Ninety-year-old Prof Olayinka Olatunji retired as a lecturer at the University of Lagos. In this interview with BOLA BAMIGBOLA, he spoke about his love for Physics and experience as a teacher from primary school level to the university
How does it feel to be 90 years of age?
First of all, I must say that I wasn’t expecting to live up to that because, in the last one and a half years or so, I used to pray to God to let me see the next day. I was not praying about seeing next week, or month because I was not sure that I would get there. To cut the story short, I did a series of medical tests and the results gave me the main reasons why I am celebrating my birthday even now, days after I clocked 90 years. I have been under medical examination for quite some time, for about five years after my wife passed on.
When were you born and how did you know your date of birth because the level of literacy must have been very low at the time of your birth?
I have a literate uncle who was my father’s elder brother. He was an old student of Wesley College, Ibadan; he had a record of our birth dates. My father is the late Phillip Olatunji. He was a trader and a farmer. He died when I was 14 years old and I was the eldest of his 13 children at that time. My mother is Victoria Idowu Olatunji from Ileobe Compound in Imesi-Ile and her story is an interesting one.
Can you share it?
Yes, her father died when she was just three years old, and the family had to borrow money for the funeral. She was mortgaged for the money spent on her father’s funeral. Back then, they had a system whereby you borrow money, and they will attach you to the person who lends you the money. You have to work for him/her for free. It is a system of slavery and she did that until she was about to get married because they couldn’t pay to secure her release. School was an uncommon commodity in those days. My uncle who registered my birth and one of his younger brothers were among the first to get educated in Imesi-Ile around 1900.
Growing up back then must have been fun, what childhood memories can you recollect?
Growing up for me was a fascinating experience because I had a lifelong friend in this town. We were friends for 71 years. He is Kumolu by name and engineer. He used to be a director in Shell Petroleum. During our school days, we were like David and Jonathan; he died just before his 83rd birthday. I still remember some of my childhood memories and I will tell you one. I started school in 1938 and at that time there was another schoolmate of ours from this town who was a few years older than me and he said something, which was a catch phrase for many of us in the town here. He said in Yoruba, ‘Jesu mu omo ijapa lara da’ (Jesus healed the child of a tortoise) and from that time on, we were calling him ‘Jesu mu omo ijapa lara da’. Where he got the information from, we could not say. He spent five years in the infant class without getting a promotion.
What are the schools you attended?
I didn’t go out of Imesi-Ile until I was 11 years old. I trekked to Osogbo to visit my uncle in 1944. My uncle was a photographer. During my last year in primary school, I attended Methodist Primary School, Imesi-Ile, where we had a teacher now of blessed memory, who was a top brand from Wesley College, Ibadan, which was the only well-known institution in those days. The man was preparing for his A’ levels, which was his London matriculation examination soon after leaving the college and he would come and read the essays that he had prepared for the London matriculation exam to us.
We were 10 pupils in that final year, one girl and nine boys, and he prepared us seriously for entry into grammar school. As of that time, if we heard the noise of a vehicle coming off the hills to Imesi-Ile, we already knew where it was coming from because only one person could do that in those days. We got information about the entrance examination to Government College the day the form closed. That was the end of that effort because none of us took the entrance examination to any secondary school. So I went out to teach as a pupil teacher in Esa-Oke.
In 1947, I was posted to a school called United Missionary School in Esa-Oke, and I was there for about 18 months till my father died. When my father died in June 1948, I came back to Imesi-Ile. All my life I have not done any other thing than teaching. I have a very pleasant memory as a teacher in primary and secondary schools and the university. In those days, we had a system where you get prepared as a pupil teacher for about four weeks. We learnt some of the nitty-gritty of school management, preparing lesson notes, and teaching in the class and our pay was £1 a month. After two years of exercise, I was admitted to Wesley College, Ibadan.
What year did you go to Wesley College?
