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Professor Ernest Haynes Wright (Popularly called Mofi Wright) as I knew Him Tribute to A Great Scientist and a Mentor

Associate Professor, Dept. of Chemistry,
Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone
I first met Professor Ernest Haynes Wright (popularly known by his pet name Mofi Wright) in October 1970, when I came to enrol in the Faculty of Pure & Applied Sciences at Fourah Bay College; he was then both Dean of that Faculty and Head of the Department of Chemistry, the latter appointment he held till 1998 when he was appointed Vice Chancellor & Principal for the University of Sierra Leone.
He immediately impressed on me the need to strive for excellence. While I came to FBC elated by the glory of having passed all 3 of my science subjects at the GCE Advanced Level he was quick to remind me that since I did not score As or Bs in all my subjects I should not be overwhelmed with joy and that I needed to work hard to survive the rough and tumble of life in his faculty, especially as I had opted to study chemistry as one of my subjects. With that advice he enrolled me in the Intermediate Year of that faculty.
During my undergraduate apprenticeship at FBC my path crossed Professor Wright again in 1973 when I accepted the invitation to pursue the Honours Programme in chemistry. In Honours School he assigned me to work on my honours research thesis under his direct tutelage. This set the stage for getting to know this great man very closely. For the honours research, we worked on the uptake of plant nutrients by various adsorbents (mainly soils, carbon black and pulverised charcoal) using an electrochemical analytical technique he had developed the previous year.
When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree and it became clear I did not intend to make academia a career nor in particular did I want to stay at FBC, Professor Wright went all out to ensure that I stayed under his mentorship by applying for and obtaining an appointment for me as Research/ Teaching Assistant assigned to the Department of Chemistry at FBC. All I had to do was to write and accept that appointment, which I did after much persuasion that aborted my initial aim of joining the research team at the Rokupr Rice Research Station then headed by Dr. Roger Jones.
My postgraduate tutelage under the great Mofi Wright entailed the evolution of my bachelor’s research work into a successful M.Sc. Thesis.
Being a world renowned Surface Chemist, and a man always eager to ensure that science serves mankind, Professor Wright, through his publications, profiled those early work in the mid-to-late 1970s to become the precursor to contemporary studies on fertilizer use efficiency on tropical soils and in particular gave early insight to addressing the challenges of soil phosphate fixation still one of the banes of tropical agriculture. It was through this early work with Mofi Wright that I got unwittingly introduced to Soil Science and to surface-based Environmental Studies that eventually became my life-long career in addition to Surface Chemistry.
As a sign of the confidence Professor Wright had in me he was bold enough to assign some of his and other Qualifying Year (Level 3) teaching duties to me (a fresh B. Sc. Hons graduate). I still remember how he would sneak into my class and seat himself at the back to observe this Guinea Pig of a teacher. This was how Mofi Wright enabled me to become teacher of the likes of Dr. Alpha Wurie, (the Managing Director of Ramsay Laboratories and erstwhile Minister of Education, Science & Technology) and Hon. Kemoh Sesay (the current Adviser to President Ernest Koroma), both only about 2 years my juniors as undergraduate students.
It was Professor Wright’s aggressive staff development policy that prompted me to leave for the University of Birmingham on an Association of Commonwealth Universities scholarship, having only just submitted my M. Sc. dissertation for examination. To Mofi Wright, academia was not the preserve of non-Ph.Ds.
Thus the position of Research/Teaching Assistant was to be held for a maximum period of 2 years on the ground during which time a candidate must complete a Master’s programme and at the end of that period he/she must sojourn overseas in pursuit of a Ph.D. Through this policy Mofi Wright is credited for the mentoring/training of almost all, of the present senior cadre of chemistry faculty at Fourah Bay College. Sometimes he was quite strategic in his staff training process. Mofi Wright would always connect with his staff on overseas training by letter, which at that time was the most effective means of communication, by sharing news of developments on the home front. By so doing he made the overseas trainee feel bonded to the chemistry family at home.
