Molara Ogundipe

By Modupe Olaogun

Professor Molara Ogundipe loved the world and immortalized this love in her deep pursuit of knowledge about the forces that shape human society at large or as individuals amassed within specific borders. Ogundipe’s work affirms society’s complexity, and she makes it accessible through her lifelong and luminous analyses of the material conditions and the intangibles that influence global and local politics and economics, as well as the social relations. Ogundipe comes to her analyses as a literary critic, who makes no bones about grounding her methodology in Marxist and feminist hermeneutics. She demonstrates profound erudition that she deploys for interdisciplinary exploration and communication of ideas. Long before inter-sectionality became a popular theoretical approach, Ogundipe practised it, demonstrating the imbrications of class, gender, sexualities, and “race”; and of politics, economics, histories, and ideology. Motivated by the desire to address the routine silencing and maligning of Africa, and the subordinating of women worldwide, Ogundipe proceeds from the inequalities in the intimate spaces of her closely observed Nigerian place of birth, to the women’s struggles in African, Asian and South American countries (AASA) or the Global South, which she resisted calling the “Third World” before this term succumbed to disuse. From these concentric circles of socio-political relations, Ogundipe examines North-South and South-South interactions. Her painstaking studies result in astute commentaries on the various axes of relationship. Just as energetically, Ogundipe has channelled her theories and vision into a steady activist praxis through which she has formed international alliances to promote human rights across borders.An outstanding teacher in the uncommonly evoked sense of “one who causes others to know” (Merriam-Webster), Ogundipe leaves a legacy centred on the affecting, relational, and inspirational aspects of a teacher. A true mentor, Professor Ogundipe will be remembered also for nurturing younger scholars by encouraging them to bring their passion and fresh perspectives to emergent literature departments, which she was frequently called upon to help develop.

Ogundipe was born during the Second World War, which was also a colonial period in Africa, and an era when much of the continent, like several areas of the European-colonized world, was articulating an assertive anti-colonial nationalism. Ogundipe grew up keenly aware of her embodiment of the complexity of modern subjecthood. She was at once an invention of the post-European Enlightenment traditions that contributed to her educational and political influences, and a product of the “foundational Yoruba ideas about the centrality of knowledge, parity in social values between the sexes and a functional gender democracy” upon which she was raised (interview by Desiree Lewis). Ogundipe makes this layered formation of her experience resonant. To illustrate, Ogundipe’s essay, “Stories of Structural Adjustment (SOSA): The Human Cost of Structural Adjustment Policy  (SAP) for Women,” renders poignant the obfuscations of the  “development theories” of the International Monetary Fund, which is governed by Western economic czars. The IMF drastically devalued Nigeria’s currency in the 1980s; its narrative, applied like a potboiler to several nations in the Global South, was that the measure would attract foreign investment and stimulate development. Ogundipe brings the real effects home through unadorned narratives of the attrition on the men, women and children among whom she lived: how, for instance, her landlord’s thriving factory in Ijebu-Igbo, which manufactured fine lace—the apogee of Nigerian fashion—ground to a halt because the equipment could no longer be maintained due to the suddenly almost worthless currency. The factory’s owner retrenched the workers en mass; as a result, countless families terminated their children’s secondary and tertiary education, which they could afforded previously; farms and tertiary institutions began to fail due to other structural manipulations by the IMF; an exodus for better lives outside the country precipitated a brain drain;human dignity plunged.

Ogundipe also captures the bathos of an and rocentric narrative that the SAP experience inadvertently brought to heel: “A professor friend said to me privately and quietly, almost sadly: ‘you know, my wife, Lydia, feeds us now.’ His tone was very affectionate; it was as if he were just discovering a new value and goodness to Lydia […] When the IMF struck […], Lydia was able to take the whole family on her back financially where she had previously been perhaps his supporting arms” (Re-Creating Ourselves 194). Investment did not take place in Nigeria; rather,the SAP made Nigerian products cheaper for foreigners, and foreign goods more exorbitant for Nigerians, further skewing the Global North-South relations. Ogundipe’s analysis brims with insight and continues to be relevant; the structural impact of the calamitous SAP would take several generations to correct.

