5 January 2013

Nigeria: 'Denied Admission to Unilag Because He Couldn't Pay the Tuition, He Returned Six Years Later As Lecturer'

Prof. Folayan Ojo's story to the zenith of his career in the academics is a tale of ironic twists and fortitude. Ojo, 71, shares some highlights of his growing up and working years with Funke Olaode

A polygamous but close knit family ...

I was born at Ijero-Ekiti, then in the Western Region and currently in Ekiti State, on November 12, 1941. By the time I was born, my father was a farmer and my mother was at a time a petty trade and later she became a textile weaver (aso-oke). My father had 11 children from six wives by the time he died in 1949 when I was barely eight. Ironically, my mother was the youngest. The intrigues associated with polygamy were totally absent in our case.

Although I heard distressing tales from others in such circumstance, we never had that experience. I believe it was the way my father handled his family.

We lived as a close knit family up till now. Could you believe that we ate in the same pot which was common to many families in those days in our area? We (children) would sit down together around the same pot - one plate for pounded yam and another plate for the soup.

One of us, usually the oldest, would share the meat after the meal and there was no problem whatsoever. The only lesson is that it taught us to eat very fast otherwise you would be beaten by others who were fast.

My father died when I was barely eight years old but the impact came out of the fact that immediately I started school two years before he died, I always came out first in my class. I wasn't the only one going to school at that time. Two of my older brothers went to school and three of my younger sisters also went. He promised me that he would sponsor my education to the highest possible level. When he died, his promise always gingered me to read.

Growing up ...

Growing up in Ijero-Ekiti then was fun. There was no electricity or pipe borne water around, but we didn't miss it because that was the situation we met on ground. And sometimes you don't appreciate the existence of something you don't think you miss until you have learnt that they exist. For instance, there was no television to show that there was electricity elsewhere. So we didn't appreciate that we were losing anything.

We were using local lamp made from palm kernel to study at night and later on, the lantern came on. It was also fun going to the farm because my father was a major cocoa farmer in those days. I was the youngest of all the boys and wasn't old enough to participate in the actual work, but I would still follow them. We would eat in the farm. We had access to fresh vegetable, fresh corn (maize). We had brooks all around the farm where we fetched water. I remember there was a time we didn't have water in the hut and we had to drink water gushing out of the stem of plantain and banana.

It was bitter but we drank it. We were so young and I consider it a part of youthful exuberance. I remember another occasion in the farm when yams were growing. I went with my brother to clear the bush. I was behind them cutting the young plants of the yam. I cut about nine before they knew what I was doing. One of my father's farm hands flogged me and was later stopped by my late brother that it wasn't deliberate.

A quiet child ...

I was a very calm child. And the kind of polygamous setting in which I found myself, a child cannot afford to be talkative. The wives were like our mothers. We didn't do much of talking except at school when we were free unlike today when a child would either be talking along with the father or even arguing.

We would always listen to our father. So I was an obedient child, gentle and an introvert. Although I engaged in a little prank after my father's death when I changed my school from Catholic to Anglican. I remember we had a group and we used to play pranks with each other.

A dream almost deferred ...

The death of my father in1949 could have put a stop to my tall dreams but I persevered. I moved to my eldest brother's house who was a teacher at that time. I lived with him until 1953. As a teacher he was on frequent transfer and I was always moving with him. After that, I lived with another uncle who was a teacher.

Luckily, living with my brother wasn't a problem and we lived together amicably. And when I moved to my uncle's place we lived happily. This uncle of mine was a very gentle, cool and collected person who wouldn't hurt a fly. This experience helped me later in life to be kind to people living with me or who come my way. It was from there that I passed to Christ School, Ado-Ekiti, but couldn't afford two pounds and 10 shillings deposit.

That was why I went to the Modern School. My father's promise was a pillar of hope and aspiration even when I was unable to go to Christ School, Ado-Ekiti. The same thing happened when I was admitted to the University of Lagos and University of Ibadan, I couldn't pay the deposit. I never lost hope. I was very industrious as a person. On my own I wrote the General Certificate of Education and God was always with me. With hope in God and through hard work, I always knew I would make it. Having missed the opportunity to go to Christ School, Ado-Ekiti, I enrolled at St. Francis Secondary Modern School, Usi-Ekiti.