I got admitted to Wesley College, Ibadan, in 1949, where I was for four years training as a teacher and when I finished that, I got posted to Oshodi Methodist School in 1953 and my experience at Oshodi was an interesting one. When my brothers and I got to Oshodi, I rented a bamboo house for seven shillings and sixpence a month. When I was there, I said that supposed this house got burnt, I would be dead. So, I wasn’t satisfied with that and I had to check out of the place after a few months. Later on, I went to a place called Brown Street, Mr Brown’s house was a popular place in Oshodi and I paid a rent of 12 shillings and six pence per month for the accommodation. I taught at Methodist Primary School, Oshodi, for some years. My headmaster’s name was Mr Kusemo. He always knotted ties to school and he had stories to tell because he never came punctually to school.
You said you lost your father while working as a pupil teacher, who financed your education at Wesley College, Ibadan?
You know I said I was earning a salary of £1 monthly as a pupil teacher. But in the second year, my salary was raised to £1 and five shillings. I was saving most of that with our local pastor in Imesi-Ile. Having worked for two years, I saved the sum of £18. The total fee for Wesley College, Ibadan, for four years, was £24 and I had saved £18 before my father died. When my father died, my uncle scouted around for the balance of the money, which was around £6. The policy of Wesley College in those days was that school fees must be paid fully before your name could be written in the register. Life in those days can never be replicated now. In Esa-Oke, where I got posted in 1947, a big wrap of pounded yam without soup cost one penny. Life was easy.
We were persuaded as teachers to start wearing shoes because we were not used to wearing shoes. We were used to walking bare-footed. I remember an incident that occurred on Empire Day in 1947 in Ijebu-Jesa. I was leading my class in the parade, dancing to the tune ‘Bi e baji lowuro, e gbo omo kekere, bi e ba fe sun lale o e ma gbagbe o,’ you have to march smartly because the beat was a Rumba. As soon as we began to march, one of my shoes came off on the parade ground. I was so ashamed that I picked up the size six shoes and left the parade. Wearing shoes was not common back then.
After leaving Methodist Primary School in Oshodi, where did you go to?
It was while in Oshodi that I met the Awojobi family. The late Prof Ayodele Awojobi was in Form 3 when I became close to the family. His senior brother used to attend evening classes at Kings College, Lagos, at the time. So, I used to get on my bicycle and attend classes too. One Mr Ajumogobia, who was the father of Justice Ajumogobia, was the Physics teacher at Kings College in 1953 and we used to enjoy his class. I insisted on learning Physics because I didn’t have a chance in secondary school to learn Physics. I was shuttling between Oshodi and Kings College once or twice a week. I would approach the old students who knew about Physics to help out with it. Then, one of the teachers at Methodist Boys High School, the late J. A. Odeyale, was one of my teachers at Wesley College. He used to coach me in Chemistry; he and Mr Ogundipe of Government College in Ibadan were among those I ran to for coaching. None of them refused to help me out.
In those days, since we paid so little for training at Wesley College in Ibadan, we were under a bond for two years for each year of training, which meant that if you were trained for four years, then you were under a bond for eight years. I passed my A’ level subjects in pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, and Geography in 1956. That qualified me to appear before an interview panel headed by Dr Adegbite of Baptist College. When I appeared before the interview panel, what Dr Adegbite said got me off the hook. He asked for how long I had been practicing as a teacher and I said five years; he said then I was no longer under any bond because I had served my bond. I said I was under eight years’ bond with Methodist and again he affirmed that I was no longer under any bond. That was how I got a Federal Government scholarship in 1956, which enabled me to attend University College in Ibadan in 1957. I remember one Prof Alexander, who told me that since I got three A-level subjects, I could have a degree in two years. I listened to him but I didn’t like the idea because I wanted to learn Physics, which I had not passed. I told him to take me through Physics since he was a professor of Physics and that was how I opted for Physics.
How was life for you as a university student?
In those days, the curriculum of the University College, Ibadan, was that of London and there was no option of you being referred. If you failed in one subject, then you failed in all and would have to repeat the entire year. In my first year, there was one Dr D. F. Ojo from Igbo-Ile Ekiti, who taught us a class that we called a preliminary class (100 level). Ojo would come into the class well-prepared and lecture us very well. He wasn’t bothered about whether we listened or not. We were just 56 in class. Something else that I can tell you is that we did a class test in Chemistry and one Prof Orebanjo, who was from the Ijebu area, came first while I came second. When I did the Physics test, I got 35 per cent. At that point, I knew that I was in for a serious job and that changed my mood and my mental set-up, and from that time on, I had a lot of struggles.