I first met Professor Ogundipe in the late 1970s when I was a fresh undergraduate in the English Department at the University of Ibadan. I recall a strikingly beautiful lady, who strode into the packed auditorium in an arresting pair of pants and thick-soled shoes, hair worn in a big Afro that complemented an impeccable white blouse. Calm and poised, Mrs. Ogundipe-Leslie (as she was known then) began to speak. Her gentle voice rolled out names and concepts that sounded intimidating to all of us students because they were so varied and unfamiliar: Northrop Frye, Okotp’Bitek, Ngugi, Terry Eagleton….The course was called “Forms of Literature” and we knew at once we were in for an extraordinary session. Later in the year our learned lecturer brought in Mr. p’Bitek to speak to us, an unforgettable experience as the famous poet chose to sit on the stage floor, close to the edge, where we could almost touch him. Although I do not recall the title of his talk, the central trope used by p’Bitek has stayed with me. In the talk, he likened the politicians’ men at the time to Agama lizards, colourful and impressive-looking, but always prostrate, nodding and waiting. Professor Ogundipe encouraged the visiting scholars, one of them the genial Malawian poet and scholar, Professor Felix Mnthali, to interact with us students so we could learn about their societies.

Professor Ogundipe was partial to “coherence”—not just in language usage but also in virtually everything. Two illustrations come to mind, which I personally witnessed: at Olabisi Onabanjo University then newly established in the 1980s, and more recently at McPherson University, both in Ogun State of Nigeria, where she helped establish the English/Languages and Literature Departments. The curriculum must be coherent, Professor Ogundipe insisted, and by that she meant an aggregate of dovetailed courses that reflected Nigeria’s aspirations and positioned the country in dynamic conversation with Africa and its diaspora, with AASA countries, and with the rest of the world. It was at McPherson University that I last interacted physically with Professor Ogundipe, when I spent my sabbatical there in 2017–2018. She led the University’s Languages and Literature Department to successful accreditation and avidly participated in the campus life.

In pursuing her structural analyses from the perspective of a Marxist feminist, Ogundipe incorporated linguistic theory, as well as spirituality, into her understanding of society—finding compatibilities between her materialist theory and her groundings in Yoruba pantheonic religion and Christianity. What made such synthesis possible is the dialogical tenor of her inquiry.

Ogundipe’s work finds resonance with feminists and womanists alike: for instance, Beverly Guy-Sheftall and Carole Boyce Davies, whose respective research is bringing up what TuzylineJita Allan, reviewing Ogundipe’s Re-Creating Ourselves, characterizes as “a fruitful analysis, a harvest… of the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual resources of African women that constitute significant cultural capital for the revitalization of African societies” (“Reviewed Work: Re-creating Ourselves” 197).

In June 2018, the young Literature Department at McPherson University staged Femi Osofian’s The Engagement (which I directed). The Kings of four neighbouring towns—Obafe, Ogunmakin, Ajebo and Seriki-Sotayo—who reminisced about Hubert Ogunde’s travelling theatre and the live theatre of other Yoruba dramatists now dormant, attended the production. Despite gradually becoming frail, Professor Ogundipe graciously conveyed traditional welcome to the rulers in elegant Yoruba, roughly translated as follows: “It is you our Fathers who say, ‘The young who have learnt proper etiquette can dine with the elders.’ Thank you for honouring our students by coming to see their show, and by sponsoring many high schools from your towns to enjoy the play and visit our university…” During the cast party some days later, Professor Ogundipe danced with the students like a fresh bride; she drew applause and ululations from the ecstatic students. Now Iye (Mother) Ogundipe has danced into the beyond; her forebears must be pleased to receive her home. Ogundipe’s true home is boundless, for she continues to carry on her animating conversations everywhere through her great essays and poetry, cradling a smile one moment, tilting her head the next, asking urgent questions.

A festschrift, which I organized for Professor Ogundipe as a panel at the African Studies Association conference some years back, has developed into a full-fledged book manuscript featuring articles contributed by various scholars and former students of Professor Ogundipe’s. Kraft Books will release the book in the coming months.

-Modupe Olaogun, PhD, is Associate Professor, Department of English, York University