Nigerian literary icon, Harry Garuba, is dead

The late Professor Harry Garuba
The late Professor Harry Garuba

Renowned Nigerian academic and poet, Harry Garuba, is dead.

He was 61.

Mr Garuba passed away on Friday evening in South Africa, following a long illness.

A statement on Saturday by the University of Cape Town where the poet had taught for much of his career, announced his death.

The university, on its Facebook page, described Mr Garuba as ‘a masterful writer and poet’, ‘a luminary in the field of African literature and a champion of postcolonial theory and postcolonial literature.’

“His dedication to his field was critical in developing the UCT Centre for African Studies as a hub for research on the African continent.

“As part of the university’s Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG), Professor Garuba was committed to developing thinking about what a decolonised curriculum would look like in Africa and the global south and what a multicultural curriculum would look like in the West,” the statement read.

As a revered academic, Mr Garuba was praised for his scholarly contribution to the canons of African studies and literature with his warm personality and empathy for his students.

The Acting Vice-Chancellor of UCT , Lis Lange, remembered Mr Garuba as ‘a genuine person who dedicated his time to moving the university forward and supporting his students.’

“His passing is a great loss to the university and the transformation project, but we must continue this important work in his absence and build on the foundation he has left,” she said in the statement

The statement said details of the funeral and memorial service would be shared as the university expressed its condolences to the Garuba family.

‘Humble beginning’

Born in Akure, Ondo State in 1958, Mr Garuba was a literary prodigy.

He was still a teenager when his one-act play Pantomime for Saint Apartheid’s Day was published in the Festac Anthology of Nigerian New Writing, a publication compiled on the occasion of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Lagos in 1977.

He was seventeen when he began his undergraduate studies in English at the University of Ibadan where he would later bag both his Master’s and Doctoral degrees.

While he was a student at the university, he founded ‘The Poetry Club’ which met every Thursday. It was at the club that poets like Afam Akeh, Remi Raji, Onookome Okome, Chiedu Ezeanah, Bose Shabah, Sanya Osha, Niyi Okunoye first planted their seeds of literary creativity.

He published his first academic book, Mask and Meaning in Black Drama: Africa and the Diaspora, in 1988. He taught at the university for fifteen years before migrating to South Africa to teach in the English Department at the University of Zululand.

In 1988, he edited the collection Voices from the Fringe: An ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry.

In 2001, he moved to the University of Cape Town, where he taught in the African Studies and English departments until 2019, and published widely in the fields of African and postcolonial literature.

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Meanwhile, in 2017, he published a second collection of his own poetry, Animist Chants and Memorials.

In addition to being an author and poet, Mr Garuba was a member of the editorial advisory board of the Heinemann African Writers Series and one of the editors of the journal Postcolonial Text.

He also served as acting dean of the Faculty of Humanities from February to December 2017, and held research fellowships at the University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University and Emory University.

In late 2019, he wrote a blurb about the emphemerality of life and the permanence of art in Wreaths for a Wayfarer, an anthology of poems in honour of late Nigeria scholar, Pius Adesanmi.

‘Literary Luminary’

The immediate-past National President, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Denja Abdullah, described the poet as a literary luminary to crops of young talented writers Nigeria is currently proud of.

“He was a great teacher and influence to many young writers of today.

“His contribution to African scholarship is highly eminent and goes beyond mere mentions.

“He will be greatly missed,” Mr Abdullah told PREMIUM TIMES.

Mr Garuba is survived by his immediate family in Cape Town, his wife, Zazi, son, Ruona (twenty), and daughter, Zukina (fourteen).


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