Fellow Africans, today is a special day for me and my family. I’ve decided to write this particular letter to members of the Black race because Nigeria has a pivotal role to play in our lives as people. The spirituality of Nigeria and Nigerians can never be in doubt. This is not an empty boast but something I experienced as a kid. By the grace of God, I’m 55 today and it is not a mere coincidence that my column also falls on this day in Thisday. My task on this page, therefore, is simple and straight-forward. I wish to let you into some lessons I learnt along the way as they formed the bedrock of my life.
The lesson started from my parents who were prayer warriors. I used to tease jocularly that they prayed more than the Pope and should be called praying-mantis. We ate and drank prayers. We made annual excursions to some mountains where I assumed we wanted to get closer to God to ensure that he heard, listened to us and hearkened to our shrieking voices full of entreaties. We even customised our fasting sometimes with biribiri (eating no meal for several days) or funfun (a whitish fast that forbade eating oily or any meal that had salt). We truly punished our bodies as atonement for sins. I wonder how many of us know how to commune and offer supplications to our God nowadays.
My paternal grandparents were Muslims while my parents were Christians but it did not make any difference. We co-existed as one big family and not as enemies. We celebrated their Ramadan just like we celebrated our own Lent. God is common and central to all religions. My theory is that Africa draws its strength from that spiritual fortification. Is it not strange and miraculous that Africa is still able to stand ramrod and gloriously despite its many debilitating afflictions? A return to those good old days when men and women truly worshipped God would certainly help our continent. What we have today are voluble Christians and Muslims and not godly beings.
Education was top priority. The Missionary schools that were founded and nurtured by the Europeans were very good. Even the local ones like the primary school I attended in Ile-Ife were of high quality. Education and Agriculture were intertwined. In fact, there was a popular Yoruba song that every pupil learnt by rote: iwe kiko, laisi oko, ati ada, ko ipe o, ko ipe o (education without the practice of Agriculture is not good enough.) We were encouraged to till the soil. We had our Agric teacher called Baba Agric. It was impossible for any student not to cultivate some crops, be it maize, yam or fruits, no matter the status of your parents. The only time I ever slept in hospital was when I got blisters from cutting the grass on my farmland with a cutlass and it got infected and had to be operated upon by a doctor at Seventh Day Adventist Hospital Ile-Ife. The wards were clean and the nurses were helpful. I did not feel irritated the way one would do these days.
I often wonder how we found ourselves in this quagmire. Our parents often drummed it into us that the greatest inheritance they could bequeath to any child was the opportunity of education that they afforded that child. Today, whilst most children have the opportunity of some education it has been largely bastardised and decimated in quality. Perhaps this is one singular reason our lives and more importantly the lives of our children have taken a turn for the worse and we no longer have any values or morals.
Ise loogun ise (hard-work is the only antidote to poverty!). We were told there was no short cut to making it in life. You had to be diligent and assiduous in whatever you did. All we wanted to do was work like no man’s business. We took any job at every opportunity. There was and is dignity in labour. This is a truism that we must never forget. I worked as errand boy at CSS Bookshop in Ile-Ife. I swept the floor and wiped the shelves and kept the washroom spanking clean. It was never a big deal because we accepted that we did not labour in vain but were gaining experience in one of the most important features of life. My father had worked as a labourer who rose to become Road overseer at the Public Works Department (PWD fondly called Ponnpounn Wahala Dede). They built and maintained local roads and drains. There were sanitary inspectors whose mere presence in any neighbourhood conjured fear and trepidation. Oga Wolewole was an important and efficacious member of society. Even mosquitos committed mass suicide at his sight. We didn’t have to wait for a monthly environmental cleaning cycle before exterminating any odoriferous filth in our domain. Cleaniness we were told was next to godliness. Another lifetime lesson.
After passing my school certificate exam and before being admitted into university, I worked as a village teacher. I had to jump on a cocoa tractor to navigate my way to the rural school. Two of us shared a small dusty bedroom. I slept on a mat while the senior teacher occupied the only bamboo bed in his grand majesty. I actually acclimatised quickly as I found teaching to be my first love and enjoyed the cool evening breeze in the village and the generosity of the parents who donated pawpaws, plantains, bananas, oranges and such seasonal fruits as were available in their organic state. We washed down meals with original palmwine delivered in its pristine taste by the experienced tappers. For me, it was fun, until my mum came to kick me out of the wilderness. For me this was a combination of the materials needed to succeed in life. I had education, labour, agriculture and another vital ingredient, contentment.
I proceeded to work at the renowned University of Ife Library, now named after the visionary Vice Chancellor, Professor Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, who built Africa’s most beautiful campus in Ile-Ife, the cradle of civilisation. That was in 1977. This job brought me in contact with world famous scholars and taught me how to read widely and voraciously. My biggest thrill was coming in contact with new materials written by great authors. I never discriminated against books in the Humanities especially in subjects like Literature, languages, music, history, religious studies, philosophy, sociology, dramatic arts, and so on. Another lifetime lesson is that you must read avidly and not be afraid to digest. Knowledge opens the mind and the vistas that you encounter and traverse through adopting a reading culture can only be best imagined.
