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Final days of the WASU hostel

Solanke’s burial

Solanke’s funeral was grand. Many British newspapers such as the Daily Mirror, reported that “The Chief of the Square is dead…”In the London Times it was under the VIP column.

The Camden Town Council sent a representative to the wake-keeping in the house. On the funeral day they provided four outriders and four mounted policemen. All traffic lights remained green so as not to halt the procession from South Villas to the cemetery at Southgate North London where the funeral service was held.

A memorial service was held later at St. Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square. Fortunately, it was at the time the Nigerian leaders were holding a conference in London pertaining to our independence. They all attended the service. Chief Obafemi Awolowo read the first lesson, and Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe the second lesson.

The reception was held in Berkley Square, the headquarters of the Moral Re-Armament (MRA). I will say more about MRA in Chapter 13, but suffice to say, for now, that they were very supportive following the death of my husband in 1958.

Before going any further I must state that Solanke died of lung cancer, having spent hours in his basement office inhaling kerosene fumes used for heating. During the war in 1948 a shadow was detected on his chest X-ray during mass screening. This took place because one of the maids brought from Nigeria had tuberculosis.

He was asked to come back for follow-up but neglected to do so. He was later admitted to National Temperance Hospital in 1958 with lung camcer, and died three months later at the age of 72 years. He left me with four children.

Firstly my step-son Okiki aged 25 years and not yet in university, my daughter Bomi 11 years, Ladi 9 years, and Gbale 7 years. After the funeral I had to contact a lawyer regarding his estate. The second Trustee to South Villas was one Mr. Sorenson, later Lord Sorenson. He wrote me a very nice letter saying I should take all the time in the world to decide what I want to do as my most important duty is to the children.

lFRA Williams, above, ignored MAMA WASU and got pneumonia; Awo (middle) read the first lesson at Solanke's funeral, while Zik read the second lesson.
lFRA Williams, above, ignored MAMA WASU and got pneumonia; Awo (middle) read the first lesson at Solanke's funeral, while Zik read the second lesson.

Solanke had three houses at 12, and 14 Crogsland Road and 56 Delancey Street. The former were to be acquired by the government for £2,500, and he owed £2,200 on Delancey Street at £3 a week rent. The funeral expenses amounted to £850 for the undertaker, a bus to convey mourners, and two cars to follow the hearse; and I had only £300. What a predicament! My dear friends Ms. Esther Doherty, Madam Jokotade Johnson, Miss Olive Johnson, Chief Mrs. H. I. D. Awolowo, Mrs. Solaru, and my brothers I.O. Obisanya and M .O. Obisanya each in their separate ways came to my aid. The problem of the funeral expenses was thus solved.    .

The question was what to do with Delancey Street. Delancey Street was acquired in 1943 when we were going to Nigeria and Solanke was thinking of what was going to happen to members of our immediate family and close friends who would be coming to the UK for further studies. The most important thing was where they could lay their head, so before we left for the WASU mission he rented part of this house of four floors for a very small amount where they could stay and look after themselves.

I believe the first person to occupy the place was Mrs. Olu Morgan who convalesced there after an operation in Liverpool. Others who stayed there included Solanke’s niece Miss Yoyin Ejiwunmi, his nephew Mr. Fola Ejiwunmi, Dr. Sodipo, Mr. Madarikan, the famous Prof. Lambo, (Solanke’s cousin), and of course my brothers I.O. Obisanya and M.O. Obisanya as well as several others.

Life after Solanke
After Solanke’s death, I decided to remain at South Villas and maintain the place for use by different organizations. In recognition of the role played by WASU, I was often invited to events such as Queen Elizabeth’s Summer Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in 1959, and also the Lord Mayor’s Dinner.

Exactly a year after the death of my husband in 1959, I had to undergo a serious surgical operation, a hysterectomy. This coincided with the last Nigerian Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House, in London when all the top political Leaders in Nigeria attended to gain approval for the October 1, 1960 Political Independence for Nigeria.

While in the hospital, recovering from my surgical operation, many of the delegates to the 1959 London Constitutional Conference had to visit me, “Mama WASU” (as I was then known by most West African leaders) at the hospital. The crowd of visitors became so large that the hospital authorities had to transfer me to the bed adjacent to the entrance door of the hospital ward so as to reduce the influx of visitors moving through the ward.

As the Nigerian Independence Day drew near, I got two separate invitations from Nigeria; one from the Western Nigeria Government and the other from the Federal Government of Nigeria to attend the independence celebrations.

The Sierra-Leonian Government also invited me to their independence celebrations, both of which I attended. Later when I was going through Solanke’s documents I discovered invitations from the Kenyan Government and the Ghanaian Government to their own independence celebrations which had been rejected because he was too ill at the time to travel.

In the same 1959 I was offered a job in Nigeria by Tafawa Balewa which I was forced to turn down, as I had promised Solanke to stay with the children in England. He was convinced that they were going to go into the sciences and that the facilities in Nigeria were inadequate. As he predicted, all four went into the sciences, two read medicine, one biochemistry and one pharmacy.

