The Great Lessons Life Has Taught Me At 59

The Great Lessons Life Has Taught Me At 59

Saturday, June 1, 2019 1:30 pm

Dele Momodu


By Dele Momodu

Fellow Nigerians, every now and then, I meet, or receive messages, from young Nigerians, in particular, and other Africans, in general, asking me to tell them the secrets of success. I often tell them there are no fast rules to being successful.

Of course, the first thing is that success can be both objective and subjective. On an objective basis, your success is measured against certain standards and yardsticks by others observing you. However, on a subjective basis, you set the standards by which you measure success, so that it is possible for you to feel that you have succeeded in life even though others are not of the same view. Conversely, you may consider yourself unsuccessful based on the parameters that you have set, but others may consider that you have done well. Ultimately, however, I believe that you alone are the one most capable of deciding how successful you have been, because it is your life that is being considered and what you cherish and aspire too may be very different from what others believe are important.

Most times, successes are tailor-made for every individual. At 59, I have had enough time, and opportunities, to appraise my life, study my trajectory, and arrive at reasonable conclusions about certain principles that have helped guide my life. It is my firm belief, and without wishing to sound immodest, that whether on an objective or subjective basis, I can consider myself lucky to say that I have been fairly successful in life.

There is what is called accident of birth which imparts success on people by the mere good fortune of their birth to a successful person. There are not too many people in this category though. I doubt if any of us chose where, when and to whom we must be born. Many of us would have chosen first world countries, wealthy families, and so on. I found myself in simple and ordinary home in Ile-Ife. My parents were not rich, but they worked very hard to eke out their living.

The first thing I noticed about my parents, when I became fully aware of my environment, was their abilities to pray more than praying mantis. They went to church too frequently to the extent that I was sure that they must have struck a deep chord with their creator. I was brought up in the Aladura Church, an African variant of Christianity that thrived, and still thrives, on devout spirituality. There were prophesies foretold about my life that I still remember, very vividly, till this day mainly because many of them have been pinpoint accurate and true to the letter. My thesis is that to be successful, no matter your faith or religion, you must hold on steadfastly to your beliefs. Even atheists believe in the power of their brains, and for me that’s their own God.

The next important lesson for me was the power of education. My parents were anxious to send me to school even at a time my right fingers could not yet bend over my head and touch my left ear, which was how they measured whether you were matured enough, or not, to start school, in those days. I failed this traditional, but unscientific test of determining school age at a particular school, but another headmaster, Mr Isaac Olagbaju, who owned Olusanu Bookshop, next to our shop at Atiba Square, in Ile-Ife, gave me an early start in life, by admitting me to the Local Authority Primary School, on Ifewara Road. I was not only an average student, I was also quite playful, a combination which did not augur well for anyone who aims to be successful. Sometimes, I caused panic for my parents, as I wandered away exploring the art and culture of Ile-Ife, and they had to search for my whereabouts. Mercifully, there were no kidnappers in those days, at least not the terrifying kind that now assail our societies and make us quake in our boots. I wonder where innocent youth went when I consider the perilous times our children live in nowadays. Back to pleasant times past, I was usually hypnotised by those free American cowboy films shown on the Palace fields at Enuwa Square, got lost in daydreaming I was the Cisco Kid, and had to be located by my worried Mum and dragged home by the scruff of my neck.

Education was highly competitive in those days. What is known as long-legs (using privileged positions to curry favours) was not yet in vogue. I had wanted to go to some of the best and famous schools then, such as Government College Ibadan, Christ School Ado-Ekiti, Loyola College Ibadan, and others, but I was not that strong academically. I ended up at Inisa Grammar School (at the instance of my Aunt and her husband, the Adeyanjus), now in Osun State but found the atmosphere too tough. I ran back to Ife every weekend which alarmed my parents who decided to bring me back home within one month. At that young age, my spirit of adventure had started to germinate. I was not afraid to jump on a lorry and travel home unaided. Getting back to Ife presented its own challenges. I could not get admitted to any school at that time of the year, since admissions had closed. Fortunately, one private proprietor, Papa Ogunfidodo, who owned Oluorogbo High School, Ile-Ife, agreed to take me in, and I spent my first year of relative academic peace in that school.

By my second year, I got admitted to the best school in Ile-Ife, St. Johns Grammar School, Oke-Atan, a Catholic mission secondary school, headed at the time, by a Canadian Principal, Reverend Father F. Cloutier. He was a strict disciplinarian, who knew practically every student by face and name, as well as our parents. I believe my life, education and circumstances improved tremendously at this stage.