I lived with an Irish reverend father for two years. I was a pupil and at the same time a mission boy with this Irish man. Education at modern school was virtually free because it was part of the late Obafemi Awolowo's free education programme. After the Modern School education, I went to my town as a teacher on salary of four pounds, six shillings and eight pence. It was enough for any person to live comfortably at that time.

Facing challenges ...

I never lost hope of going to secondary school because after working as a teacher for some time, I wrote the common entrance examination to Christ School, Ado-Ekiti, for the second time and I came second. I was supposed to be a government scholar but they found out that I had gone to Modern School and I was disqualified.

That was how I had to re-enroll again for a Grade 3 Teacher Training at St. Augustine's College, Ikere-Ekiti, where I spent another two years. Again, I worked as a teacher and along the line enrolled again for the Grade 2 at St. Peter's Teacher Training College, Akure, Ondo State. In my first year in this school, I registered for GCE, I passed these papers which were very tough in those days even for the teachers.

That divine assistance was the factor that led the college administration to appoint me as a prefect in 1964. My being the prefect of that school and passing the GCE were the factors that propelled my benefactor, Rev. Brother Hugh to facilitate a scholarship to Canada where I eventually read economics. Finding myself in a teaching profession wasn't accidental because it has always been a childhood ambition. In my days, teaching was the profession.

My brother was a teacher, my uncle was a teacher and those were the inspirations around us and I didn't think of becoming a doctor, engineer or lawyer. I didn't know whether medical doctors, lawyers or engineer existed. What I wanted to do was to get higher education and be a teacher and even after university education I still found my way to the university environment where I taught all my life until I retired recently.

Hard work and providence ...

I was at St. Peter's Teacher Training College, in Akure, Ondo State, when I received a divine help to pursue my childhood dream of higher education. After passing my 'O Levels' in flying colours, I also enrolled for the 'A Levels' in January 1965. Although I still taught at St. Francis Modern School, Akure, where I stayed for seven months. From there, I got admitted to Brandon University in Canada where I had my first degree in economics from September 1965 to May 1968.

Immediately I left there, I went for a master's programme. You know when God has a special interest in your life, things will work in your favour through his guidance. I learnt about Canadian scholarship through my best friend of blessed memory, Funso Ayoade, who hailed from my town. He was already in Canada on a scholarship and was the one who linked me up with Brother Hugh who assisted me.

And there was one non-governmental organization called African Students' Foundation. This organization assisted my friend and later assisted me. Can you see God at work? When I felt depressed, felt that the end of my education was totally blocked God assured me that all would be well. I was admitted to University of Lagos to study arts and University of Ibadan to study social sciences, money denied me entrance to these great institutions in Nigeria. On all those occasions I was confident and never lost hope.

The day I travelled out of Ikeja airport to Canada on September 17, 1965 was significant in my life. When I was in the plane looking down at Lagos and when the plane stabilized, it was as if I had achieved all I wanted in life. I started to forget all the problems I had with admission and so on.

It was a shift in my life and at the same time, I was not blown away when I eventually landed in Canada. I was always conscious of my background. Something that remarkable in my life is that I dance a lot. I continued to dance. I use dancing as an instrument for my educational advancement. When I dance for hours I would be able to perform well in my studies whether as a student or teacher even up till today.

Career as an academic ...

I was given a scholarship at the end of my first degree in what the school management called "for my academic distinction". Through God's help, coupled with my continuous struggle, I was able to make it. I left Canada on May 30, 1971 and returned to Nigeria and got a job at the University of Lagos. This was a university that could not admit me six years earlier due to lack of funds. I felt elated that a place where I could not study due to lack of money I was able to return six years later as academic staff. That was how I charted a new course for my career as a junior research fellow (an assistant lecturer) in the human resources unit in the faculty of social sciences adjunct to economics department.

I went through the ranks, developing myself and had my Ph.D in 1977 and became a professor at age 41 in 1982 about 10 years after I started as a staff. As I said earlier, I started at human resources unit which was later scrapped and I moved to the economics department where I lectured until 2001 when I took a leave of absence for two years to the University of Swaziland as a professor of economics.

My intention was to come back after the two years expiration, but I later changed my mind to stay back. I came back to Unilag in 2003 and retired voluntarily. I went back to Swaziland and worked there until June 2010 when I retired finally. While in Unilag, I was appointed the dean of faculty of social sciences in 1985.

