Lifongo Vetinde, a dedicated Lawrence University professor who through his work on and off campus looked to make the world around him a more informed and compassionate place, died Thursday, Jan. 30, following surgery. He was 64.
He is survived by his wife, Eposi Esoka Lifongo, two daughters, Agnès (Charles) Boland and Naomi Nyeme, a brother, Ike, two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, and a granddaughter, Victoria.
Vetinde, a professor of French, was a member of the Lawrence faculty since 1996, a scholar of Francophone literature and cinema who also taught French language courses and on multiple occasions led Lawrence’s Francophone Seminar program in Dakar, Senegal. He earned a Fulbright Teaching and Research Fellowship in 2012-13.
A native of Cameroon, Vetinde also was deeply devoted to working on issues of social justice, diversity, and inclusion throughout his career.
“I will always remember Lifongo as the warmest, kindest, and most generous, joyful, and magnanimous of colleagues and friends,” said Dominica Chang, who worked closely with Vetinde as the Margaret Banta Humleker Professor of French Cultural Studies and associate professor of French. “My lunch with him during my job visit over a decade ago was what convinced me that Lawrence was a place I could call home.”
Vetinde was active in a range of scholarly pursuits, from co-editing a book on Senegalese film director and writer Ousmane Sembène to organizing symposiums and roundtables on important topics of the day.
But his primary focus and love was teaching. He embraced Lawrence’s small class sizes because it allowed him to engage one-on-one with his students. He was adamant that students needed to experience the world to better understand both the challenges and the opportunities ahead, and he pushed them to travel abroad and to have inquisitive minds about the cultures they would encounter.
“We live in an increasingly globalized world in which interactions with people from different parts of the world and cultural backgrounds are ineluctable,” Vetinde said in a 2016 interview for Lawrence magazine. “For one to interact productively with others, cultural literacy is crucial. There is no better way for students to gain such knowledge than by going abroad.”
It was the francophone African literature and the study abroad experience in the Francophone Seminar program, in which Vetinde led Lawrence students to Dakar on at least five different occasions, that were particularly close to his heart.
“He had a mission to dispel stereotypes and ignorance about the African continent and helped his students discover the rich, cultural histories and varied cultural realities, especially post-colonially,” said Eilene Hoft-March, the Milwaukee-Downer College and College Endowment Association Professor of Liberal Studies and professor of French. “He wanted students, most especially American students, to experience Africa by traveling to Senegal, which is our prize program in French and Francophone Studies.”
Outside of the classroom and his social activism, Vetinde had a passion for playing and watching football (soccer), reading, and listening to music — he professed a love of the storytelling in old-time country music. His family also will attest to his dancing abilities and passion for helping elementary school students in his native Cameroon. He started the Fako-Dev Foundation as a means to support public school children in his village with basic school supplies and access to books beyond their curriculum. The foundation also supports computer literacy for students and staff.
At Lawrence, Vetinde’s friendships with colleagues were deep and impactful. And his work with Freshman Studies through the years gave him connections with students all across campus.
“He was big-hearted and wise, very discreet but with a terrific sense of humor,” Hoft-March said. “You had to watch for that twinkle in his eye that preceded a hearty laugh.”
The Fulbright Fellowship took Vetinde to Saint-Louis, Senegal, in West Africa, for 10 months, where he taught literature classes, including one that served as a comparative study of the works of such American writers as W.E.B. Dubois, Alice Walker, and Maya Angelou and those of Saint-Louisian writers such as Abdoulaye Sadji, Malick Fall, and Abdel Aziz Mayoro Diop. He also further studied notable Senegalese writers and the role they played in the emergence of Senegal’s national identity.
For Lawrence Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Gunther Kodat, Vetinde’s academic pursuits were personal. When he received promotion to full professor, she’s the one who presented him to the Lawrence Board of Trustees, giving her a chance to shine a spotlight on work he’s done that connected with her own academic history.
“It was a special perk for me because Lifongo’s areas of research included the work of the great Senegalese film director and writer Ousmane Sembène, whose novel God’s Bits of Wood I had taught for years,” Kodat said. “My admiration for Lifongo grew steadily from that early, happy connection as I got to know his work as a scholar; his warm, unassuming, and generous nature; and, above all, his selfless commitment to his students.”
Vetinde joined the Tenure Committee last year, further revealing “his integrity, his ability to balance empathy with rigor, and his sense of fairness,” Kodat said.
“Lifongo was a cherished member of our community; he will be sorely missed.”
Plans are being made for a campus memorial service. Details will be announced later. The family set up a tribute site at this link.