Sheila Solarin: A Personal Testimony


By  Akin Adesokan

Sheila Solarin, co-founder of the imaginative Mayflower School at Ikenne, who passed away last 20 October at the age of 88, lived and worked in Nigeria for over 50 years without being accorded the privilege of naturalisation. Married to the legendary social critic, educationist and humanist, Tai Solarin, at the end of his doctorate programme in England in the late 1940s, she arrived with him in Nigeria in 1952, at the start of that incredible decade of Nigeria’s giddying race toward political independence. Tai took up an appointment as the headmaster of Molusi College in Ijebu-Igbo, and very quickly ran afoul of the establishment there. He was a fierily unconventional leader at a time the colonial system, though at an end, had seeded a natural deference toward authority of all sorts, and the educational system, with its traditions of inculcation, hierarchy, and formality was a bastion of conservative attitudes. When he began to influence the young students with his atheistic views, freely expressed, the school authorities had had enough. Resigning his position, he moved with his wife to Ikenne to found the new school from scratch, in 1956.

They lived and worked on the grounds of Mayflower School until Tai’s death in July 1994. Sheila basically carried on as before, although the government of Ogun State had taken over the school a few years before her husband’s death. She remained at the same place until she breathed her last, two weeks ago.

Anyone visiting the couple’s private quarters at Mayflower quickly noticed Sheila’s visible but unobtrusive presence whenever audience was sought with her husband. I went often to the school, right from my undergraduate days at the University of Ibadan when our student magazine featured an interview with Tai and later invited him to the campus for a public dialogue with students. She would appear at the door, battling to restrain her two excitable Alsatian dogs, and ask: “Are you here to see my husband?”

In 1994, just before Tai’s death, I decided I wanted to write his biography. Although I drafted an expression of interest, the political troubles of that year prevented me from taking it to the man. However, going to cover his passing as a reporter, I took my notebook along. In spite of her loss and the unceasing stream of sympathisers, Sheila took out time to listen to me. She observed that I had not written the proposal opportunistically in the past few hours before my visit. Thereafter, between that day and my departure for graduate school in 2000, I was in constant communication with her. I visited Ikenne no fewer than ten times, and during my visit to the U.S. in 1997, I received a surprise letter from her, an aerogramme postmarked from Claremont, Calfornia, where her daughter lived.

It is hard to speculate on how her life might have turned out had providence not brought her and Tai together in England. Her professional degree was in Podiatry, the study of foot care, and on one occasion she told me jokingly that Tai convinced her to come to Nigeria with him because it was impossible to get a job with that degree in post-war England! It turned out that they were kindred spirits; it is fair to say that the man succeeded in developing his radical worldviews because they agreed with hers. The test of those shared values was in the vision, labour, and commitment which went into bringing Mayflower to life, and which an anecdote captures nicely.

Before the school was completed, a noted educationist and professional rival visited the site at a time Tai was away and said discouragingly that they were “raising a dead child”. Tai returned to find Sheila in tears. Patiently, he lifted her spirits with an example: as they laboured at building the school, the couple’s home was a squat little house (which has since become a monument). This man, a former minister, probably occupied huge official quarters. How could such a person understand the depth of commitment of people who lived in a shack just to build a new institution?

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A few qualities defined her, for me. The first is her simplicity, bordering on the casual. When she had agreed that I could work on the biography, I sent her a list of questions, and told her that I would return soon for her response. On the agreed-upon date, I arrived in Ikenne to find the sheets of paper I gave to her scribbled with red ink: her answers, in two, sometimes fewer, lines! Of course, I had brought along a tape recorder, expecting the questions to have exercised her mind enough to generate wide and deep reflections. I accepted the written response gratefully, but also persuaded her to speak to the recorder, which she did, with remarkable outcomes.

A second quality was her forthrightness. Once, during the regime of General Sani Abacha, a military administrator in one of the North-eastern states had sent his aide to Mayflower on a secret mission. The aide, arriving at night, came with a briefcase loaded with cash in the hundreds of thousands—I’m no longer sure of the exact figure. He had been directed to bring the money to Sheila, apparently in appreciation of the husband’s service to Nigeria. And what did Sheila do?

She resolved not to touch the briefcase and thought the emissary should take it back to his principal. But her son, Tunde, carefully intervened: if the money was sent back, there was no guarantee that it would get to the military administrator; in fact, chances were that it would not. Thus was she prevailed upon to accept the gift, but not to keep it as private windfall. It was promptly donated to a charity.  Another of her qualities was generosity. At the time I began working on the book in earnest, visiting Mayflower regularly, I was also out of job and close to being homeless. She offered me a room at the house. She meant it—the room she showed me was a converted study, with a library. But I politely declined the offer. On several occasions, she lent me books (which I always returned), allowed me to view some of Tai’s manuscripts, and introduced me to some of the administrative staff of the school.

I could go on in this vein. The relevant point, though, is that Sheila was a person without attitudes. Which is why the issue of her long-delayed naturalisation puzzled many people. Writing about this issue in The Guardian newspaper of 30 July 2006, columnist Reuben Abati observed an extraordinary irony. Her application for citizenship was repeatedly denied at a time when Nigerians were voting with their feet, hankering after American, Canadian or European citizenships. And she was a Briton, with natural rights as a citizen there. But she kept renewing the faith, the last time being in 2002. After four years of waiting, she was eventually granted Nigerian citizenship with full rights on 25 July 2006.

I got to know her better from 1994, and she had been around long enough to encounter all sorts of people with interesting ideas about Tai’s life. I admit to dropping the ball on the biography, and I hope this is temporary. My life took a different course after 1997, since 2000 I have not had the kind of concentrated attention to a single issue in Nigeria that had propelled me at the time, and I no longer live here. I write this tribute in partial acknowledgement of this debt to the ideals for which she and Tai stood.

–  Adesokan is author of Roots in the Sky and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. He is also Professor of Comparative Literature, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA