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Mama WASU: From a farm in Ijebu to Lagos

Solanke and I arrived in the UK in October 1932 at Southampton and were met by the late Sir Adetokunbo Ademola who was the son of the then Alake of Abeokuta and the father of the late Justice Adenekan Ademola, and who was then a final-year student at The University of Cambridge.

Prince Ademola came from Cambridge to London and we were welcomed at a grand reception by other Nigerian and British dignitaries, including Mr. Olu Alakija, Dr. Joseph Doherty and Mr. Siffrey.

London was covered with thick fog, so much so that people in the street could not see each other passing. The fog lasted 8 days. On top of that it was extremely cold for me, and my thoughts were how I was going to live in a country like that for six months.

Solanke had promised me that we would stay in England for only six months by which time he would have established the hostel and I would have helped him furnish it. That six month brief sojourn of a girlfriend in London lasted well over twenty years, an example of the typical boyfriend promise that turns out to be a different story.

From the reception hall we were taken to a one bedroom flat in Kilburn London by Dr. Joseph Doherty. Solanke went to do the necessary shopping for our needs.

During the first week in November 1932 the first meeting of the West African Students Union (WASU) was held at the flat of Dr. Joseph Doherty which was near our own. It was at this meeting that Solanke gave the first report of his mission to West Africa.

His mission was to go and seek for funds to establish a Hostel in London as a centre for the use of West African Students in UK. WASU had been registered as an organization in 1926. Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone and Nigeria had separate Unions until this time when they came together to form the West African Students Union. It was decided that they should start looking for a house to be used as a hostel for WASU.

* The Rt. Hon. Clement Attlee, then Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain found time to attend a WASU event on 15th August, 1941.
* The Rt. Hon. Clement Attlee, then Deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain found time to attend a WASU event on 15th August, 1941.

Those present at the meeting included Dr. Joseph Doherty, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, Mr. Olu Alakija (nicknamed “as I see it”) late Mr. Majekodunmi, late Mr. Jibowu (brother to the famous lawyer) and two others from Ghana and Sierra Leone. We started looking for a place not too far from Euston Station where the students would first land in London after disembarking from the boat at Southampton or Liverpool.

After a long search they succeeded in getting a house at 62, Camden Road, opposite the ABC bread making factory. It belonged to a Jewish man and had been on the market for three years. The Jew charged us an exorbitant price, but because WASU was desperate we had to take it. It had to be simply furnished as there was little money left over after paying six months rent.

The ground floor had a bedroom for us, a sitting room and an office. In the basement was the dining room, kitchen and a utility room. The few students levied themselves to furnish the next two floors and some rooms at the side entrance to the house. There was a nearby market called Caledonian Street market which sold second hand furniture, with which .we were able to furnish the house.

WASU takes off with hostel business
Within six weeks we opened the restaurant in the basement with four tables of four chairs each. The restaurant at the basement of the hostel was opened all day for resident students and from 12 noon to non-resident African students to enjoy themselves with African dishes on a cash-and-carry basis.

The foodstuffs needed for the African dishes comprised dried fish, dried ewedu, dried okra, dried bitterleaf, apon, ogiri, dried pepper, dried iru, dried melon seed and palm oil, all of which were regularly sent to me by my mother, Mrs Juliana Fuwa Obisanya from Itele-ljebu.

My mother usually packaged these food ingredients and sent them by boat to Tilbury Docks, where I used to collect them duty-free. She was so happy to do this so that her daughter in “white man’s land” would be able to eat her native food and not forget her own country.

These Nigerian food ingredients were combined in daily menu with rice, “Semo” instead of eba and Irish potatoes for porridge. Pork (especially the head and offals) was very cheap. The restaurant dishes were relatively very cheap (costing between six pence and one shilling per plate) and tummy filling, thus endearing African students to WASU and its sponsors.

Around 1933 the first WASU Hostel opened formally in London. At that time in the whole of the United Kingdom there were only 26 West African students. During the first meeting of WASU, the two most important resolutions were to appoint Mr. Ladipo Solanke as Secretary General and Warden, without salary and myself the Matron and Welfare Officer.

Having paid for the six months rent, there was no funds left to pay as salary. It was then a big struggle to run the hostel as there was no fund to meet the overheads; all those who promised to give us donations never honored their promises. Things were really bad. It was an uphill task.

After it was evident that we were not going to go back within six months, I went to register at a school in Fleet Street to do block making for newspaper photos. This I did before we moved into the hostel but unfortunately I could not go and get an outside job because of the amount of work at the hostel.

My husband joined a law firm at the Middle Temple to practice law on a part time basis. This brought in some small sum of money that we used in the hostel. As we went along, it became difficult to leave the hostel, as the problem of who to leave the affairs of the hostel to while we were away became insurmountable, so we were stuck there. I wrote my mother that I was in the white country, and I miss them and our African food.