I was at various times appointed as director, chairman of various boards such as human resources development, Unilag Enterprises and so on. My 30 years stay in Unilag was eventful. As a retiree now, I am busy writing books especially my autobiography and sharing my time with my grandchildren. I have also set up a scholarship scheme called Folayan Ojo Educational Fund and I'm devoting more of my time serving my God.

Problem with Nigeria's education ...

The falling standard of education confronting the nation is very unfortunate. In those days, Nigeria used to compete favourably with first class universities across the globe. But the reverse is the case now. For me, a lot has to be done which I categorise into three: What government can do, what individuals can do and the students.

I think government has a lot to do. Over the years, government has really contributed to the terrible fall in the standard of education by taking over schools from missions, the rate of increases in the number of universities and educational institutions. For instance, the university I attended in Canada for my undergraduate studies was established in 1899. By the time I was there in 1966, they were still specializing in undergraduate work. But here, you have a university starting today, by tomorrow they go on to have post graduates and some are even awarding Ph.D and professor in less than five years.

So the government has a lot to do by ensuring that the proliferation of educational institutions is stopped. We have more than enough. In South Africa where we all rush to as teachers and students, they reduced the number of universities and merged them in the early 2004. I think there should be a way that universities and other higher institutions that could not meet the standard should be merged. I am not saying that students population should not go up, but it can still be managed so that the facilities will not be over-stretched.

Government should stop establishing new universities and pump more money into the established ones. Most of the universities in North America are private but Nigerian government should limit the number of private universities. There are good ones and those who believe they can make money. You know education is not really a money-making venture; it's like service to humanity. Individuals can assist and you don't have to be rich to reach out. Our value system should be changed. And, above all, students should get serious and read to excel.

Serving in government ...

In 1987/1988 when I ceased to be dean, I wanted to go abroad on sabbatical leave. I was given the opportunity at my alma mater, Brandon University, Canada, and University of Florida in United States. But I decided to spend half of the time in Nigeria.

I went to the then Ondo State University, Ado-Ekiti, where I planned to spend six months before moving abroad. It was in the course of being in Ado-Ekiti that I got appointed as commissioner in the Ondo State cabinet under the then Captain Olabode George.

I started as commissioner for commerce and industry and was later moved to rural development and water resources. I was there from June 1988 to December 1991. After Bode George, I also worked with Captain Sunday Abiodun Olukoya. Again, I enjoyed my tenure because I was able to contribute to humanity and the development of rural communities especially in my second phase as commissioner. I was in charge of water and electricity supply which are two major basic facilities. This brought me closer to the grassroots and important people in the state.

On the home front ...

I have been married for over 39 years and it has been a roller coaster. I met my wife who hails from Ekiti through my very close friend whom I met at St. Augustine's College in 1972. This friend of mine is from Ijan-Ekiti. In a way, they are related. People talk of this and that in a relationship but what counts is knowing what you want.

I had some goals and aspirations that I wanted a stable family not a sophisticated one as such. Otherwise I would have married in Canada. When I came back I also put it in prayer that God should give me somebody that would meet my aspiration. God answered my prayers. We courted and got married on November 1972. The marriage is blessed with six children - four girls and two boys. I thank God for my close knit family life. Their (our children) education was paramount in our heart.

My wife was a teacher and she played a key role coaching them at home. My girls went to University of Lagos. The first studied engineering, the second read architecture, the third studied law, and the fourth studied pharmacy. My other two boys studied abroad because I had left Nigeria then. My first son studied business which is close to economics and my last son studied computer science.

I'm fulfilled ...

I wouldn't say I have fulfilled all my life aspirations. By and large, I see God in every stage of my life. For instance, when I left Canada, I had three things in mind: to get married, get a job, raise a family and have a building. And within a short time God helped me to achieve all. My children too have been wonderful.

With regard to regrets I can say I don't have any because all that have happened to me are essential lessons because life itself is not a bed of roses. To fall is not a problem, not to stand after falling is a problem and each time I fell God was with me to stand up again.

Sometimes, I would say how I wish I was able to go to Christ School or I wish I was able to go Unilag or U.I; who knows what would have happened? My experience as I sojourned through life has taught me that one should be truthful, humble and above all, always trust in God.

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