This is one interview that should have taken place 50 years ago. But then, where were we? (That is, these two writers). Chief (Mrs) Opeolu Solanke-Ogunbiyi, born April 12, 1910, is a woman of steel yet full of compassion. First married to Ladipo Solanke, they moved from Nigeria to Sierra Leone and then England not to seek greener pasture but to help others in search of it and so life was given to what became the West African Students Union, WASU.
WASU was an umbrella body for Africans who went to London to study and served more as a clearing house for first time student-visitors to London.Â It also served as a meeting place for Africans interested in moving their home countries forward.
The story of WASU is better told by Mrs. Solanke Ogunbiyi through whom personalities like Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, passed while in London.
She refers to them by their first name and you wouldnâ€™t blame a 99-year old lady for that – 99 years. One thing you can not but concede is her sharp memory.Â Even when some questions were not properly put in context and she had to repeat herself, at no time did she say something different from what she might have said five or 10 minutes earlier. This is the story of Mama WASU, as she is fondly called, whose autobiography is for launch on Thursday, at the Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, NIIA. Excerpts:
By Jide AjaniÂ & Jemi Ekunkubor
HOW did a village girl become an international personality?
I was born in Itele and my father had a big farm in Olorunsogo where he grew cocoa and pepper. I attended St. Johnâ€™s school in Itele and during the holidays, I went to help my father on the farm. We helped him with picking the pepper and the cocoa pod to dry. After primary education, I wanted to go for higher education and there was a special place for Europeans, the forest guards who went round protecting the forest and the way they spoke, my mother always said she wanted her daughter to speak like the Europeans.
I also became interested but my father didnâ€™t want me to continue because he wanted me to come and help in the farm but I ran away. Within a week, my brother came looking for me and said our father had seized his own school uniform, declaring that until he fetched and produced me, he would not return to school.
Therefore, I was torn between my desire for higher education and the possibility of depriving my brother of the education he was having. I had to reconsider. But he promised that he was not taking me back to my father but my cousin, Adebambo, a catechist in Ikoto, near Ijebu Ode; he also ran away. My father wouldnâ€™t dare come there because my cousin had threatened my father that he dared not step into Ikoto and that was how I was able to serve my secondary education.
After my secondary school education, I came to Lagos to teach on Lagos Street in a school. It was in Lagos that I met my husband, Ladipo Solanke, who encouraged me to go to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to further my education. In those days if you could not go to England, you had a choice to go to Freetown, which was like a small London then. It was there that I studied Home Economics – this was early 1930s. I travelled in MV Accra.
In 1932, Solanke came to join me in Sierra Leone and to cut the long story short, both of us travelled to England. October, 22, 1932, was the day we landed in Southampton and there Prince (Adetokunbo) Ademola, late chief justice of Nigeria, came to welcome us.
As we landed, it was so foggy that we couldnâ€™t see anybody from 100 feet away and that lasted for a week. You can imagine me coming from sunny Africa to get to a place where there was no sun. When we first got there and you walked on the street, children would be clapping and following you chanting, â€˜monkey from the tree-o, tell us the time, monkey from the tree-o, tell us the time.â€™ They were made to believe that we lived on the tree in Africa and that we looked at our shadow to know what time of the day it is.
Now, coming from a black-dominated place to a new land filled with whites, what was the experience like?
Wa-o! when the fog lifted, we could then see clearly.
Were you married before going to London?
Well yes and no. We were together but I refused to wear the ring.
Because I later got to know that he already had a son in Nigeria which he did not tell me about. I then became skeptical. For a long time I refused to marry him. But as time went by, and as we continued working together, I was involved and I said to myself that for somebody, with all his degrees, while his friends were making money in Nigeria, he decided to come here and help others, sacrificing all that to help others; because in those days when Africans got to London, and although they would have been promised a room, once they saw that these were blacks, they refused them and do you know what the blacks did? They went back to sleep in the train station for days until they got accommodation.
So, how did the whole idea of the hostel, West African Students Union, WASU, come about?
It was Solanke who, with other students, formed the organization, West African Students Union, WASU. He decided to come to Africa, to collect money to go back to England to get accommodation for students – this was in 1929.
Where did he get the money from
He collected the money from individuals. He couldnâ€™t buy a house at that time but he could rent a house; the house belonged to a Jew on Camden Road. Some people promised a lot but only paid little. The money wasnâ€™t enough to buy an apartment but we could rent one. The place was not too far from the University of London. We also established a restaurant where we cooked African dishes. I taught an Irish girl how to cook African dishes.
