What the old school taught me

Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò/ Prof Olufemi Taiwo

Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
Professor Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò
Being the Text of the Keynote Address Given to the IXth Convention of the Ibadan Grammar School Old Students’ Association, North America, held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Toronto, Ontario, CANADA, September 2-4, 2016.

Good evening,

President Adeyinka Okuwoga and his hardworking fellow Executive Members,

Fellow Mountaineers,

I would like to begin by thanking our president for extending to me the invitation to address this great organization and the rest of the Executive for agreeing. And to the Local Organizing Committee, what a wonderful convention you all have put together. Special gratitude Kayode Oyetunde, Bayo Laniyonu, Segun Onadipe [Captain Buchanan], Tunji Adeyemi, Jide Johnson, and others who, over the years, have reached out to me, persistently made it clear to me that this is my home, and have insisted that I report. As I point out below, I may have missed the first bell but I sure know that my presence here at this convention is an indication that the second bell did not find me stranded between the assembly hall and Jordan.

I can only hope that what follows partly rewards your confidence and, minimally, does not fill you with buyer’s remorse.

“Grammar” was a crucible in which many of the founding pieces of my adult life were forged. In many and diverse ways, elements of my experiences at IGS find all kinds of ways of infiltrating into my life till this moment. Please permit me to share some of those elements and how they feature in my life and work with you.

Although I have long since abandoned the profession of faith, the lessons learnt in my Bible Knowledge classes and playing a dutiful Anglican lad at home and in school are gifts that keep giving in my personal and professional lives. I have, on occasion, given as essay prompts in my introductory philosophy classes a verse from one of my favourite hymns, #507, from the Songs of Praise.

Love is kind, and suffers long,

Love is meek, and thinks no wrong,

Love than death itself more strong;

Therefore give us love

I never fail to let my students know where the inspiration for that bit came from. The old school is always with me.

At IGS, we were socialized into a tradition: a tradition of responsibility, of punctuality, and of distinction. You all know that the school uniform meant that the school was vicariously held responsible for your misbehavior while you wore it outside the school’s gates. I still recall vividly the last sermon that the Reverend Canon E.A. Alayande, our immortal principal, preached at, if I am not mistaken, the Founders’ Day Celebration, his last as principal, on the theme of “Character and Intellect”; later published in the school magazine, The Mountaineer.

The first mantra you learned was: “The first bell summons you to every assembly.” If you are not at the gathering at the peal of the second bell, you are late. And we all knew that you were better off absent than be late. Otherwise, you turned tails, for the guys, and head for the safety of the maze that was Lower and Upper Canada, beyond the Jordan River, till your mates gave the all clear to inch your way to your first lesson, post-assembly. I hope that at gatherings past some of our women have regaled you with their own spin on what I just recalled.

Certainly, being a student at our school, there was no pressure. But if, in Form 1, as was the case with my set, you were being informed at assemblies that one of your distant predecessors, who had walked the same grounds you were treading, had just become your country’s Ambassador to Ethiopia—Ambassador OluSanu—or another one had just been elevated to the High Court Bench in the old Midwestern State—Justice Franklin Atake—you were left in no doubt of the gravity of the legacy of which you are an inheritor and that you are expected to contribute to that tradition and push back the frontiers of excellence that it signified.

This gives some meaning to the following lines from our School Song:

Illustrious sons who rose to fame

The scions of their days

Brought glory and unfading praise

To Alma Mater’s name

I am suggesting that each and every one of us privileged to have attended our school were charged in a not too subtle manner to bring some lustre to the name and reputation of our alma mater. I have never been separated from that lesson all my life.

I already referred to two songs. I am here channeling one of the most accomplished Nigerian Radio personalities in the 70s of the last century at the old renowned WNTV\WNBS, Bola Alo, who used to present a programme titled: “Say It With Music”. Her audience would write a letter to their dear ones and use different musical numbers to express their sentiments and she would read the letters while playing the relevant music. No, I don’t have MsAlo’s gifts. But I sure must remark her inspiration for the tack that I have taken in this address.

It was August 2, 2012, at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. A boys’ choir from Wales was singing a hymn, among others they sang on the occasion. All of a sudden, they segued into “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer” [Songs of Praise #508], and there I was, in the quiet of my then Seattle home living room, singing along with them nonchalantly. Now, it is easy to think that my immediate recognition of and identification with the song came from my lingering Anglicanism. But that would not have told the whole story.

In reality it is but one small bit of the larger cosmopolitanism that our school inculcated in us. For, at that very moment, the kids in that choir and I, Christian or not, were at one in our shared register furnished by a tradition that they got through their church and I got through my school and its devotional practices while I sojourned there.

