A former Commissioner for Education in the defunct Western State, Sir Olaniwun Ajayi, talks about his upbringing and career with GBENGA ADENIJI
Where and when were you born?
I was born in Isara Remo, Ogun State on Wednesday, April 8, 1925. My father was Benjamin Awoyemi Ajayi while my mother was Marian Efundolamu Ajayi. My father was a farmer and my mother assisted him by selling farm produce. They were not literate.
How did you know your date of birth since your parents were not literate?
This is interesting. My father had me at a late age. He was about 40 years old then. There was a female relation of my father who was a bit literate. We lived together in our farm which is about 10 kilometres from this town (Isara). When I was born, she wrote my birth date in a book. She did the same when my younger brother was born. My father did not even pay attention to what the relation did then. There was a time I kept guessing my age to be 1924 or 1926 until when she died and one of her children gave me the book where she wrote the dates. On a page in the book, I saw a portion where she wrote, ‘Olaniwun was born this day April 8, 1925.’
Which schools did you attend?
I did not attend a secondary school. My father became a Christian when Methodist Church was established in this town on December 11, 1893. Though my father was not educated, he was a famous man and associated with people in the community who were slightly educated. He also belonged to an age group comprising educated members. My father was very keen about my acquiring education. He wanted me to go to school but there was only one school owned by the Methodist Church known as Wesley School. My father had a younger brother who lived in Epe, Lagos State. There was a day he came to visit my father and he asked him to take me Lagos. He gave an instruction that his brother should ensure he enrolled me in school. But when we got to Lagos, I was not put in school and my father did not bother to ask if I was in school. He was sure that his brother had done as he requested.
It was a year after I left for Lagos that my father sent two of my female relations to Lagos to see how I was faring in my education. When they got to Lagos, they discovered to their dismay that I was not in school.
What were you doing in Lagos since you were not schooling?
My uncle was a fish farmer and I was assisting him to fish. My sister and cousin who came to Lagos told my father what they discovered when they got to Isara. My father could not believe it. He came to Lagos and expressed his disappointment. He wanted to take me along with him to Isara but my uncle begged him, pledging to put me in school. He enrolled me at Islamic Primary School, Epe. I was there for three months. We started with the English alphabets and within that period I had finished reading it and understood the alphabets. At the end of the term, my uncle was unable to pay the tuition which was three pence. I had to quit schooling because of this. My father heard of the development, came to Epe and took me away to Isara to continue my education.
He registered me in a primary school in 1937. I performed well in school. When I got to Standard Four, we were taken to Ode Remo to complete Standard Five and Six. It was at Ode Remo that I completed my primary education. When I finished, authorities of the school engaged me to teach there.
What class did you teach?
Since I had Standard Six, I taught Class Two infants. I taught there for a year but I wanted to further my education. I was looking for someone who would send me to school. I met a man who was working in the United Africa Company in Lagos. He was very rich and I was nearly slaving for him. Anytime he was in Isara, I would fetch water for him and do other things with the hope that he would send me to secondary school. I wanted to attend Methodist Boys High School, Lagos. I was let down. He didn’t expressly promise to sponsor my education but since I was close to him, it was taken that something would come out of the relationship. I later decided to go to Wesley College, Ibadan, Oyo State, for a four-year teacher’s course. About seven of us were to take examinations to the college but we didn’t know ourselves. I only knew of one that was my colleague in the primary school at Ode Remo. He was extremely brilliant. I passed the examination and ran home from Ode Remo where I was teaching. I told my father that I passed and he was happy. I didn’t know that my father didn’t have the money to pay the tuition.
I was unhappy when the time of resumption at Wesley College drew near and there was no money to pay. I decided to approach the manager of the schools in Remo and Ijebu district, William Frederick Mellor. He was an efficient manager of schools. I told him that I passed the examination into Wesley College but my father had no money to pay my school fees. I asked him if he could help me by giving me a letter to the principal of the school that I would pay my fee the following year. He agreed to do so and the school principal did as Mellor requested in the letter. After settling that, I had to look for money to buy bucket, shoes, broom and other things to take to the school.
Didn’t you save some money when you were teaching?
I was about saying that. My salary was 10 shillings, six pence per month. I paid three pence as class fee as a Christian. It was a membership fee as a junior member of the church. I also did monthly contribution of two shillings, six pence. I later increased it to five shillings so that at the end of the year I could have at least £6. It was from the savings that I bought all other things needed at the college. I sent somebody going to Lagos to buy me a pair of tennis shoes. He came back with an oversize. I had to manage them. I stuffed them with rags. Each time I wore them, they hit the ground noisily. I thank God that today I have a cobbler in London. I buy only Italian shoes. It doesn’t matter where I am in any part of the world. If I am in London, Milan, Rome or Geneva, I ensure that I buy first class Italian shoes. I was at the college for four years. It was hard paying for the remaining two years because of lack of money. Before I could complete my primary education, my father sold his cherished agbada, local gun and a treasured herbal medicine book. Nobody wanted to lend him money because they felt he was rich. I had to meet the man who earlier showed willingness to assist with my education and asked him to lend me £12. I was to pay £6 per year. I had completed two years and it remained two years.