How did you get the African dishes?
My mother sent them to me by boat â€“ egusi, aapon, ewuro, ewedu
The first apartment you rented, how many rooms were there?
We had the ground floor with two bedrooms; we used the first floor as a hall for parties and meetings; then there was an extension with two rooms, facing Camden Street, with two bedrooms – the Akereles, Oni and Biola Akerele were the first persons to occupy the rooms.
How many students were in a room?
One student in a room. We did not allow students to stay in the hostel for too long. They agreed at their meeting that none of them should bring their European girl friends there â€“ they could bring their Nigerian girl friends but they could not bring their shalos there. And that was where most of them met their wives. The first person who met his wife there was Ademola, former chief justice. It was there he metÂ Lady Ademola.
When did you move from the rented apartment to the bigger one which WASU bought and paid for?
In 1937. When Ademola came to London and saw what we were doing and what we were going through – mind you the place was noisy, crowded and it was a place really not fit but because we couldnâ€™t get any other place, we had to use it like that; the discrimination against blacks was also another factor.
So, when Ademola came, he appealed to all his friends to help us raise money and get a better place. A friend of Ademolaâ€™s who also came there was Paul Robson, a popular musician; very popular.
How popular was he?
Paul Robson. You donâ€™t know Paul Robson? Oh God! Oh my God! You donâ€™t know Paul Robson? Oh God! My Lord! Time is gone! Time is really gone. Paul Robson was a very popular musician at that time and he was known all over the world. He was the first black person to be given respect, right up to Russia because of his singing. He came to us and promised and gave us some money to help our cause; and Ademola got some of the European friends – well we call them friends – who gave us some money although we fought after all.
Why?Â After giving you Â Â money?
Oh Yes! You know the prejudice against blacks was still there. They helped us get Number 1, Camden Square. Even when my husband died, in 1958, I kept the place going.Â Organisations like NCNC, Action Group, AG, members always came to the place. But you know our people, they even created problems for WASU and we were taken to court. You know our people, when they hold meetings, they would shout and shout as if they are fighting and they were disturbing the neighbours. The neighbours took us to court but the judge was very considerate, he appealed that we should get somewhere else. Instead of finishing their meeting and leaving the area, they would go outside to the street and continue arguing and shouting as if they were at Ita Faji.
Could you give some names?
If you could remember some of the frontline leaders in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, those political leaders in the country who travelled to London passed through WASU.Â But let me tell you, do you know that this book I am launching now, some of the family members of those who passed through WASU pleaded with me that while they are still alive, I must not write about their actions and inactions in London, that it might harm their families when people read about what they did in London, who used the place for gambling, playing poker, the law programme they should do in three years, they end up spending six years, seven years, you know, children of the rich who are never in a hurry, and I gave my word.
So, at what point did the organization become one for West African students?
Oh not just West Africans but for Africans. Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya was there; Banda from Malawi was there
Hastings Kamuzu Banda?
Yes, he was there. Kwame Nkrumah was also there.
Some Nigerians were said to have come together to form an organization and suddenly you had other Africans involved. How did the Africans become involved?
Well, because of the political situation in the country, Nigerians had a small committee which worked with some members of the House of Commons, more as a pressure group.Â The other Africans saw what we were doing and they came and bought into the idea for their own countries too – from Kenya, South Africa, they joined us. Some children of the rich would go to the clubs to play poker and gamble but those who were really interested in the struggle would come to WASU, hold meetings and plan. Members of the House of Commons like Sorenson took particular interest in what was going on in Nigeria, West Africa and Africa as a continent; the members who were Labour Party tried to help our cause although I voted Conservative.
Why Conservative, in spite of the welfare work you were doing? That appears strange?
Yes! Good question. I used to vote Labour before. The reason is because knowing that the Conservatives donâ€™t like you, blacks, I wanted to move closer to them and find out why.
How you can get the rope on your neck off.Â Labour, most of them are working class. The Conservative, the upper class, have a similar culture with Africans. For Labour, they talk too much. A Labour family, for instance, at dinner table, youâ€™ll find the children questioning what the father is doing or has done but the Conservative family, the child bows to the wishes of the father. Whatever the father does, you hear the son say â€˜yes sirâ€™, â€˜yes daddyâ€™.
Who was the first non-Nigerian to stay in that hostel?
The first non-Nigerian to stay in the hostel was Bioku, a Sierra Leonean.
The name sounds Nigerian?