My interest in Literature was aroused and ignited by our foreign teacher Mrs H. Sutton, who forced us to read voraciously and widely. I was particularly in love with African writers. A favourite novel, Weep Not, Child, by the Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, touched me to my bones. There was a particular passage I committed to memory like my Psalms, so much so that I recited and regurgitated it regularly. I took on the role of a character in the book, Njoroge, who knew the importance of education: “He knew that for him education would be the fulfilment of a wider and more significant vision – a vision that embraced the demand made on him, not only by his father, but also his mother, his brothers, and even the village. He saw himself destined for something big, and this made his heart glow…” This became my mantra.

Trust me, the future of any nation, or people is rooted in education, qualitative education. There is no powerful country in the world today that undervalues education. All the great advances, and accomplishments, in the world today, came, largely, through education. The technological age that we have now embraced is as a result of expansive and unfettered recourse to education. Indeed, education is a leveller. It levels the playing field. The son of the rich man can consort with the daughter of the pauper in the education space without any quarter being given. It takes you to places you never imagined or dreamt of.

And so, I struggled and soldiered on, all the way to the final year in 1976, but, the sad news, I flunked most of my important subjects and ended up with a poor Grade III, in the WAEC examination. But my poor unlettered Mum did not give up on me. I forgot to tell you that meanwhile, my Dad had died on June 14, 1973, while I was barely 13, and my Mum had to provide everything from her petty trading. My God, it was not easy. Death can ruin Empires, not to talk of poor families like mine. We had to give up our rented home in Moere quarters of Ife, and moved in with our cousins, the Oyemades, in Modakeke, who were extremely kind, gracious and generous with their love. We are eternally grateful.

My education could have suffered terminally, but for the intervention of my Sister, Feyisara, and her husband, Pa Adeniran (aka Baba BK, he taught Bible Knowledge), who took me in and rekindled my interest in education. I repeated my WAEC examination in 1977, but again, there was a problem. That was the year Nigeria witnessed the first monumental leakage of exam papers and many results were withheld for further scrutiny, mine inclusive, regardless of the fact that I was totally innocent. My Mum insisted I must register a third time, but fortunately my earlier results were released, while I sat for only English Language and English Literature, in 1978. And all my necessary credits were secured. Within that period, I couldn’t afford to stay idle, and I tried this and that, including being an errand boy at CSS Bookshop, village teacher, and Library attendant at University of Ife (now Hezekiah Oluwasanmi Library) where I served under some of the greatest Librarians in Nigeria, Mr Jonathan Olusesan Dipeolu, Mr Dickson Oporopo Agidee, Prince Adedeji Adelabu and Mrs Omolara Ojo-Ade.

My next challenge was how to get admission to the university. I sat for JAMB, we were the first set of JAMBITES in 1978, I was admitted to study Yoruba, at the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, Africa’s most beautiful campus. We were fortunate to have some of the greatest African literary scholars in our university at the time. They included Wole Soyinka, Kole Omotoso, Okot p’Bitek from Uganda, David Rubadiri from Malawi, Ogunwande Abimbola, Oyin Ogunba, Olasope Oyelaran, Akinwumi Isola, Karin Judith “Ajike” Barber, CBE, who though British remains an authority on Yoruba Studies, and many others. Unife, or Great Ife, whichever you preferred to call it, was a beehive of academic activities. Unife kept us busy and versatile as I took elective courses in philosophy, religious studies, Literature-in-English, Music, and other subjects.

I graduated in 1982 with a Bachelor’s Degree, Second Class Lower Division, but I was ready to conquer the world with the robust knowledge acquired at Unife. I must note, and reiterate, that studying Yoruba in school was not considered voguish or promising. I was easily dismissed as a non-starter, dullard and never-to-do-well. Even my Mum was visibly worried when she heard of a full-grown man who had journeyed all the way to university to study Yoruba. She would ask rhetorically if I was such a nitwit that the only remaining subject for me to study was Yoruba. And she often wondered aloud as to what future awaited me, if not to become the oracle-man or herbalist, particularly as we lived in Ile-Ife, the home of 401 deities. I tried hard to disabuse her mind, but I am not sure that I succeeded for a long time.

National Service was another matter entirely. I was initially posted to Bauchi State, where I was promptly and politely told there would be nothing for me to do after the camp. I took my fate with equanimity and returned to Oyo State where I reported to the NYSC Secretariat and was reposted to the Oyo State College of Arts & Science, Ile-Ife, where I taught A-level Yoruba and English Literature. At this stage, my confidence level had increased. I started taking part in politics, under the tutelage of Professor Sola Ehindero, Professor Babalola Borishade and Professor Femi Fajewonyomi (the troika). I tried to earn extra income by translating campaign leaflets into Yoruba. I began to meet, mix and mingle with some important personalities in the political landscape of Nigeria, from age 22, in 1982, and the experience would serve me for a lifetime.

I will stop here today, but you can clearly see from the foregoing that education was the bedrock on which I had built my future. This is the biggest lesson Nigerian leaders need to learn, very fast, and urgently. Not only must they educate our youths, they too must regularly seek to further educate themselves and catch up with modern trends.

