Prostrating patiently to get PhD

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It is acutely annoying and unacceptable to my temperament that in the bid to earn the coveted PhD, some ambitious students are made to stretch from three years onto eternity the task of writing a so-called dissertation that ordinarily can be completed over a cool weekend. The professors who supervise the doctoral candidates in the universities almost always turn the poor wannabes into quivering servants and genuflecting slaves. Lola Akande’s What It Takes (Kraft Books Limited, Ibadan; 2016)) lays bare in cold print the shenanigans underpinning the earning of the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) epaulette.

Back in September 1998, the somewhat vain, middle-aged single-mother protagonist, Funto Oyewole, could not contain her joy when she procured the PhD admission letter to the National University of Nigeria (NUN), Abuja. Even as Funto had lost her job in the civil service, she is full of hope that there is a solid future for her as Dr. Funto Oyewole, a joy shared with her daughter, Deyemi, who had just gained admission into secondary school. Immediately she sets foot on the campus in Abuja, everything literally turns upside-down. To get a supervisor for her literature studies proves well-nigh impossible as the Head of Department (HOD) informs her thusly: “It’s fairly difficult to find a PhD supervisor due to a mirage of problems confronting universities in Nigeria. The number of academic staff in every university is grossly inadequate; hence, what has to be done is left in the hands of a few academics, who can only struggle to cope.”

When she tries to get the lecherous Dr. Durojaiye, as her supervisor, the man asks for sex upfront: “All I ask of you is a piece of the ‘action’ and you’ll get my consent to supervise you in return. Fair bargain, isn’t it?”

Funto then goes in search of a lady, Prof. Lara Owoyemi, as a would-be supervisor, and gets the shocker thus: “If you are serious about becoming a PhD candidate under my supervision, you must have thirty thousand naira to get the consent letter you are required to submit at the PG School. After your registration, I will spell out other terms of engagement to you.”

Funto, in the end, ends up with Prof. Charles Ephraim as her supervisor, who, according to the HOD, demands three things of his students: “The first one is patience, the second is patience, and the third is patience.”

Funto Oyewole is reduced to tears by the evil machinations of Prof. Ephraim, an ethnic jingoist, who orders her against her wish to fill in as a part-time student while brazenly registering the lady of his tribe, Agnes Ellen Noah, into the fulltime programme. Prof. Ephraim also insists that Funto must spend an entire year in understudying her project before writing a word of the dissertation. She learns the hard way what PhD actually means, as she is told: “In Nigeria, PhD means, Prostrate, Hard work and Dobale. You are Yoruba; you know the meaning of Dobale. It means you will prostrate to them, you’ll work hard and you’ll prostrate again. It also means you’ll do more of prostrating than hard work.”

Funto’s reasons to believe are anchored on her poor mother living in Ibadan, her daughter Deyemi, and her bosom friend, Folake. It’s through the care of Folake and her fiancé, Geoffrey, that her accommodation problem is solved. By September 2001, three years into her programme, she had finished writing the thesis but there is the fear of submitting the entire work to her insufferable supervisor. When she eventually reveals that she had written all the chapters, Prof. Ephraim replies: “I have misplaced the chapters you gave me.” He then recommends a new list of books to be found in South Africa, U.S., Canada or England, which will entail rewriting the entire thesis. Funto is, as ever, reduced to tears.

In the light of her frustrations with Prof. Ephraim, Funto recalls her miserable undergraduate lecturer at Eastern University of Nigeria, Dr. Ugochukwu Mbanefo, who, even after his students had spent umpteen hours on their knees begging him, made the entire class to carry over the course. In her moment of weakness, Funto falls to a one-night-stand with the happy-go-lucky Adams after a nightclub dance, much to the chagrin of her friend, Folake. Funto’s solicitation for the HOD’s help in appealing to Prof. Ephraim boomerangs as the enraged supervisor swears that he would no longer supervise her work.

Funto, in her lowest moment, barges in on Folake and Geoffrey after her friend’s husband-to-be had dismissed Funto as “a miserable, low-life parasite.” Her attempt to find part-time work at Clamorous University is disaster writ-large. Only the love of Shettima somewhat uplifts the distraught Funto after the departure of Folake and Geoffrey to England. Funto somewhat succumbs to the use of fetish prophets, spiritualists and shamans in the struggle to get her PhD programme back on track. It all comes to naught.

In the end, Prof. Ephraim agrees to resume the supervision of Funto’s thesis. It is not until December 2009, after more than a decade, that the dream manifests in the freshly-minted Dr. Funto Oyewole. It is a glorious happy-ending shared with her daughter, Deyemi, who had graduated from the university and was serving the nation via the NYSC in the Presidency. In a final twist, it is Prof. Ephraim, who selflessly signs Deyemi’s referee letter for a workshop in the United States.

Akande has, in What It Takes, written a very insightful novel for the modern age as per university studies in Nigeria. It extends the frontiers of the inanities of the ivory tower as exposed earlier in The Naked Gods by Chukwuemeka Ike. What It Takes by Akande takes no prisoners and ought to be recommended reading in all Nigerian universities. It is, indeed, significant that Akande is today a lecturer at the Department of English, University of Lagos, where Prof. JP Clark, as “the first African writer to be appointed to a chair in an African university, and as the first African indigene to occupy a chair of English on the continent,” delivered the inaugural lecture entitled ‘The Hero As A Villain’ on Thursday, January 19, 1978. Clark, of course, dedicated a poem “to my academic friends who sit tight on their doctoral theses and have no chair for poet or inventor.”

It is all so obvious that a no-nonsense guru like JP Clark, author of America, their America, would have had no stomach to undergo the PhD prostration of Funto Oyewole as narrated by Akande in What It Takes!

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