Yes! It sounds like a Nigerian name but he was from Sierra Leone. Members of WASU consisted of everybody in Africa. Once you came to London, you were bound to hear about WASU because it was more like an umbrella for every student from Africa. Other nationals from other African countries led WASU. The only posts that were steady were the post of secretary general, Warden (my husband was in charge of those and there was never voting) and I was the Matron.
All other offices wereÂ open for contest. I was there from 1932 to 1971 when I left the western Nigeria office, helping the region with welfare job, they came to the house to seek my advice on how to take care of students, take rations to the students during the war – and although there were other student bodies but WASU was the thing.
You talked about Hastings Kamuzu Banda. How come after the struggle and emancipation he became president of his country but ended up becoming a disaster.Â Did you see such traits in people like him?
Oh! Banda was qualified and he was practicing in London before he went back to Malawi. You know all of them involved in the struggle wanted to come back home to Africa and help their people. But when they got back, they made the mistake of attempting to rush their people and there were interests which rejected their moves. What they learnt in London, they wanted to impose it wholesale on their people but they were too much in a hurry. Banda qualified from Hampstead as a doctor.
He was interested in WASU but he saw the people as agitators; he supported WASU but when things became a bit difficult for him, he went back to his country to help his people. Nkrumah, too, first went to America before coming back to London. They were too much in a hurry. There was also Danqwa. When Nkrumah came back to London, his interest was to come back to Ghana to help his people.
If they had studied our culture very well and then married it with what they had learnt, things would have been better but they were in a hurry to lord it over our people and that is my personal opinion as a woman, I may be wrong.Â Even Awolowo, for all he tried to do for the people, he was in a hurry and the new ideas they brought were too sudden and that was what led to the instability. The interests entrenched were too powerful and these people ordinarily ought to have brought about the change gradually. Jomo Kenyatta went back to Kenya and formed his Mao-Mao movement.
What about the women who passed through WASU?
The first African woman matron was a Sierra Leonean but she suffered racism. She acted as chief matron in a hospital in London. She saw an advert for a hospital matron in Kolebu in Ghana, she was qualified, but was not given the job in Ghana because she was black. WASU took the case up to the parliament.
It took a long while but we won.Â Eventually, they said since she wasnâ€™t from Ghana, she should go and get the job in her own country. She was the first African to be given the post of a matron and she trained people too. They didnâ€™t give her the job in Ghana but in her own country. Her name was Olive Johnson. We also had women who helped during the war but at a point they left me alone there. But the ladies did come around to help serve, cook, clean and make the place habitable.
Did they contribute to WASU on becoming leaders in their country?
No. They did not contribute as we expected and that was why we came back to Nigeria between 1944 to 1948; we went to Ghana for six months, went to the North and the East to raise money. Although they came back once in a while to give lectures, counsel the students. Members of parliament would come around atimes to talk to us but at the same time some came around to try to break WASU, saying it was a communist movement.
What roles did you play in the lives of these people?
Well, I would have had to come back to Africa to settle with them to have an influence on whatever they did in Africa but the work back in London was just too much for me.Â For instance, some couples who came over there suddenly had their marriages suffering stress. I wasnâ€™t a Mother Superior but I knew that once money became a problem, some of the women and the men, too, suffered depression so we had to arrange for foster homes for their children so the father and mother could go to work, combine jobs. But even the foster homes were not particularly honest and so we had to arrange for some of the children to be brought back to their families in Nigeria.
In 1971, I had to arrange for the return of 25 children ranging from17 months to five years; 25 of them, I brought them back to Nigeria and they had name tags. At the airport people came to identify their family. I was always coming in and going back. And that was how I got married a second time at the age of 60, to Ogunbiyi.
Thereâ€™s nothing you wouldnâ€™t have seenÂ the good, the bad, the ugly, the wonderful. What would you say is our problem in Nigeria?
Weâ€™ve not had good leaders so when you people complain about what is happening in the country I believe this is just part of our dark ages. Things would get better. If itâ€™s not bad leadership why should the army come in; but God, in his mercy, as he has done for the British, the Americans, He will do it for Nigerians too. See Lagos State since Fashola came in; somebody was there before Fashola came, he didn’t do what Fashola is doing. The man is taking risks for us. His dreams are coming through and a time will come when people will look back and say Lagos of today is better than before; although it may not be in my own time.
But miracle happens?
Ha! Okay miracles do happen.Â People should not give up. If 25 years ago it was said that I would come back people would say it is not possible.Â But now I even stay in my village in Itele.