SundayStarter: Olabisi Ajala: Myths, Memory(-ies) and An African Abroad

by ahjotnaija

Human memory is a limited medium of record preservation; put differently, the human memory pushes to the subconscious events/matters that are not immediately usable for many reasons, one of them being to “create space” to record newer materials. She does this to avoid overstretching, thus limiting the effect of wear and tear, which set in as we age. Imagine if an individual would have to daily “remember” all events (s)he has ever witnessed starting from birth! Aware of this limitation, we constantly backup our memory(-ies) in many ways imaginable. Discoveries of human records in anthropology confirm human ingenuity in record keeping.

Like music, the written word is one of such invented memory backup/refresher. The word-of-mouth is another relevant medium of backing-up human memory in this regard. Parents tell their children and the children tell their children to tell their children’s children so that they may not forget (completely). Talking about Mr. Ajala, I believe we memory-ed him mainly via these media, namely, song (music), oral history/narrative (word-of-mouth) and the written word (book).

The accuracy or truthfulness of recorded events can be tasking to establish, particularly with the oral medium. This does not mean songs and books are more reliable. I emphasized the oral medium because of its permanently liquid/floating state, i.e. hanging in the air to be narrative-ly plucked when needed. The error margin can be high. The reason for the difficulty is, word(s) of mouth, passed from A to B, then B to C, except recorded in a different medium other than the mouth, can hardly be accurately relayed. A Yoruba proverb confirms this:

“Oro atenudenu, ti o ba din, a le” “An oral situation-report from A to B to be relayed to C is overtime always incompete, it is either reduced in content or exaggerated.”

The awareness of the possibility of inaccuracy is good. We know we have to doubly fact-check (recorded) materials for accuracy, correctness and truth. There are many oral versions of happenings while Mr. Ajala’s traveled the world. I need not remind that many of them were peppered and spiced according to the teller’s taste. Take for instance the version I heard when I was a child:

Mr. Ajala was a Yoruba man, very rich businessman. He was world-famous and traveled the length and breadth of the earth. Every country he visited he married a wife who gave him a child. All these women never knew of their husband’s past so they willfully loved, married and catered for him. They bore him children because they loved him. Mr. Ajala met his Waterloo in India. His trip to India was to be executed accordingly, but the woman he married in India had a power far too powerful than Mr. Ajala. With her witchcraft she found out her husband was a real cheat. She killed him.

Beyond the fact that Mr. Ajala traveled to India, nothing in the account could be farther from the truth. I suspect this version must have originated from a source who read Mr. Ajala’s book or only the first few pages. Aware that the book started with a chapter on his visit to India, the rest was easily garnered from fantasy. We need to commend this version. At least it did not dismiss Mr. Ajala’s adventure as a mere fairy-tale.

Chief Ebenezer Obey attempted to backup human memory as regards Mr. Ajala. Below are those popular song-lines that preserve the adventure of this unique Nigerian:

You have traveled allover the world

Ajala traveled allover the world

Ajala traveled, Ajala traveled

Ajala traveled allover the world

When Chief Ebenezer Obey waxed this song, it was an attempt at sing-praising a worthy socialite into national conscience. The song-lines did not go beyond telling us the character traveled around the world, since it was not waxed mainly to sing-praise this character alone, probably more would have been said of his adventures. However, the little was absolutely enough to impress him in our memory.

Mr. Ajala is dead. Many who knew or heard of him might have long forgotten this uncommon Nigerian, but whenever those song-lines are heard, hummed or played, the exploits of a great man are brought to consciousness and consequently celebrated. For the human memory, that Ah! and Oh! moment would come back. In that instant, the individual is pressed to tell again what he knew of Mr. Ajala and his adventures around the world.

No exaggeration, going by events related in Mr. Ajala’s book, he would fit the Yoruba character of valor whose achievements are great and excellently so, to think of such as one (wo)man would be out-of-place. So (s)he is respectfully addressed as seven-(wo)man. Remember, seven represents perfection. No doubt, Mr.Ajala’s achievement made him a world-citizen extraordinaire.