He would also go a vicious step further, as happened in my case when at the end of my study I had two clearly superior career opportunities; one to stay at University of Birmingham to continue work on a United States Air Force project with a fairly decent salary or to join Professor D. J. Greenland at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria with an even superior career prospect. But Professor Wright would have none of those; I had to return to Fourah Bay College “to serve my Alma Mater and my people”. To operationalise this he sent me a copy of the chemistry departmental time table with my name slotted all over it for courses he had already assigned to me. I felt so guilty that my only reaction was to pack and return home.
Meanwhile Professor Wright was not only determined to mentor me but to father me as well. He was quick to assign high profile responsibilities such as the departmental Examinations Officer, even as young as I was. He also put me in charge of outreach programmes such as student industrial visits to the Wellington Industrial Estates (where the soap, tobacco, paint factories and the distilleries were located), Sierra Leone Oxygen Factory, The Sierra Leone Petroleum Refinery, etc. to enable students to see chemistry at work.
His annual staff assessment evaluations were key to my “getting on my bike” to research and publish. When as Managing Editor of the Journal of Pure & Applied Sciences, Professor Wright reposed additional confidence in me by assigning me the duty as the main reviewer of chemistry and chemistry-based articles of that journal I had the opportunity of going through a major learning curve.
When subsequently Professor Wright trusted me with the opportunity of peer reviewing the scientific papers he intended to submit for publication I was not only elated but I knew I had finally arrived as a budding scientist and an academic. This fact was further reinforced when Mofi Wright would invariably call me to verify calculations/computations he had done at home leading to the final results of students offering chemistry in honours school or at the Final General level. For good measure, when this great man took a rear sabbatical in Nigeria I was chosen to supervise his research students while he was away.
Mofi Wright was the embodiment of hard-work and was always eager to acquire new knowledge. Though a physical chemist, there was hardly any undergraduate course he could not teach, and he would comprehensively pre-moderate all examination papers before calling the stipulated Board of Examiners meeting to brainstorm and finalise his efforts. He kept researching and writing scientific papers even while he was Vice Chancellor & Principal. I am presently still editing and finalising a UNESCO commissioned book for which both of us wrote the first part and also served as overall editors; a process that was delayed by his sudden illness. Sadly for him this book will eventually be published posthumously.
Professor Wright and I eventually forged a fairly close father-and-son relationship. I remember once when a senior colleague got himself entangled with two female students leading to the cancellation and rescheduling of a chemistry examination paper, Mofi called me to his office and advised me, like a father to a son; the sermon he preached to me had guided me throughout my professional academic career.
When as a result of the lavish hosting of the OAU summit the economy nose-dived thereby making the university and the country in general increasingly uninhabitable and I told him I wanted to migrate in search of better opportunities, Mofi consistently encouraged me to stay home and serve “my country and my people”, even if I had to engage in extra income-generating activities to make ends meet. It was then that he enlisted me as a member of the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) family. In addition to having me recruited as an Assistant Examiner of O’ Level Chemistry, he also subsequently ensured that I joined him as Examiner of the A’ Level Chemistry Paper 1 while he served as Chief Examiner.
It was also he that nominated me as the University’s representative on the WAEC Governing Council; a relationship I maintained in various capacities for an unbroken almost 15 years.
Throughout our relationship Mofi never asked to know my tribe, my political persuasion, nor ever met any of my parents or close relatives; I am sure to him such issues were irrelevant to forging a wholesome human relationship. This is a cardinal principle I inculcated from this great man.
From the foregoing it can be concluded that the late Professor Mofi Wright was a highly patriotic man whose virtues of hard-work, fairness, blindness to tribe/race, religion, gender and political persuasion and his selfless devotion to academia and to education generally he succeeded in imparting to his peers and admirers thereby leaving indelible footprints in the sands of time that will help shape the future of education in this Land that we love, our Sierra Leone.
True, though a brilliant scientist and academic his administrative credentials were not perfect, a point I can personally attest to; but then no one is perfect! One thing I know about Mofi Wright is that when once he became thoroughly convinced about the rightness of a policy or line of action he will go all out to implement it, even if he had to employ aggressive/bullying means to do so. I pray those he hurt in this process will forgive him.
By Dr. Thomas B. R. Yormah

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