CHUX OHAI writes on the sad tale of celebrated scholar, writer and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Theo Vincent, now facing hard times
The Ilaje area of Lagos is usually associated with social misfits of all kinds. Even the adjoining area like Bariga has a notoriety that makes many people think that it takes special courage to live there.
As a result, many members of the elite and other privileged people prefer to look elsewhere to establish their homes.
But currently, this is where foremost literary scholar and a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Theo Vincent, lives. It is one of the sore points that our correspondent’s long search for the great teacher has revealed.
As a quick reminder, many people who studied Literature in secondary school and beyond must remember A Selection of African Poems, which introduced students to early generations of African poets. The book was edited by Vincent and K. E. Senanu, a Ghanaian scholar. After decades of his devotion to scholarship, however, things are definitely no longer at ease with him.
Life in isolation
After the winding search, our correspondent finally traced Vincent to a dilapidated two-storey residential building in Ilaje quarters in Bariga. The veteran scholar lives on the ground floor. The moment the journalist knocked on the door of his apartment, a voice barked and demanded to know his mission and identity. It was clearly Vincent’s voice.
After a while, the retired professor of English reluctantly opened the door and admitted him into a sparsely furnished sitting-room that looked a bit unkempt. Several months of living in isolation had, no doubt, left its mark on Vincent. Apart from spotting a thick grey beard, he looked quite emaciated in a black shirt and a pair of soiled cream-coloured trousers that looked like they needed to be washed urgently. The scholar was putting on a pair of dark glasses, apparently to cover his sightless eyes.He managed to grope his way to sit in an arm chair in the centre of the room.
“I don’t usually grant interviews to journalists. Many of them have tried to talk to me in the last few years, but I refused to speak with them. We can talk about literature, since you said that you studied English in the university, and nothing more,” he said to our correspondent, before slipping into a lecture on poetry.
Midway into the monologue, Vincent’s wife, who was preparing to go out, complained of being short-changed by some officials of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria. Then, responding to a question bordering on their residence and the neighbourhood, she said, “No, we don’t like this place at all. But we have no other choice than to stay here until we can afford to move to a better place.”
Therefore, the woman’s response implies that an end to the constant movement by her family from one location to another is not in sight yet.
Unknown to many of his former students at the University of Lagos, as well as writers resident at home and in the Diaspora who have benefitted from his tradition of academic and intellectual excellence, Prof. Theo Vincent has lost the use of his eyes.
Not many people know how it came about or what circumstances were responsible for his visual disability. But a few, who knew about the gradual deterioration of his condition, are bitter that nothing was done to help him at the outset. One of them is a Senior lecturer in the Department of English and Literary Studies of the university, Dr. Chris Anyokwu.
Lamenting Prof. Vincent’s condition, Anyokwu says in an interview with our correspondence, “The fact that a former vice-chancellor of a Federal University should end up the way Prof. Theo Vincent has done — a visually-challenged and dirt-poor recluse, shorn of friends, relatives and subsisting on charity in utter obscurity — begs questions and confounds the imagination.
“Whatever the cause or causes of his ordeal and his tragic situation, every conscientious Nigerian must do his or her best to rehabilitate and integrate him into polite society to which he naturally belongs.
“The search for the whys and wherefores of his present condition is unnecessary. There is an urgent need to save Vincent, who is an icon of sorts, and to redeem the sullied image of the Nigerian Ivory Tower.”Not positively disposed to public sympathy
Even in his condition, Vincent appears to be very scared of drawing the attention of other members of the wider academic community, either in Nigeria or the Diaspora, as well as the public to his predicament.
“I don’t want to be made a subject of sympathy from other people. So let us talk about literature or something else. I know that I have a disability, but talking about it won’t help. The important thing is to cope with the situation and to keep praying,” he says to our correspondent who has just broached the subject to him.
Afterward, the man rambles about John Milton’s famous sonnet about his blindness. He speaks slowly, almost as if in a soliloquy, as he tries to relate the poet’s submission to his fate. For him, the occasion provides an opportunity to reflect on works by other poets — some of them Nigerian — that deal with the human condition and complex situations. A poem written by the late Prof. Ossie Enekwe, titled ‘Facing Kilimanjaro’, particularly appeals to him.
In vain, our correspondent makes an effort to lure Vincent into talking about his disability and the circumstances that led to it. Several attempts to subtly steer the conversation in this direction failed, effectively barred by brick walls erected by the professor to keep himself away from the public eye.
Celebrated as a scholar and administrator
Prof Theo Vincent retired from the University of Lagos in 2004, having taught in the Department of English for about 37 years. Some of his colleagues remember him as a quiet and focused academic who always made sound and unequalled intellectual contributions to the smooth running of the department.
He was appointed as the vice-chancellor of UniPort in 1997, at a time the institution was struggling to overcome a severe leadership crisis and other challenges that threatened its existence. He was at the helms of the affairs of the university till 2000 and distinguished himself as a scholar and administrator whose penchant for excellence and abhorrence for indiscipline helped to restore sanity to the institution.
A few years after he left UniPort, Vincent, who is also a poet, played a key role in the founding of Nigeria’s most prestigious literary award, the Nigeria Prize for Literature — sponsored by the Nigeria Liquefied and Natural Gas Company — alongside the likes of Emeritus Professor Ayo Banjo, Prof. Charles Nnolim, Prof. Dan Izevbaye, Prof. Femi Osofisan and Prof. Olu Obafemi.
As the chairman of the Literature Committee of the prize, Vincent’s decisions were crucial to the sustenance of a tradition of excellence that has greatly enhanced its value these past years.