Already in Mr. Ajala’s time, he was becoming a phenomenon; he was a star. His contemporaries saw it, and his legendary status was already being celebrated while he was with them. Here an excerpt from Mr. Ajala’s book:

Well, then, sir, you must be Mr. Ajala from Nigeria. My name is Mustapha Saliu Lawal. I came from Lagos, Nigeria. My friends who met you yesterday told me about you. I have read alot about you in the Nigerian papers before I came to Russia, and one of your brothers, now in London, is a very good friend of now. I am now downstairs with two other Nigerian friends of mine. (Page 81, Olabisi Ajala, An African Abroad)

Israel’s Foreign Secretary, Mrs. Meir was quick to recognize him and his work. She granted him an interview. Hear the introductory part of Mr. Ajala’s account:

Shalom, Mr. Ajala (…) I was quick to repeat her word of greeting. Shalom, your Excellency. You will hardly appreciate how deeply grateful I am to you for allowing me into Israel after causing you and your officials so much headache. (…) It’s not often we have this kind of trouble, your bravery impressed us. We thought we should crown it. (…) Israel is as much your home as Nigeria. (Page 152, Olabisi Ajala, An African Abroad)

To many, who were already of age in the 1960s when Mr. Ajala traveled the world, he was the best synonym for globetrotting. Unfortunately, over the years, his adventure became something of a faraway “non-existent” myth. Many children born around late 1950s and early 1960s when he globe-trotted did even know Mr. Ajala wrote a book. Now, if that be so, then we can safely conclude that in the memory of millions of Nigerians born in the 1980’s and below Mr. Ajala was simply another “confirmed” Ijapa-story, i.e. a fairy-tale. I need not remind us that fairy-tales are beautifully created fictions weaved around wonderful human fantasies.

Yoruba language is a tonal language. A word may bear in it many meaning depending on pronunciation. This sense is figuratively transported/reflected for example in the categorization of apology. We say “Pele lako, o labo”. An apology can be “male”- insincerely offered or “female”- heartfelt/sincere. Same is applicable to pejoratives passed off as commendation or simply expressed to scorn. Sometimes, it can be outright ridicule. Lets take a look at some of these (pejorative) expressions coined in relation to Mr. Ajala’s adventure:

(1) “Lai kii se Ajala!” “But you are not Mr. Ajala!” (2) “Ajala ni!” “(S)he is Mr. Ajala!” (3) “O fe di Ajala ni.” “(S)he wants to become Mr. Ajala.” (4) “O n bimo kiri bi Ajala.” “(S)he makes babies everywhere like Mr. Ajala”

I understand the danger of hasty generalization in this regard and I am aware context matters, but the truth is, many times these expressions are used, they are contextually used to joke or chide the individual concerned. There are questions to ask: (1) Why is Mr. Ajala’s name often used in connection to negative comparison? (2) Why do these expressions carry in them implicit admonitions to shun the Mr. Ajala’s type of adventure? (3) How and why did we let this happen?

The answer(s) is/are definitely multifarious, but not untraceable to our perception of indigenous memory, be it communicative, collective or cultural. Simply put, we tend to look our own achievements with scorn, so much so that we are quick to single out or project only the dirty or bad sides/images/figures of these achievements. We sometimes go as far as “creating” a badness for the achievement if we could not originally find one. Mr. Ajala’s character/image, I suppose, was a victim of negative narratives, which overtime the seem to be the overarching/prevalent narratives as reflected in the pejoratives.

I started reading Mr. Ajala’s own account of his travelogue with mixed feeling. One was that of excitement. Finally, I could read a personal narrative of this legendary figure. Another is, as I turned the pages, I realized my memory of this figure was coming back to me, one after the other; I read with prejudice. I had to consciously shut them out to read him objectively.

This is at the beginning of Mr Ajala’s book:

It is quite safe to say the worst and the best about India and Indians. Without being biased or unduly critical, one can identify Indians as appallingly ignorant savages, yet they belong to the most highly cultured and literary societies in the world. One can further describe India as the most hideous and, at the same time, the most colourfully fascinating of countries- in brief, every possible antonym may be used to classify and dissect this part of the world, and none will be far from the truth. (Page 19, Olabisi Ajala, An African Abroad)

Throughout the book, I came across contradictory, yet seemingly true comparisons like these in many of Mr. Ajala’s accounts and observations of the peoples, places and countries he visited. He was modest and careful not to stamp his observation as the singularly valid opinion about these peoples, places and countries. He made clear these are his personal observations and perception of the matter. One could not but have the feeling he was telling the truth. Besides, why doubt him since many of these accounts can be fact-checked.

