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MAMA WASU: Matron to some of Africa’s brightest and best

Quite often, the deficit between the rental fee of the hostel and revenues from the restaurant and the rooms was made up from the proceeds of Ladipo Solanke’s legal practice.

The entire restaurant’s staff and the room cleaners (who were mostly whites) were paid by the Warden (Solanke), while the warden’s wife (my humble self or “Miss Olu” as I was popularly called) supervised the white trained cooks and the house cleaners at no fee paid to me.

In 1936, the Late Oba Ademola II, the then Alake of Abeokuta (who was the father of Prince Adetokunbo Ademola); visited London and had to call at 62 Camden Road Hostel of WASU. He was highly impressed by the good work being done by WASU (headed by one of his kinsmen, Ladipo Solanke an Egbason) in the less-than-conducive environment.

In particular, he was delighted to see the social and political activities that WASU was doing, such as lobbying members of the British Parliament to draw their attention to the political problems facing African colonies and their leaders back home in different African countries. He, there and then, decided to look for a better and more conducive location for WASU Hostel in London.

The late Oba Ademola II then launched an appeal fund for a new WASU Hostel in London. He found ready support for the appeal fund from Chief Lambo and Paul Robeson, the famous negro gospel singer and Sir John Harris and General Grey who were then members of the Anti-Slavery Organisation in London, The appeal launching resulted in the outright purchase of No 1, South Villas, Camden Square also in NW1 in 1937.

I was also helped by other people, such as Lady Simon ( a white American married to a white Englishman Lord Simon). She donated a magnificent piano to WASU in addition to her personal help in furnishing the building that was to house many famous Nigerian and African leaders. The hostel consisting of four floors was comparable to anyone of its kind in London at that time.

Among the first set of Nigerians to be taken under “Miss Olu’s” wing here were the first group of Nigerian government-sponsored scholars, Late Olu Alakija, Chief Seye Ejiwunmi (who was later married to Miss Lande Moore), Chief I. O. Dina and Chief S.O. Awokoya (the last two being my school mates at Sagun United School, Awa-ljebu in the 1920s).

*Azikiwe, Banda, Nkrumah and Kenyatta
*Azikiwe, Banda, Nkrumah and Kenyatta

Big names in African and Nigerian history lodge at WASU hostel
The structure of 1, South Villas Hostel was like that of the first hostel at 62 Camden Road. The South Villas Hostel consisted of four floors– a basement, ground floor, and first and second floors. On the basement were the kitchen, the restaurant, the Warden’s office, and toilet/bathroom conveniences.

The uniqueness of the South Villas hostel location consisted of three factors: first nearly opposite the hostel was a small public park in Camden Square where people could relax and enjoy themselves especially in warm weather.

Secondly, there was a Church of England chapel almost opposite the hostel where people could easily worship on Sundays. Most importantly was the fact that the location was quiet and more conducive for living and studying by students than the Camden Road hostel.

Some distinguished British leaders who were invited to address the Nigerian students of South Villas hostel included Lord Listowell (a  member of the House of Commons), Prime Minister Lord Attlee, Sir Hans Vischer of the Colonial Office in London and two former Governors of Nigeria and Sierra Leone.    :

Among the Nigerian student lodgers in the hostel were the famous Abeokuta teacher, the Late Rev. I. Ransome Kuti (father of the Late Fela, Beko and Olikoye Ransome Kuti), the Late Dr. Kofo Abayomi, Dr. Okoi Arikpo, Chief H. O. Davies, the late Rev. A.S, Pearse (father of Mrs Titi Sodeinde), the late Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe (the first President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) and the late Chief F. R.A. Williams (the doyen of the Nigerian bar), who celebrated his 21st birthday in the hostel. Chief (Mrs) Ransome Kuti also visited the hostel on her way to Russia to represent Nigerian Women at an International Women Conference.

