I was childless for 21 years, then I had twins, triplets in one year —Olufemi
Dr Salaam Taiwo Olufemi is the Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Transportation. He shared his life stories with SEGUN KASALI.
TELL us about the Yaya Akanbi Salaam family.
The Salaam family migrated to Lagos from Bida now in Niger State in the 16th century. We are at Oke-Arin. Oke-Arin then was a marshy area with makeshift houses. The Salaam family lived behind Ereko market. It was a big compound. Information had it that they even had slaves and my great grandfather had a horse and cart. As small as we were in the 60s, I still remember one of the people that always followed the horse and cart. They called him Baba Sambo. My grandmother had many children. My grandmother hailed from the ruling house in Ado-Ekiti. Her name was Alhaja Balikis Omolara. She always took care of us. It was her house we grandchildren used to converge and eat.
Why the communal feeding?
The idea was that bringing all her grandchildren together made her feel like she was taking care of them. She was one of the wealthiest people in the town then. My paternal grandmother had 39 houses in Island, Mushin, Idi-oro, Agarawu and many other areas, so she could feed many mouths without discrimination. We used to go to our extended family house at Iga Olusi. The Olusi too would come to our house to stay and play with us. So, it was communal and once they saw your face, they knew the house you were from. What I drew from there as a child was that we were trained to assist others. It was an African way of living.
You must like your grandma
Of course yes. She intervened most of the times when there were conflicts. She was the person my dad used to listen to. I will give you an instance. My mother happened to be my father’s fourth wife. There was always a fight. If there was any fight and my grandmother asked my father to stop, no matter how annoyed he was, he would stop. When we were children, we used to go to Apongbon to swim in the lagoon. The lagoon extended to all those areas. After you left Idi-Ita, it was the lagoon that you would be heading towards. The only thing you would see there was Tal-mul Islamiyah Primary School, Elegbata, which I attended. You would see St. Joseph. When you go far into Olowogbowo, you would see Olowogbowo Methodist Primary School and Olowogbowo Church. These were the only edifices that were there then. Other big people you could find there were Jaji, Allah-Inoloun and many others.
Was your swimming experience smooth all through?
You want to know if I was stubborn. I was. I would ask all my siblings to follow me to the lagoon. Then, if anyone followed me and went down, I would bring the person up. I learnt how to swim at Onikan and from there, I was practising in the river. In the lagoon, we had different types of currents— you have underneath current and surface current. If you are not good, if you don’t know the time to swim, there will be problems because we had high tide and low tide.
No punishment from your parents?
My father always found out by checking the usual redness of my eyes and he would say ‘Taiye kekere, o ti lo we l’osa, (you have gone to swim in the lagoon) and I would say no. I was punished a lot of times and can never forget it. My father was a retired Air Force officer. He was at the West Africa Frontier Force then. They would travel in ship to Ghana and hand over to Ghanaian Air Force and then come back to Nigeria. He would ask me to stand on the helmet or he would give me a stool to lift up, stretch my hand and raise one leg up. Funny enough, anytime he was beating one person, he would say ‘haven’t I told you not to do this because your mommy said you did this and that. All of us would be brought together and that time, he would remember the offences committed by each person and would beat everybody. But, once Alhaja (my grandmother) intervened, he would stop.
During your time, the requirement for elementary schooling was to touch your ear.
At that time, it was Infant One and Infant Two and also, Standard One to Standard Six. We used to spend eight years in elementary schools then. They had already admitted Kehinde while I was not because he was taller than me. My hand was not able to touch my ear. But I always stayed beside the door of the classroom. When they were teaching them, those in the class would not know it, but I would. I would even raise my hand, telling the teacher I knew the answer. This occurred countless times. One day, the teacher took me home and said ‘Taiye is very good. I think we have to register him.’ So, they went to Mr Odejayi, who was the headmaster, who admitted me to that school.
Were you able to exhibit this brilliance when you were admitted?
