Remembering Thomas Adeoye Lambo and the mysteries of the African Mind

Remembering Thomas Adeoye Lambo and the mysteries of the African Mind

Tuesday, January 9, 2018 11:05 pm

Dr Thomas Adeoye Lambo. Getty Images

Femi Olugbile

By Femi Olugbile

It is fourteen years – almost, since the great Thomas Adeoye Lambo died. He was a very imposing man. Nobody could meet him without coming away with a powerful impression of being in the penumbra of a force-field that radiated power and presence.

Some people, and these were the majority, liked and admired him, and wanted always to be near him to catch his radiation as it diffused into the atmosphere. Some people, in the end a tiny minority, did not care for him. They were mostly people who held some of the more colourful events of his past, especially his tenure as Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, against him. The most significant of those events was the death of a student named Kunle Adepeju. Whatever might have been the details of that unfortunate happening, it led to students fighting police on the rugged and undulating streets of Ibadan, and left a scar on the souls of some people. It led to the declaration by the Students Union of a day of the year as ‘Kunle Adepeju day’, to be marked by students in succeeding generations. Several years after, when Lambo had since gone on from University of Ibadan to higher things, the anniversary became a lightning rod for whatever grievances against government or University authorities existed that day. Students would gather for noisy commemorative events that lasted all day long, glad – if the truth be told – not to be going to lectures for the day. They would listen to fiery speakers such as Comrade Ola Oni denouncing the government, whoever that was, and proclaiming that students were the authors and defenders of ‘Democracy’, whatever that was. Sometimes matters got heated, there was violence, and the University was forced to close and send the students home.

Lambo’s attitude to the whole drama was to dismiss it as a rather unfortunate little thing that became a big thing. He did not fault any of the actions he took. By implication, though you never heard him put it quite like that, he did not believe he deserved the implied opprobrium of succeeding generations of students celebrating the sad fallout of an unhappy day.

The true Lambo, the one the world remembers, was the intellectual giant who introduced to the world some of the complications and peculiarities of the African mind. In so doing, he both demystified and particularised the African mental experience. The removal of mystery was necessary because up till the point of his emergence, virtually all the descriptions of the African mind had come from Euro-American psychiatrists like Carothers and Carl Gustav Jung who spent brief periods in Africa, and made assumptions and extrapolations based on anthropological theories of dubious veracity but great attractiveness to people of a colonial mind-set. The ‘particularisation’ prised the perception of the mind from the other extreme pole of the argument – the one that articulated – without a need to present the slightest shred of evidence, the ‘liberal’ notion that ‘we are all the same – really’.

The Lambo descriptions to the scientific world of the paranoid explanatory reactions common in Yoruba culture, the tendency to project rather than to ‘introject’, basically told the world that the Yoruba mind was ‘not better or worse, just different’, and opened up new possibilities for understanding the African mind.

At a physical level, he introduced the Aro Village concept to the world. Aro, even today, is a sleepy little village on the outskirts of Abeokuta. Within the circles of world Psychiatry, Aro has more name recognition than Lagos, or Ibadan, or Abuja. Aro’s place on the world Mental Health map was entirely due to Thomas Adeoye Lambo. It was substantially a case of turning necessity into invention. When Adeoye came back from his studies in the United Kingdom to assume the mantle of clinical leadership in a fledgling Aro Psychiatric Hospital, the buildings that were to be used as wards for the patients were yet to be completed. He was an impatient man, raring to go. As the son of the Iya L’oja of Egbaland, he was deeply entrenched in the lore of the land and knew his way around. It was not too difficult for him to persuade the people of Aro Village nearby that they would be doing a good thing if they allowed mentally ill persons and their relatives, who often had travelled long distances to seek care in the hospital to live in their midst for the duration of treatment. The whole panoply of doctors and nurses would be close by to administer treatment and monitor the patients’ progress. Since most of the patients came from such a rural environment, the fact of getting treatment in an ambience close to what they were familiar with would make them get better faster – perhaps?

It was a bold innovation, and it caught the imagination of the world. Even after the hospital wards were completed and the hospital commenced full operations as a ‘traditional’ Psychiatric hospital, the Aro Village project continued to flourish. It had acquired a life of its own.

Lambo was an incredibly bold man. He made the boldness work for him, despite the alarm it often engendered in other people. One example would suffice. A scant two years after Nigeria’s independence, he decided that he was going to organise a Pan-African Psychiatric Conference, and bring the cream of Psychiatrists and other Mental Health experts from all over the world to Abeokuta. This was in an era where most of the intellectual world did not know where Nigeria was on the map, not to talk of Abeokuta. Abeokuta was a town steeped in rich history, ruled over by the Alake. It had not one decent room of hotel accommodation. There were no conference facilities anywhere in the city. Talking of bringing powerful, intellectually daunting figures like Sir Peter Brain and Sir Aubrey Lewis to Abeokuta was not only a daunting prospect. It was – sorry to say – a mad idea!

Several years later, after the death of the man, you would sit with ‘Mama’ – Mrs Diane Lambo, as she recounted those days, and you could feel yourself into the drama of the occasion. Her eyes still rolled with the wonder of it all.

‘I said – Thomas, its not possible… He said “I will do it myself if you will not join me” And I knew that he would…’

She knew the fearsome reputation of the eminent citizens of her husband’s profession. They were people who cut grown men down to size with one look, one word. They had their oddities. Sir Brain, the world’s last word on the Neurology of the brain, had a life-sized statue of himself sitting prominently before him in his office.

‘I just couldn’t understand how a man could stand staring at himself every day…’ Mrs Lambo would say, the wonder not gone from her voice even after half a century.

Together they went on to host a conference that was hugely successful and became the gold-standard for international conferences in the country. Conference delegates were accommodated by the eminent citizens of Egbaland in their homes in Abeokuta, or they slept in the newly completed, yet to be occupied wards of Aro. Food was cooked by Mrs Lambo, assisted by a retinue of ‘expat’ wives, and a lady from the Alake’s family who had just returned from the UK with training in Catering.

The visitors met the Federal Minister for Health, and were bussed to an audience with the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

By the time the conference closed, the name of Thomas Adeoye Lambo was in the Psychiatry firmament. He was, remember, a young man, not quite forty.

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