Some celebrity marriages were made at WASU hostel
Within a few months she got my brother to send me dried Ewuro being my favorite, Ewedu, Apon, Egunsi, Orunla, Ede etc. When I got these, it made the hostel popular for African food, and started getting good support from the students and some of our people that came to settle in London.

The first residents of the hostel were Omoba Adetokunbo Ademola, Mr. Akin Adesigbin and the great musician, Mr. Fela Sowande. The West African Students Union members themselves made a number of rules to govern the activities of the Union in the hostel which was meant for short stay before finding permanent accommodation. One of such rules was that no female white woman or lady (“shallo”) may be brought in by any resident, not even to the restaurant. This rule had the effect of restricting the number of African students who were prepared to live in and use the hostel’s services. The restaurant services and Saturday social parties were the golden opportunities that the elite African ladies (who were then in London) had to meet their elite African male counterparts, which culminated in the marriages of many of them either in London or back home in Nigeria.

Some of the young couples who first met in WASU hostel include Sir Adetokunbo Ademola and Miss Kofo Moore, Chief Akin Adesigbin and my ever loyal and lasting friend, Madam Esther Doherty, Dr. Oni Akerele and Miss Dorothy Jackson, Chief Seye Ejiwunmi and Miss Lande Moore, Rev. T.T. Solaru and Miss Adeline Olufowora
Sonaike just to mention a few.
The first WASU hostel at 62 Camden Road, London was not without some problems, of which two were very significant and noteworthy. First, the heavy traffic and the perennial attendant traffic noise at this junction location was far from being conducive to good, quiet academic work for the resident students, The second and more crippling problem was the high rental cost of the building, which was financed mainly from the restaurant charges, and rents paid by the few students occupying the rooms. Twenty years before I was born, my father had got-a
portion of  the Ijebu Forest Reserve named OLORUNPODO carved out for him in 1890 for his farming activities by the colonial government.

It is interesting to know that the only visitor we used to have then in Olorunpodo was an English Forest Inspector (or Forest Guard). He used to come, accompanied by five or six persons. Four would carry him sitting on a hammock, one carried his box containing his clothes and the last, a farmer would cut the shrubs to lead the way.
He liked our farmstead because it was clean with big rooms, and to crown it all, it was very near Omo River where he liked to swim at least twice a day. He used to catch big fish and guinea fowls for his food. There were bananas and lots of plantain which were cooked with beans. He usually spent three to four weeks with us. As white people were very few in those days, my mother used to say “one day you will be speaking like this white man” and I used to laugh at her. She used to say “you will see, it will come to pass because Yeye Ondo has seen this in her Ifa Oracle”.

Believe it or not, what Yeye Ondo said came to pass. When she saw my brother reading a letter he received from England, she laughed and told him that Ope will reach the foreign country long before him. Everything she said came to pass.

Any day the Forest Guard was passing through Itele, en route from Ijebu-Ode to his Olorunpodo base station, the whole length of the foot-path through which his hammock-carriers would pass, from Ilese through Ijebu-lmushin, to Ijebu-lfe and Itele to Olorunpodo had to be thoroughly weeded by men, and swept by women with brooms in order to prevent the expatriate Forest Guard from catching some diseases. If by chance some animal dung was found on any part of the route, the local residents abbuting that part of the road were liable for prosecution for violation of the environmental sanitation laws of those early decades of colonialism in Ijebuland.

It is interesting to note that for nearly ten years I never realized that Sangofuwa (shortened to Fuwa) was my real mother. Fuwa’s mother was a “Sango” worshiper at Tunbido area of Agbodu Quarters, Itele. The person I knew for years as my mother was my father’s first wife, an older woman who could no longer have a child on account of her age.

Hence, after my birth, she was called “Iya Ope” by everybody in the family, and as an innocent child, I simply believed that she was my mother. I was about ten years old when I was referred to by our cousin, Late Pa L. A. Kujore’s mother as “Ope Omo Fuwa” I corrected her that I am from Iya Ope (i.e. lya Agba) and not from Fuwa, who then was usually called “Iya Dupe” (Modupe being my late younger sister). I had always slept with “Iya Ope” in her own room until I went to start teaching in Lagos in 1928.

Opeolu’s dad stops her from school; she runs away to Lagos
At the age of ten, after my fourth year in primary school, my father forced me to stop schooling and follow him to Olorunpodo Village to assist him in his farming activities. One of the reasons why polygamy was very popular in those days was that the wives and their children could assist the man in cultivating large farms.

