Jowitt: In affectionate memory of Conrad Brann

GIVEN the age of Professor Emeritus Conrad Max Benedict Brann of the University of Maiduguri – he was approaching his 89th birthday when he died last June – those who knew him can hardly have been surprised to learn that he had ended his stay on earth.  Tributes were paid to him at the funeral, on August 13, 2014, by a great number of Nigerians in different walks of life, and rightly so: for this was a good man and a fine scholar, and in celebrating him we remember an unusual life, in which a considerable part of the history of the world of his time was represented.

   I got to know Conrad in 1987 when I had just been appointed a Senior Lecturer in the then Department of English and European Languages at Bayero University, Kano.  As I was later to realise, he knew everybody who was anybody in the field of languages and linguistics (broadly defined) in Nigeria, and we were introduced to each other on his visit to the Department by Professor Munzali Jibril.  His name was not new to me, because by that time I had taken up serious study of the Nigerian variety of English, and he had already published articles about the sociolinguistic aspects of English and indigenous languages in Nigeria, a subject in which he was passionately interested and for which he developed a cornucopia of new terminological labels.  Perhaps his deepest interest, however, lay in Romance philology, grounded in his thorough knowledge of Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish.   I noticed when we first met that he spoke a refined, highly correct English with just a trace of a German accent.  I later felt that he was reluctant to speak German, his mother tongue.

   The number of times we met after that first encounter may not have exceeded the number of fingers on my two hands, but I slowly pieced together the story of his life.  As I understand it, he was born in Germany into a Jewish family who, like many Jewish people in European countries at the time, had converted to Christianity.   As soon as Hitler and his Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933 their situation, like that of all German citizens with Jewish blood, was endangered, and his father lost his job as a professor of medicine at the University of Hamburg.  Conrad went to Italy and continued his schooling in Rome; however in 1938, when Italy out of growing friendship for Germany introduced its own anti-Semitic laws, Conrad had to flee again.  He reached the safety of England about the time the Second World War began, and completed his secondary education there.  When the war was over he proceeded to the University of Oxford and took a degree in Mediaeval and Modern European Languages.  Interestingly, an undergraduate friend of his was one David Jowitt, who later became a clergyman of the (Anglican) Church of England.  Conrad, who loved paradoxical connections, naturally wondered if I was any relation of his friend, but I was not.  

     After graduation Conrad worked for many years for the United Nations; its international character and noble objectives must have appealed to someone with his kind of experience.  He came to Nigeria in 1966, at a highly fraught time in this nation’s history, and began a new career as a university lecturer, initially at the University of Ibadan, where he specialized in the teaching of French.  In 1978, he moved to the diametrically opposite corner of Nigeria, to the University of Maiduguri, and he remained there, eventually as a Professor of Languages and Linguistics, for the rest of his days.  

    I take this opportunity to pay sincere tribute to Conrad as one who assisted and encouraged my development as a scholar, at the same time knowing that he helped many others in the same way.  In the early years of our friendship I was perhaps – to be frank – sometimes disconcerted by what I might call the sharpness of his manner, but I recognized that this was allied to his conception of his teacher’s vocation.   He knew that a good teacher must not allow the pupil to wallow in self-satisfaction, and must be critical, since undergoing and profiting from proper criticism is vital to anyone’s growth.

    Conrad was a generous and broadminded man, and I found no meanness of spirit in him.  I remember visiting him for the first time at Maiduguri in 1992, and it was characteristic of his thoughtful kindness that he had invited me to go there to present a seminar paper, chiefly so as to have the opportunity to advertise my book on Nigerian English that had at last been published earlier in the year.  It was the month of June, and very hot in Maiduguri; but Conrad gave me the air-conditioned bedroom in his house to sleep in.  He also one evening held a cocktail party in my honour.  In the mornings I would hear sounds of a typewriter in action in the distance, and I would grope my way through his masses of books and African carvings and sculptures to find him already busy in another part of the house, busy with a secretary, busy keeping a careful record of all letters received or sent and giving each one a serial number.  It summed up his careful, thorough, determined approach to all his work, which, allied to his breadth of knowledge and his love of linguistic curiosities, resulted in his remarkably large production of publications.  Some people would say, of course, that this dedication to work was one continuing aspect of the German in him.

  Many of Conrad’s friends and students will remember his meticulousness.  Another instance of it is that one Sunday early in November he visited me in Kano – in the days when, travelling to Europe, he would stay at the University of Maiduguri Guest-House there.  It happened to be All Saints’ Day in the Christian calendar.  Like me, he had been received into the Catholic Church some years earlier, and I switched to French to tell him that that morning I had attended Mass for ‘Le Toussaint’ (‘Toussaint’ being the French word for “All Saints”).  At once he corrected me – ‘La Toussaint’ he said, with great emphasis on the definite article – I had got the gender wrong.  

    I was happy to host Conrad at my house in Jos a few times, usually with one or more members of his entourage.  On one occasion he came with me to Mass in the Staff Quarters church, and the worshippers cheered with delight when, by now over 80, he danced a few joyful steps as he went up to the altar with his offering.  

    Unable to escape from Germany, his parents had been gassed to death in Hitler’s concentration camp at Auschwitz.  He never married and he lost contact with his only brother, although he was in touch with more distant relatives and visited Germany every year.  He must have felt that he had found himself in Nigeria, and that he had found happiness here.  Thanks are due to the many Nigerians, especially those who cared for him at Maiduguri in his last years, who helped, along with his strong Christian faith, to bring that about.   

     I am grateful for the opportunity provided by this distinguished newspaper to celebrate before a wider public a remarkable man who was widely loved and respected and is now greatly missed.  Requiescat in pace.

• Jowitt is a Professor of English in the Department of English, University of Jos.

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