Wande Abimbola @91: How an àbíkú decided to live (3)
By Tunde Odesola,
Wande’s star shone brightly in the galaxy of stars twinkling up above the world so high. His star was distinct in the heavens whose cloudy blanket covers every inch of the earth in suspended animation science calls gravitational force. But religion calls it ‘agbára tó so ilé ayé ró’ – the divine power that keeps the world in place.
In a profound gift to humanity, predestination wedded Ifa to scholarship, resulting in the birth of Ògúnwandé Abímbolá, the progeny of the gods. Wande’s destiny was surely set among the stars.
Though he was 12 years old in 1945 when he enrolled at Native Authority Town School, Idi Ope, Oyo, he shone brightly in junior primary school and got promoted to senior primary school – Native Authority Durbar School, Idi Ope, Oyo, where his little feet were set in the trail of distinction, dedication and determination.
“In my time, you spend four years in junior school and two years in senior primary school. Afterwards, you go to secondary school to spend another six years. But passing from junior to senior primary school was a great task because the standard and competition were high,” Wande began.
“There were white men among our teachers, many of whom were ex-soldiers who fought in the First World War. One of them, Mr Bullock, used to enter the class through the window. Many of the ex-soldiers suffered post-war trauma in their various communities and they often vent their frustration on innocent people, raping, beating and looting.
“From 1949 to 1952, I went to Native Authority Durbar (Primary) School after I left junior primary school in 1948. Durbar means an assembly of kings. A royal court (durbar) was built in Oyo town when Nigeria was preparing to host King George (V), the grandfather of the late Queen Elizabeth. The royal court was to be used to house Yoruba traditional rulers who would host King George in Oyo.
“But an outbreak of smallpox occurred around 1925/1926 when the king arrived Lagos and he was advised against visiting the hinterlands, thus the visit was aborted and the durbar was converted into a school which I later attended.”
Recalling events of his childhood with astonishing clarity, singing the panegyrics of his father, mother, siblings and grandfather, Ògúnwandé said his father, Iroko, frequented Ibadan to buy books for him at the CMS Bookshop established in 1930.
“My father later gave his full support to my educational aspirations. He was even buying me textbooks for the next grade in advance. So, I was always ahead of the class. I believe in the power of listening. My teacher would threaten to send me out of her class because I wasn’t making notes. But I believe it was better to listen attentively in class than to make notes. After the class, I would go to those who copied notes during class and make my notes.
“I had a seatmate, Okunade Adegbola, he was always coming first while I was second. It was in secondary school that I got to know listening was key to learning. Some days before the exam, I borrowed the books of my mates to make comprehensive notes. I came second in the public schools essay competition in the entire Commonwealth in 1952. Thus, the number of pupils who applied to Government College, Ibadan, from Oyo, was pruned to three – Okunade, myself and one other student. It was later pruned to two, that is, Okunade and myself. We sat the qualifying exam.
“Okunade and I waited to get our letters of admission but to no avail. After a long time, an adult, who saw my name on the list in Ibadan, met me in Oyo and asked why I didn’t come to resume school. He said I could still resume in January but I said no. Okunade wasn’t admitted. So, I went to Baptist Boys High School, Oyo, where I emerged as the best-graduating student in 1958 with four A1, two A2, one A3 and one C5. The name of BBHS, Oyo, was later changed to Olivet Baptist Boys High School, Oyo,” Wande recollected.
Wande’s destiny was set among the stars. Founded in 1948, University College, Ibadan, was one of the colleges of the University of London. Wande was admitted to University College, Ibadan, in 1959, as a state scholar. The whole student population of the college wasn’t more than 500. This was the period when the student that led in each faculty was given a state scholarship.
“I bagged a state scholarship. This entitles you to a full scholarship. It also entitles your WIFE to a monthly salary. Apart from your wife, FOUR of your children are also entitled to separate monthly salaries, if you’re married. I waited till 1959 to start schooling at the university college because the university calendar was different from the secondary school calendar. I bagged ‘A’s in science subjects, so I could’ve done well in the sciences but I chose to read History because of my love for Ifa and to know the history and secrets of the world. I read Linguistics at the Master’s degree level to deepen my understanding of the Yoruba Language. Yoruba wasn’t available as a course at the time I got admitted,” Ogunwande said.
Abimbola wrote only one letter of application all his life. All other jobs he got – OAU Vice Chancellor, Senator, Senate Majority Leader, professorial chairs, presidential adviser to Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, etc – he never applied nor lobbied; he was lobbied.
After his preliminary exam at the university college, he was picked along with Omolara Ogundipe, as a student for Honours English class. Both of them didn’t sit any exam to qualify for the Honours class. However, Abimbola turned down the offer, selling his English textbooks to Abiodun Adetugbo and Oyin Ogunba, both of whom later became distinguished professors. Poet, critic and activist, Ogundipe, who died in 2019, also became a professor and an authority on feminism.
“I sold my English literature textbooks to Abiodun Adetugbo and Oyin Ogunba, and I went to sit the exam for History Honours class. Omoniyi Adewoye, former Vice Chancellor, University of Ibadan; Olatunji Oloruntimehin, Professor of History and International Studies, and J. Adebowale Atanda, Professor of History, were in the Honours class. We were only 13 in the honours class. I have never seen any honours programme as rich as that of Ibadan. It was hectic. We were practically sleeping in the library.
“Oloruntimehin was my closest friend in the university just like Okunade was my closest friend in primary school. Oloruntimehin was the most brilliant of my friends. One day, he came to tell me to apply for a vacancy in the university; they were looking for a ‘Junior Research Fellow in Yoruba Studies’. The job of the research fellow was collecting and analysing Ifa literature for the institute,” Wande explained.
I told Oloruntimehin I neither have an MA in English nor divinity or anthropology which were the prerequisites for the job because I was still an undergraduate, but he said, “Do you think anyone can beat you in that area?” So, I applied to the Institute of African Studies through its director, Prof R. G. Armstrong, a white man.
The next day after I applied, I got a response from Prof Armstrong, acknowledging the receipt of my application, and saying though I didn’t possess an MA degree, I would still be interviewed to see if I could be shortlisted.
“Because my surname starts with the letter ‘A’, I was the first to be interviewed. The interview lasted for about two hours. It turned out to be a class where I was the teacher and my interviewers became the students. There were still nine candidates waiting to be interviewed. I was still in the institute when the second candidate entered and came out in less than 15 minutes.
“Thus, I was employed and became a faculty (member) before I graduated. After I was employed, an official of UI Estates came and showed me around vacant staff apartments. I picked one apartment. It has a telephone and you can call anywhere in the world anytime. I bought a car before I graduated in June. The maintenance unit of the university takes care of the staff’s cars almost for free. So, I got salaries from April to June when I graduated,” Wande stated.
That was the only letter of application Wande wrote all his life. He proceeded to the North-Western Evanston University, Chicago, Illinois, for his Master’s degree.
“In those days, if you had an honours degree, you could skip the MA degree but I couldn’t because I opted to study a different course at the MA level – Linguistics. I finished my programme and returned home to receive two letters of appointment. One as Research Fellow, African Studies Department, University of Ife; and the other as Lecturer II in the proposed Department of Yoruba, University of Lagos,” he said.
To be continued.
(Published in The PUNCH, on Friday, January 19, 2024)
Facebook: @Tunde Odesola