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UBC Reports | Vol. 46 | No. 18 | November 16, 2000

Guiding light

A gifted, graceful teacher and researcher enlarges UBC's vision

by Bruce Mason staff writer

Gloria Onyeoziri is helping us grasp previously unseen possibilities.

It's not just that she is an authority on important African writers who often work in French. Nor that she brings the invaluable insights of a woman of colour and a native Nigerian to help clarify these voices which we have not heard before. Nor that she is the only blind faculty member at UBC.

Onyeoziri, an associate professor in French, Hispanic and Italian Studies at UBC since 1994, points out that Africa is conspicuous in its absence from Trek 2000, UBC's vision document.

"It is a serious concern," she says. "The university must specialize and develop strategic partners, but the sweep is so broad -- Europe, the Americas and the Pacific Region. Why not Africa?"

She explains that the West must begin to approach Africa as a continent of many countries, many cultures, many languages and diverse post-colonial challenges.

With characteristic grace and good humour she illustrates a typical stereotype and a response she has given many times.

"Yes we have universities in Nigeria -- in fact over 30 fine universities. And did you know there are more than 350 languages in Nigeria alone?"

"My first book was on Aimé Césaire, the greatest black poet," she says. "I am not the first to write about him. I am not even in the first one thousand. However my approach is unique. He had wide knowledge of Greek, Latin and French and I come to his work and socio-historic background through a literary analysis of language and semantics."

In her department and across campus she has a legendary ability to call students by name within the first week of classes.

"It is something students appreciate," she says. "I have to listen more carefully than a sighted teacher and ask my students to occupy the same seat, but I don't have to worry about remembering them by their appearance alone."

She uses the blackboard.

"I prefer the contact which isn't the same on an overhead projector," she explains.

"I arrange material in short sentences so they don't become all scrunched up at the end, but sometimes I have to ask a student to be my secretary at the blackboard," she adds with the same deep, rich laugh that punctuates her popular classes.

The daughter of farmers in eastern Nigeria she was spotted early and often as a gifted student.

She pursued teaching credentials in eastern Nigeria, furthered her studies in Senegal and completed her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Jos in the central plateau region.

But a few years before she ever got to university, a problem had appeared.

"No one has been able to fully explain the inflammation of the iris which made me go blind in one eye," she says. "Missionary doctors struggled in vain to save the vision in my other eye and I remember rubbing my eyes and saying to myself, `My education, my education, what about my education?'"

"I do not know how I would react now, but I was 19 then, determined and filled with ambition," she remembers. "I abandoned a career as a high school teacher when opportunity knocked."

Onyeoziri had earned a scholarship for study in France but became impatient with delays, and enrolled instead at the University of Toronto in 1982.

"We met in the summer of '84," recalls husband Robert Miller, a sessional lecturer in French at UBC. "I had taught in Nigeria for three years and we had much in common."

"She knows who she is -- not unduly self-confident--she knows where she comes from and can't be easily discouraged," he says. "There is a lot of respect for people with disabilities in Nigeria and she has worked hard to convince people in Toronto and at UBC that with more effort she can accomplish as much as anyone."

"I would be blind -- or more blind -- without the Crane Resource Centre," says Onyeoziri. She credits Crane Resource Centre adviser Paul Thiele for his support since her arrival at UBC.

It includes providing French readers who tape her voluminous teaching and research material.

"It is a pleasure and a feather in our cap," says Thiele, who is also visually impaired. "Technology alone won't do the job. It also requires people and Gloria is proof of the payoff when we take a chance on someone who has what is ultimately a visual communication disability."

Onyeoziri is an expert in not only African, but also Caribbean literatures in French.

The poetry, theatre and political historical discourse of Césaire was a starting point for literary and interpretative semantics, which include applications to problems specific to African languages and literatures.

"We know little about French cultures and countries outside France and Quebec and Gloria brings her own experience and insights -- her contributions are enormous," says Prof. Valerie Raoul, a friend and colleague in the French Dept. and director of the Centre for Research in Women's Studies and Gender Relations. "As well, her disability adds something unique to who she is, and makes her a truly exceptional teacher."

Onyeoziri is spending this academic term as a UBC scholar with the centre to further her research on Calixthe Beyala. She is also part of "An Interdisciplinary Inquiry into Narrative of Disease, Disability and Trauma," a three-year multi-disciplinary research project led by Raoul, which is funded by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

"I tell feminists and others who say African women are the most oppressed that, on the contrary, they are very strong with powerful voices, but have only recently begun to create their own literatures," Onyeoziri says.

Janet Mee -- director of UBC's Disability Resource Centre and the Crane Resource Centre, with its 120 volunteer narrators -- says that both centres have worked with Onyeoziri to find solutions to a series of unique challenges. They include finding technology with speech recognition software that can function in both French and English.

"Several weeks after Gloria arrived at UBC, she called to say she was having difficulty using the elevator in the Buchanan Tower to get to and from her office on the seventh floor," recalls Mee. "We immediately added Braille to the buttons.

"She called back, delighted with the progress, but she was, of course, still unable to determine which floor she was on when the elevator door opened."

Braille indicators were added on each floor -- a small thing but critical to Onyeoziri's ability to travel independently.

"To achieve the goal of ensuring people with disabilities are able to fully participate on campus requires a partnership. Everyone in the university community has a role to play," says Mee.

"There is no one solution for Gloria or the university, no easy answers, just lots of collaborative problem-solving resulting in tremendous opportunities to enlarge our experience."

Onyeoziri is a Christian who says she has had many blessings, particularly her son Amarachi, a University Hill Elementary School student who has a dream of becoming an engineer and enjoys playing his visits to Nigeria.

"She is a good friend to us all who often invites students to her home, as well as a member of our board," says Peter Dove, UBC Pentecostal chaplain and head of the University Christian Ministries.

"Gloria is a person of grace and good humour who is teaching us what is possible, despite whatever limitations we may have."


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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