As a young woman, Ajesola Solarin looked up to the very few female Nigerian physicians such as Professor Oyin Elebute and Dr. Adesola Sylva as role models which she wanted to be like.
This was before she married a dashing young soldier, Dr Majekodumi, and went on to become one of Nigeria’s first female ophthalmologists and glaucoma specialists.
After a most distinguished career, Professor Solarin Majekodumi had, at the onset of her twilight years, founded the Ajesola Solarin Majekodumi Foundation, ASMAF, a body that charges itself with the responsibility of awarding scholarships to deserving but indigent female students in professional fields.
As the multiple award winning academic clocks 80, she looks back at decades past with Morenike Taire. Excerpts:-
You are going to be 80 in a few days. How do you feel? You look very well, you have all your faculties about you.
I feel good. Age is a matter of number. We thank God. Longevity is genetically determined. My mother was 94, my father was 85, I have an uncle who is 99, another uncle who is 90 so on my mother’s side we tend to live long but apart from that you must keep yourself active everytime and you watch what you eat and you don’t take too much rest. I check my blood pressure, kidney function. In other words every two years I go for full medical check up.
This is 2019. Can you draw comparisons or contrasts as the case may be between the society now and then.
When I was young things were much much better. There was a lot of sanity. If we say the population was not as large but then there was more discipline. The quest for money, money wasn’t there. At that time we
How did you meet your husband and how did he cope with having a wife as ambitious as you?
Thank God I didn’t any of my classmates. I married a young doctor who had just graduated and was back from Glasgow and he was in the army. We met but I did not see him at the party where he said we met. Eventually we met. We’ve been married for 50 years and we have all boys. Like all marriages there have been ups and downs but we’ve been able to get on. 50 years is no joke. He calls me dearest wife and I call him dearest husband. And luckily for us the children have done very well. We have four grandchildren. The last grandchild came in this month and I see that as my 80th birthday present- a girl.
He said he saw you at a party…
Actually when he saw me hedidn’t know I was a doctor he thought I was an air hostess because it was an air hostess that was having the party. After some time I had to go because I was on call so he thought I was flying out. Later he came to see one of his friends at LUTH and he saw my car and said this stewardess is here. His friend said who is air hostess? That is Dr Solarin. He came and I was at the ward. He told them that he would come again. He came again and said, yes, you are the one I met at the party. I said which time? I can’t remember your face. He said he was there.
When I saw that he was showing some interest I said, sit down. Tell me all about yourself and he was so shocked because he had never seen any girl so bold. I said these people who have trained abroad and are just coming back, who knows. He told me all about himself and I thought this must be a sincere person. That’s how we started. We thank God.
You were a young girl in a completely male dominated field. Was it your plan or was it something that just happened?
Well, I would say it depends on how one was brought up. I was brought up by parents who felt that what a man can do, a woman can do better. Maybe because they didn’t have a son. They had four girls so they concentrated on making sure that those girls had the best. And when I say they concentrated it’s not only school fees. My mother was the headmistress of a school. She ensured that homework was done properly. My father was an administrator. Could you believe that at that time my father would ask us to to go and sleep when we came back from school and wake us up at 10 o’clock to read. Sometimes we would read till 4 and then we would go back to sleep. They were so involved, so caring.
My primary education was in a boarding school run by missionaries- Methodist Girls of Shagamu and my secondary education was in an all girls’ school, Methodist Girls in Yaba, Lagos.
By the time I left secondary school no man could cheat me because I knew I was going to read Medicine and I knew that I had the flair for that. I knew that in that field there were very few women so why should I not be one of them? The root was planted by my parents.
I read somewhere that you learnt how to deal with men from your interactions being in a class of boys.
That was when I was in the Medical school. When we started we were two girls but the other girl, a Pakistani, dropped out. She said it was too much for her. I made sure I got the best out of it. We were always in groups for the sessions I said to myself, you are going to be with these people for the next five years so behave like them. We got on so well. Anytime any of them wanted to show any unnecessary interest I said, don’t worry, you have 27 more to compete with and we would laugh over it. And they were all good boys. When I look back I thank God because that prepared me for the future.
When I started having children I had all boys so I knew how to cope with them. I know the tricks of boys.
Your parents seem very enlightened for their time. Did that make a difference?
Of course it did! When I was going to boarding house in primary school it was very rare in those days but my mother said if I continued staying in the mixed public school my grandmother- with me being the first grandchild- was likely to be over pampered. Apart from that the boarding schools had missionaries as principal and teachers. Then it was Nigeria and the Cameroons. After some time, I loved it.