Of course I became a hot-head with my brains boiling from reading an ill-assorted collection. It was one of the reasons that led me to studying Yoruba, of all subjects, at the university, at a time it was fashionable and trendy to read some funky subjects. Even my unlettered mum wondered if my head was ‘correct’ and if I wanted to practise herbalism at some stage. But I just wanted to be daring and different. I later went on to do a Master’s degree in Literature-in-English, becoming the first and only graduate of Yoruba to bag a post-graduate in an opposite subject. I would later treasure and savour this uniqueness.
Mentorship plays a major role in a young man’s life. I was fortunate to live under the roof of my older sister, Feyi and her husband Mr Stephen Adeyemo Adeniran who later became the Principal of my school, St. John’s Grammar School, Ile-Ife. Subsequently, I went to live with our older brother, Professor Oladele Ajayi, born of the same Mum, who became more of a father to me and my sister. He had schooled at Government College Ibadan before advancing to the United States in search of the proverbial Golden Fleece in 1965. He returned with a PhD in Materials Science, around 1975, and took up a teaching appointment at the Physics Department of the then University of Ife. Living with this bookworm of a man turned me into a reading freak. Nothing could ever please the genius who thought I was foolishly playful and pushed me hard. Unfortunately, I suffered from the brilliance of my best friend, Prince Adedamola Aderemi, who had finished A-level at 16 while I was still fiddling with WASC Examination at close to 18. Adedamola was the yardstick with which we were measured considering his academic exploits. But the comparison was most unfair with Adedamola coming from a Royal and Aristocratic background while I belonged to the proletariat as it was fanciful to be described in that Marxist-Leninist era.
Another lifetime lesson was gained by this friendship. Your background counts for naught. Loyalty, companionship, mutual respect and admiration are the hallmarks of an enduring and cherished relationship. Your friends of yore never abandon or desert you!
I was fortunate to meet and interact early in life with Professor Wole Soyinka. Unknown to him till this day he remains my greatest inspiration in Literature. I was not only educated by his often tedious literary obscurantism, I was endlessly titillated by his adventurist radicalism. I salivated regularly over his dare-devilry, his hunting expeditions, his fiery temperament (I stepped on his toes a couple of times but quickly made up as soon as I apologised; he probably suspects how much I wanted to be a Soyinkean but far too little to be)…
Nothing is more rewarding than meeting and bonding with those who can touch and change your life for the better. This has been my biggest asset. I’ve been very fortunate to attract iconic Africans right from my younger days. The ability to meet, make and maintain friendships must be a gift from God. I can’t remember anytime I ever lived alone before I was about 30. Even the ones I don’t see today due to the challenges of work or family responsibilities are still linked with me spiritually. I lost my father at 13, and my friends’ family welcomed me as their child and I derived so much succour and wisdom from their tutelage. I had such an array of mentors who showed me the secrets of life. I will always remember the love of the Oyemades, the Olojedes, the Alawodes of Modakeke, the Fatoyes and Madam Wulemotu Kehinde of Gbongan, the Aderemis, the Akejus, the Ijiwoyes, the Orafidiyas, the Adeyemos, (all of Ile-Ife), the Adedibus, the Adaralegbes and the Omoboriowos (all of Ijero-Ekiti), the Ehinderos (Oyin Akoko) in those formative years.
The story of my life would probably have been altered but for the guidance I got from them. I think what is lacking in our world and causing so much commotion today is the dearth of such benevolent interactions. We had no qualms roaming from home to home and being fed wherever we ended up as there was no discrimination of any sort. No one ever told us we were too young to speak out our minds. We discussed like intelligent adults and were applauded for it. Chief Orafidiya soon became my reading mate. I already knew his areas of interest and I used to buy extra copies of any new book I purchased at the University of Ife Bookshop, Olusanu (later Omo Arewa Bookshops), Surulere Bookshops (all big stores in Ile-Ife at that time) or at Odusote Bookshop in Ibadan.
The opportunity to dabble into politics came when I followed my friend, Segun Omoboriowo, home to his Dad, Chief Akinwole Omoboriowo, who was then the Deputy Governor of Old Ondo State. It was such a dramatic encounter as we discussed the state of our nation. This was around 1982 and I was barely 22. Chief Omoboriowo was so captivated by my elevated discourse that he was forced to ask my age. When I told him, he said there and then that he would love to employ me one day soon. First I was going on National Service at the then Oyo State College of Arts and Science, Ile-Ife, where I lectured A-Level Yoruba and Literature-in-English. But Chief Omoboriowo mandated me to join his Premier newspaper, (edited by Chief Idowu Odeyemi), as News Editor. That was how I got inducted into Media and Politics.
The story and lessons continue…