Here is the larger point. The world of our school was a cosmopolitan world. We were trained to know and engage the world. Our curriculum was not designed to produce local champions. We were being suited for a global citizenship from the quiet of our then leafy Molete surroundings but by no means limited by that bounded space. When our school song, there I go again, intones that we

Shout for joy with one accord

All boys from far and near,

it was and remains a fact and an aspiration. How regularly that aspiration became a fact can be discerned in the global reach of our school’s alumni and alumnae.

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To start with, it attracted students from “far and near”, from locals like me who were native born and bred to immediate neighbours from the Yorùbá heartland; to fellow Nigerians of motley ethnic, religious and cultural stripes; to West Africans from as far west as the Gambia to as far east as Cameroun and all points in-between.

Nor should one fail to mention the wider community of the Aionian Group of Schools. It has meant for me an ever-expanding circle of associates, nay, brothers and sisters when I meet other old students from Abeokuta Grammar School, Ilesa Grammar School, Ondo Boys’ High School, Manuwa Memorial Grammar School, Victory College, Imade College, Remo Secondary School, Ijebu-Ode Grammar School, Egbado College, Oduduwa College, and Gbongan-Odeomu Anglican Grammar School. As a result of attending our alma mater, we all become integral parts of interlocking circles of membership of varying communities within our cosmopolis.

Nor are these connections limited to physical ties. They all, without exception, are communities of affect; of sympathies, fellow feeling, mutual respect, and solidarity. Certainly, there are some amongst us who have embraced bigotry of different sorts in spite our cosmopolitan upbringing, but I make bold to say that this would be in spite of the education that we received at “Grammar”, not because of it.

In my case, the influence reaches all the way home to my mother who never once forgot any of my complement of friends even when she had difficulty pronouncing some of their names.

This is the place to remind us all of the role played by our dear school in the business of rehabilitation and reconciliation of our dear homeland in the aftermath of the Civil War. Some of our peers from Eastern Nigeria were brought to our school to complete their high school education and we were all the better for their presence in terms of what they shared with us when it came to the horrors of war, learning new linguistic and cultural registers and just growing up together.

I was in graduate school in this great city [Toronto] when I had one of those epiphanies that define a life. It dawned on me that the motto of the Boy Scouts—“Be Prepared”—had become the motto of my life. I recall it here because I was a part of what is the 1st Ibadan Troop for my entire period at “Grammar” and that experience forms another strand of the tapestry that is my life woven at IGS.

For those who recall the Scout promise, especially that of doing “one’s duty to God and my country, Nigeria, to help other people at all times and to obey the Scout Laws”, I can tell you that the only piece of that that I no longer hold dear is the one about God. Although I have, lately, being rethinking my relationship with my homeland, Nigeria, that is a story for another day. A country that would do what was recently done to its Olympics team, especially the soccer team, does not deserve any loyalty from its citizens, especially if they can go elsewhere.

I digress. What is of moment on this occasion is that the patriotism that is summoned in another hymn:

Land of our birth, we pledge to thee

Our love and toil in the years to be;

When we are grown and take our place

As men and women with our race [Songs of Praise #488]

has, over the years, structured my relationship to Nigeria, my immediate Yorùbá nation, and the much larger race of Africans and general humanity that I now serve and pledge to serve till my breath shall cease. No, these larger contexts did not frame my understanding initially. I was a fierce and uncompromising nationalist. And my life was all about ensuring that I “justified the talking drums of old” and was a fulfillment of “the hopes of those who laboured long”.

This brings me to one of the ways in which elements of what the old school taught me has manifested in my life since my exit. I started my journalism career at IGS and although our magazine—The Siren—folded after a year—another story for another day—I continued on to a busy journalistic career throughout my days at the old University of Ife. But life took a different turn and philosophy claimed me. I became a teacher.

Through all those changes my commitment to the cause of humanity never wavered, my conviction that we must never be afraid to speak truth to power remains unalloyed, and that we must be, in the words of Frantz Fanon, “slaves to the cause of truth and justice,” remains the guiding principle of my personal and professional endeavours.

Several years later, I formulated a research question around why the politico-legal institutions that we have borrowed from Europe and America even if through the unfortunate medium of colonialism do not deliver on their promise of justice, fairness and inviolate human dignity to ordinary Africans. Simply put, why has the Rule of Law not taken root in Africa?