Some non-Nigerian student lodgers were Dr. Jomo Kenyatta and Dr. Hastings Banda (who later became the first Presidents of Kenya and Malawi respectively), and the Late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah (first President of Ghana). There was Kan-Kan-Boadu [a Ghanaian], and Mrs. Olive Johnson, (a Sierra Leonian) who was the first African lady to be appointed a nursing matron of a Government Hospital in an African country the Connaught Hospital in Freetown, which was then the largest hospital in Sierra Leone and also Mr. Bioku Betts from Sierra Leone (who was President of WASU for six years).

I must make mention of some of our people who passed through the hostel, some of whom helped to organize a committee in the House of Commons to address the political matters in West Africa, and have subsequently played important roles in the history of Nigeria and West Africa. Mrs. Funlayo Ransome-Kuti (Bere), Miss Olive Johnson (both of whom were my daughter’s god-mothers), Mrs Ivy Taylor, D. O. S. Ajayi, Mr. Seke Phillips, Justice Fatai-Williams, Chief Akin George, Prof. T. Belo Osagie, Mr. Steady Arthur-Worrey, Chief T. O. Ejiwunmi, Robert Kweku Gardner (of Ghana), Miss Kelu Phillips, Mr. Crabbe (President WASU for three years from Ghana), Bankole Akpata (brother of Chief Tayo Akpata), Joe Appiah (Ghana), Mr. Mahoney (Gambia) and Mr. Kessie (Ghana). Important people from all over West Africa and UK came to WASU hostel either to visit or to address the students or attend the annual conferences.

These included the British Prime Minister at the time Lord Attlee who came to address the students. Other people included Mr. Okorodudu who became the second Nigerian Ambassador to the UK. The first Ambassador was Alhaji Abdul Malik who I met with his two brothers when I went to Nigeria in 1944 for the WASU mission. Chief H. O. Davies and Mrs. Doris Davies were in charge of the Hostel when we were away in 1944 on a WASU mission. Mr. Okoi Arikpo who took over from them after one year and remained until our returned in 1948.

Trips outside the UK were not allowed at that time because of the pending war. Now that we were settled in South Villas, Solanke finally agreed for us to go on our first holiday in Reading. We went with Reverend Ransome-Kuti. While we were in Reading war was declared in 1939.

Zik, others get haircut from MAMA WASU

With the outbreak of the Second World War, when everything seemed to turn upside down, all able-bodied men and women were drafted to the war-related industries, thus depriving the WASU hostel of the services of white cooks, stewards and cleaners.

While some basic food ingredients like salt and sugar had to be rationed nation-wide (even world-wide), as a hostel we were given extra rations, and I was still able to obtain Nigerian food ingredients regularly sent to me by my mother from Itele.

Some of the adjustment mechanisms adopted during the World War II were:
1.        I (“Miss Olu”) became the barber for male students at a price of ls.6d (including the Late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe) and hair-dresser for the ladies at 2s. each. I also became the chief cook for hostel students, with the assistance of African female nursing students who helped with hostel care, especially on week-ends.

2.        I (“Miss Olu”) regularly travelled outside London to cities like Cambridge, Oxford, Durham, New Castle-on-Tyne to distribute some of the foodstuffs like salt, sugar, dried egg and milk (which WASU got in surplus) to African students studying in those cities’ universities. I also cooked and barbed their hair for them on week-ends. I would offer advice on any problems they were having, making them feel at home, and be able to concentrate on their studies.

On several occasions, the saving Grace of God manifested itself on the hostels and residents such that not a single Nigerian lost his/her life throughout the war years. On a particular day in 1941, there were bomb raids over London, and all residents in the WASU hostel and neighborhood were ordered to run for safety in the underground shelter in the park. In the morning at the end of the bomb raid, when we came out of the park shelter, twelve houses were completely razed to the ground. The others had all their roofs blown off and doors and windows blown out.

However, there was not a single crack on any of the hostel’s window or door glasses. They were completely intact. For want of any explanation for the exclusion of our hostel, the Englishman inspector who came to register damages to houses on our street said that we had planted some “African Juju” in the house which saved us from the war calamities.


For WASU, a four year fund-raising tour of W-Africa

From 1944 to 1948, Ladipo Solanke and I embarked on a second fund-raising tour of West Africa, this time purposely to raise funds for a second WASU hostel at 13 Chelsea Embankment, in London. We travelled with Dr. Maja who was returning to Nigeria after his holiday with us.

