“A tree has fallen! A tree has fallen!” the young man said to his father. The old man looked and walked in the direction of the fallen tree. “This is not just a tree,” he said to his son. “This is the tree, the tree of all trees. This is the Iroko.”
ONCE in about every 76 years, a comet is visible to the human eye from earth. It is called Haley’s Comet. Such was the presence, carriage, compassion, mastery and swagger of Mr. Gamaliel Oforitsenere Onosode, that you would run out of adjectives in describing him after an encounter.
I knew him for twenty nine years. My first meeting with him was in February 1986. I had read about a church he had founded two years earlier and had gone in search of the church on that particular Sunday morning in Surulere. He was in his housecoat arranging chairs by himself. He welcomed me warmly and asked me to sit down while he continued. I joined him in arranging chairs. He later disappeared upstairs. As the service began shortly after, he re-appeared in a dashing dark suit with a dimple in his tie, hair parted in the middle and took the pulpit. The church service held in his living room for four years until it moved to Adeniran Ogunsanya and later to Olufemi Street, off Ogunlana Street, Surulere where a Cathedral is now situated.
If you could choose one sentence to describe Mr. Gamaliel Oforitsenere Onosode, many who had an encounter with him would, I believe, simply say – a commitment to excellence. Such was his relentless pursuit of excellence that it usually took him several hours to draft a letter.
He would look at it and then look at it and then look at it again and then, not satisfied, he would change a word and see how everything worked together and in those moments, you did not want to be around him because he would be consumed by the work that was required to go into the construction of what many would regard as a mere letter. He took pride in what he wrote in much the same fashion as Michelangelo or Picasso would look at a finished work with great satisfaction. Head and shoulders, he stood tall in his generation, possessing the virtues of clear penetration in his arguments, clear headedness in disposition, good sense and consistency in his positions to the point of what many would term unyielding.
Every Sunday afternoon was open house at 44 Adelabu Street and I was at several of those. It was a time when we would discuss the burning national issues of the day. It was a kind of market square and there was always enough food for as many as showed up. Mr. Onosode liked to joke and play in a way that belied his public persona. Under that serious mien was a very ordinary, approachable and playful man who enjoyed a hearty laughter and he cracked many jokes himself.
One of his favorite stories was about a certain athlete in his high school days who was a star athlete in the marathon. The mile race usually closed the inter-house sports competition every year and Bamidele was always expected to win. The race began and at the end of the first lap, Bamidele was lagging at the rear. By the second lap, Bamidele was still behind but everyone who knew Bamidele believed he was going to win and they just told everyone else to be patient, saying, “Make una wait, Bamidele never start.”
He lingered on the third lap. By the fourth and final lap everyone was chanting for Bamidele to excite the crowd with his prowess but it was not to be. The race ended with everyone in disbelief. “Bamidele never start.” In 2011, I was in London for his wife’s birthday. He displayed some dexterity dancing heartily to, “I feel good” by James Brown. When ‘Beat it’ by Michael Jackson began to play, Mr. Onosode took off his jacket, put on a hat, Michael Jackson style and did the moonwalk!
In 2014 when I told him I was running for President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, he said he had a story to tell me of his own foray into the murky waters of Nigerian politics. Nigerians, he said were not ready for a great leader because of a lack of commitment to probity and accountability. He told of how he had joined one of the parties in 1999 as a presidential aspirant. At some point, the party officials approached all the aspirants for a loan. When he asked for his money back at the time the loan was supposed to be paid back, they replied that they thought he understood that it was a donation to the party! It turned out that he was the only aspirant that granted the party the loan due to his naivety.
To him, things were just what they were – things. The story is told of how one of his daughters who was in her teens at the time was learning to drive. She crashed his car but when he heard, he was only concerned about the well-being of the child, not even bothering to ask about the state of the car. The girl had a surprise awaiting her from her mother who thought she needed to be punished nevertheless. She smacked her across the head and the girl in exasperation said, “Why are you beating me when you are not the owner of the car?”
He shared his philosophy about sharing with the banana analogy. He would say – ”Sharing is a gift which has nothing to do with quantity. If you cannot share a banana when you have it, you will never be able to share a bunch of bananas.” He was a helper, mentor, teacher and father to many, including the writer.
In a conversation with one of his sons on the day he passed, his first words to me were, “your mentor is gone.” I dare to call him not only mentor but friend also. I enjoyed visiting him and was very proud to host him for one week when he visited my family in Dallas, Texas. His older daughter and her family joined us from Houston, Texas. On one of our outings to the mall, I grabbed the opportunity to sit with him to get the one on one chance to ask him one hundred questions.
Amongst other things, I asked him what the secret of his success was and he told me exactly what my father had told me when I was 21—”Live within your means and invest the extra.” I was at 44 Adelabu Street the day he passed on. I saw two old men in their eighties, who had come to pay their respect. They could hardly walk themselves. One supported the other. That picture alone brought a tear to my eyes. In his classy manner, Mr. Gamaliel Oforitsenere Onosode makes death look so cool. “Daddy O,” as I fondly called him, “Adieu.”
Michael Ovienmhada is an author, inventor, politician and businessman.