Awodiya: 70 strides on a road less travelled
If he wanted to shock me, the effect was even more devastating. “I nearly did not mark your paper,” the bespectacled and smartly dressed lecturer announced as soon as I entered his office. We had just resumed from the first semester break in my very first year in the university when I was summoned. I cannot now recall the exact words he used, but it was to the effect that my handwriting was atrocious.
I braced up for worse: “Your writing had good stuff,” he then said, betraying a smile. The relief was overwhelming. Year was 1982. It was on that ambivalent note that a bond developed between us, which flourished with the passing years. In 2009, it turned full cycle when my daughter had to stay two nights at his house to attend University of Benin post-JAMB test. Though she studied Sociology, Prof. Muyiwa Peter Awodiya, monitored her progress and when she graduated, he would always ask after her any time we spoke, reminding me: “Your daughter is very intelligent; make sure she comes back to Benin for her post graduate studies! The university needs people like her…”
I used to wonder why he gave so much attention to me in spite of his busy schedule, but when I reached out to some former students while working on this material, I discovered to my surprise and admiration, that caring for his students – past and present – is second nature to him. Their impression of the man range from the sentimental to outright hero worship! To Hajia Hauwa Sodiq (1988 set): “Mr. Awodiya was more than my teacher. He could relate to us at any level. He was always interested in our success and could deprive himself of his time and finance just to ensure we achieve,” while Bridget Russel of the same set says he treated them as his children. “He was my husband’s lecturer, my lecturer and our first daughter’s lecturer at different points of his career. Permit me to say therefore that my family benefited immensely from Professor Awodiya’s wealth of knowledge as a lecturer with the University of Benin.”
Cynthia Gregg (2003) is grateful to him “for all of those teachings that moulded me into the manager of men, material and resources that I am today. He challenged me to improve my planning and organising skills. I suspect there are thousands of people who feel the same. Most important, he has a powerful life-long impact on me personally.” Suziette Ukey (2004) sees him as “a friend, a dad, a mentor and not a lecturer. He was my biggest fan, as much as I am his for he celebrates good work and discipline. He taught me all I know about management, especially about event management. Today, I use his great practical teaching to succeed in my industry.”
What of Okoh Aihe (1985)? “Awodiya would eventually become one of the most reliable lecturers in the Theatre Arts Department of the University of Benin; a friend, a brother and a father-figure to most of the young students who would eventually find themselves in the harsh environment of a new academic culture. He would oil this relationship at any cost and inconvenience. That is who he is. A lecturer that sits closer than a brother.” To Benson Odaman (1985):
“Awodiya would go the extra length of getting us involved in productions and ensure that we get duly paid to keep the survival flame aglow. Honestly, Prof. Muyiwa was a Thespian with a difference. He deservedly earned a lot of respect from all of us. As a matter of fact, a lot of us are even closer to him now than we were while in school.” Dada Ajai-Ikhile (1986) is no less enthused: “I must confess that I was never really close to Mr. Awodiya. It was after I left school and was thrown into the market to find a space for myself in the Nigerian economy that I started to appreciate more the life lessons I learnt from Mr. Awodiya’s Theatre Management classes. As the years rolled by Professor Awodiya and I became so close that he would entrust to me his beautiful teenage daughters to take care of while they were holidaying with their father’s friend in Lagos. Professor Awodiya’s first two daughters became like baby sisters to me.”
And to Andrew Okungbowa (1988): “As a person there is really a tiny line that separates his personality from whom he was as a teacher. He is loving and caring, a father-figure that he is and ensured that you don’t go astray.” Abiodun Irorere David (1996) does not see him just as her lecturer but a father-figure. “A very humane person; Prof. Awodiya’s humility and patience in working with students to achieve their academic goals are some qualities I admire about him too.” To Stanley Ohenhen (1988): “Muyiwa Awodiya and his general teaching and mentoring approach, and particularly his Theatre Management class engagement, became my most rewarding and remarkable experience and encounter in my undergraduate life. Since then, till date, he became a mentor and a role model to me…”
And asked why he bothers so much about his former students, the Professor of Theatre Arts said: “I have always been very confident about the products we put out to the community and to the world in general. I am very interested in monitoring the performances of the ex-students of our department in the outside world. And I have not been disappointed.”
A good feeling, no doubt, for a man whose dreams like a budding plant denied of nitrogen almost withered before getting to full bloom. He lost his father soon after his secondary school and barely one year after he gained admission to the University of Ibadan, with his mother picking the bills, she also passed on! Inconsolable but resolute, he fell back on stipends he got working part time with Radio Nigeria and NTA Lagos. Later he took a students’ loan from the Federal Government, which he recalled, made “me survive those grueling times in the University of Ibadan.”
For his post-graduate studies in the United States, he secured a scholarship from his state government, the old Oyo State. Midway into the programme, however, his allowances were stopped by the embassy officials for his temerity to protest their questionable practice of delaying the release of funds to the students while putting the money in fixed deposits to mature for pecuniary purposes. Talk of a rebel with a cause. Left high and dry in a foreign land, he took to menial jobs to survive. He washed plates in hotels, did security service job as a security guard at a toy factory, drove taxi for a taxi company and at a point withdrew completely from the university. After working for three months night and day he was able to save for school fees that he needed to pay to complete his studies.
Once done, he strutted to the Nigerian embassy in youthful bravado to taunt the officials and show off his treasured certificate. But a new Sheriff, as it were, had taken charge. Ambassador Kazuare was not only sympathetic to his cause but directed that all his withheld allowances be paid to him in cash…
He worked briefly at the University of Ibadan before he moved to the University of Benin, Benin City, where he has spent his entire working career as a scholar, researcher, theatre manager and author, moulding generations of students who are today his proud ambassadors.
A firm believer in theory laced with practice, his appointment as General Manager, Muson Centre, Lagos, in the mid-90s, gave him an ample opportunity to prove the notion of making year-on-year profit for the owners throughout his tenure. By the time he returned to UNIBEN, his teaching technique changed, buoyed by his practical experience. Still, the Professor of Theatre Arts is bothered about the management of our public art institutions such as the National Theatre, Lagos, and Oba Akenzua Theatre, Benin City, among others, which today, are in parlous state. He believes these places can be properly managed to make profit for the federal or state governments that built them.
Indeed, his Inaugural lecture, ‘Managing our Culture; Securing our Future’ is a blueprint to turn around the culture sector in Nigeria…
• Onoko, a former member of THISDAY newspapers, writes from Abuja