Once, the celebrated scholar and writer had had to defend the integrity of the prize by declaring that many of the books of poetry received in a particular year’s contest lacked adequate craftsmanship and enlightened handling of the English language. As a result of the shortcoming, he had explained, the judges found it difficult to select up to 13 entries and they were forced to settle for nine.Further evidence of Vincent’s achievements and his reputation as a distinguished scholar and intellectual lies in the comments of one of his former students, Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, in the Festschrift — a special collection of essays — put together by the Department of English and Literary Studies in his honour to celebrate his retirement from the university after a meritorious service.
Ezeigbo wrote, “For years, he extended the boundaries of literary criticism in the country by discussing literature in the media, especially on television. His face became indelible, like ink, in the minds of literary enthusiasts and students of literature.
“Professor Vincent is a great teacher as well as an essayist, a critic, commentator and astute administrator. An eclectic intellectual, he is an undisputed authority in poetry, drama, literary theory and criticism and in African-American literatures”.
With the publication of the festschrift, Ezeigbo added, Vincent’s colleagues had decided to honour a man who had an “enduring tradition of selfless service”.
Hit by hard times
Considering his background, it is inconceivable that a man who, to quote Prof. Ezeigbo, has lived a life of endless service to society, would suddenly find himself on the wrong side of the socio-economic ladder. Sad as it is, this is exactly the truth about Vincent’s present situation.
Sources at the University of Lagos told our correspondent, on condition of anonymity, how the scholar had been hit by a series of misfortunes before and after his retirement from the institution.
One of them recalls, “He was with us for a while after he retired, teaching as a consultant. Then we noticed that his sight was gradually failing. Sometimes he would stand outside the faculty building as if in deep thought. To anyone watching him closely, it would become clear that he was having a problem walking home unaided.”
After some time, the source adds, everybody noticed that Vincent had lost his sight. Unfortunately, nobody had the presence of mind to intervene or offer to help him out of his predicament, which seemed to be compounded after he was asked by the university authority to pack out of his apartment at the staff quarters.
According to another source, who also craved anonymity, the scholar was virtually homeless after he was forced out of the flat that had served as his residence for almost 40 years.
“He was more or less ejected from the flat. Nobody knew where he moved to for a while, until we heard that an unnamed Christian organisation or church somewhere around Akoka had intervened and relocated him to a new apartment in the neighbourhood,” the source says.
Living on charity
The unnamed benefactor of the Vincents that had come to their aid at what seems like one of the darkest periods in the life of that family eventually turned out to be the Chapel of Christ Our Light. The church itself is situated on the Akoka campus of the University of Lagos.
Our correspondent gathered that the church basically took charge of the welfare of Prof. Vincent and his family when nobody else bothered to do it. One of the first things that the chapel did was to provide a new accommodation for the man and his family.
Although it is not known if the chapel is also responsible for the feeding of the family, it was learnt that the wife of the scholar is one of the workers in the church. The Chaplain of the chapel, Reverend Azuka Ogbolumani, refused to comment on the subject when our correspondent visited him for an interview in his office.
“Prof. Vincent has made me to promise that we won’t speak with the media about his condition. All I know is that the man is well. Yes, he has lost the use of his eyes. But he is not abandoned, as some people have speculated. His wife lives with him and she takes care of him,” he says.
Asked when he last saw the former Uniport VC, the chaplain replies, “I have not seen him for some time. But I see his wife every week because she worships in this church.”
Forced to live like a recluse
Prof. Vincent, it was also gathered, is virtually confined to his residence, no thanks to his visual impairment. He now lives like a recluse, shut out of the larger society and hardly leaves his home. Even if they want to reach him desperately, his friends or former colleagues cannot do so because none of them knows where he lives at present. Only a few trusted members of the Chapel of Christ Our Light can access his residence, but they are not willing to divulge information on how to reach him.
It is generally believed that the man has intentionally woven a cocoon around himself and does not desire to mix with the public. A few weeks ago, he moved from his former residence, which remains largely unknown to most people, to the Ilaje quarters. Our correspondent gathered that when the chapel got wind of the move, it made an effort to relocate him from the area, since it is associated with endless violence among rival street gangs.
“The church was ready to spend about N2m to secure another accommodation for him and his family, but he politely declined it,” a source said.
Vincent’s action further fuelled suspicions held among his former colleagues and students at the university that he is desperately holding on to a secret. Also, it ignited the rumour that he is anxious to remain incommunicado and out of the reach of perceived enemies.
Coping with visual disability
Although Prof. Vincent has lost the ability to see with his eyes, his handicap has not affected his passion for literature, especially poetry, nor stopped him from engaging in literary activity. In fact, he has concluded plans to publish his memoirs soon.
He says the book, which is still a work-in-progress, is based on his tenure as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt.
“Even in my condition, I have finished writing the book. What remains is to clean it up. Unfortunately, I cannot do that now because of my disability,” he says.
The eminent scholar wishes that he could still read lines of poetry like he used to do before losing his sight. Nowadays, he asks Fabian, the teenager that lives with him, to read to him. The verses are still the same and he enjoys listening to them.
“But it is not the same thing as reading by myself. I wish that I had not lost my sight,” he says, with a heavy sigh.
Just as Anyokwu has insinuated, Prof. Theo Vincent’s situation begs some questions. For example, some people have been asking what happened to the man’s earnings, while in service and his retirement benefits and why he would not live to talk about his condition. Others wonder how a man, who has occupied key positions before retiring and acted as a consultant to a multinational company like the NLNG, could possibly spend the rest of his life in need.
The questions have, for want of answers, continued to fuel more suspicions and the theory that there could be more than meets the eye.
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