Yes, I was able to. Although I registered late, I always came first in class. However, I played some pranks. I could remember that we did use matches, counters, apple star seeds and many more to count figures. One day, I took matches to the class. I was in class two. They were making jest of me, so I decided to punish the whole class the following day. I put all our drawing papers under the desk, struck a match stick and I set the papers on fire. I was beaten by the teachers when the matter was reported but the headmaster said they should only warn me to avoid a repeat.
Was being a transport expert your childhood dream?
No. When I finished from primary school, I went to secondary school. When I completed secondary school, I worked for two years at Nigerian Airways. Then, I left for England to study so as to become a pilot. When I finished the visual flight, I had to go for instrument but I did not have the money. Then, I changed to transportation because I cherished it.
So, paucity of funds aborted your dream?
Yes. It prevented me from having a commercial pilot licence.
Do you have any regret so far?
I regretted it then, but not anymore.
The first thing that attracted me is the seamless integration between the underground rail in England and the London Transport buses. I got to England and I looked at the Victoria Line. We did not have this in Nigeria. By the time you are coming out of the station, the buses are there waiting for you. So, I said I had to go for this. When I was unable to continue the pilot course because of money, I had to go for transport. When I started studying it, I thought it was something I could easily walk through. It was then I knew that I had to brush up my knowledge of Geography. Because of the complexity of the course, people were leaving transportation for accountancy and other courses.
How were you able to overcome the challenges over there?
I got to the United Kingdom when it was cold. I lived with my aunt. Unfortunately, I was still carrying the Nigerian mentality while there and they had to send me out.
Sent out. Why?
My aunt’s husband said he had had enough of me and that I should go and get my own apartment. So, when I got home, I discovered that they would not open the door for me again. I said, okay, let me pack my things and I did. Both of them always fought, but how could he be beating my aunt in my presence? One day, I almost took it up with him. I told him that he should not beat her again. I almost called the police, but my aunt was crying that I should not call the police. So, I left the house and started my own life. I had to do cleaning job in the morning before going to school and I had to also do cleaning job when out of school in the evening. During holidays, I used to work with Inner London Educational Authority. I was given a school to clean before the school’s resumption date. It was the money I used to pay my school fees.
Where did life take you after this experience?
The day I dropped my pen in the United Kingdom, I returned to Nigeria because I was told my mother was sick. Unfortunately, she passed on. She was already buried. I wanted to return to the UK, but my family members seized my passport and refused to let me go.
Because they knew I would not come back to Nigeria, that I would not return because the only person I worked hard for, who wanted to witness my graduation, was no more. My mother always reiterated her readiness to send us to any academic length because she was not literate. Because of this, I made sure I studied hard. In the 60s at Oke-Arin in Ebute-Ero, my mother used to sell cooked rice opposite Iga-Module. She would attend to all the commercial bus drivers.
What about your father?
I loved the two of them but I loved her more. My father died in 1991, while my mother died in 1983. He enjoyed himself before he died as a Lagosian. He had many wives. He was a disciplinarian but no one was allowed to beat his children. You were only to report us to him.
How much of you came from him?
I try to be disciplined. I don’t take nonsense. Even with my children, I don’t take nonsense, though I had them late, after 21 years. I have twins and also triplets.
You had children after 21 years of marriage?
I got married on June 4, 1988 and I did not have any child until October 15, 2009. I had a set of twins on October 15, 2009 and a set of triplets on October 9, 2010.
It must be a joyful experience.
Yes. You can imagine it. What you have been looking for such a long time and you now have five children in one year.
How did you meet your wife?
I have two wives. I met my first wife in Kano while I was undergoing the national youth service scheme at the airport. My wife was working at the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). I just felt that I should have a girlfriend then. When I heard she was from Lagos, I thought I had to take her back home. That was how we started. I told her I was a corps member and that I was interested in marrying her. But, she was shocked, saying ‘what is this man talking about?’ She called her friend and both started making jest of me. When I saw her and greeted her the following day, she did not answer me. On the third day, I saw her eating and I went to buy her soft drinks. So, more often than not, I always looked out for her when she was eating so that I could buy her soft drinks. That was how we started. She usually called me Baba Coke and Baba Fanta.