Education will always be the future!

The Great Lessons Life Has Taught Me At 59 (11)

Fellow Nigerians, last week, I wrote copiously about the importance of education in my life, and how it turned things around for me. This week, I will write about the importance of goodwill in a man’s life. You can go to the best schools, bag all the top and esoteric degrees available, but if your human/public relations is hopeless, you are likely to end up a useless human being, even if you attain a little measure of success. The ability to make friends, retain friendship and maintain excellent relationships, will ultimately help you beyond your dreams. I read a lot of books as a young man, spanning psychology, sociology, philosophy, biographies, religion, world literatures, history, and so on, and I discovered the meaning and power of personality, charisma, presence and aura. Your presence alone can attract favours to you, based on your carriage, appearance, comportment, choice of words, and general demeanour. Conversely, the same presence can make you a source of ill-will, hatred and opprobrium if not properly managed.

One of the biggest assets I believe God has richly endowed me with is the ability to make friends at first contact and keep them for as long as it takes and even for a lifetime. Let me put it another way. I had an uncommon talent to meet older people and feel instantly comfortable in their midst and they in turn begin to relate to me like we are peers and trusting that I will try my best to respect, support and protect them. Even in very rare cases that we had misunderstandings and we almost fell out totally, we always came back closer and stronger. They have come to understand, appreciate and accept my worldview and independent opinions on issues, without fear or favour, and vice versa. Now that I am older, I find that I have a similar kind of attraction for the younger folk. I do not discriminate or treat them condescendingly on account of their youth. I remember life’s lessons and kindness to me and the opportunities I have been afforded as a result.

I discovered this gift very early in life. As young as I was when I started school in 1966, at the age of six, I was very close to my Headmaster who sometimes offered me a ride on his motorbike, a Lambretta, which in those days was like driving a car. Chief Isaac Olagbaju, as he later became known, must have imbued me with so much confidence because there was never a time that I felt timid or intimidated by anyone thereafter. I just flowed freely along my own path basking in the awesome relationships that I garnered and engendered along the way. I enjoyed some informal intimacy with my teachers and later my own students as well. I realised that more knowledge was imparted both ways when such interaction exists. In 1982, at the age of 22, I had become a graduate and taught A-level students for the next one year at what was then known as the Oyo State College of Arts and Science. My students loved me to bits because of my unique style of getting them fully relaxed and we established a bond of a lifetime since then.

From that young age, I had access to much older mentors who discussed very freely with me on virtually every subject. I was blessed with the distinguished company of Chief Oyeladun Oyemade, Chief Abiola Ijiwoye, Professor Wande Abimbola, Professor Akinwumi Isola (he supervised my B.A dissertation), Chief Orayemi Orafidiyan Chief Funmilola Olorunnisola, Chief Olaniyan Alawode, Professor Adeniji Adaralegbe, Chief Akin Omoboriowo, Lt. General Alani Akinrinade (his country home in Yakooyo was home to many youths who aspired to greatness) and several others. The foundation for today was laid about that time, many decades ago. It was never fortuitous. It came from meeting and seizing opportunities, momentarily. You had to be sharp and eagle-eyed. Big men have no time for frivolities.

They have the capacity to scan you and analyse you in a jiffy. Once you pass that first test, the litmus or acid test as it is sometimes called, you are on your way to becoming somebody from nobody.

I later worked for His Imperial Majesty, Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II, in 1996, and it afforded me the opportunity to understand the awesomeness of networking. Wow, Oba Sijuwade was one of the greatest networkers that ever lived!

Now, please listen to this tale very carefully. Ooni Sijuwade had the talismanic ability to be friends with sworn political enemies in equal measure. He was able to discern what most of our younger politicians fail to realise – that politics is not mortal combat and that at the end of the day, in politics you can never have permanent friends or foes, but permanent interests. Just imagine a man who was friends of Chief Obafemi Awolowo and President Shehu Shagari, two arch-rivals and proudly decorated his palaces with their portraits. Every time I visited the powerful Yoruba King, I marvelled at his wealth of friends across political divides and the deep affection and camaraderie they shared. He was a super charmer and everyone crowded around him, in hate or in love. Ooni Sijuwade was a thoroughbred royal with an inimitable style that is difficult to replicate.

It was while I was with Oba Sijuwade that I met an exceptionally brilliant journalist, Onukaba Adinoyi-Ojo, of blessed memory, who would later drag me to a life I never planned or envisaged in Lagos. My dream was to be a teacher, probably marry a teacher and father and foster teachers, and live happily thereafter. For us, in those good old days, teachers were like demigods, viewed with awe and treated with fear and trepidation. That’s another story entirely.