He told me to bring my father to Lagos to see him. We took a boat to Lagos since that was the available means of transportation in those days. I didn’t know that he wanted me to be a witness while he gave the money to my father since my father was not educated. I didn’t know that my father had also used his cocoa farm as a collateral for a loan he took from a man to see to my education.
Before the end of my last year in Wesley College, I was taken to Sagamu Wesley School, Ogun State as a class teacher. The man my father took a loan from came to ask for his money and explained the situation to me. Also, the man who loaned us £12 asked me for his money. I promised to pay the two of them and started to save heavily from my salary as a teacher. I was able to pay £10 to him and he told me to forget about the remaining. I later gathered some money to pay the man my father used his cocoa farm to take a loan from. In the midst of it all, I got married.
When you left Wesley College, what did you do?
I became a supervisor of schools for the entire Remo and Ijebu province. Mellor was about to leave when I resumed duties. My wife and I decided that I should travel to the United Kingdom to study Law. I attended the London School of Economics and Political Science. I also studied to become a chartered secretary. My wife joined me in the UK and studied Hotel and Catering Management. We returned to the country in October 1962.
Where did you work when you returned to the country?
I worked with the UAC where I later became the assistant group legal adviser. Chief Ernest Shonekan was my junior in the legal department of UAC. I worked there for six years. I performed my duties very well in the company but my boss did not like me. I guess he felt I was becoming a threat to him whereas he was 10 years older and 10 years my senior at the bar. The situation made me to resign.
What did you do after your resignation?
About nine months after my resignation from UAC, I was invited by the then Governor of Western State, Brig. Gen. Christopher Rotimi, to serve as commissioner for education. About two years later, I was appointed commissioner for health in the same Western State. I signed a bond with the governor that I would quit after three years and when it reached three years of working with him, I told him I was leaving. The governor convinced me to work for some more years but my mind was made up. After leaving, I went into private practice as a lawyer.
What was your experience of the civil war?
My experience of the civil war was neither here nor there. But the civil war was something we could have avoided. At the same time it was something we could not avoid.
How did you meet your wife?
We met when we were both teaching at Sagamu. She was teaching at Sagamu Girls School. I was popular there because I was a church organist. We were both learning how to dance at a time. Occasionally, we met at a dancing school in the evening. It was from there that we became quite close.
Why did you choose her?
She was very beautiful, fair-skinned and neat. My wife, Adunola, was a special gift from God.
How many children did the union produce?
We have four children; two boys and two girls. The first two (a boy and a girl) are medical doctors while the last two (a boy and girl) are lawyers.
Where is your wife?
She is in heaven. She died on December 6, 2007. She was not ill before her death.
How have you been coping without her?
I miss her a lot. I nearly followed her when she died. She was the best woman I could ever marry. We were together for nearly 60 years and there was no exchange of hot words once. She did all I wanted and would not do anything she knew I disliked. She called all my male relations baba oko mi (fathers of my husband) and all my female relations iya oko mi (mothers of my husband). She addressed all my friends ‘Sir.’ She never called any of them by name. When she passed away, the whole town was wrapped in grief.
Would it be right to say her special nature made you not to remarry?
I cannot remarry because l have very good children. They are not substitutes for their mother when I talk about love but their care for me is legendary. They are so wonderful. When their mother died, they took over immediately. The children gave her a befitting burial.
What is your favourite meal?
I eat twice a day. In the morning, it is yam, beans or a slice of seeded bread. Occasionally, I take ikokore.
What is your favourite drink?
It is cold juice.
Do you do any exercises?
Yes, I take a walk round my compound for 30 minutes every day. I also do body massage.
How do you relax?
I relax by writing. In actual fact, writing relaxes me. I have written five books. The first one is This House of Oduduwa Must Not Fall. There is also the one edited by me titled Adunola: In Retrospect. It is a compilation of tributes and speeches for my late wife. I also wrote, Nigeria: Africa’s Failed Asset?, my autobiography, Lest We Forget and Isara Afotamodi: My Jerusalem. I am writing my sixth book at the moment.
What inspires you to write?
In the case of my first book, I wrote it based on the attitudes of young people which are not good enough especially in Yoruba land. People are no longer responsible and only exhibit corrupt tendencies. Nigeria: Africa’s Failed Asset? is general. It examines how we came to be where we are today.
What is your advice to politicians as the 2015 general elections approach?
In the first place, there are no political parties in this country. The existing ones are not the way political parties ought to be. We also do not have true politicians. We only have self-serving people. Everybody wants to win the next elections and nobody is bothered about whether the primary schools in their areas are conducive to learning or not. They are not also bothered about whether the hospitals in their localities are working as they should be or not. I can only implore them not to invite disaster in 2015.