When did she finally say yes?
My sibling was working at the Federal Ministry of Works. I told him about my interest in her. He told her that he wanted to know her family that day. That was how both of us went to her family. Her father said; ‘look, this is my first born; I don’t want a fight. Make sure you take care of her.’ She is exemplary because she is quiet and she does not fight. Even if she sees you with other girls, she would only say ‘you would come back to me if you were mine.’ The magic is her quietness because if you try to be hard on me, you would see that I am harder. You can only subdue me if you are quiet.
Disagreement is inevitable in marriage.
I fought her once and I will never do it again. We had not got a child then and I went out to drink with friends. When I returned, I was irritated and just wanted to fight her. I slapped her the first time and she looked at me and said ‘what have I done now?’ I tried to slap her the second time, but she grabbed my hand. That was the day I knew my wife was a black belter. So, anytime I want to fight my wife, she would show me some karate skills by hanging my hands and all my bones and body would be in pains. I went to her father to tell him that his daughter and I fought yesterday. He looked at me and said you fought her or she fought you? I then confessed that it was me that fought her and I would not try it again,” So please come and take her away from that house,” I said. It was then her father told me that his daughter was a black belt holder. Since then, we never fought. On her last birthday, guess what I bought for her? I bought her a car.
Did you copy being a polygamist from your dad?
My father had seven wives. I have two wives because of my situation. It was like it came the way it came. Many people were saying I should marry another wife, but I refused. At the time, I was working at Water Corporation at Akilo. It was during the Ramadan that . I met a man. I was going to buy orange to break my fast. This man was dressed in white. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked me about the children. I said they were fine. He called me back and said ‘look, you don’t have children. Go and marry a second wife if you want your wife to bear a child for you.’ I hurriedly said thank you sir. As I took two steps back to give him money to break his own fast, I could not see him again. I had a swollen ear and many other things on my body. Because I used to do my exhortation at Shehu Robiu at Oworo, I went to him and disclosed my experience. He said ‘we have told you, but since you did not believe, an angel was sent to you.’ That was when I started thinking of second wife. It was the second wifethat gave birth to a set of triplets.
Can you remember some eventful moments in your life?
One is how I was able to obtain first degree at the Centre for Transport Studies, London. What others were doing in five years, I did it in three and a half years. When we were graduating, the vice chancellor said that all of you graduating today would reach your peak. I thank God, all of us did. I remember when I was at Central Mosque, Idi-Ita, I was to go and teach them how to make ablution. At this time, I was very young. Due to my diligence, they wanted to take me to Hajj, but I was too young. I was able to make much money for the mosque because they were spraying me good money. The one I would never forget was when we were working on Agege Bridge, looking for ways we could divert traffic. There, I had 17 missed calls out of which the former governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, had called me three times. When I got to his office, the Permanent Secretary then told me that the governor had been looking for me. He said I should go to the governor’s office. I went there. At the gate, they asked me where I had been and that they had been looking for me. One of them said the governor asked me to come home. So, I gave someone my phone to call my wife because I did not know where they were taking me to. When I got to his residence, he said he had looked at my CV and I was qualified, but they told him not to pick me, saying if he made me permanent secretary, I might not deliver. This time, I said I would do it and would deliver. I will never forget that day in my life, because that was how I became a permanent secretary. He said, ‘don’t worry, don’t go back to your ministry. Go straight to the head of service. Before you get there, I would have given him instructions.’ By the time I got there, the head of service had prepared my papers and he said that the governor said that they should take me home. So, those are some of the eventful moments.
What gets you angry easily?
I hate laziness and I hate people that are not punctual. If government says resume at 8 o’clock, why are you resuming one minute past eight? If you won’t be able to come to work, come and tell me.