the life of this Diva, her human capacity building and especially her girlchild mentoring to that of certain other Nigerian women and the example they leave the younger generation. I know many of my readers will be saying I am biased towards this great woman; to that, I will say it is true that one woman’s terrorist is another woman’s freedom fighter and remember in the beginning when I told you about not stepping on toes 101 course from my father and how some people will come in your way with their full anatomy plus his suggested solutions to them?  However, for me, the one thing I will be able to speak directly to, is that it is all about balance and how much tilt of the scale an individual’s life work makes in the direction of adding value to humanity. Professor Grace Alele-Williams spent a lifetime mentoring directly and indirectly, many people, especially women, just like me across borders. She continues this mentoring and empowerment even in death. The question is, who and how are you mentoring? Adieu Professor Emeritus Grace Alele-Williams. Indeed a Grace has moved on to a higher Grace to rest in Elysium.

Dr. Ogboro-Okor is Author of the book, My Father’s Daughter

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