In this interview with ARUKAINO UMUKORO, 85-year-old professor Omotayo Adeolu, founding Dean, Faculty of Environmental Design, University of Lagos, speaks about his life and career as an architect and town planner
When were you born?
I was born in August, 1928, in Abeokuta. My parents are from Ijebu. I’m the second child. My elder brother passed two years ago. My sister died many years ago. I have two other brothers.
How was growing up like for you?
My childhood experience was about going to school. There was nothing much to do than that. Then, I also followed my father to church. My father was one of the three people anointed by Cherubim and Seraphim Church Society in 1934 to be pastors in the church. I helped him carry his bag containing bibles and hymn books whenever he went to church. I also assisted my mother to sell akara and ogi when I was young. My childhood revolved around the school, church and the home. There was nothing that interested me more than education.
Why didn’t you become a pastor like your father?
I could not have been a pastor because I was after design and technology, something that could be used to transform my country. I attached myself to education and nothing else. In the UK, I used to go to bookshops a lot to buy books that focused on how to design things, industrially and otherwise. I have many of these books in my house.
Where did you school?
I went to primary school in Ibara, Abeokuta, for Standard one and two, and also Igbore primary school, where I did Standard three and four. I did not go to central school from there, which was usually the case. I was given admission to Boys High School, but I did not go. Instead, I went to Abeokuta Grammar School, where Ayo Ransome-Kuti, the father of Fela, was the principal. I was there from 1942 to 1948. After I was successful in my secondary school certificate examination, I relocated to Lagos to work. I worked at the architect’s department attached to the quantity surveying section at the Yaba Technical Institute.
How was it like having Fela’s father as your school’s principal and did you meet any of Fela’s siblings?
Yes. I met Fela’s brother, the late Olikoye, who was about my age. I met him occasionally but we were not close. He was my senior in Abeokuta Grammar School. His elder sister also attended the school. Fela’s father was a good leader. He had worked at Ijebu-Ode Grammar School before he came to Abeokuta Grammar School. His leadership helped to become what I am today. As a matter of fact, when I finished my school certificate in grade one, I had A1 in Geography, I was offered scholarship to be trained as a teacher. But I did not take it, because I wanted to learn industrial design.
How did you qualify to become an architect?
While working at Yaba, I saw the advertisement in the newspaper that they were going to start a course for architectural assistants to be trained at the institute. But I couldn’t get the job because I wasn’t among those invited for an interview earlier in January 1949. For the three years and three months I spent at the Yaba Technical Institute, they did not advertise that course again. It was after that they started the Nigeria College of Arts and Sciences and Technology in 1952. I had to abandon my office because the course started in May 1949. So I went to Yaba. I never collected my salary for three weeks in May 1949 since I abandoned my office. And my boss there, a white man, became one of the lectures at Yaba. When saw me, he said he had been looking for me. That was how I started my career in education. I studied architecture at Yaba, not to be fully qualified but to become an assistant to qualified architects. Most of the people that came to Yaba were from the federal and state Ministries of Works. I later worked with a private company, Nickson and Boris, between 1952 and 1954. Luckily, after previous unsuccessful attempts, I got a federal scholarship to study in England at the AA School of Architecture, London, after I had written their entrance examination. I also took two A level subjects in Mathematics and Fine Arts. It was the same school one of my teachers in Yaba attended. I was the first Nigerian to be admitted into the school (AA). I was in the AA school of architecture for five years, 1954-1959. In 1958, I came home to Nigeria to collect materials to write my thesis. Another Nigerian later gained admission into the school in the third year from the Nigeria College of Arts and Sciences. I asked and got my scholarship extended in 1959. So I went to study civic design/ town planning in the University of Liverpool. It lasted for two years. Both were diploma programmes. Between 1961 and 1963, I worked in different architect’s offices to gain practical experience and to be able to take the examination to become a member. When I returned to Nigeria, I worked in the Lagos branch of one of the architect’s office in London.
How did you become the first Nigerian lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria?
I started working in ABU in 1963. I had just finished my course of study in the University of Liverpool when it was advertised. I was working there in the UK. So when the opportunity came and they advertised for lecturers at ABU, I applied and I was employed. I was among the white lecturers. I worked in ABU from 1963 to 1966.
Were you on the same salary scale with the white lecturers in ABU?
