Ottawa professor who died in Ethiopia plane crash remembered for public outreach

Ottawa professor Pius Adesanmi, one of the 18 Canadians killed in Sunday's Ethiopian Airlines crash, is being remembered as a public intellectual whose outreach to Africans across the globe shaped the way Canada is seen abroad.

The Nigerian-born scholar was on his way to a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, when the jet went down shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa airport, killing all 157 aboard.

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The death of the director of Carleton University's Institute of African Studies sent shockwaves through the academic community and on social media, where Adesanmi was mourned by a "cult following" of more than 40,000 Twitter users, said Nduka Otiono, a fellow Carleton professor and Adesanmi's friend of 25 years.

"I think it's difficult to begin to imagine the depth and the breadth of the devastation a whole lot of people and different communities have felt with the demise of Pius," said Otiono. "More so because of the traumatic way it happened."

Also a professor in Carleton's Department of English Language and Literature, Adesanmi's scholarship on African and post-colonial writing, culture and politics made him a "towering figure" in the field, said the school's president, Benoit-Antoine Bacon.

In 2010, Adesanmi was named the winner of the inaugural Penguin Prize for African non-fiction writing for "You're Not a Country, Africa," his collection of essays examining his relationship to the continent as a Nigerian-Canadian.

Adesanmi's political activism could not be contained to the rarefied realm of academia, said Otiono. He amplified his wide-ranging commentary on African issues in public talks, popular publications and the online "world of the avatar," his colleague said.

"He actually did ... go out of the traditional places that academics inhabit, to operate as a public intellectual and to reach the widest number of people that he could, as a way of mobilizing, especially youth, towards political engagement (and) positive change."

At the same time, Adesanmi frequently travelled to Africa to foster relationships on the ground, said Otiono, serving as a visiting professor at the University of Ghana and working with the African Union.

He brought that same charisma and collaborative spirit to his leadership at Carleton's Institute of African Studies, said Otiono, deepening the scholarship in Canada and elevating the school's program to international renown.

"He (had) a certain sense that we should be more than something that caters to the interest of students and professors, (but) something that should also establish a wider network and connections with the city and with the community," said Otiono.

"There's certain times when I believe there will be continued celebration of his achievement, and at the same time, that very deep sense of loss. That's what his absence has meant."

Adesanmi's death is being felt on both sides of his "hyphenated identity," said Otiono. But he is saddened that many Canadians are only learning about Adesanmi due to the public nature of his death, rather than his reputation as an intellectual.

"Until this incident … Canadians didn't quite know that we had in our midst a young man who has had tremendous impact on the (African) continent, and then who continued to shift the way people outside of Canada, certainly in the African continent, related to Canada as a great place."

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