Professor Harry Garuba, renowned academic, author and poet, has died, aged sixty-one.
Garuba passed away on the evening of 28 February 2020 following a long illness.
In a statement, the University of Cape Town, where Garuba taught for much of his career, lauded him as ‘a masterful writer and poet’, ‘a luminary in the field of African literature and a champion of postcolonial theory and postcolonial literature’.
The JRB editor Jennifer Malec recalls, ‘Harry taught me African literature and philosophy during my MA at UCT in 2005. I remember him as an extremely kind, gentle man, with a wicked sense of humour and an extraordinary mind.
‘One of my earliest memories of Harry is when he failed almost our entire MA group for our first essay. We were all fairly shocked, because he was such a genial guy. Looking back I could see the funny side; I’m pretty sure he was trying to shock us out of our comfort zone. And it worked. He was a wonderful teacher and most of us ended up excelling in his class. He will be greatly missed.’
Garuba was born in Akure, southwestern Nigeria, in 1958. At seventeen he began his undergraduate studies in English at the University of Ibadan. He earned his PhD at the same university, with a dissertation titled ‘Mask and Meaning in Black Drama: Africa and the Diaspora’, in 1988. He taught at Ibadan for fifteen years before emigrating to South Africa to teach in the English Department at the University of Zululand.
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.
Perhaps Garuba’s most important intellectual intervention was his 2003 paper ‘Explorations in Animist Materialism: Notes on Reading/Writing African Literature, Culture, and Society’, published in Public Culture, in which he developed the idea of animist thought as a system that spiritualises physical objects, ‘a continual re-enchantment of the world‘. Garuba theorised that ‘an animistic understanding of the world applied to the practices of everyday life has often provided avenues of agency for the dispossessed in colonial and postcolonial Africa’. The ideas he presented in this paper are regularly cited by academics today.
Garuba was something of a prodigy. In 1977, when he was still a teenager, 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, a major international festival held in Lagos, Nigeria.
He published his first volume of poetry, Shadow and Dream & Other Poems, in 1982, when he was just twenty-four, and at that stage was already regarded as one of the Nigeria’s most outstanding poets.
In 1988 he edited the collection Voices from the Fringe: An ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry. Later in life, in 2017, he finally published a second collection of his own poetry, Animist Chants and Memorials.
In addition to being an author and poet, 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 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.
UCT’s statement continues:
‘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. He believed that the curriculum was a particularly good place to plant the seeds of transformation and these insights made him a critical part of the CCWG and the university at large.
‘Professor Garuba was committed to teaching students to be analytical, to question, to engage, to ask difficult questions and to use their imagination in solving real-world problems. During his tenure as director of the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics and acting dean of the faculty, he was a strong leader who displayed wisdom and empathy and will be remembered for his warm personality and commitment to a truly transformed university centred around its African identity.’
Acting Vice-Chancellor Associate Professor Lis Lange remembered Garuba as ‘a genuine person who dedicated his time to moving the university forward and supporting his students’.
‘Professor Garuba’s scholarship was driven by a deep dedication to his students and to decolonising the study of Africa,’ she said. ‘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.’
Dean of Humanities Associate Professor Shose Kessi described Garuba as ‘a beautiful soul with a kind and generous spirit—an African intellectual and icon. He was a mentor to many colleagues and young scholars at UCT. He was loved by many and will be dearly missed.’
Garuba is survived by his immediate family in Cape Town, his wife, Zazi, son, Ruona (twenty), and daughter, Zukina (fourteen).
Details of the funeral and memorial service will be shared by the UCT English Department as soon as the information is available.