My initial research led me in a meandering direction that ultimately included the re-discovery of a class of African apostles of modernity, as I dubbed them, led by that uncelebrated genius, Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther who sought to remake African societies in the modern mode that they had been brought into by, and which they misidentified with, Christianity. Pivotal to the careers of those individuals was the singular institution that became the point of dispersal to the rest of West Africa: Fourah Bay College, Freetown, Sierra Leone. This was the tree of which our old school became a veritable branch through the imagination and career of Bishop A. B. Akinyele, our revered founder and nurturer of souls and bodies. I was ultimately able to inscribe my school’s name into the book that resulted from that effort. Up School! What connected our school to that illustrious line begun by Crowther was a desire to create new men and women who combined the best of their indigenous inheritance with the best of what they garnered from what we now identify as modernity. On this score, it is not an accident that our motto is inscribed in both Latin and Yorùbá—the foreign/new plus the indigenous/old.

I have always described my work as one designed to bring Africa’s voice to the polylogue of the world’s peoples and, no doubt, that voice cannot elide the hybridity that marks all advanced cultures throughout the history of civilizations.

In the near future, I shall be unveiling another bit of this ongoing work through a major conference that I have been working on on the legacy of Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Please stay tuned.

Here is another, less grave, instance of how “Grammar” has impacted my work. At one time, I don’t quite remember the year, we had hosted some students from the then Dahomey, now Benin, on excursion to Nigeria. They were with us in the dormitory for a week. As I recall, they were seriously striving to improve their English while we, on our part, were assiduously working to enhance our French. It was not until the eve of their departure that we discovered that most of them were, as were most of us, Yorùbá! It left an impression on me.

I did not have an opportunity to reflect on it or work through the implications of the experience till 1985 when, as part of a conference on the centenary of the partition of Africa by European imperialists at their Berlin West Africa Conference of 1884-85, I recalled the experience. There it hit me that all along we had been focused almost exclusively on the political consequences of the geographical distribution of African lands and peoples among European robber barons. What was missing, instead, was an appreciation of how those divisions not only parceled out our lands, they, in essence, simultaneously, also partitioned our minds of which our tender minds—Dahomian/Beninois and Nigerian—were instances. That our minds would be sufficiently distanced from our immediate existence was not something that happened to us when we were born; that decision had been foretold way before even our parents were born by people who cared not the least bit about Africans and their posterity! A single people ended up on opposite sides of a bastard border where “Túnjí” on one side is “Toundji” on the other; “Suleiman” on one side is “Souleymane” on the other, “Michael” in one place, “Michel” on the other; and we don’t even relate to one another at an immediate level.

I have continued to work on Yorùbá culture and this in a global context, be it Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba, Grenada, Puerto Rico, American south, Togo, Benin, Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Gambia and, lately, Burkina Faso. And this should come as no surprise to many of you here present.

In that regard, I have to save the best for last. Yes, I am one of those IrefinBoyz, the guardians of Jordan and the holders of the keys to the gates of Upper Canada and the realms beyond and you know where that is. Of course, except for my dear Senior, JJ, we were not in my time noted for our fleet-footedness except for when it was scram time from overenthusiastic housemasters and overzealous prefects.

No one ever doubted our dominance in the sphere of culture and the arts, music, verbal, plastic and performing, name it, we owned it. Forget that fluke year when the blue people, okay Olubadan House, with ‘kurubé’, courtesy of OgaJossy, broke out of their blues with a one-of-a-kind performance of “Ògbójú-ỌdẹNínúIgbóIrúnmalẹ̀. That work of culture is now a full-time occupation for me and the path to it led directly from Grammar through the portals of the University of Ife to present work that I am doing on Yorùba Religion, properly designated Òrìsà, Yorùbá language and, most importantly, Yorùbá philosophy.

Finally, I must not fail to mention two other significant lessons that have continued to structure my life with their origins back at the old school. A junior showed and taught me a lesson in courage and telling the truth to power back in the day. He earned my respect for life even though that singular act most likely cost him the captaincy of Irefin House after I left. But his is a lesson that I hold dear and is a story that I have shared with generations of students that I have been privileged to teach across the globe. I am honoured to count him as a life-long friend and interlocutor. I would like to dedicate this address to Dr. KayodeOyetunde, that friend and epitome of courage.

My Higher School Certificate [HSC] years, especially my final year, witnessed my enrollment as a student in the school of PATIENCE. I can tell you that when the Yorùbá say: “Sùúrùlérè” [Patience always pays], it is an incontrovertible truth. To classmates and juniors who took seriously my then nickname, “Bàbá”, thank you for being the original inspiration in that school without walls from which I do not expect to graduate no matter how long I live.

I do not expect that I have shared with you anything that you did not know at the start of this evening. I hope that I have managed to remind you of the stations that we all share as a result of our shared experience of being ex-students of an incredible institution. I hope that all I have said here this evening is not my story but our story told from the limited perspective of one of us whom you have privileged to do the chore on this occasion.

I thank you for your patience.

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò teaches at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A.