My senior brother, Isaac Obisanya, was then undergoing teacher training education at the oldest Teacher Training College in Yoruba territory, the famous St. Andrews College, Oyo and his father was not very happy with this. Given my interest in education and my desire to be able to speak the English language like that white forest guard in Olorunpodo, I ran away to Lagos to stay with Mr. Hamzat A. Fetuga (who was brother to the father of Professor Babatunde Fetuga) so that I could enroll in Standard 1. On the arrival of my brother, Isaac, from Oyo to spend his holidays at Itele, my father, a cunning man, seized all the uniforms and books of my brother and vowed not to release them to Isaac until he went to Lagos to bring Opeolu back to Olorunpodo, as the education of female children was not popular.

Since my brother did not want to terminate his educational career prematurely, he had no choice but to go to Lagos to bring me back home. As I did not want to jeopardize the chances of my brother in his education pursuit, I agreed to go back to Ijebu on condition that I would be enrolled in school at Ijebu and be able to continue my own education. My brother, Isaac, agreed to do just that for me. He then brought me back to Imoru, near Ijebu-Ode to live with a cousin of my father, late Pa. J. M. Adebambo, who was then the catechist in charge of Ikoto Anglican Church, but also teaching, full-time, at St. Saviours Primary School, Italowajoda, Ijebu-Ode.

The late Pa. Josiah Mattins Adebambo was the father of a veteran teacher, Late Mr. J. O. B. Adebambo who was the foundation Principal of Ogun State College of Education at Ijagun near Ijebu-Ode (now transformed into Tai Solarin University of Education). Pa J. M. Adebambo then sent Isaac to my father at Olorunpodo that Opeolu had been brought to him from Lagos and that anyone sent by my father to bring me back to Olorunpodo would be well served with a cutlass menu. This message softened my father’s mind and he did not press further for my return to Olorunpodo Village. My father, Pa. Daniel Obisanya, knew very well that he could not cope with the forceful and highly disciplined character of Pa. J. M. Adebambo whom he himself could not subdue while he was with him at Olorunpodo. He ended up being educated in Lagos and soon rose to the exalted status of a teacher at Ijebu-Ode as well as a church catechist at Ikoto.

From Pa. J. M. Adebambo’s residence at Imoru, I had to trek with Pa Adebambo everyday, to St. Saviours School, Italowajoda, Ijebu-Ode, a distance of about 3km, from 1922 to 1924.

In 1925, my brother, Isaac, was posted to Sagun United School, Awa-ljebu after successfully completing his Grade II Teacher Training Programme at St. Andrews College, Oyo. He then took over the education of his young nephew, Isaac Onamusi who was the last son of his Auntie, Mrs. Taiwo Onamusi. As Isaac Onamusi was then very young and unable to cope with the rigours of domestic work required of a teacher’s dependent, I was asked to join him at Awa-Ijebu and stayed with my brother at Sagun United School, Awa. I thus had a singular assignment of training little Isaac, then in Standard I, in home management skills while both of us were schooling at Sagun United School, Awa.

Standard VI holder returns to Lagos, meets future husband
Every Friday, Isaac and I had to trek from Awa to Itele to collect food items already packaged for us by my mother. This was a journey of not less than 30km on winding footpaths as there were no motorable roads in those days. Our first trip of this kind in 1925 was led by the mother of late Ladipo Oshisanya (alias “Atowoatomo”, who was then a little baby tied to his mother’s back), who carried most of the heavy loads of foodstuffs to last the three of us at Awa for three weeks, a very unforgettable type of traveling experience for that matter. Isaac Onamusi, from 1925 on, was trained by my brother, Isaac Obisanya, up to the end of his secondary education. Thereafter, he went to join his senior brother, Michael Onamusi in Sapele where he was employed by the African Timber and Plywood Company, for whom he worked up to his retirement as a manager.

While at Awa Sagun United School, I read Standard Four and Five with the late Chief Stephen Awokoya and Chief. I. O. Dina and others as my schoolmates. However, I had to return to Ijebu-Ode to complete my Standard Six in Anglican Girls School where Miss Comfort Olusoga and I were the only girls in the class who sat for the First School Leaving Certificate Examination in 1927. In that year, I lived at Etimoro Quarters in the house of a relative called “Asarewososi” (which means one who always runs into the church) who was the father of Mrs. Osilaja.

After obtaining my First School Leaving Certificate, it was customary in those days to look for a white-collar job, the search of which took me to Lagos where I was employed in 1928 as a pupil teacher at Salem School, Ebute-Metta.

My stay in Lagos was a turning-point in my life as I met for the first time, in 1929, my future husband, Lawyer Ladipo Solanke, who was then a missioner of West African Students Union (WASU) in London. Our friendship blossomed to the point that he introduced me to one of his friends in Sierra-Leone, by name Dr. Reffle of No. 7 Wilberforce Street, in Freetown.

It was Dr. Reffle who arranged for my admission to a Home Economics school (an American institution) for a two-year programme in Domestic Science. I can never forget Dr. Reffle’s great generosity as he ensured my smooth and successful completion of the two-year programme in Freetown, Sierra-Leone from 1929-1931.


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