A Tribute to M. D. Ahmad

A Tribute to M. D. Ahmad

On June 11, news of Dr M D Ahmad’s passing broke across all communication channels utilised by Nigerian architects and academics. I got wind of this tragic event when I received a WhatsApp message inquiring if he was “The M.D” I have been speaking of. Suddenly, everything came crashing, Malam, as he is known, has passed away. The rest of the day, condolence messages and brief stories of encounter with Malam were exchanged, all testifying to his good character. I want to do the same here but only a bit longer.

Malam was not only a teacher; he acted as a father figure to me even though we have no relation. He gave me invaluable advice which often has nothing to do with academics and are proving valuable as I write this piece. For these reasons, I owe it to Malam (and by extension, his family) to narrate three stories that capture the true essence of Malam as much as I can.

1          Striving for meritocracy to prevail.

In a world full of nepotism and cronyism, you’d be forgiven for not hearing about those actively challenging this scourge of a disease. Their fight to make the system better does not make for sellable news, nor do they capture the attention of controversy seeking populace that we are. Who wants to read a story headlined “Everything went right today” when you can have “X amount goes missing from Agency B”. It is in the former category of news that the like of Malam resides, relegated into the unpublished pages of the press.

I recount a day I went into Malam’s office, at the time he was the HOD of Architecture department at ABU Zaria. It must have been in the late evenings, about 6 pm because the lights were on, his secretary had left, and the place was uncharacteristically quiet. This was the time for us his master’s students we found to be more productive to meet him and discuss our thesis, given he was always busy during working hours.

In this particular encounter, Malan was printing what seems to be a large document. I offered naturally to help finish before he quickly quipped “kai dai Muhammad shige, hala bakazo da aiki bane kake son kayi mun printing”. It turned out he was printing at least a decade worth of result of our senior who had already graduated. Malam began going through it with a highlighter, often calling what seem random names to me until I started recognising a few. Soon, it dawned on me that these were the best students from each class, before I interrupted him, asking why he was interested in “old” student. He explained that the school was about to recruit new staff and that we have to put “our hands on the scale for the sake of the department”.

“Cikin wanda na kira sunan su, ka san wasu and can you get me their numbers,” he asked me, and I said yes. He explained to me those names are of the top five graduating students in each class, and he was planning on sending them text messages encourage them to apply for positions within the department. It appeared that Malam is pre-empting the move from those seeking to fill the position with “friends and family” which would be detrimental to the students, department and ABU at large. Admittedly, I could only get a few numbers for him.

This was an episode in his commitment to meritocracy, and I am sure given his long service in the department, other students and colleagues of his can recount other stories that will corroborate my assessment of Malam

2          Institutionalising change – charting a clearer path for students to succeed.

This second story is very close to the heart of all the graduate students during Malam’s reign as HOD. The rarity (or its appearance) of graduating from the master’s program has had a negative impact on student’s performance. Some even perceived that you will have to spend a minimum of 3-4 years before graduating, even for the “studio rat”. This perception bred a new type of student we term “Non-academic student” (NAS); those that disappear for months only to resurface and attempt to crash their way into graduation by cramping 1-year worth of study and investigation into few weeks, mostly becoming unsuccessful. These became a glut to the system affecting even the dedicated ones. The department for years has been battling on how to resolve this lackadaisical attitude, albeit with mixed results until Malam came.

Admittedly observing from the outside, what we saw as students was a clearer path towards external examination and graduation. The unscheduled/non-periodic presentation regime that had existed and often depended on progress and performance of a critical majority was replaced with a monthly exercise (on the last Tuesdays) and divided into multiple panels. It meant a specific set of jury members were tracking the progress of a few students and could quickly identify the NAS group and take the measure necessary. This clearer path domesticated us since one has to consult his/her supervisor(s) multiple times before the next presentation – 4 weeks away. Hence, MSc studio became visible full, with the marker of the newly instituted presentation regime’s efficacy being the glut’s shift from department to Illa’s printing shop. This practice has been institutionalised according to recent graduates of the programs, a testament of Malam’s vision.

Other staff within the department may have participated in bringing the scheme forward. Still, the fact that its initiation, uptake and early success was under Malam, we continue to credit him with this achievement.

3          Imparting more than knowledge – the art of displaying and an exercise in humility.

The final story here cuts to the heart of what Malam represent, the epitome of humility. Despite the fact architecture students can be said to have a better relationship with their teachers, arising from the school’s pedagogy, Malam goes further. It is not uncommon to find a different group of students – undergrad and graduate – in his (personal) office having a cup of tea and sharing a laugh. This is uncommon within Nigeria’s academia, and that small act/gesture of kindness from one of the senior leadership team of the department can stick with one for years. I have witnessed different characters come into his office stayed longer than they dream of in other staff offices and be accorded same respect regardless of their position or situation. It can safely say without fear of contradiction that it is near impossible to enter and exit Malam’s office without exchanging personal stories just so you feel at ease, which then allows you to interface with him without the teacher/student barrier often constructed by our institutions.

Likewise, Malam brings you into every decision, ensuring you take ownership of the process, which only later I realise is a character-building exercise. This occurred when his new PhD student came to his office (unannounced I believe) for consultation on his writings while we were in the middle of our study. The conventional thing to do would have been to send me packing while he attends to my senior. However, Malam carefully explained to this fellow and I of the predicament that since I was the one whose rightful time was encroached upon had to decide. It didn’t matter of my decision from that point, for me, the fact that all the power was relinquished to me and placed in the driver’s seat was enough to cement Malam position in my eye, a true gentleman with a sense of fairness and justice.

This aspect of teaching went beyond what was required of him; nevertheless, he took it as an opportunity to exemplify the character one requires in conducting oneself. Such are the moments with Malam, full of lessons which we failed to grasp in full through a combination of our ignorance and academic pressure. It was only after graduation that I realise there was more knowledge benefit from Malam and made it a mission to visit or call him as much as I can. Over the years, I have tried to keep contact, but I am ashamed to say in the past year, I didn’t reach out to Malam as much as I you’d have loved to. Now what remains between Us – his students – and he is constant du’a for Allah to forgive his shortcomings.

Malam is truly a remarkable man, an inspiring teacher, and a beautiful human being. I for one am glad to have met him and can call him my teacher, for I can put him against anybody’s and still pick him.

Allah ya Jikan ka Dr M. D. Ahmad ya da Aljanna ce makomar ka.

Muhammad Kabir

Muhammad Kabir Balarabe obtained his PhD from the interdisciplinary programme Design, Technology and Society at Ozyegin University, Istanbul. His research interests are on the subject of informality, street vending and the urban composition, informal/vernacular architecture and architecture education. Muhammad has multiple peered review journals to his name and has gathered practical experience working with numerous architectural consulting firms and construction companies in Nigeria. He obtained his bachelors and master’s degree in architecture from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria.