Academic journal article Africa

For Kay Williamson from Her Neighbour

Academic journal article Africa

For Kay Williamson from Her Neighbour

Article excerpt

For twenty-five years at the University of Port Harcourt, Kay Williamson was my campus neighbour; and I could not have asked for a better one. As I used to tease her sometimes, my only problem with her was the high standards she set in her life; standards which sometimes made lazier and less conscientious fellows like myself a little uneasy. Even this, however, was not really a problem; for she inspired by quiet example rather than by preaching and reproaching.

As her colleagues have told us, Kay was an outstanding, internationally respected linguist. Now all too often, outstanding academics are so immersed in their own research and writing that they have little or no time for colleagues or students. Famous examples abound. For Kay, however, it was never so. Somehow, despite her bodily frailty, she managed to combine enormous research productivity with seemingly limitless concern for junior colleagues and for students at all levels. Whenever I went across to her house, the parlour was full of students reading. To many of them, she was not Professor or even Prof; but simply Mama Kay--a second mother as much as an academic supervisor. Even with senior colleagues in other departments needing advice on linguistic matters, she gave liberally of her expertise. I remember a time when I was trying to teach historians the use of linguistic evidence in historical reconstruction. It got to a point where I seemed to be taking a tutorial from Kay on one day, and regurgitating what I had learned from her to a class of students on the next.

It was hard to get Kay totally off duty. But I was quite lucky in this respect. Both of us had been told by doctors to take evening walks for medical reasons; and whenever she was free from evening tutorials, we tended to go round together. Here, it has to be said that walks with Kay were a mixed blessing. Inside our residential area, she waged a relentless battle against rubbish, picking up dozens of unsavoury bits and pieces and carefully piling them on the nearest dumping heaps. Since I couldn't bring myself to participate in this, I had to stand around rather sheepishly, trying with no great success to look like some kind of supervisor. The great thing was to get her away from the residential area and its rubbish, and either down to our local river or into what is now rather grandly called the Biodiversity Area. Once into these byways, she succumbed to her fascination with unusual birds, animals and plants. To me, her enthusiasm lit up what I would otherwise have seen as a rather dull environment. I came to think that, had she not been drawn into linguistics, she might well have become a great field naturalist.

As two human beings, of course, we could hardly avoid punctuating our walks with at least a little university gossip. Like most of us, Kay was troubled by many aspects of life in the university. But in talking of these things, she always expressed faith in peaceful persuasion rather than protest and confrontation. Although I found it hard to go all the way with her on this, I had to acknowledge that, both in her department and in the university at large, she achieved a great deal by sticking to her gentle ways.

The news of Kay's death was a great shock to those to whom she was near and dear--a shock all the greater for coming just as we were getting ready to celebrate her triumphant return from months abroad in hospital. But I take a little consolation from something I thought I saw in Kay herself. I believe she was well aware that from now on she would be frailer than ever before. I also believe she was someone who could not endure the prospect of a slow decline into infirmity, of being forced to turn from caring for others to being cared for by others. In this situation, I think, she had decided to carry on in top gear, regardless of the risk. And after an eighteen-hour intercontinental journey followed by a family wedding for a cherished niece, that indeed is how she went. …

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