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Benson Chinedu Onyeji at Peace Pole dedication 2016

“We are friends. We are family.”

Peace Pole dedicated Sept. 16, 2016Peace Pole Dedication For Brook Meketer Dagnew, Kirubel Alemayehu Hailu, Nerad Grace Mangai September 16, 2016  

My name is Benson Chinedu Onyeji. I’m Professor of Political Science and Director of the International Studies Program, here at Manchester University.   

It was Sunday, February 21, 2016 by 9:07 am when the call came in. I did not answer because I was taking my bath. The caller left a message:   

“Hi Benson. It’s Dave McFadden. I’m calling to make you know that a number of our international students were involved in a serious auto accident this morning in Grant County. We believe it was on I-69. We don’t have full details but we understand that there were about seven travelling together; that there were a couple of fatalities; two, maybe three, but there is a student in critical condition at Lutheran, and there are three students who had only minor injuries. As soon as we have more details we will let you know. I will send emails. Feel free to call me. I know that you have special connection to many of these students. Six were from Ethiopia, one from Nigeria. I don’t know yet the names of the students who were involved within the specificity. I don’t know who the Nigerian student was. The student in critical condition at Lutheran I understand is Israel Tamire, biology major-first year student. So, feel free to call me, but I will keep you posted by email. Thanks!”  

I fainted. I mean it. I lost consciousness. When I recovered temporarily, I began screaming: “the world has come to an end.” My wife rushed into my study where she found me lying on the floor. “What? What are you saying?” She yelled. “Africa is dead. My children are dead.” Her eyes turned red, and in a serious and angry voice she said “Benson you don’t make sense.” It made no sense to me either that my students have been killed. How many? As the voice message indicated, there were a lot we didn’t know.   

The death of Brook “BK” Dagnew, Kirubel Hailu, and Nerad Mangai touched me deeply, and personally, too. Yes, President Dave McFadden was right in that voice message that I have special connection to many of these students. With their death, Africa was dead. And, I was dead, and so were everything about me and around me at that moment. There was no difference between these students, my own children, and the rest of us in this community. This Peace Pole Dedication is an expression of our appreciation of how we value these fallen students, what they mean to us as a community, and what they mean to each one of us personally. In an occasion like this on June 1, 2006, President Jo Young Switzer reminded us that “Those who have died remind us of our responsibilities. They remind us of our strength.

When we gather to recognize those members --- we offer our respect and appreciation for what they have done for our communities, for their families, and for the College.” And as Voltaire [1694-1778] put it “By appreciation we make excellence in others our own property.” In three of you, Brook, Kirubel, and Nerad, we at Manchester University see ourselves. As you were, so we are, in a sense, as you are now, so shall we be, in another sense.

Yet, in another way, President McFadden clearly stated in the letter I hand delivered to each of the affected families that, “we are more than students, faculty and staff members at Manchester. We are friends. We are family.” We claim you as you may claim us, for as our people in Africa say, “imi beme, anya ebeme.” The literal translation is “as the nose runs so also the eye tears.” John Donne [1572-1631] a leading English poet and cleric in the Church of England puts it, perhaps, in a more personal manner:  “No one is an island, entire of itself --- anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”  

It tolls for me. I felt like dead again when I went to Jos Nigeria and Addis Ababa Ethiopia to represent the university few weeks following the accident. Though I was not familiar with Kirubel by the time of his death, I was told later that he planned to take my African politics class and join the model UN for Harvard conference this 2016 academic year. As I approached the front of their house, his father was waiting. We hugged, it was a long one. Then he grabbed my hand, looked at my face and queried, “professor where is my son, where is the diploma?’

The house was full with family members and it was all tears. We cried for long, anytime someone comes in, it starts all over. And so it was when I visited Brook and Nerad’s families.    

My special connection with Brook goes way back. As some of you may know, BK’s sister Tihitani graduated from our political science department in 2008. Being a small department of only two faculty members, we were close to our students, and Tihitani was, also, classmate and friend of my daughter, Nkechi. I met their parents, Mr. Mekete Dagnew and Mrs. Elizabeth Dagnew, when Tihitani graduated and we quickly connected. Following, Tihitani attended Nkechi’s wedding where she met and became friends too to my other children. Then BK came eight years later to extend the relationship and to follow the footsteps of his sister. Like Tihitani, BK joined the Manchester Model United Nations Association which I serve as faculty advisor.

I took Tihitani to Boston Massachusetts to participate in the Harvard National Model United Nations conference, which is the most prestigious model United Nations conference in the world. I took BK twice in 2015 and 2016 to this same conference. As a tradition, I take my students to have banquet in Boston to celebrate our participation and accomplishments in the Harvard conference.

I had banquet with BK, Nerad, and 19 other Manchester University student delegates in Boston on Saturday, February 13, 2016 just less than a week before the accident. Little did I know that this would be the last super with those two students. For those of you who knew BK, he has a presence that stands out anywhere. He was funny, and handsome too, with or without the red shoes which he liked the most. He loved the model United Nations. As two term secretary to the Model United Nations Association, BK was instrumental in putting our conferences together. Let me just say that while BK’s life was brief, he was bigger than life itself.    

Nerad was my fellow Nigerian. She was enrolled in two of my classes; African Politics and Model United Nations. She was only able to enroll in the later already carrying maximum semester load because she was an excellent student. I recalled vividly the day she came into my office to seek permission to enroll into the class. She wanted to know if she can get in with her current maximum load, and I said yes if she is getting mainly A’s. She said yes. She brought out her form and I signed it. In few hours, I got an approval email from the Registrar. Nerad was not only an excellent student, she was just a good human being, extremely pleasant and a joy to be around with both in and outside the class. She was full of life that was cut short.

In Boston, I recalled also that she was the one that invited me to take a picture with her and her friends. That picture will remain in my memory lane in the manner my first visit to Jos transformed me into a “Jos Man.” Being a Jos Man means that you are well integrated into the community. I asked Nerad’s parents to help find me a place in Jos where I can stay when I visit, or live, when I retire. 

Where I come from in Africa, when someone dies we say the person has simply changed address. The person dwells with the people forever. We celebrate the person as we celebrate the living. So, today we celebrate Israel, as well. We are thankful that he survived, for it was a miracle. We are thankful for his rapid recovery. We are so happy that he is able to join us here today. What a surprise. 

This is really a special occasion, at least for me to see Israel and all the families that are represented. I’m especially thankful to President McFadden for delegating me to represent the University in this important mission. And, I appreciate that Manchester University is doing this dedication. While I was not in position to commit Manchester University in anyway or form, I assured the families then that Manchester University remains committed to its mission statement which “respects the infinite worth of every individual.”  This is, precisely, what this gathering is all about.  

I am grateful, also, to the families for welcoming me into their homes and extending to me the various flavors of the African hospitality even in the face of death of their beloved ones. I am hoping that this dedication will, in some measures, contribute to the healing process for all.   

Thank you!