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Not merely an academic: A man with vision like no other

4 April 2020 at 17:27 | 1474 views

Not Merely an Academic: A Man with Vision Like No Other:
Reflections on the Life of Dr. Eldred Jones

By Rodney Babatunde Hume-Dawson, USA

Little did I realize that over 20 years ago when I left the alluring shores of Sierra Leone, I would never set my eyes again corporeally on Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones and his incredibly dedicated and habitually dutiful wife, Mrs. Marjorie Jones (photo). Nevertheless, their bounteous legacy and perpetual impression will stay with me forever.

It was truly a privilege and honor when I encountered Marjorie and Eldred Jones in my freshman year at Fourah Bay College, The University of Sierra Leone, where I pursued my undergraduate studies. As a young man, I was enamored by the pristine and picturesque garden that led to their home in the village of Leicester. I still vividly remember the day. It was a warm, refreshing and dazzling August day in 1991, just before classes would commence at some of the nation’s academic institutions. I visited the Jones’ to inform them about our intention (myself and other Sierra Leoneans with disabilities) of establishing an umbrella organization for people with impairments in Sierra Leone.

Prior to that, I had been volunteering with UNICEF, Sierra Leone, for a while on polio eradication and children’s issues. It was at one of those notable events that several progressive mentors of mine including Messrs Charlie Haffner, A. O. D. George, (deceased) and M. B. Jalloh discussed the idea of launching a national society for people with impairments. They encouraged me to seek the advice of heads of institutions in the likes of Sam Campbell and Fred Kamara before embarking on such an ambitious journey. After a lengthy discussion with me, the latter two recommended the idea of creating an umbrella organization, and asked me to contact the eminent academic, Professor Jones to lead the group.

As I walked in closer to the kitchen door, the majestic and elegant Mrs. Marjorie Jones greeted me with a smile.” Good Afternoon young man. For what do we have the pleasure of your company,” Madam Jones enquired. Tensed as I was, I shared with her the objective of my stopover. She then asked me to make myself comfortable. I did as she departed to the top floor to get her treasured husband.
As the notable scholar approached me, he asked which one of the Hume-Dawsons was my father. Is it Adeyemi or Patrick? I told him that it was Patrick, and he quickly pointed out that he had taught my father at the Grammar school before pursuing undergraduate work at Fourah Bay College. Despite the enormous age gap and huge academic divergence at that time between Eldred and Marjorie Jones and me, they made sure I was at ease. In time, they welcomed, loved and molded me as their son.

After narrating the essence of my visit, Dr. Jones accepted to lead an organization that became the all-embracing union of people with disabilities in Sierra Leone (commonly known as SLUDI). The association comprised of representatives of various major organizations and intuitions that worked or advocated for people with impairments in Sierra Leone.

The mission and purpose of the union is to help sensitize the public and lobby the government about the physical, attitudinal, political, economic, educational, and social barriers that impose restrictions on Sierra Leoneans with disabilities. Professor and Mrs. Jones worked painstakingly on the draft that led to the development of the Sierra Leoneans with Disabilities Act.

In retrospect, the unofficial meeting that occurred on a gorgeous (Rainy Season) day initiated a special mutual relationship between the Jones’ and me until Sunday, March 22, 2020 when the erudite scholar passed away.

Many people have spoken eloquently about the laurels and achievements of Dr. Eldred Jones, and rightly so. He and his wife deserve more than we can ever give back. They were unquestionably hardworking and enduringly patriotic, but I want to use this occasion to revisit some of my impressionable hours with them, particularly those that deal with his disabling condition, his blindness, and how they dealt with it in a simplistic, but very sophisticated and artistic manner.

Unlike Dr. Jones, I decided to pursue academia not in the African Literary world as he had done, but in the world of Disability Studies. He appeared in the scene of African critical literature discourse when it was relatively new, and I dare say I find myself in a similar situation as I try to find my niche in the emerging field of Disability Studies. Having had numerous discussions with Dr. Jones on scholarly issues surrounding disability, I know how much the subject intrigued him. It is for this reason I reflect on his life as a person who lived with a disability albeit in his later years. In doing so, I hope that Sierra Leone and other countries in Africa will rise to the challenge of normalizing disability and viewing it as a human experience rather than a deficit or something to be trivialized.

If we are to be honest and critical, a person’s disability is often not perceived as part of his or her identity, but rather as a deviant or problem to overcome. In the case of Dr. Eldred Jones, his blindness to many of his fans was perceived as either suffering or a strength of character. I do not intend minimizing both. However, the former reduces a person with a disability to an object of pity and historically, we have seen the dire effects of that kind of approach.

