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Sir Olaniwun Ajayi: Death waited in the room

His was an old age carried with an uncommon gait of intellectual nobility. His eyes looked on, contemplative. Pa Olaniwun Ajayi—affable, temperate, thoroughgoing—possessed a presence of mind that was matchless for a man his age. Few weeks to his 90th birthday in 2015, I started a relationship with him I never knew would barely last two years. It was at the instance of the Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief of the Nigerian Tribune, Mr Edward Dickson. The MD told me to conduct a full interview for Pa Ajayi which would be published on his 90th birthday. His Isara, Ogun State, palatial home depicted Papa’s temperament. Well mown lawn, a spaciously furnished sitting room and a properly stocked library are among the many attractions of Papa’s home. After the interview, Papa insisted that I ate a meal of fried yam and beans. While I ate, it was difficult to forget his passion for the Yoruba nation, a deep preference for Nigeria’s restructuring and his repeated call for true federalism. That was my first interaction with him in 2015.

Subsequent visits to him followed. While some were for light reasons, others were for interviews for publications.

On Monday, October 31, 2016, the Saturday Tribune insisted that I visited Pa Olaniwun Ajayi and interview the elder statesman. I couldn’t say no. For my bosses and colleagues at the Tribune, I was Papa’s adopted son. I called him on Tuesday and informed him of my intention. I also must say that I also used the opportunity to inform Papa of my wedding scheduled for November 12, 2016. Answering at the other end of the line, he screamed: “Kehinde, you are getting married? That is great! Now I am very happy. God, I am grateful.” He laughed…he laughed for a very long while. It was difficult to hide his joy.

I continued, “Sir, we would also want an interview with you.” To which he quickly responded: “You want an interview? But when would you like to come?” I was not so sure but I remembered the urgency with which the interview instruction was conveyed to me. “Sir, we would be delighted to visit you tomorrow. Wednesday would be fine by us,” I said. “Wednesday? That should be November 2, 2016. It is all right then. Be here by 3 p.m. Do take care, Kehinde,” he said. I had a lot of questions to ask him…from politics to matrimony. He sounded very happy. He appeared to have been glad at the news of my intending wedding than of the interview session. “Today is Tuesday; I will see him tomorrow,” I soliloquised.

Feeling trapped between the urgency of the assignment and a wedding ceremony scheduled for next week, I craved Rita Okonoboh’s assistance, sister-colleague at the office. I also pleaded with Baba D’Toyin, our old ace photojournalist. They both agreed to follow me. Pa Ajayi always felt comfortable with such assemblage.

Wednesday, we set out about 2 p.m. We talked about Papa and his intellectual depth and convivial disposition. We laughed as we travelled. We recalled earlier interactions with him and his unquenchable thirst for knowledge, promotion of Christian piety, search for a truly federated Nigeria and a united Yoruba nation.

We drove into his parking lot at exactly 3.15 p.m. It was unusually quiet. We alighted from our vehicle. Papa’s aides met us, welcoming us. One of them asked if we had a pre-scheduled visit, to which I answered in the affirmative. He then told me to call Papa over the phone. I did but rather than the lively voice that met mine over the phone a day earlier, it was a lethargic whisper that answered at the other end of the line.

“Good afternoon, Sir. I am here with other colleagues of mine. We are within your premises,” I informed him over the phone. With much effort, he replied: “Kehinde, I am very weak. I wish I could push the interview for another day. I slept on my right shoulder. I feel very unwell. But you are here already. You have travelled with your colleagues from Ibadan. I can’t turn you back. Let’s go ahead with the interview. Please come into the house. Give me a few minutes.”

“You look worried. What is wrong with Baba Olaniwun?” Rita asked me. “He is not feeling well. He would have turned us back safe for the distance that it took us to get here,” I answered. We found our way into Baba’s lobby and after a few minutes, one of his aides invited us in. At a glance, I found that he wasn’t his usual self. Our photographer, Baba D’Toyin asked Pa Ajayi after we had greeted him, “Daddy, how are you? You do not look good.” Pa Ajayi looked sad and with much pain replied, “I am not fine, D’Toyin. My right shoulder aches so badly. I have been in pain since I got up this morning. The pain is getting unbearable. But you are here, please take your seats.”

The interview started in earnest. His voice was husky; he struggled to speak. Nevertheless, he answered each question with such verbal clarity and intellectual depth that I wondered how he could have maintained such articulateness and presence of mind at age 91. At a point, one of his assistants came around and placed some iced cubes on his right shoulder. He shuddered in pain. He complained weakly, letting out short sighs of pain. This therapy was carried out intermittently until the interview was over. “I am worried about Nigeria; I am worried about the Yoruba race,” he said.

After the interaction, he remembered I had told him of my wedding and a smile beamed across his face, momentarily ignoring his pain. I passed the wedding invitation to him. “Kehinde, you are getting married,” he said. “Yes, I am sir,” I said. “Now, Rita, why are you not yet married?” Looking surprised that Pa Ajayi had shifted the focus from me, Rita answered: “I will do very soon.” He kept his gaze on her and then said with a tone of finality: “God will settle you.” To that, we all said a loud “amen.”

He reached into his pocket and brought out an envelope. On it he wrote the following, “Hearty congratulations on your union in holy matrimony with Titilope. May the richest blessings of God be on your marriage.” I prostrated and I collected the envelope from him. He prayed after which he bade us a safe trip back to our base in Ibadan. It was 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

I was rudely woken up on Friday morning by the Editor, Nigerian Tribune, Mr Debo Abdulai, two days after our visit to Pa Olaniwun. “Kehinde, are you in Lagos or Ibadan?” he asked. “Good morning, Sir. I am in Ibadan,” I answered. “Papa Olaniwun Ajayi is dead,” the editor informed. My heart skipped a beat; my blood pressured. I called Baba D’Toyin; I also got across to Rita. She sobbed quietly. No, I never knew death was just a short distance away from Pa Olaniwun Ajayi while we interviewed him.  It was 48 hours after the interaction.

Yet, I am grateful to the Editor, Nigerian Tribune and Editor, Saturday Tribune for the privilege of that last communion.