In 1960 through the efforts of Chief Simeon Adebo I was offered and accepted a part time position as a Welfare Consultant by the Western Nigerian Government in their office in Great Portland Street London, in the Student’s Welfare Section. I worked there until 1971.

This involved looking to the welfare of students as individuals, as well as those married couples who have come to better their lives in a country where the culture was entirely different from the one they were coming from. Where possible I assisted them to put their children into foster homes or if their income was insufficient, or there was no time to visit the children, I helped arrange for the children, to be sent to their family at home in Nigeria. In this way the couple was free to concentrate on their studies.

WASU hostel shuts down
Whilst working for the Western Nigerian Office I was able to run the hostel in a small way. I became a guardian to the children of close friends and family who came down when they were on holiday from their boarding schools. Such included the Gbadamosi’s, the Obadeyi’s, Teni Olukoya, Mrs. Bimbo Oyenuga, Mrs. Ivie Ejiwunmi, the Beckleys, Folabi Dawodu and from Sierra Leone the Dembys, Ebun Luke amongst others.

I was forced to close down WASU around 1970, as the neighbours started complaining about the noise every Saturday and sometimes during the week. After the meetings the members would flock out into the street continuing to argue their points, making it impossible for the residents of the Square to sleep. We were warned several times by Camden Council and 1 was even taken to court for noise abasement.

I was not fined as I was not using the premises for monetary gain. In learning that 1 charged £1.10 for a 3-4 hour meeting, the judge asked how I made it pay. This made me reflect on how Solanke and I managed without a salary all those years: he as Warden and Secretary General of WASU and me as Matron, Cook, Typist and Welfare Officer.

Re-marriage, 12 years after Solanke’s passing
I had known both my husbands, Solanke and Ogunbiyi for many years before marriage; Solanke from 1929 when he came for the first WASU mission,and Dr.T.A.J Ogunbiyi from soon after the Second World War. His late wife was my very close friend. Both she and Solanke died in September 1958 of the same disease. Solanke died in London and was buried there and Folabi Ogunbiyi died in France and was buried there.

The two men were exact opposites socially. Solanke did not believe much in socialising, only politics and lecturing on issues concerning Nigerian culture and traditions. He did not believe in holidays. It wasn’t until August 1939 when Solanke’s cousin, Rev. Ransome-Kuti (Father of late Fela Anikulapo Kuti) visited London that he agreed to accompany him on a holiday. I arranged a two week holiday, visiting Oxford, Cambridge, Scotland and Paris.

Whilst in Oxford, the Second World War was declared and we had to return to London. That was the end of his first and last holiday with me. Having insisted that his children should continue their education in England and I should stay with them, he chose to be buried in London.

From 1968,1 was having problems with those using South Villas for receptions and meetings. I met Dr. Ogunbiyi again in 1969. By 1970 I decided to give it up. I had two options, to go back to Nigeria and settle, or to take up the offer of marriage to Dr. T. A. J. Ogunbiyi (a.k.a TAJO), a Catholic widower of some 20 years, and a close friend. I decided on the second option but there were certain problems. Firstly I needed my children’s permission, secondly I did not want to remain in England for a long time and finally I did not want to work, but remain a housewife, pure and simple.

Pope Pius I gave us a special dispensation; Bishop Aggrey then head of the Catholic Church in Nigeria came to London to perform the solemnization of the marriage ceremony, and Brigadier Ogundipe, then Nigerian High Commissioner led me to the altar three days after my birthday on 15th April 1971.

Wisdom keys — advice for youths
Given the depth and wide-ranging experience that I have acquired over the past several decades, this brief biographical work cannot be concluded without giving some advice to our youths, especially those yearning to travel abroad in search of the so-called “golden fleece”.

In the first half of the 20th century, there were four major groups of Africans travelling overseas for further, usually tertiary, education. The first group comprised those who went on foreign scholarships or Nigerian government scholarships.

This group of students could be said to have no financial hardships as they were the best of the best that competed and won the scholarships. Unfortunately for most of these students, they had very little or no information on the detailed requirements about the languages, dressing and dietary needs/supplies in the foreign countries they went to. The language barriers often resulted in the elongation of their educational programmes as they had to spend several months or years learning the language of communication in the foreign country.While many African students faced their studies and completed their programmes in record time, some misused the special opportunities and ended up dropping out, thereby finding it difficult to return to their home country with honours.

The second group comprised those from very poor parentage who struggled to survive without any hope of assistance. This group suffered and endured a lot of hardships, including working in one or two jobs, apart from their full-time or part-time studies. With dogged determination to succeed, such students usually excelled in their academic programmes in record time, and returned to their country with the” golden fleece”.

A third category of students included those of rich parentage or the elites. This group easily fell into bad company. They were usually friendly with whites, and indulged in gambling and other vices of the rich such as night clubs, in their eagerness to make quick money and live a high life. This group of students usually spent several years more than their counterparts on scholarships or those from poor parental background in completing their studies.

