He made the complex seem simple
Stephen Obeng Gyimah, a brilliant scholar, an inspirational teacher, a kind and generous mentor and friend, and a devoted husband and father, died suddenly at his Kingston home on May 11 following a few days of feeling unwell. He was just 43. The expressions of grief and disbelief from all who knew this vibrant, cheerful, respected, and well-loved man give some idea of just how much he will be missed.
Before coming to Queen’s in 2003 from the University of Western Ontario, where he earned his PhD, Stephen told us that his thesis “examined the usefulness of frailty models within a parametric hazard framework,” and we had no reason to doubt him. It was clear his knowledge of complex methodological approaches to the study of social life was far superior to that of most of his colleagues.
His command of matters statistical and empirical made him a crucial resource person for students and colleagues alike, and his remarkable generosity in sharing his knowledge contributed to their projects in important ways.
This generosity also informed his teaching. As Stephen once explained, “It dawned on me that most students come to statistics with genuine fears that can be exacerbated by the abstract manner in which statistics is taught. My teaching philosophy centres on making these courses practical and interesting by drawing on examples from everyday life. I also try to dispel psychological barriers by emphasizing that all students can be trained to learn statistics, and that there’s no need for a special talent.”
Stephen’s modesty notwithstanding, students expressed their gratitude to him for having guided them through difficult concepts and techniques, for his caring nature that made them want to come to class, and their sadness that next year’s class will no longer benefit from his humility, kindness, and skill.
Stephen used his command of the complex technicalities of quantitative and demographic approaches in service to his scholarship – that is, as tools that allowed him to illuminate the problems shared by millions of real-life people. In this respect, his work serves as an exemplar of C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination.” For Mills, the sociologist’s task was to make comprehensive sense of the links between biography and history, between the lives of individuals and the structure of society, and between private troubles and public issues. This “promise,” as Mills described, is realized in the scholarship Stephen has left us.
In his writing on sub-Saharan Africa, he addressed with laser-like precision such complex health and public policy issues as HIV/AIDS, malaria, infant mortality, educational attainment, marital dissolution, aging, and physical abuse. For Stephen, the most important piece of any puzzle lay in the intersection of culture and unequal socio-economic growth and development.
He appreciated interdisciplinarity, drawing upon geographical, sociological, demographic and development studies approaches to social policy questions in Canada, in his native Ghana, and in other African nations. This ensured his work would be influential across disciplinary boundaries.
In a career that ended far too early, Stephen Obeng Gyimah accomplished a great deal. He published dozens of papers in influential journals, and he engaged other scholars as a frequent conference participant. That he had come to be viewed as a leading authority in the study of Sub-Saharan Africa is clear from the attention that his work attracted from the editors of major journals and from granting agencies. In his last year, Stephen’s record of achievement was remarkable. Alone and with others, he published 10 scholarly articles and had seven others at various stages of completion.
A few days before he died Stephen was in his office with a few students, and there was so much laughter that one of his colleagues thought about going down the hall to ask for a little peace and quiet. Now that colleague would give anything to hear those happy sounds again. Stephen had a great wit and a wonderful laugh that came easily and often. However, underneath it all loomed a penetrating mind and a commitment to understanding and addressing injustice and inequity.
A Memorial Service will be held on Friday, September 21 at 4 pm in McLaughlin Hall, JDUC.
In writing this memorial, the authors – both of whom were Stephen Gyimah’s Sociology Department colleagues – drew on tributes from Stephen’s graduate students and from those posted on the James Reid Funeral Home’s website at http://bit.ly/NgiUip