HOW was life while growing up?
My struggle started before birth, according to my parents. When my mother was seven months pregnant with me, a maid quarreled with her in the market. The woman knocked her down, sat on her belly and she fainted. It took sometime before she could deliver me. She believed that the child might have died inside her. This happened 87 years ago. It was not aborted. When 9 months was due, the child didn’t come. It was after a year that I was delivered. That justified the struggle that started before I was born. Then, I had measles at 8. We thank God again, I survived. Another experience I had was the rivalry among siblings. I was born into a polygamous home. My father married 12 women. I think there was a time when there were five to six housewives in the same house. Just imagine the competition. That informed my decision to be a monogamist. Even when my wife died 10 years ago, I refused to re-marry, apart from the fact that age is not on my side.
Was there enough money for family needs, including school fees?
I didn’t experience financial difficulties as a child. We belong to the ruling class of our community in Ijebu-Igbo. My great grandfather was the first Baale of Ojowo. My father belongs to the medicinal people and they are well-to-do. So, I didn’t have difficulties about schooling, feeding and clothing. My mother was a cloth-seller (Mama Musa Alaso). I was told that she was called Iya Alawo when I was born because that was the business she was doing in Ibadan. It was after my birth that she relocated to Ijebu-Igbo and started selling clothes until she passed on in 2000.
How much of mum’s entrepreneurial skills did you learn?
None. I was too much into academics. I used to help her sometimes, but she used to have five to six house helps to help her in the market. If I noticed that the clouds were heavy, I would take mat to the market. People were jealous of my mother and would be asking who told this boy that we would need this? Look at this little boy, he brought a local umbrella for his mother.
Primary school must be memorable then.
I was well known as a student. Even at the elementary school, I was an orator. I had distinguished myself as one of the most versatile pupils in Pure Studies. In those days, we went to christian missionary schools. They used to organise competitions every quarter among schools – Bible quiz and it was rotated among the schools. As young as I was then, they would ask me to climb on top of the desk so the Reverend could see my face and I would cite quotations like John 1:1. As a member of the Boys Scout, they taught us how to salute, squat, run, and carry out other sporting activities. Then, education was very interesting. It was a build-up to what we started at home. When we were young, housewives in the neighbourhood would gather under the moonlight during the days of fullmoon. They would gather children from ages of about 4 to 10. Some of us who were about 3 years would be sleeping. But, from 4 years, some would begin to show the ability to answer questions. At the end of every story, we were taught the fear of God, respect for elders, hard work, patriotism, integrity and honesty. These were some of the values ingrained into our growing brains. Unfortunately, that is lacking today, we can now see the type of adolescents we have. We had that advantage of being taught the core values of the Yoruba people at home. We never had a lazy moment. If it was raining, we would help our parents indoor by picking melons and beans. If the weather was good during the dry season, we would go to the bush. My house was the last house in Ijebu-Igbo. We would go to the bush to fetch firewood to help our parents. In the morning, we would go to the stream to fetch water. I remember I had an injury which cost me a year. I was home for about four months treating a huge sore on my heel. I was good at using the catapult, which I used to shoot at birds. There was a night that I had a cutlass under my armpit. It had no handle. Instead of putting the cutlass down before aiming at the bird to kill, I was so impatient and hasty and as I released the stone from the sling, the cutlass dropped on my heel. Those days, we didn’t know about the rules of hygiene. I just got ewe-moran and rubbed it on it. Sometimes, people would just rub sand on wounds to stop the bleeding. The following day, it had swollen and became septic. That cost about four months and I could not walk. This was in 1945.
Were you academically outstanding at this stage?
I was above average. I was more reputed for wisdom than for academic brilliance. I would rate myself average when it comes to brilliance, but would rate myself exceptional when it comes to wisdom. For instance, when elders quarreled within the family, and in the neighbourhood, they would send for me as a boy of six or seven. They would say Biyi, what is your view on this matter? Sometimes, I would analyze the matter and gave suggestions. The elders would look at me and say to others, is there anybody who can improve on what this little boy has said? Then, I also had a gift of prophesy. All the women who were pregnant in our family, I would predict the sexes of their children and it would be accurate. None was ever missed. I didn’t know how I was doing it. People had a feeling that I was a reincarnation of one of our ancestors who had been sent to make peace for us. I was called Adelaja right from birth because my parents were in serious quarrel at the time I was born. All these were recorded in my biography.