Comparatively, Dr. Jones’ initial success as an academic stalwart had given him an edge and a leg up in a sense that he dealt with less stigma and discrimination than most people whose impairment came at birth or at an early age. Largely, he had acquired the name recognition, a few necessities of life, and a wife who was enormously devoted and deeply in love with him to deal with the disruptions, adjustments, and psychological effects that comes with blindness.

My point here is that disability is a very complex human phenomenon, and to understand its ramifications, we must be willing to understudy an icon like Dr. Jones and use his life’s experiences as an exemplar for us to appreciate the numerous issues at play.

First, a prominent issue we can take from Dr. Jones’ familiarity with blindness is that he and his adorable wife normalized disability through their refusal to stop working and living a full life. His tenacity and willingness to learn braille as soon as he realized he was going blind may be the answer to the myriad of people who quickly assume that all is lost because of a disability that comes later in life. Perhaps, Dr. Jones’ legacy is a clear reminder that inspiration aside; people with disabilities are humans first. We want to be equal, though different. We appreciate those who recognize that we are comparably talented and capable of accomplishing our goals if given a chance to do so.

I can vouch that one of the desires of Dr. Jones is to see people with disabilities step into many of his varying roles as husbands, fathers, academics, literary critics, advisers to presidents, and university administrators. Imagine if this happens in Africa, it could potentially revolutionize people’s perceptions and non-disabled people are likely to have a more positive view about persons with disabilities.

Second, the Jones’ taught us a concept that is essential for people living with impairments and plays a central argument in Disability Studies. The notion is recognized as Interdependence. This philosophy to me is more pragmatic than independence. It espouses community. It reminds us that we are not alone. Western ideology teaches us that privacy and independence are critical in one’s life. This tenet urges us to tie ourselves by our bootstraps as if everyone has a bootstrap to begin with. We are brainwashed to believe that if we just work hard, exercise, and eat right, all would be well.

There is no doubt, that those things might help, but they are not always the answers to all of life’s problems. Rather, a life where we can depend and count on each other makes such a huge difference. The Jones’ were an epitome of interdependence. Having spent quality time with them, I saw how they supported each other. Mrs. Marjorie Jones for example was a classic at organizing the professor’s activities, but he was great at preparing and dictating his speeches or lectures. While she cooked, he did some of the preliminary work. Life for the Jones turned out to be admirable primarily due to teamwork, the enterprising nature of Mrs. Jones, but largely, I would argue that it was the concept of Interdependence that made their union so meaningful.

Third, they taught us that disability was a human experience. They openly accepted their new life’s experience. I never saw them complain or angry about what life had thrown at them. If anything, their relationship became rock solid to the point where it was always a joy to see them working hand in hand and taking walks together. In truth, they had mastered the craft of romance. Their walk was so emblematic of a couple passionately in love. I never saw Auntie Marjorie leading her blind husband; rather I saw two lovebirds walking gracefully in conversation and communion.

I remember one golden afternoon as I was visiting with the Jones’ outside their spectacular garden where they were enjoying each other’s company. I turned to them and asked them about their enchanting relationship. Mrs. Jones looked at me in the eye and said, “Babatunde, we are friends first.” Then she looked her husband deeply in the eye and remarked sweetly, “I found my handsome Prince Charming. I would never let him go.” This was a profound revelation for me. As a person with an obvious disability, and one who researches and teaches about impairments, I realized at that critical moment of my life that love was human. It had nothing to do with blindness or paralysis. It had everything to do with human connection and a deep understanding of unconditional love.

In closing, the revered John Milton who was also blind like our sagacious professor, Dr. Eldred Jones summed it best, “To be blind is not miserable; not to be able to bear blindness, that is miserable.” The idolized professor passed his test of blindness with distinction.

It is my hope that through Dr. Jones’ exemplary life and the stupendous life he and his wife lived will remind us that it is not how we are in moments of affluence, but how we live, see, accept, and deal with our uncomfortable stages that ultimately defines our character.

In the coming weeks and months as you remember an illustrious son of the soil, I pray that you will ponder on the wise words of Helen Keller, another blind luminary:
The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.

The author, Rodney Babatunde Hume-Dawson (seen above) is a polio survivor, and an expert in Education and Disability Studies. He currently teaches liberal studies, education and disability studies courses at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona. He is also a certified English Educator in Los Angeles, California. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy, a Master’s in Teaching and Curriculum, and completed his Ph.D. in Education with an emphasis on Disability Studies. His dissertation was a phenomenological inquiry on the resilience of people with poliomyelitis. Rodney has written several book chapters including A Spiritual and Transformative Perspective on Disability that he published in a book edited by Wappett and Arndt, entitled: Emerging Perspectives on Disability Studies.

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