Remembering Dr. Cecilia Kato

Cecilia Kato
Cecilia Kato

By Anthony Akaeze

It came at a time I was thinking about the past. Given that I had just published my book titled Just Like a Fairy Tale on Amazon, I had, in recent days, reflected on how my writing career began proper and the role played by certain people. And then came the headline in one of my email messages on March 8: ‘Happy Women’s Day,’ it read. It was a reminder of the day set aside to celebrate women globally, and how significant it is for me that it came at a time  I was thinking of writing a tribute to Dr. Cecilia Kato, my lecturer at the English department of the  University of Abuja who gave me hope when I needed it most. Kato, who passed away in March 2018, among other courses, taught me creative writing.

In 2001/2002, in my final year in the university, following the long ASUU strike of that period, I spent much of my leisure time writing short stories.  Having completed the stories, I visited Kato’s office to inform her about the articles and my plan to publish them as a book but particularly to  request that she helps me edit them.  Without any hesitation, Kato collected the manuscript and days later, returned it to me with a smile and said: “publish it, it is good.” Yet her imprint on the manuscript was visible. There was one of the stories which headline she didn’t like and wanted me to change. It is a story about the religious and ethnic crisis in Jos, the land of my birth and a place I immensely love.  The story’s title was Damsel in Distress but Kato didn’t quite like it and so she asked me to think up another headline. I thanked her and left and after making the necessary corrections, I gave the now revised manuscript to another of my lecturers, Dr Emmanuel Toryima Jenkwe. I wanted Jenkwe to write the foreword  to the book and he asked me to return in three days. Three days later, when I returned to see him in his office, Jenkwe handed me my manuscript and a handwritten note and said that the note reflects what he thinks about my effort. I thanked him, turned, and checking the paper once out of his office, found it was the foreword  I asked him to write. What he wrote was unexpected, and for a moment, left me wondering. He said in part: “Anthony Akaeze’s Amuzia and Other Stories is an interesting, precocious collection made up of fourteen short stories dealing with a range of issues such as the thrills and frustrations of university life, social problems like unemployment, inter-religious crises, cultism, the dangers in prostitution, corruption and leadership problems in Nigeria as well as the more interesting issues like determination as well as love and romance…Akaeze displays great skills in his narratives and these enliven the stories a great deal….the writer’s evocation of events is often done with unwonted excellence…I heartily congratulate Mr. Anthony Akaeze for the feat of crafting such a collection of morally edifying stories and I urge him to continue his literary pursuits so that he will eventually reach his full potential.”

The truth is that Jenkwe’s write-up, as I would later analyse it, is more of a recommendation. At the risk of sounding immodest, the foreword advertised me to the world, and dedicating my masters thesis to him in 2008, few years after his demise, was simply my little way of saying thank you!

With such recommendation from Kato and Jenkwe, I went ahead and published the collection of  stories titled Amuzia and Other Stories. With the work printed, I returned to Kato’s office, and upon receiving from me her complimentary copy, she beamed and proclaimed: “I’m prouder than you…I’m prouder than you, if there’s anything like that.” I of course was grateful for her kindness, and I told her so. Her encouragement helped make my dream come true. Who knew what would have happened if she had shunned or made me feel insecure when I requested her to read my manuscript? Her backing was crucial and particularly stands out when I compare it with some people’s attitude regarding editing manuscripts. It’s not an easy job, I know, and so some people simply don’t want to be saddled with such responsibility or one that could get them stuck in between. So they simply choose not to take up such task and whatever excuse they bring up, is intended to hide that fact. In this regard, some rejections could be polite, some are not. In 2016, while working on my recently published book, Just Like a Fairy Tale, I visited Cape Town for a workshop and in one of the sessions, sat close to a Namibian. I suddenly thought it would be a good idea for someone from a foreign country to read my manuscript and I requested the Namibian to do so. Her response left me pained throughout the rest of the programme. There is a saying in my part of Africa that the issue is not what was said to you, but the manner it was said. Following my request, the Namibian, whom I consider to be younger than me, lashed out. “Why should I read your manuscript…? I don’t even know how you write…”

Though disappointed with her response, I decided to  give her a copy of my 2013 book (The Newswatch Crisis and the Agony of the Nigerian Media Worker)  which I had with me and had given to a few other colleagues, but she refused to accept it.

I felt humiliated and barely managed to restrain myself from reporting her to the programme organisers when, after the event, they sent participants a questionnaire asking whether there was something or someone whose conduct we were unsatisfied with. Without question, the Namibian’s attitude to me was distasteful and while I weighed whether to report her or not, I eventually decided to let sleeping dogs lie. Comparing the Namibian with Kato, gives an idea of my luck. Her encouragement in 2002 was crucial and paved the way for three other books, including the recently published Just Like a Fairy Tale. In respect to the latter, another of my lecturers in the University of Abuja, Pius Opene, read the first draft in 2003/2004. Due to largely work exigencies and my special interest in the story, it took 17 years for the manuscript to be published. Prior to now, I had only been content including the title to my list of works until last month when it got published.

After the publication of Amuzia and Other Stories in 2002, I further benefited from the kindness of another of my lecturers, Dr Gboyega Kolawole, who approved the book for use in one of his distance learning classes. These are people, to talk of just them, who helped me in my literary journey.

If Jenkwe and Opene, who sadly have since also passed on, stood out for their gentle and avuncular ways, Kato was for me, the mother figure. Her smile was reassuring. Her role in my literary career is huge and will, like Jenkwe’s, Opene’s and Kolawole’s, never be forgotten. The view of Betty Abah, a journalist and child rights activist who knew Kato, and through who I learnt of the lecturer’s demise via a news report she shared online two years ago, is, for me, a fitting tribute to the late author and lecturer. Said Abah in a March 22, 2018 report by the News Express: “Mrs. Kato was the liveliest, the friendliest and most generous person you can find in any gathering. Her laughter and enthusiasm were quite infectious. And she was quite brilliant. As a fellow mentee of Prof. Ebele Eko, our former lecturer at UNICAL (though she was in a much older set), I formed an enriching friendship with her which lasted more than 15 years. I will certainly miss her. Our world is certainly diminished with the sudden and untimely passing of this wonderful soul.”

**Anthony Akaeze is an award-winning freelance investigative journalist and author of four books. His new book, Just Like a Fairy Tale, a story of ambition about an African man’s struggles and quest for education at all costs,  is available for purchase on Amazon bookshelf as  paperback and e-book.

 – Mar. 12, 2020 @ 2:04 GMT |