The tour was also aimed at redeeming pledges from those who pledged contributions during the first tour in 1929-32 but could not fulfill their promises. Travelling by M.V. Accra, the tour started in 1944 to Lagos where we were well received by the media, especially the Daily Times and the West African Pilot [then owned by Nnamdi Azikiwe].

The Lagos White Cap Chiefs led by Chief Oluwa launched the appeal fund at Glover Hall, Marina, where many pledges were made, most of which were never redeemed. The fund raising tour then moved to Ibadan, Oyo, and Oshogbo, where committees had been set up to sensitize the political leaders, many of whom pledged their donations while some actually paid their pledges.

A couple of weeks later we went to Solanke’s hometown Ijeun in Abeokuta, where his only sibling Late Madam Adeola Ejiwunmi had built a house on their father’s land, with the help of a cousin. During this WASU missionary tour of West Africa, the then Alake of Abeokuta, Oba Ademola II, wanted to confer a chieftaincy title on Lawyer Ladipo Solanke in recognition of the wonderful work he had been performing in England since the 1920s.

When the Pilot and Daily Times newspapers reported Solanke’s acceptance in their papers, the then Anglican Bishop of Lagos, Bishop Phillips kicked against it, describing it as heathen practice fit only for illiterate.

Notwithstanding the hot argument between the Bishop and Solanke, the Iwuye was arranged a couple of weeks later as we were anxious to get on with the mission. The ceremony went on as planned and the first Christian Lawyer in Nigeria became the Ntabo and Atobatele of ljeun, Abeokuta.

It is now a common occurrence for educated Christians to accept such chieftaincies. In 1945, the tour took us to Ghana by road, visiting 48 out of the then 50 Ghanaian districts, and some donations were received, Apart from Accra, the delegation visited Koforidua, Tamale and Kumasi, where King Prem-Peh, the Asantehene of Ashanti Kingdom gave us a rousing reception in collaboration with more than 3,000 Nigerians (mostly from Oyo and Ogbomoso) resulting in very encouraging contributions from both Ghanaians and Nigerians in Ghana.

To eastern, northern Nigeria
In 1946, the tour moved to the Eastern Region of Nigeria, specifically Benin, Enugu, Onitsha, Aba, Ikot Ekpene, Calabar, Uyo, Port Harcourt and Nsukka Village, where Dr. Nnamdi Azikwe informed the delegation of his plan to establish a University which eventually materialized in 1960 as the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.  Later in 1946, the delegation moved to Northern Nigeria, first to Kaduna by rail and later by road to Zaria, Funtua, Katsina and Kano.

In most of the Northern cities, the reception for us was done secretly at night for fear of arrest by the colonial district officers. Late Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Alhaji Aminu Kano (whom I met for the first time) formed a committee of twelve eminent men who received us at night in Kaduna.

When the then Emir of Katsina (son of the Emir of Katsina who visited London in the 1920s) got the news of the WASU delegation (led by Chief Solanke) visiting Northern Nigeria, he planned a very big public reception and the news quickly spread to Kano and Zaria.

Both the Emirs of Kano and Zaria thereafter followed the example of Katsina to organize grand public receptions for the WASU delegation in Kano and Zaria. It was encouraging to note that as a result of the efforts of the Emirs of Katsina, Kano and Zaria more money was collected in Northern Region than in the Western and Eastern Regions combined.

During the 1944-48 tour of Nigeria it would be recalled that we were received at Itoro Hall, Ijebu-Ode by the then Awujale of Ijebuland Alayeluwa Oba Daniel Adesanya, Chief Timothy Odutola and other chiefs in 1944. From Ijebu-Ode we travelled straight to Itele, for the first time since 1930 when I left Nigeria for Sierra-Leone and subsequently London in 1932.

On that visit to Itele, all the inhabitants of Itele trooped out to Odomore junction to welcome me, being the first indigene of the town to have gone to and returned from the white man’s country. My mother was extremely happy to see her daughter after more than 14 years absence from home and she equipped us well as was her usual practice with Nigerian foodstuffs on the return trip to Lagos.