I came in 1959 when we had the first television station in Africa. I had my bicycle and I would go out on the bicycle around Bodija. I would ride for about 15 to 20 minutes and then come back to watch television for 15 minutes. I was doing that regularly. It never exceeded that stipulated time.
Why would you watch television for just 15 minutes daily?
I didn’t watch TV for more than 15 minutes because I wasn’t interested despite being told that television would make me see and hear the newscaster. My only worry then was Physics. Just three days ago, some of my colleagues at the University College, Ibadan, called to tell me that they heard about my 90th birthday. The likes of Prof Owolabi from Ado-Ekiti wrote; Prof Aladekomo wrote too to celebrate me; we were the constant patrons of the library back then in school. We read and read till we were shown the results and we rejoiced.
What grade did you make in university with the dedication you put into studying?
Some of my classmates then are Prof Owolabi and Prof Aladekomo. We were about five that made first-class or second-class upper credit. Two of us made first-class, while the remaining three made second-class upper credit. I was the only one who stayed back in Ibadan to do my post-graduate studies.
You took up a job in the University of Lagos after leaving University College, Ibadan. Can you describe the experience of working as a lecturer?
One thing I found as a lecturer and as a trained teacher is that there is no big deal about being a lecturer because a lecturer is a teacher and a teacher is a student of a sort. You are a lecturer because you are just a few years ahead of your students and then you are a student yourself. That’s the mode and then there is nothing that I have enjoyed more than teaching and that is the only thing that I have done in my life.
Did you set any targets for yourself after taking up the job as a lecturer? Did you target becoming a professor before reaching a certain age?
No, nobody could ever harbour such a dream. That he or she would become a professor at a certain age? It is impossible because it was a thing of chance. There were hard conditions. You would be thrown into the system and be left on your own once you settle on the academic career and these are some of the limitations. I paid a visit to a university in the United Kingdom sometime, and I saw that some of those Europeans got three PhDs. That is possible if you have the right environment that you need to work.
How and when did you meet your wife?
When I was 17, I wrote a letter to a girl in Imesi-Ile, saying that I was interested in her. She replied by cutting my letter and thereafter sent it back to me. So, from that time in 1951, I never told anyone that I was interested in her at all, until I met my wife, Julie Olabosipo, in 1966.
I was more than disappointed with what the lady did to me. I never spoke to any of them after that as I decided to face my studies. How I met my wife? In 1966, somebody organised a party in her uncle’s residence that is not too far away from here. Anytime I was coming from Lagos to Imesi-Ile, I would buy some chocolate; that was what did the trick. I had been given her chocolate before I approached her. Before I approached her, I had got my doctorate in 1965. We got married in 1967.
What attracted you to her?
If I were to give counsel now, there is a saying that if you are unequally yoked with your partner, you are in for trouble. So, marry somebody who is of the same mental orientation as you. That is the counsel I would give anyone that wants to get married. An incident happened between my house help that will make you see the disparity in thinking. I don’t see how marriage can succeed in that environment with disparity in thinking. There was a day I was hurrying to go to church and she looked at me and said I should pay attention to my nails. She decorated her nails as the aide of the Baba Ijo. You can see the disparity there. You did ask what attracted me to my wife; yes that thing was the mental outlook. She had graduated from school as of that time and she also got a scholarship from a Methodist institution. She was an old girl of the Anglican Secondary School in Ilesa and that was what attracted me. In retrospect now, I could see that we got along so well. We were married for 50 years; we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary at the chapel of the University of Lagos without any hassle.
How was it like raising children with your wife?
I had four children one of whom is now late and incidentally the most brilliant of them. He attended the University of Lagos International School where he was taught all sorts of things and given good mental orientation. He got an appointment in one of these finance companies. He liked jogging, so he went jogging in Lagos and was knocked down by a vehicle. He was taken to a hospital where a doctor who examined him wrote an X-ray in the morning, while he was bleeding internally. Unfortunately, he passed on before daybreak. I wrote to the Chairman of the House Committee on Health in the House of Representatives protesting the action of the said doctor. That was how my first son died. Before that accident, he was reading online and he got a scholarship to Harvard School for a master’s degree. My other children are still around.