Like his account on India, Mr. Ajala was sincerely detailed, almost to a fault, in his encounters with everyday life in the places and of the peoples he visited. Lets return to his account on India again to establish this:

With the exception of the Prime Minister, Jawaharl Nehru(..), most of the Indian people I met(…) were snobbish and intolerant, with detestable and annoying habits. For example, you are startled out of a pleasant sleep at 5 a.m. by the sound of someone who appears to be vomiting and in obvious agony at the wash-basin. You get up, full of sympathy and ready to help, only to find someone cleaning his teeth and cheerfully clearing his throat with the most disgusting sounds. (Page 20, Olabisi Ajayi, An African Abroad).

Detailed account like this cut across the book. These down-to-earth descriptions of experiences and encounters about/with the inhabitants of these spaces are characteristics only of good and objective travelogues. One can experience life of the locals about places one is yet to visit and get a feeling of being in their midst even if the reader is in faraway Germany.

Mr. Ajala was not only interested in the living conditions and ways of life of the locals, he was keen on getting to know same about African students in the countries. Aware that racial discrimination of all color and shade were at its peak around the time he made his trips, he did not take words of assurance from government or diplomatic sources for bare coins, particularly on the living conditions of African students. In India he spoke with African students who relayed the hostility of Indian students to Blacks. In his rapport with African students in The Soviet Union, this was how he introduced his discussion with them:

Just before I came to Moscow I was reading in one of the African papers (…) a serialized article by one of three students, all of whom had to leave Russia because they were being discriminated against, taught the workings of communism and insulted when in the company of their girlfriends. The same African who wrote these articles stated that he was often publicly attacked and beaten up by young Russian hoodlums. (Pages 82 and 83, Olabisi Ajala, An African Abroad)

This introduction was provocative, no doubt. Apparently, Mr. Ajala chose to introduce his chat this way to get as much details as possible from students who were confronted with daily-living in a country that is anything but black or colored. The responses of and account of daily-life recounted by the three students resulted in a lightly heated debate, which Mr. Ajala was sure to control so it did not degenerate into an all-shout-out-affair as it wont for Nigerians (Africans); a situation where all talked at the same time without hearing the other out. Reading in-between the lines, one sees that the students agreed African student life and the level of acceptance/warmness enjoyed could be better.

His interest in matters of race and discrimination was not limited to African students alone. His demand to be allowed to visit the Arab settlements in Israel was a pointer to Mr. Ajala’s keen interest in seeing an improvement in the extremely poor living conditions of these people. The Australians he met and spoke with were not spared questions about the unimaginable persecutions being suffered by the Aborigines of the land. Mr. Ajala wanted not only answers, he seemed to be appealing to the moral sense and humanity of the persecutor and the powerful to let be of evil. We are all god’s children.

Another interesting parts in the book were Mr. Ajala’s accounts of his meetings with the Heads of States (King, President, Prime Minister) in some countries. One could not but feel that Mr. Ajala was a daredevil. He cared not even for his life to realize his goal of meeting them. I held my breath when he told of his near-death encounter to cross the No-Mans-Land into Israel from Jordan. Really, he was only lucky to escape with his skin unhurt.

Especially insightful was the account of “Drama in Meeting Khrushchev”. He could have been dead because he was shot at, but for sheer luck; fate indeed meant it well with Mr. Ajala. Mr. Khrushchev, undoubtedly the strongest man of Soviet politics, for once feared for his life. And he showed it. He was afraid and he was unable to hide his helplessness. So, a man so powerful as Mr. Khrushchev, who controlled with iron-fist the fate and lives of hundreds of millions was not immune to fear. If Mr. Ajala’s successful meeting with the Kremlin Chief achieved nothing, it at least confirmed that those who wield (political) power are just as human as anyone of us.

I will not forget to remember this: at first, I found it lightly difficult to read sentences without a pause. The reason, I found out very quickly, was the way the English sentences were constructed. They were correct Standard English, no doubt, but I realized I was not only reading a book about the past, I was practically being transfigured into the past via the English diction and sentence construction style employed in the book. All in all, Mr. Ajala’s political travelogue and partly autobiography is a good read. I strongly recommend it.