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PROF. MATTHEW MEVAYERHO UMUKORO: A Shining Scholar in Nigeria’s Ivory Tower

MATTHEW MEVAYERHO UMUKORO

He’s not a model but his cream suit, shirt, and red bow-tie catch the eye. His modest countenance belies brilliance. His gait isn’t extravagant but he glistens with grace. Golden gray hairs adorn his head. He looks up slightly with a time-worn smile. The stillness in his eyes makes them sparkle in their sockets. Gentle, polite, and unassuming, he lives a remarkable life, simple and sometimes surreal. Please, meet Prof. Matthew Umukoro, a professor of Theatre Arts, as unveiled by Funke Olaode

That night, he looked into the western skies, far away from his oil-rich Niger Delta region. The glistening stars dazzled and sparkled in the pitch-dark heavens. His eyes lit up. His jaw shifted. Some lyrics formed on his lips. He took a breath and the rhyme synced with the celestial bodies…”Twinkle, twinkle little stars…How I wonder what you are!” The stars smiled as they sparkled more in radiance. In awe, he stood still, silent and involved, as if transported into the very heavens he gazed at. With his dreamy eyes, he saw a future he didn’t see.

“Matthew!” the dreamy-eyed boy’s mother called. Abeokuta offered him quietude. As the years flew by, he didn’t turn out like his biblical namesake –either as a tax collector or a preacher. It’s not too difficult to imagine what life was for him living in that rustic town before, during, and after Nigeria’s independence.

At 70, with at least 40 years spent as an erudite scholar, the episodes of childhood aren’t that much of a distant, forgotten past for Prof. Matthew Mevayerrho Umukoro.

“My childhood experiences were those of Abeokuta of the early 1950s,” the professor of Theatre Arts recalls with a tone of nostalgia, “where I was taken shortly after my birth.”

His father was a policeman and didn’t stay in Abeokuta with him all the time.

“Even though my father was transferred to many cities in the old Western Region, my mother stayed put at Abeokuta to prevent a disruption in our schooling. Thus, I grew up speaking both Yoruba (the social language) and Urhobo (his mother tongue),” adds, the retired University of Ibadan professor.

Modest Umukoro, either by design or omission didn’t mention much about his childhood adventures and even ambitions. Sometimes, he seems to appear self-deprecatory. Yet, inside his soul is a beautiful human. He understands the frailty of mankind and the limitations that come with that.

“I wasn’t exceptionally brilliant,” he states, and emphasizing that point, he adds, “by any stretch of the imagination.”

Inhabiting two worlds, tribes and languages, nobody missed the ingenuity with which Umukoro handles the English language. As modest as he always strives to be, that’s something he couldn’t hide behind a veil of humility.

“I was an average student,” he says matter-of-factly.

“But,” he admits, “with a natural gift for English, which remained my best subject all through my secondary school days.”

With pride in his voice and eyes, Prof. Umukoro adds, “I was also distinctly the best student in oral English in which I had an A1 in the School Certificate Exam.”

Again, Umukoro’s modesty shines through when he reveals: “However, just as I was outstanding in English at Afrograms Abeokuta, I was also proverbially poor in Mathematics.”

Every protagonist has his or her own Achilles’ heel. So does Umukoro.

After Afrograms, he attended Igbobi College. He didn’t just do brilliantly well in English.

“I came out with extremely brilliant results. For instance, at the Lower Sixth Arts, I won the first prize in each of my three subjects, Literature, History, Economics, plus General Paper (English), and an additional prize for best performance, making five prizes altogether,” Umukoro recollects.

“I wasn’t offering Bible Knowledge and Geography – the only two prizes left,” the professor adds.

“This performance,” he acknowledges, “contributed to my being appointed the Prep Prefect in my second year. The prizes at the Upper Sixth Arts were based on the results of the final examinations conducted by the University of Cambridge, which removed any insinuation of bias or sentiment.

