Olabiyi Babalola J. Yai (1939-2020): Philosopher, Polymath, Humanist


When Professor Abiola Francis Irele passed in 2017, we had met a couple of months earlier at a conference hosted by the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPTC) in Johannesburg. Throughout the huge conference, I had been beside Irele, ravenously tapping into his wealth of knowledge and experience, plying him with an endless barrage of questions relating to our intellectual history and the key figures who had indelibly marked and shaped its trajectory. The esteemed professor, ever so patient, was ready to respond to even the most uncomfortable of entreaties. He possessed the unflappable sangfroid of a sage yet there was nothing inaccessible about his almost earthy aura. He was unfailingly modest and never condescended to me even when he had ample reason to do so.

He passed within three months of returning to Harvard in the United States where he had been based and then it fell upon his dear friend, Professor Olabiyi Babalola Yai to inform me. Yai was clearly distraught declaring he had lost his brother. As Yai expressed the great loss, one felt his heart had been ripped out leaving behind a gaping void. At the conference, Irele and I had discussed Yai’s work. When I brought up the issue, Irele had uncharacteristically not found the exact words to capture the essence of Yai’s oeuvre. He had sort of winced, indicating by making carving gestures with his hands that Yai worked like a fastidious sculptor of words. Yai’s writing, in other words,was an exercise in textural sculpture, akin to a furnace of skewed intellectual contestation, and a work of unyielding scribal architecture. If rough, uneven and perhaps sometimes imprecise on the surface, it was an imprecision that seemed deliberate, forged in the hardened crucible of character formation, with the range and sturdiness of mountain rocks or the blasted rigor of gnarled ancient trees. That is what I had read in Irele’s wince and gestures in relation to the unique work of Professor Olabiyi Yai.

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