How much of this brilliance and wisdom did you exhibit in secondary school?
When we started, I was just an average student. For the first three years in school, I was never good in Sciences and Laboratory Sciences. I was not interested. I was more interested in voracious reading. If you mentioned any passage in a novel, I would quote it. But I was never practicing Mathematics. Elementary Mathematics comprised three subjects – Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry and each was 100 marks. In 300 marks, sometimes, I would get under 10 in one; and maybe 11 or 12 in another. There was a time I got zero in one of the subjects, but I would lead my class in Christians Religious Studies, Literature and English Language. But by the time you added all those figures together, I would have less than 30 over 300, and about average of 70 per cent in the other subjects. So, for the first three years, I was a mediocre. When I sat for the West African Cambridge Exams, few of us passed. It was after the fourth year that we were allowed to pick the subjects of our choice that I came to prominence. We were the foundation students of Molusi College in Ijebu-Igbo. The first principal was Oluwole Awokoya, who later became a Professor. That was the man under the government of Papa Awolowo who moved the motion for a Bill to enact a free, compulsory primary education in Western Nigeria with effect from 1952.
How would you describe your secondary school experiences?
Fantastic! I thank God that I could see providence in the circumstances of my life. It is not my privilege that I was tutored under two prominent teachers – Awokoya and Tai Solarin, who was sourced for to become the principal of the school when Awokoya got an appointment in the government of Awolowo. The school was a boarding. We were taught a lot of things, including karate, the constellation of the stars. Those were extra-curriculum activities. Tai put a practical side to our education – how to bake, how to make garri. We were also taught how to make blocks and bricks. All these were not in the curriculum, but we were taught. I was the first President of Molusi Dramatic Society. We were writing plays and acting, composing songs and also an active member of the Debating society.
Any embarrassing situation?
Not at all, but I remember that in our third year at school in 1951, one of our students beat our Physics teacher. The teacher asked him a technical question. He was one of the oldest students in the class, while I was one of the youngest, even then I was already 17. The boy could not answer the question. The teacher said; ‘you, big for nothing’, and slapped him. The boy told the teacher to give him time to think about it. The teacher slapped him again, saying ‘you big for nothing’. Then, the boy said; ‘e ki lo fun teacher yi o. Ti o ba tun na mi ni ekan si, maa na pada o. The teacher said; ‘you are threatening me that you would fight back? The teacher hit him twice and the boy started to hit the teacher so much that blood began to drip from his mouth and nostril. We knew we were in trouble when the teacher ran out to report. The big boys came out to tell the small boys (me and one boy) that we should deny that the boy beat the teacher or else we would all be in trouble. When the matter was reported to Awokoya, he lined every one of us up and said he learnt that a student beat his teacher. ‘Class 3, the foundation students of the school, did he beat the teacher or not? We chorused ‘No’ in unison. Is it true that the teacher asked him a question in Physics? We said ‘No’. Is it true that the teacher beat him? We said ‘No’. So, one teacher whispered to him, when I was in Iwo Baptist School, I discovered that you would never get the true picture of a situation if you ask a collective question. Ask them one by one. So, they started calling us one by one. That was where everything was exposed. Three questions were drafted – did he beat him, did he respond or something. I answered all the three in the negative; No, no and no. When they asked some boys, they said yes, yes and yes. They told them that they were good boys. About three teachers lined up at the end of the principal’s office. You entered through the inn. If you told a lie, the teachers would give you one lash each. If you told two lies, the teachers would give you two lashes each. In my own case, they said I lied thrice. So, the first teacher gave me three lashes, the second and the third teacher gave me three lashes. In all, I was given nine lashes. Added to that was three weeks of hard work on the football field. It was a new school and we had just moved to the new site. We were given diggers and hoes to do this. It was in November when the sun was harsh and we were approaching December exams. Another experience was that Tai-Solarin was very keen about cleanliness. He saw a litter of papers and an empty tin of milk and wanted to know who had been throwing things around. Some of the boys said it was Senior Durojaye, who was always fond of taking milk. He said they should call him. He told me he had information I liked taking milk and I said yes. He asked where one was expected to throw the litter after use. I said sometimes, I put them in here and there. He said for the next three weeks, remove all the litters in this compound. It was a very big compound. It was an early morning exercise for me. Even after cleaning, some students would drop torn papers all over just to punish me.
