It didn’t take Professor Ben Obumselu all day, but it took him enough time before he settled on a suitable letter font for the book cover. His office was on the second floor of the Lagos-sized corporate building on Esomo Close, Ikeja. The large Alumaco glass windows – which bridged massive concrete walls – provided a panoramic view of the big gate to the front of the house, as well as a clear view of the street below to the side. It was a very large office space with large bookshelves and a sparse collection of hard and soft cover books. The office was spectacularly distinguished. The walls and the shelves were painted in the same bright colors. The floor was sparkly with large, marble tiles.
Every object had its own place on the large, mahogany desk. The revolving, leather chair behind the desk was as impressionable as its occupant. Nothing was out of place, and nothing was unwieldy or tacky in its place. The office was big, bright, and beautiful. It was, in its length, height, and circumference, an installation of the magnificent persona of Professor Obumselu. He loved space and hated overcrowding. He was a man who never used a word for its own sake, and for whom the air seemed to weave an invisible halo when he walked. For all the thirty-three years I knew him, he was a man whose velvet, Oxonian voice commanded attention and whose laughter (and he did laugh quite healthily and heartily) was signifying.
He had started work on the book cover before I arrived from the airport. He met me at the door with a broad smile and a bear hug, with my travel bag still in my hand. He asked about my flight, sized me up and down, and having decided I was okay he went straight to the point of our meeting: the publication of the second edition of my 1996 book, Igbos of Northern Nigeria. It started with a letter he sent me two weeks earlier. The letter said that Dr. Pius Okigbo, chairman of Torch Publishing Company, felt that the poor quality of the paper and its poorer production were a great disservice to the subject and substance of the book. Dr. Okigbo had, apparently, seen a copy of the book on Professor Obumselu’s desk and had proceeded to read through it there and then. Would you make arrangements, Professor Obumselu wrote to me, to be in Lagos on the Monday for us to do something about producing a new edition of the book at Torch Publishing Company? All expenses paid, including travel, accommodation, feeding. I called him to accept the generous offer.
He ushered me to a swivel chair by the desk. His suit jacket hung over the back of the chair behind the desk. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and a tie. His phone rang. He looked over at his secretary in the adjoining office, who took the receiver. He continued to rifle through one book after another. He asked about my work at the University of Jos. Teaching. Students. Books. Writing. He talked about his work in Lagos. He was chairman of the editorial board of one or two newspapers. He also helped to edit one or two newspapers. ThisDay. The Post Express. A revamped The West African Pilot, the offices of which he pointed out to me across the street from the window, on the same Esomo Close by Toyin Street. Starting a business is nothing like teaching in the university, he said. You ring a thousand door bells. You run the gauntlet of the insolent rich.
The phones kept ringing in his office and the adjoining offices. He answered some; others he left to his secretary. Among the callers were some of the topnotch politicians across the country, business leaders, academics, cultural leaders, and of course family members. Staff members popped in and out. He would glance over at the gate where security guards in uniform controlled the sliding gates for the flow of cars and the anaconda-sized semis in and out of the wide premises. Giant rolls of newsprint rolled off the trucks. He followed my gaze and chuckled. We bring those in from everywhere, in and out of the country. When they stop, he noted with a loaded wink, the national economy stops.
Ahaa, he shouted, as he lighted on the second type font he liked. The first, Oleu Script, he chose for my name: “Obiwu.” The second, Arial, he chose for the book title: Igbos of Northern Nigeria. The fonts, he said, look fulsome, radiant, inviting to the eyes. To drive his point home, he chose the color red for my name and white for the book title. He found the picture of a teenage girl in full nkwa umu agbogho dance gear. Then he set about designing the cover. On a split black-and-white background for the front cover, he superimposed “Obiwu” and “Igbos of Northern Nigeria” on the black side, with the smiling image of the chalked dancing girl splashed top to bottom of the white side. He left the back cover wholly in a black background with my black-and-white, passport-size photo over the blurb and the author’s bio, both of which were in white lettering.
He had contracted EVL Documentations down the road on Moshood Abiola Crescent to do the typesetting. He and I spent an entire day in his office reading, rereading, and editing the whole one hundred pages of the slim volume, before EVL could produce the final copy. We hung around the ground level of the building while the machines churned through the proofs. Do you know, he pointed out to me, that Torch has some of the most modern and up-to-date printing machines in this country? I had to personally travel to Europe to see every model, learn how each of them works, and make the selections myself. We print for every serious business in this country today, as far as the North and the East. We print for JAMB and WAEC. And, of course, some of the frontline magazines and newspapers in Lagos print with us too.
When the first copy of the book rolled off the press, he held it in his hand, away from himself, and noted that the cover is the first thing people see of every book. The cover is not the book; but a good cover draws one to read the book. He handed it over to me. That is your coffee-table companion, he said. The smile on his face at that moment was pure joy. It was the joy of sheer satisfaction on the accomplishment of an objective. Though much of the three hundred print run sold out quickly enough, I couldn’t tell for sure if there were not more than a few who bought the book for the aesthetics of its cover. It took me a while, in fact twenty-one years, in other words, the actual event of his sudden passage on March 4, 2017, to realize that there is nothing either on the cover or inside the pages that acknowledges the unqualified work of Professor Obumselu in the editing of the book and the designing of its cover.
How could he have found the time, being a most sought-after man, to devote three whole days to redesigning and republishing the work of one of his numerous former students at his own expense? But that’s a question that could come from only those who did not go through Professor Obumselu’s tutelage. For the privileged ones like us, the first thing we learned under him was that the teacher’s commitment to his students was total and sacrificial. He taught us at Imo State University, Etiti, for instance, that the synonyms for the word, “teacher,” include father, lord, master, mentor, and tutor. Thus, the African blacksmith’s apprentice leaves his parents and home to live and work at the behest of his master throughout the duration of his training. He taught us that the Greek meaning of the word, “love,” is work. He taught us that the Greek word, Idioté, means any man or woman who is not interested in what is happening around him or her. He or she is an idiot. The teacher, therefore, leads by example even to the door of death. Both Socrates and the Christ denounced the blackmail and threats of the overlords, and subjected themselves to the torture of death on the conviction of their teachings. They left their acolytes to bear witness.
Obiwu studied in Nigeria at Imo State University (Etiti) and the University of Jos, and in the United States at Syracuse University, New York. He’s a professor of English at Central State University, Wilberforce, Ohio. Contact: Obiwu1@gmail.com.