Alhaji Njai, a former student of the Fourah Bay College who went through the mentorship of the late Professor Norman Cole, has paid touching tribute to the late man after his demise on the 23rd June, 2023.

“Saddened to lose, Prof. Norman Cole, one of Sierra Leone’s eminent Professors of Botany and Ecology, who was a teacher, mentor and a significant figure in my career development. You see, I came to Fourah Bay College (FBC) as a second year student direct from high school, skipping Fresh man year. At the end of my second academic year going into final year Honors 1, Prof. Cole called me to his office at the Botany Department. I was worried. I thought I had done something terrible. Then he said, your grades are phenomenal and very outstanding in class as a student; “I have not seen any students of your calibre in my 30 years of teaching. So I am going to do something I have not done before, that is, I will offer you a teaching and research position, and I am recommending you for a German DAAD scholarship for post-graduate studies.”

Just like that, an incredible mentor-mentee relationship started between us. I ended up having a scholarship to the US and he was sad, I was leaving FBC then and happy at the same time, I was pursuing post graduate studies in the US. I promised that I will come back to teach and do research at USL when I am done. So we discussed various career pathways he thought is needed in the country. I ended up going much further and deeper than he envisaged; from plant taxonomy, ecology, environmental sciences to molecular biology, toxicology, immunology, biomedical science and public health.

In my early years in the US, I wrote him physical letters (snail mail not email or WhatsApp) on my progress and suggestions for changes at FBC.  In one of those letters, I wrote to him about implementing a modular system for FBC to replace the one final exam system. When he assumed office as Deputy Vice Principal of FBC, he developed the idea of the modular system into a proposal that was adopted by the University. I am happy to have played a small role in the introduction of the modular system at FBC. Prof. Cole was passionate about research, teaching, field ecology and the environment, something of which his influenced continued on some of us. On ecological field work, his passion was unmatched. When students complain of being tired during our long ecological field work, he would say “hard work does not kill guys.” During our seminar presentations, he would appear to be taking a nap, just for him to open his eyes to ask you tough questions or catch your mistakes. He was an ardent listener and will take copious notes, which he will go over meticulously to make his point. He also taught us using notes meticulously written in fine handwriting on notecards.

In our last few meetings in Freetown, three years ago, we will discuss wide ranging things; his childhood in Freetown, Nigeria, school at POW, taking the train from Waterloo to Freetown, medicinal uses of plants, and how things have changed. He was still very sharp and witty, and you can tell his brain and active thought process was very intact. He still discuss research at great length and trends in the science. For several years, he was the managing editor of the pure and applied science journal at Fourah Bay College, a journal he helped formed and also obtained it ISBN number. Not only was he a foremost plant taxonomist and ecologist with the seminal book on the vegetation of Sierra Leone, but also became the Chief of the Environmental Unit of the United Nations Environmental Commission for Africa.

Prof. Cole lived a productive life as an academic and touched many lives, who are making amazing contributions locally and globally. I started coming back and giving voluntary free teaching service and setting up research partnerships at FBC and University of Sierra Leone in 2008; part of me fulfilling the promise I made to Prof. Cole of coming back to serve and the encouragements I got from another strong mentor Prof. Babatunde Karim. I am driven by that passion and furthering the legacy of research, teaching and mentoring students laid forth by Prof. Cole. He passed away in the early hours of Friday, June 23rd, 2023, when many of us where busy with pre-election activities. His legacy will continue to live on through us and the next generation of students we mentor. May his soul rest well in heaven. My deep and sincere condolences to his family. Sierra Leone, Africa and the world has lost true academic giant and a fine taxonomist and field ecologist.”