You must be tough in secondary school
Tough? Maybe intellectually. I was given the name Bernard Shaw. I was a sportsman and I was very popular because of my oratory power. I won prize for reading the largest number of books. In 1951, I read 102 novels in the Library.
Did the gift of prophesy put you in any trouble?
People were jealous of me, especially among my classmates. 1953 was our final year in school and our History teacher gave us the rudiment of research, which we never knew. He said we should visit a minimum of five primary schools in Ijebu-Igbo and write about when they were established, who established them and how many students were there. Aside that, we said we should find out the elements of research from the school. I was the only one who had distinction. I was the only one who drew the map of Ijebu-Igbo, showing the locations of the schools we visited. That impressed the teacher. Nobody went that extra mile. They only mentioned the schools and wrote about them. The teacher assembled everyone and said; ‘Durojaye is my best student’. One of my classmates said; ‘o ti to’ ( enough of the praise). He said; ‘come here! I heard you say that is enough. You are an idiot. Let me see your paper. No wonder you did not write a full-page. I was commending someone who wrote four pages with a picture, but you are saying it is enough. You will see in seven years time that Durojaye would be driving a car and some of you will be running when his car will raise dust and you would be scampering not to inhale the dust,” he said. Do you know that exactly seven years later, that was in 1960, I bought a car and I was passing through our hostel, roads were still not tarred and naturally dust was raised and the young man who criticised the teacher for praising me too much, had to skip to avoid dust. I parked, alighted to meet him and gave him a ride to where he was going. He might not remember, but I remembered. I did not tell him though. I kept telling myself that this is the prophesy of this man.
Bookworms don’t always socialise.
Socialise? I told you I was very popular. I was the founder and head of Dramatic Society. We would write plays and demonstrate them for entertainment. I was also into debate. The brilliant boys of the other side would raise topics and I would counter them. That made me very popular.
You must also be popular with the girls.
I was very shy at that time. I remember one day that the teacher didn’t come and we were in Class four, which was the time we were getting mature. Someone rose up to write everybody’s names and the number of girls we were associated with. Some had two names written for them, while some others had three and some one. When they got to mine, it was nil. No girl could be associated with me. This was because I was a bookworm. Those girls who I could likely talk to were almost my relatives. It was a taboo to propose to your kin and my mother attracted many people home. Most of the girls I could have toasted were my relatives. That prevented me from talking to them. Also, I was not interested. I had not attained puberty, unlike my contemporaries.
Some of your childhood friends must be in top positions now
A good number of them for sure, while many of them are dead. I remember the son of the Reverend of our school who became a professor. He passed away in 2010. Professor Akindele was my best friend in school then and everybody knew that. He was my best man at my wedding. George Oduwole also passed on two years ago. Then, there was Engineer Godwin Okuneye, who wanted to become Orimolusi, but unfortunately died. Gowon is still alive, so is S.S. Sobowale.
Did the prophesy that you would become a lawyer come to pass?
Yes, I am a Lawyer but I didn’t go to the university. I became a lawyer after studying privately. You know Afe Babalola? He is my close friend. It is people like him that were the friends I kept. He is older than I am. I went to a secondary school but he didn’t, yet he still passed and earned a degree in Economics in London in 1959. While we were struggling with it, he was already in part two. He was our team leader. We were many, and also very ambitious young men in Ibadan. We didn’t go to the university, but we studied at home. One of the good friends I ever made is General Yakubu Gowon. We met in a debating hall organised by Segun Olusola and others as a build up to the Independence celebration. They arranged gown and town, invited people from University of Ibadan and some brilliant students to come and discuss issues of public interests. They called it Balloon Debate in the British Council.