The missionaries then took very good decisions about the children; we were not too many in the class so they could monitor each child and see their potential.
That is why I went to secondary school from standard 4. I don’t think teachers would have that time now. When I got to Methodist Girls High School I was the youngest in my class but it didn’t bother me.
Before I went to boarding primary school there was a lady who was organizing nursery and I went, so I think that was a good advantage for me. I had the option of going to Remo Secondary School but my father said no.
Medicine on its own is a long training, then you went ahead to specialize. How did you cope especially at that time when the normal thing was to go and get married?
Determination and support. I had already made up my mind I was going to read Medicine so in my class at that time there were four of us who wanted to read Medicine. Eventually, I was the only one.
The first obstacle I had was that then, at Methodist Girls, the only science subject we did was Biology and I needed Physics and Chemistry but luckily for me the Federal Government started this prelim science for girls at Enugu so I had to go there. Then I did my A-levels and from there I was ready to come to Lagos to the new Medical School starting here. Having overcome that, the sky was the limit.
Any role models?
I had some ladies whom I looked up to at the time because when you see them at the hospital you would want to be one of them. They were very few. When I see someone like Professor Oyin Elebute I would think, if she can do it, why can’t I? People like late Adesola Sylva who was my mentor. When you saw her at the General Hospital, Lagos, and Irene Thomas, you would want to be like all of them.
I was on Federal Government scholarship so after reading Medicine I had to specialize. I even wanted to go into academics like Elebute. I first of all thought about dermatology but my late boss Professor Akin Adesola, the surgeon, said, you are too restless for that. Your patients will be coming, you will be treating them with gentian violet and all that. I see you as somebody who wants to put your hand on something so why don’t you go for ophthalmology?
When I got to the UK, Institute of Ophthalmology my husband was also doing his postgraduate so I used to look in the mirror and say, these two eyes that we are having so many lectures about, there must be something more to it.
I found that there is even super-specialist in Ophthalmology so my boss Alan Friedman was interested in glaucoma and I said I would join him. Here we are.
You spoke about the brain drain phenomenon. Did you ever take part in that?
I got an offer to go and work in Saudi Arabia and I was very excited about it because it was a lot of dollars so I went to my father- he was my adviser- and I said I brought you good news and showed him the letter. By that time I already had my chair. He looked at me and shook his head and I said, no, don’t tell me not to go and he said, that is exactly what I wanted to tell you- don’t go. When you go to Saudi Arabia and make all the money, where are you going to keep your children? You know your husband is in the army. He said boys are not the same as girls, that when they bend they cannot be returned.
I said that my mother is available, she will look after the boys and my father said that my mother is now a grandmother.
I wept. He said if you go and you make all the money and you come back and one of the boys has bent you will spend that money trying to put him back. I thank God that I did not go because one of my boys would not have gone to university. I found he was going into pranks so I quickly corrected it.
Are you planning to slow down now you are 80?
If it’s slowing down in medical practice, yes. In fact now I don’t go as often as I wish to go. Luckily, my first son is an ophthalmologist too and I have a nephew who is also an ophthalmologist so the two of them arrange things. I will be bored.
10 years ago I started a foundation for the empowerment of women through education. God chose the board of trustees for me because they have been wonderful. Amongst us we have been using all our resources to fund this foundation.
These days there is a lot of concern that girls are receiving all the attention, training and assistance and they now have an advantage over boys.
I do not believe that. Who really is the backbone of the family? In developing countries including Nigeria, many of them are also breadwinners. I know of some families where the husband will say I have paid your school fees so your mother can do the rest. There are too many women who cannot even vote if their husband said no. If he says, if you go and vote don’t come back to my house, where will she go to?
How many women are in politics? Not that they don’t want to be but they can’t afford it. If we train them and they have economic independence, it goes a long way to developing the children because even if the father gives what he has a woman who is economically viable can support. I once had a patient who said that he can never forget the mother because when he was taking JAMB in those days the father said, I don’t have the money, the money I have, my other wife’s father died and we are going to have the funeral. The mother had to sell her gold for the patient to go to university and he did well- he is successful. Can you imagine if the mother hadn’t got the little gold.
And the quality of the child that is trained by an educated, economically viable mother is different.
Talking about ASMAF, what role would you like the Foundation to play and where would you like to see it in the future to come?
I want to see ASMAF as a foundation that will outlive me and when I have gone it will still be that foundation set up by Professor Majekodumi for empowerment of women, for putting smiles on the faces of young girls who would have been wasted away. That is what I want.