From my stint working for Oba Sijuwade, I returned to the University of Ife for my Master’s degree in Literature-in-English. Even that was a tough call. I had applied to study Law, in atonement for my Mum’s disappointment in my studying Yoruba in the first instance but the Faculty of Law rejected me. My Mum wept bitterly wondering if I was a victim of African jazz or witchcraft. Little did I know God’s plans for me. I had to meander through that bitch of a life to arrive at my glorious destination. The University’s Faculty of Arts also initially rejected my application on the pretext that it had never admitted someone who had read Yoruba as a first degree for a Master’s in Literature-in-English despite the fact that I had taking courses in Literature till the third year during my Bachelor’s degree. It took the intervention of Professor Adaralegbe who told them there is always a first time in everything and advised them to make me do pre-requisite courses at undergraduate level alongside my Master’s, if need be. It was totally unheard of, but the Faculty eventually buckled under immense pressure. I agree to the tedious terms. I was a trail-blazer and that has been the story of my life, because that is God’s will.

Again, I was fortunate to have some of the most liberal teachers in Literature and I was particularly close to Dr Biodun Jeyifo, one of the most brilliant human beings I have ever encountered. I sauntered in and out of his campus home like I was the landlord. I was also inspired to know a famous African novelist, living nearby on Road 20, Dr Kole Omotoso, whose house was a rendezvous for lovers of creative writing. Dr Ropo Sekoni was the best supervisor I could ever have. Dr Chidi Amuta, Dr Adebayo Williams and Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi were already contributing masterpieces to newspapers and magazines. I was inspired by the writings of Dele Giwa, who grew up in the same Atiba quarters of Ile-Ife like me, and my childhood friend, Dele Olojede, who lived in Modakeke. Unknown to me, I was born to write but this did not occur to me until I was hit by joblessness and the penury that is associated with it.

It took my best friend, Prince Adedamola Aderemi, to open my eyes to the possibility of writing and contributing to newspapers. Even then, I was still lukewarm in attitude and quite reluctant to follow that trajectory. We decided to explore job placements at publishing houses like Evans and Heinemann Books but arrived at a dead end along that route too. Eventually, I started making contributions to The African Guardian magazine, and co-authored an essay on the Olojo Festival of Ile-Ife with Kwesi Sampson. It was submitted by Onukaba, now of blessed memory. Dr Yemi Ogunbiyi helped to take one of my articles to the op-ed page of The Guardian newspaper itself. However, my first article was sent directly to the famous Odia Ofeimun in reaction to his controversial article on the decision of Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o to stop writing in English. Seeing my byline in The Guardian was like walking on the moon. I also wrote for The Sunday Tribune and the wonderful Editor, Mr Folu Olamiti, remains my big Brother till this day. The Guardian paid me N25 per article while I contributed to The Tribune gratis. I’m grateful for such exposure, and I remain indebted to these great journals of our time for the part they played in my journalistic emancipation.

I began to make friends in literary circles. I worshipped Professor Wole Soyinka, like an idol. How I wished I could write like, if not better than him. That remains a tall order. He is not one of the few African literary Nobel laureates for nothing. I cherished every opportunity I had to meet with him. I loved the giants at The Guardian and bonded with them one after the other. The list included the giants of our profession like Stanley Macebuh, Olatunji Dare, Patrick Dele Cole, Andy Akporugo, Edwin Madunagu, Amma Ogan, Sonala Olumhense, and others. Their influence remains indelible. But I never managed to secure a job at The Guardian. My job came from a place I least expected, The African Concord magazine, where I was interviewed by the Editor, Lewis Obi, and was employed on the spot.

My exploits at Concord newspapers were the stuff of fiction or thrillers. Within months, I was moved to another publication, Weekend Concord, as a pioneer staff, alongside legends like Mike Awoyinfa and Dimgba Igwe (now of blessed memory). Within two months of starting the paper in 1989, my Editor, Awoyinfa, shot me into prominence with a double promotion. He would regularly tell me how orgasmic he felt my writings were. Six months after that, I earned another promotion and became the number three man in the hierarchy at Weekend Concord. Without being immodest I had helped to transform that Weekend paper and made it the number one weekend paper in Nigeria. It had grown larger and bigger than the wildest dreams of those who envisioned the publication and where they wanted to position it at inception.

Six months later, exactly two years of arriving Lagos from Ile-Ife (1988 to 1990), I was rewarded for my hard work, diligence, but above all good nature and goodwill, and I was pronounced the highest paid Editor in Nigeria by Classique magazine, owned by May Ellen Ezekiel (God rest her beautiful soul). And that was it! The sky, and what lay beyond it had become the limit!

Not just that, I was already close to my erstwhile Managing Director at the Concord Group, Dr Doyin Abiola, and my extraordinary Chairman, Chief Moshood Abiola, which was unusual for a “Journey Just Come” like me …

Dele Momodu.
Credit: Thisday

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