“I repeated the feat, achieving the best results in all the subjects I offered except History which went to Ayoola, who made an ‘A’ in the subject. The nine prizes I won in my two years at Igbobi outnumbered all my prizes at Afrograms.”

That shining didn’t illuminate on his tertiary education. This much Prof Umukoro admits.

“After my first degree in English in which I obtained a disappointing Second Class Lower degree, I didn’t give any thought to postgraduate studies,” he says with a seeming sense of regret.

Be that as it may, that his “natural gift for English” might have shone through when the British Council offered him a scholarship to study at the University of Wales, Cardiff, for a master’s degree in Drama. That was the beginning of a journey he embarked upon without looking back.

Recalling his experience in Cardiff, Prof. Umukoro relates, “My supervisor turned out to be Prof. Geoffrey Axworthy, the founder of the School of Drama; the school metamorphosed into the Department of Theatre Arts, UI.”

He was exceptional in the programme and such excitement was noticeable in Umukoro, even decades after.

“The external examiner from the University of Leeds described my MA thesis as being ‘more than sufficient for an MA, in fact, deserving an M.Phil.’ So, as you can see, my academic career was a chequered experience, with its high and low points,” the professor quips.

As a young man, Umukoro had his eyes set on a goal: to be a literary artist.

“Yes,” he says.

“It has always been my dream to be a literary artist, and I saw English as the basic linguistic tool needed to achieve this.”

Even as a child, as that little boy imagined at the outset enthralled by the constellation, inhabiting the worlds of Yoruba and Urhobo, the English language was what gripped his heart the most.

“English was my first love, and my ambition from my secondary school days, was to obtain a first degree in it, which I achieved in 1973,” says Prof. Umukoro with an air of satisfaction.

But like Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ullyses, Umukoro was determined to “follow knowledge like a sinking star.”

He explains, “(That) fuelled my ambition to be a poet and dramatist.”

Subsequently, Umukoro formed a drama club at the Federal Government College, Kaduna, where he worked immediately after the one-year compulsory National Youth Service Corps.

“I began producing my plays regularly at the British Council Hall, Kaduna, which gave fame to the school and brought me in close contact with the director and staff of the council. That opened the way to my postgraduate studies in Drama under the sponsorship of the British Council, and this became a stepping stone to my doctoral degree in Theatre Arts, as soon as I returned to Nigeria.”

For every ambition, there’s always an intention. Umukoro’s seemed worlds apart. He knew he had a natural gift for English but he had intended to be something else.

In reaction to a reference that teaching chose him, the professor says, “Yes, it is, indeed, more appropriate to say that teaching chose me, against my initial intention to be an industrialist.”

For good reasons, he was convinced he was destined to be an industrialist.

“I had secured an appointment with a reputable motor company immediately after graduation,” he narrates, “as a personnel officer.”

However, he lost that job when he was drafted into the pioneer set of the National Youth Service Corps in 1973.

He adds, “The job wasn’t kept waiting for me.

“I had to settle for a teaching job under the Federal Ministry of Education before crossing over to the university after my postgraduate qualification, where I served for over 40 years.”

Prof. Umukoro didn’t hesitate to say: “Even though I never chose to teach, neither did I receive any formal training in teaching.”

Yet, decade after decade, he’s become a teacher of many teachers.

“I’ve done nothing else all my life, but teach. One recent newspaper article referred to me as ‘an accidental teacher,’” he relates.

In fact, the honest, modest, and prudent scholar had other options.

He attests: “I had other options.”

So, why did he spend what could be described as a ‘lifetime’ at the University of Ibadan?

“I spent my entire working life at the University of Ibadan partly because of the desire to contribute to the development of my alma mater, Nigeria’s premier university,” answers Umukoro.

He gives another reason, saying, “And partly because I wasn’t likely to get fulfillment anywhere else in this country.”

Sometimes his beautiful dreams for the ivory tower and fatherland sounded as a jarring symphony of an angry orchestra, playing discordant tunes.