What was your relationship with the people in your hometown like back then, being an educated person during a period when many people were illiterate?
I got integrated into society easily, having been very much like them. In the last 16 years, I have been the Baba Ijo of the Methodist Church here in my hometown. Because I am one of a crowd, I didn’t want them to treat me specially, so. I interacted with them freely. I was a member of the Imesi Ile Progressive Association. Some people have kept all the service records I got from the association. I never missed any of their meetings in about 30 years, coming from Lagos and other places. That was why I was honoured. I was also the chairman of the association. For those who do not know the value of it, I have kept all those records.
How did you cope as a young, brilliant lecturer in the University of Lagos back then? Were there instances of sexual harassment from female students and female staff members?
In my on time, cases of sexual harassment did not happen at all. People were going about their businesses. I will give you an illustration; Mr (Festus) Okotie-Eboh was the Minister of Finance in 1957 or so under (Chief Obafemi) Awolowo and all we could say about him was that whenever he wore a suit anywhere, it always had a tail of about 10/15 feet long dragging behind. Life was so simple then; we didn’t have any hassles such as a father impregnating his daughter. All these things we hear on the radio these days never happened at all. Let me tell you, here in Imesi, if anyone steals anything, masqueraders would go out of town and compose music and sing your name around, you would never forget in your lifetime. The quality of life was so different back then. I used to boast to people that in my father’s town, there was no unemployment, everybody had a job to do; we all went to the farm and we had more than enough to do.
Did you and your wife influence the career paths of your children?
There was a limit to what we could do as parents, because jobs were not just there and we let them go scout around for whatever was available. I told you my first son, who was very brilliant, got a job with a finance company in Lagos. I have forgotten its name. My son, who kept renovating this building over and over, is a banker. I dedicated this building in the year 2001. He kept renovating it over and over again. He got a banking job. From one bank to another and now, he is a director of his bank for West Africa. The senior sister is an assistant general manager in a bank in Lagos. So, they are on their own.
How does it feel to lose your wife? Do you miss her?
Oh yes, I miss her a lot. I told you the other time that an unequally yoked couple may find it difficult to live happily together. The only thing that used to cause quarrels between us was whenever we came home from Lagos and I could not immediately find the keys to the house here in Imesi-Ile, she would grumble a little. We got on so well. I miss her a lot.
What is your favourite food?
You remind me of how I used to boast to my wife that there was no food under the sky that I could not eat. In truth, I have yet to come across it; there is no food anywhere that I cannot eat so long it is food. I must confess about pounded yam. Pounded yam used to be first in my family set up.
What do you do to pass time now?
In my pastime, I play pipe organ. I was the organist of my college in 1951 and 1952. I left the college in 1952 and from that time I was an organist in so many places in Oshodi, at University College, Igbobi College, and so on. At the University of Lagos, I was an organist and choirmaster for 32 years.
With that love for music, what made you not consider a career in music instead of Physics?
No, no don’t touch Physics. Physics is everything for me.
What influences that love for physics?
We didn’t study Physics at Wesley College. Our principal was a Welsh man, who put Mathematics on our timetable in the afternoon. He did that just to tell us that Mathematics was not important. My interest in Physics became strong when I had the opportunity to study it better after leaving Wesley College.
What would you say is the secret of your longevity?
Two things; the genes of your family are basic. My mother died at the age of 102. So, I have some of her traits and I believe that some of the traits will lead me to a longer life.
It is the belief of some people in the present generation that many of the pre-and post-independence scholars used memory-enhancing charm that Yoruba people call ‘ogun isoye’ to enhance their abilities. How true is that notion and did you use ‘ogun isoye’ while growing up?
There’s no such thing; nothing can be farther from the truth. So there was no juju for ‘isoye’ for me. All those concoctions forget them and use your God-given talent and sweat it out; that is all.
What is your advice to people on how to live long and happily?
Avoid two things that used to tempt people – money and women. If you can avoid things like that, then eat well.
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