By Nehru Odeh
Family, friend and colleagues on Thursday 30 June 2022 paid glowing tributes to Femi Soyinka, Professor of dermatology, venereology and clinical immunology who passed on at 85 on Tuesday 14 June at his home in Kukumada village, Ibadan, Oyo State.
The event tagged Evening of Tributes in Memory of Professor Femi Soyinka held at Divine Grace Event Centre on New Ife-Ibadan Expressway in Ibadan and was a full house as many came from far and near to pay befitting tributes to a man whose sterling qualities and interventions went beyond borders.
Still some salient features of the tributes are the insistent roars of intermittent laughter that they elicited and stories about the inevitable roles his wife, Kofo, played in his life. Femi was, as the cliché goes, a man who carried his wife and family along.
It was indeed an evening of memories, tributes, songs, music and dance. It was also an evening of emotions, nostalgia and fun. Sets of glowing tributes that went on and on were interspersed with drama skits as well as oscillating performances intermittently. Popular Nigerian soul singer and jazz musician Yinka Davies as well as the Ibadan City Chorale group thrilled guests with their spectacular solo and group performances respectively.
Distinguished guests and family members did not just pay tributes to the late icon but also revealed the unique qualities of the man they were privileged to experience and interact with in their various kinship and professional interactions in the four scores and five years he strutted the earth.
Professor Wole Soyinka, Femi’s elder brother who had a fleeting but notable presence at the event spoke glowingly about him in a speech entitled The Secret Life of Baale Kukumada (As shared by his quite complicitous brother). Soyinka shared with the audience the Professor’s undying love for domesticating animals, a pastime which was hitherto not public knowledge.
“In the extensive backyard, spread beyond a walled off section that slopes down into a stream increasingly congested by external abuse, ducks, goats, sheep, turkeys, and other domesticates of the animal kingdom jostle until reporting time in the kitchen. Once he even kept geese, their aggressive motions tended to intimidate guests taking a stroll in the garden. Another time he experimented with the foreign cousin of our own ‘aparo’ – of which the partridge is the more familiar of the imported clan.”
Soyinka also said his brother’s fondness for animals also had something to do with the reason he initially wanted to study veterinary medicine. “I was not in the least surprised by Femi’s immersion in animal husbandry. His early ambition was to be a veterinary doctor. Few people know this. In fact, again if memory serves me right, he did enroll for a veterinary course, then decided to switch. I was part of the parental consultation and I was, frankly, rather lukewarm to the idea.”
Soyinka’s intervention was confirmed by the late Professor’s son Ayodele who also, in his speech entitled My Professor of Many Things, referenced his dad’s uncanny love for fishing, nature and domesticating animals. “We would go for hours on fishing trips especially on Sunday mornings. It started at Opa Dam on the Ife campus with mum in tow though she later escaped for reasons I never bothered to ask. But I suspect it might not be unrelated to the dinghy that deflated in the middle of Opa Dam.
“On trips we caught nothing, which in his view was because the fishes had gone to church. He convinced me that the best thing was to find other lucky fishermen, buy their catch and pass it on to mum as the result of our hours of hard labour. We rarely spoke while fishing because he said it drove the fish away.
“There were some exciting experiment like when he tried to raise a baby antelope and we had to feed it with milk out of a feeding bottle. The antelope eventually died. There was the monkey he bought but Mrs Accomplice in a rare turncoat manner seemed not to be in support and it had to be returned. I think there was also a failed attempt to bring a donkey down from the north. I am not sure what led to that never happening,” he said.
Ayodele was later filled with emotions when he spoke to his father directly, thanking him, among other things, for the way he lived his life. “I honestly thought I was prepared for your death but I have just discovered that the bond between a wonderful parent and child is not easily severed,” he said, making a momentary stop in his speech.
Dr Kofo Soyinka, medical practitioner and Femi’s wife described her husband of 46 years as a good family man. “Simple but urbane. Mischievously witty, kind, very hardworking, with uncommon integrity, an excellent cook and a very considerate person. He loved nature, he loved humanity and he strove to protect humanity in all its various manifestations.”
Dr Olaokun Soyinka, Femi’s nephew, former Commissioner of Health in Ogun State and son of the Nobel Laureate, described his uncle as unassuming, hardworking and a lover of humanity. “I remember Uncle Femi as a smiling, jovial, hardworking doctor who spent his life serving the undeserved people of Africa.”
Olaokun also said Femi never joked with his wine. “My uncle, like his elder brother, appreciated good wine and had a well-stocked cellar. On the occasions I would visit him at home, where Aunty Kofo would feed us sumptuously. It was always a major negotiation to persuade him to release a bottle of red wine for us to accompany the meal with.
“Though he pretended we would have to make do with the cold beer, he would always relent as we insisted that our digestive process would be greatly enhanced by a tasty dose of wine. He would then disappear (he did not trust anyone else to enter his cellar) and reappear with a nice bottle. With his infectious grin, he would raise his glass and we would end the meal with a pleasant tipple.”
Mrs Adenike Adeyanju- Osadolor, publisher and Kofo’s long-time friend who worked with Femi for two years when she supported him administratively to run ICASA 2005 in Abuja also spoke endearingly about the man she described as her boss and “friend-in-law.” He was happy go-lucky, humorous, a gentleman to the core and respectful to all.
“Even though he was much older than me, he never called me by my first name. I was always Mrs O to him as many in the office called me. He would use the respectful Yoruba ‘e’ rather than ‘o’ to address me and sometimes threw in ‘Yes ma.’ I always found it difficult to determine whether he was serious or was being his usual mischievous self. He was humility personified,” Adeyanju-Osadolor recalled.
Luis Armand Bodea, ICASA Director/SAA Coordinator, described Femi as a giant, a visionary leader, a true Pan-Africanist who valued African soil and its people. “He gave his all to humanity and built a legacy for generations to come. Prof. Femi, you gave me your all, you taught me how to fight with dignity and stand firm as a proud African. You were a great man with a brilliant brain and your impact and contributions towards Africa’s response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic is valued all over the world.”
Professor Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Femi’s younger sister, entitled her tribute: My Brother: Some Vignettes of Memories. She began her speech with a rhetorical question: “How do I begin the story of a relationship that started more than 70 years ago, long before my conscious formed from the memories in my mind? Had Iphones or smartphones been in existence then, my dear brother, you wold have no doubt captured every second of the forever-to-be-cherished mundane moments that you shared with me. Nonetheless, we had quite a bit after my conscious Id started rolling and clicking.
“My brother, Femi, I would celebrate you eternally for the legacies you left behind, your love of family, your compassion for people, your love of simple, beautiful life. Above all, the unique and comfortable relationship you allowed me to have with you. I am grateful for these memories and anytime I feel low, I will roll out the memory camera of my mind and I will smile.”
Roll out the memory camera? Yes indeed, as speakers after speakers recounted in a cinematic manner Femi’s sterling, endearing qualities, qualities that will forever be etched in their memories.
The brilliant closing remarks, which Femi’s son, Ayodele gave at the close of proceedings tolled the knell of an unforgettable evening filled not just with vivid memories of a life well lived but also nostalgic feelings and laughter.