I had then been married to Solanke for I5 years. On the way from Nguru to Zaria our car broke down and whilst pushing it with Solanke I fainted and the car rolled over me. Everyone was most alarmed. I had never fainted before and on reaching Kafanchan from Zaria, I was finally confirmed to be pregnant by one Dr. Coker, a government doctor.

After 15 years of marriage I delivered a baby girl at Mrs. Tomi Ejiwunmi’s Maternity Home at 2, Hughes Avenue, on the 10th July 1947. She was christened at her grandfather’s church, Ake Church, Abeokuta.

When news of the birth of my first child (Olasurubomi) got to Katsina, the Emir of Katsina sent a personal message, while the Emir of Zaria, in his own message, named her “Yan Hausa”.

In all, the four year long tours which ended in 1948, helped WASU to raise sufficient funds to start the third WASU hostel at 13 Chelsea Embankment WC1 London. In June 1948 when we returned to UK and WASU, Chief H. O. Davies and his wife Mrs. Doris Davies who were appointed Warden and Matron respectively in our absence, had had to leave the hostel after a few months, and Mr. Okoi Arikpo was overseeing WASU.

Chief Solanke’s life and times
In order to shed proper light on the role of WASU in Britain between 1925 and 1958, a brief historical sketch on the life of Chief Ladipo Solanke and WASU, at this point, would be necessary forthe education of the reader

Chief Ladipo Solanke’s father was born in Ofada, a town about 40 kilometer from Abeokuta, Nigeria. Early in his youthful days, his father sent him  (along with his sister Adeola who later became Mrs. Adeola Ejiwunmi) to Abeokuta to live with Revered Payley, the English clergy of the CMS Church at Abeokuta.

As his father wanted him to become a clergyman, Rev. Payley sent him to St.Andrews College, Oyo bearing the name Oladipo Payley. When he became older and was told how he got the surname of Payley, he changed his surname back to Solanke.

On completing his teacher training education at Oyo, he proceeded to Freetown, obtaining his first degree (Bachelor of Arts) in Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone, (with late Ransome-Kuti and Lawyer Soetan), he taught in Freetown for ten years to save money to enable him proceed to the United Kingdom to study law.

He completed his legal studies at the University College, London, where he obtained his M.A and L.L.B Degrees He subsequently qualified as Barrister-at-Law at the Middle Temple, following which he was temporarily employed as the first lecturer in Yoruba at the University of London. He also obtained a BCL from Oxford University.

Solanke and other West African students experienced poverty and racism in Britain, a situation which inspired him to decide to establish an hostel and to help other West African students in Britain. With the assistance of Amy Ashwood Garvey, he formed the Nigerian Progressive Union in London in 1924, the first Organization of Nigerians in Britain.

WASU regularly held annual conferences and in 1943, the conference was held at 1 South Villas and was presided over by Bioku Betts of Sierra Leone. At that conference, Joe Appiah of Ghana moved a resolution that WASU should prevail on Britain “to grant self-government now and complete independence to West African colonies not later than five years after the end of the Second World War”.

The publication of this resolution in Azikwe’s West African Pilot lead to an increased tempo of the agitations for self-government by the West African colonies. The West African Parliamentary Committee in the House of Commons was set up as an effective parliamentary pressure group through Ladipo Solanke’s influence and connections with some broad-minded members of the British Parliament who were interested in matters affecting the colonial territories in Africa and their citizens resident in Britain.

WASU was able to wield tremendous influence for African citizens in Britain and for their home countries up to the time of independence for Ghana in 1957, followed by self-government in 1958 for Western and Eastern Nigeria, and full independence for Nigeria in 1960. This was perhaps the greatest joy that Chief Solanke had that his labours in Britain were not in vain.

At the Constitutional Conference in London in 1956; Solanke, in his welcome address urged the members at the conference to take WASU motto of “self-help, Unity and Cooperation with other nations’ as part of their national ideologies. On hearing the news of his death just before the final constitutional conference opened in 1958, all members of the conference attended his memorial service at St. Martins-in-the Fields.


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