His October 2019 lecture, ‘Restoring the Ivory onto the Fading Tower through Theatre and the Humanities,’ painted a vivid picture of how Nigeria’s education system has lost it.

“The term ‘Ivory Tower’ has a glorious etymological connotation,” Umukoro says, shedding more light.

“But over the years, the glowing ivory began to wear off the tower, leaving it drab and gloomy. Only a planned and systematic return to the universal values inherent in a university can restore the glory of the past.”

He identified such values to include objectivity, academic freedom, mutual tolerance, administrative autonomy, integrity, ethical consciousness, fiscal prudence and accountability, scholarly humility, social responsibility, community leadership, and universal relevance.

Umukoro continues with his homily, noting, “A university should be founded on both local ideals and global values, strengthened by unbreakable institutional links with reputable universities in other parts of the world.

“A university that runs in ‘splendid isolation’ is like a solitary lake that ultimately runs dry. Persistent ASUU strikes, fuelled by government intransigence and duplicity, have led to the steady erosion of those universal values in the Nigerian university system. I believe that ASUU is willing to put an end to the menace of strikes if the government demonstrates a sincere commitment to promoting education, which is the indispensable bedrock of development in any society.”

Umukoro’s mind has defied age and its attendant frailty. After retirement at the University of Ibadan, he’ll no doubt still want to, like Ulysses, to “follow knowledge like a sinking star.”

The septuagenarian scholar is married with children. It should be mentioned too that his wife is a Professor of Theatre Arts at the Department of Theatre and Film Studies, University of Port Harcourt.

Both are the only professorial couple in Nigeria’s university system.

Well, as of the time Umukoro was interviewed none of the children was following in their parents’ footsteps.

Their first son, Ochuko Umukoro, is a medical doctor, who obtained his MBBS from the College of Medicine, UI. Their second son, Omonigho Umukoro, has a doctorate in Psychology, also from UI. Akporjevwe Umukoro is on a second master’s programme.

Retired but not tired, as the Delta State-born professor though having called it a day with UI, he’ll be remembered as a life-long teacher who impacted on people’s lives and imparted many ethical and intellectual values to innumerable students who passed through him.

A poet and lyricist, Umukoro published two volumes of poetry and a third is in the making. Many of the poems in the first volume, ‘Dross of Gold,’ were turned into music by an American composer, Dr. Wallace Cheatham, titled, ‘The Umukoro Songs.’

Umukoro composed the diamond jubilee anthem of the University of Ibadan (The Story and the Glory) in 2008. He also composed an anthem for the Faculty of Arts and published a number of plays, including a stage adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s classic, No Longer at Ease, into ‘Obi and Clara,’ with the written consent and commendation of Chinua Achebe. He’s a newspaper essayist and public commentator, with a published collection of over 40 essays titled, ‘The State of the Nation.’

The erudite scholar belongs to many professional bodies including the International Theatre Institute (ITI), the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), the Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists (SONTA), and the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA).

As a scholar, Umukoro has over 70 publications in books and journal articles, both nationally and internationally. In 2018, he was appointed as the chief judge of the prestigious literary prize of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Ltd (NLNG), with a price tag of $100,000.

Umukoro retired recently from UI after attaining the age of 70. On his personal reflections on turning 70, Umukoro says, “The feeling was indescribable; a strange mixture of relief, nostalgia, and premonition.

“Relief,” he explains, “at having escaped premature death; nostalgia at the fleeting past; and premonition at the still-unfolding future. But, on the whole, I was thankful to God that I made that significant milestone which every mortal looks forward to as the minimum life expectancy.”

Umukoro was one of the longest-serving academics in Nigeria. He was admitted into the premier university as an undergraduate in 1970 and left his alma mater as a professor, 50 years after.

“How time flies! I can hardly believe that half a century has flown past since I first set foot on the soil of the University of Ibadan as an undergraduate in September 1970,” he enthuses. “I thank God who endowed me with incredibly sound health, up till this moment.”

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