The fourth category were those students who came with their wives (or whose wives joined them later after settling down) to pursue their educational programmes. With the arrival of children in the families of such students, their problems were compounded by the combination of studying, working, and caring for wives and babies. In order to allow their wives to work, they had to get foster homes for the children who had to be visited two to three times a month, not to talk of the heavy payments which the couple could hardly afford. To further compound their problems, such families discovered that their children were brought up in a different culture without due respect to parents and elders. The mothers of such fostered children tended to suffer depression on finding out how poorly their children were cared for in spite of the huge sums of money paid to the foster mothers.

Over the past seven to eight decades that I had been domiciled in London, I had found out, as a result of contacts and interaction with Nigerians, from different walks of life that it pays to be religiously honest and straightforward in all dealings with all manners of men and women.

Honest living has its rewards for anyone and succeeding generations who would receive the rewards of the honesty of their parents and grandparents in later life. As a Yoruba proverb says “omi lenia”, we often meet, in miraculous settings the offspring of people who, at times past, had exploited or duped our parents; the circumstances of such meetings and the display of unexpected and undeserved love to such people often become life-changing events on such people.

This brief historical sketch will not be complete without paying tributes to some personalities who had played unforgettable roles in my life journeys over the past 90 years or so.

First on the list was Pa. Josiah Martins Adebambo, the Catechist/ teacher at Ikoto near Ijebu-Ode who accepted to have me live with him from 1920-21 instead of returning to Olorunpodo to work on my father’s farm.

Next was Dr. Reffle of No. 7 Wilberforce Street, Freetown, Sierra Leone, who was a close friend of Chief Ladipo Solanke. It was Dr. Reffle who arranged for my admission to the American-supported Home Economics School in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and bore all the expenses of running the two-year programme from 1929-31.

One of my closest friends in London during the Second World War was the Late Mrs. Olive Johnson of Sierra Leone. She firmly stood by me during World War II to successfully weather the storms of running the WASU hostels in London when all the white staff had been commandeered for the war industries. Her staunch support also helped me through the mourning period of my husbands. May her family remain blessed.

Similarly, I cannot forget the Late Esther Doherty and several other members of the Doherty family for coming to my rescue after the death of Chief Ladipo Solanke in 1958. Members of the Doherty family assisted tremendously by teaching me to trade, buying goods from London to sell in Nigeria. The proceeds thereof were sent back to me in London for the education of the four children during the period 1958-1960.

Chief (Mrs.) H.I.D. Awolowo similarly assisted me in this regard, and the funds generated through her were utilized to settle the outstanding burial expenses of Chief Ladipo Solanke. The specially-designed cloth to mark Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s 50lh birthday in 1959 was ordered through me by Mrs. H.I.D. Awolowo, and she was so honest as to send me my own commission after the sale of the cloth. I wonder how many Nigerians still have that degree of honesty in their hearts in this new century.

God miraculously sent the Late Chief Simeon Adebo (an Abeokuta Chief and former Head of Service in the Western Region of Nigeria), to offer me an appointment as a Welfare Consultant to the Western Nigerian High Commission in London from 1960-1971. This appointment further exposed me to the top hierarchy of British and Nigerian governments such that I was always invited to high level public ceremonies and independence celebrations in many African countries even after the death of my first husband in 1958. The little pension that I have continued to earn since 1971 was as a result of my service as a Welfare Consultant with the Western Nigerian Government Office in London, thanks to Chief S. O. Adebo’s offer of 1960. His wife is still my lifelong friend, and we a re still very much in touch until now.

I must also acknowledge top government functionaries and leaders like Late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Late Chief H.O. Davies whose assistance to me and my children were immeasurable. I cannot forget Late Lawyer M.O. Obisanya of Oke-Eri, but also related to my father through the Ikanigbo root in Ijebu-Ode.

MamaWASU300Professor and Mrs. S. O. Onakomaiya have been close to me since 1968 when they were travelling from the U.S.A through London to Nigeria. Within the last 20 years, they have made my frequent home-comings immensely more comfortable and enjoyable.

Our current royal father in Itele, Alaiyeluwa Oba M. A. Kasali deserves tremendous appreciation for his love and support to me, his Yeye-Oba. He assisted us in recovering the Obisanya family inheritance at Olorunpodo which was passed on from my father, Daniel Obisanya, since 1890. It was one of the privately assigned farming enclaves of pre- colonial Nigeria belonging to the British rulers in Area J3 of Ijebu Forest Reserve. Alhaja Abeni Bashorun of Lagos has been so close and useful to me both in London and Nigeria for several decades; she is just likea daughterto me.

Special appreciation must be registered to the family of Chief Isaac O. Dina of Oru-ljebu. Isaac O. Dina and Stephen Awokoya were my schoolmates at Sagun United School at Awa in 1921-26. When both of them came to London in the 1930s-40s, our primary school friendship grew stronger to the extent that members of the Dina family more or less became part of my extended family up till the death of both Chief and Mrs. Dina.

MAMA WASU…Concluded

You have been enjoying excerpts from a book titled MAMA WASU: The Autobiography of Chief (Mrs) Opeolu Solanke-Ogunbiyi, a village girl turned international personality, guardian, and counsellor. The book was edited by Professor S.O. Onakomaiya, and printed by Speaks Promotions Ltd.


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