Yes. The only difference was that there were different levels. You started as a lecturer, then you rise up in position from senior lecturer to associate professor and then professor. My salary then was between £2,275 and £2,575 per annum.
Did you feel inferior to the white lecturers?
No, I never did, because I just wanted to make my own contribution to the nation. I enjoyed my stay there. When the white people went on leave, I was put in charge to run the faculty. In between, I went around the secondary schools in Nigeria to talk about architecture as a career so that students who might want to study the course will know that we have courses like that in ABU. It was the faculty of architecture at that time. I left Zaria after the January and July coup, because I was afraid for my safety. When I was a student at Liverpool, I had some military training, so security was important to me. I left ABU and did not give them notice that I was leaving. I took a few clothes and left for Lagos.
When did you join the University of Lagos?
It was the same year, in 1966. I had met the Vice-Chancellor in 1958 when I first returned to Nigeria. At that time, there was no course like Architecture and Town Planning in UNILAG. I was attached to the Civil Engineering Department. Later on, he said I should write a programme to establish the course in UNILAG. So I wrote the programme for the Faculty of Environmental Design and we started the programme. UNILAG started Environmental Design in 1971. Two areas that were included in the programme but were not established are Landscape Architecture and Industrial Design. For a country that wants to be industrialised, you must have industrial design if you are serious. But those who took over did not understand my vision to see that these departments were established. I retired in 1987.
How was your working experience in both ABU and UNILAG?
I will say I have made positive contributions to development in Nigeria. If the other two courses had been established, it would have made a significant difference. I wanted my country to be as developed as Britain in every aspect. The only thing that we know how to make is pure water (satchet water). We produce crude oil but we don’t refine it. The four refineries are not functioning. All the newspapers we read are published on imported paper. None of them is manufactured in Nigeria. Imagine the amount of money going out of the country through the importation of paper. During my school days, an exercise book did not cost more than two pence; today it costs N50 or more. Our naira is printed outside. This shouldn’t have happened if we knew how to make paper. These are some of the problems Nigeria is facing because we are not industrialised. Many of the country’s natural resources have not been harnessed. We have not utilised our bitumen since 1986 or so that they said it existed in Nigeria. Yet all the tar we use to build our roads comes from Trinidad in the West Indies.
How does environmental design contribute to the development a nation?
It helps in town planning, by transforming the society’s infrastructure. Look at China, which is converting their Gobi Desert into arable land by bringing water from rivers that flow close to the desert and distributing the water along the route. They are also planting trees where it can draw water. Nigeria should understudy China and find ways to transform the Sahara and Kalahari deserts into arable land.
What are some of your major works?
I helped my school with the design layout when it moved from the old site to the new site and so many others I cannot remember now.
Are you fulfilled about your career?
Yes, I feel fulfilled. I mean, how many of my classmates became professors?
How did you meet your wife?
I met my wife by chance when I first returned to Nigeria in 1958. I was going to collect materials for my thesis. I was to collect materials about the palace in Ondo. I had a colleague, Adetosoye, who was studying political science at the University of London. We lived together in the UK. Later on, he became the Oba of Ondo. So, when I came to Nigeria then, I wanted to visit his family. Unknowingly, the people who gave me directions mistook the name Adetosoye for Adesanoye. So, I was taken to the Adesanoyes’ house instead, where my wife lived, instead of the Adetosoyes at the palace. I never knew the Adesanoyes. I spotted her climbing the staircase. That was how I saw her and insisted on meeting her. I did not remember what I said to her that day anyway. But I got her contact. That was how we started to visit each other. Later, I visited the Adetosoyes at their place, where I initially wanted to go to.
Like Adetosoye you mentioned, who were some of your contemporaries?
One of my classmates at Abeokuta Grammar School, Adesola, was a former Vice-Chancellor at UNILAG. Another classmate of mine at the Grammar School, Gabriel Ijewere; Sunday Tomori, and Joseph Sodipo, all of us became professors. Adesola, Ijewere and Tomori are now late. I think Sodipo is still alive. Tomori was professor at the University of Ibadan, while Sodipo was at the college of medicine, like Adesola.
Did you know you were going to marry your wife the first day you saw her?
I just saw her and her looks appealed to me. I did not have a girlfriend or anybody I was dating then. I showed interest when I saw her and told her. That was how we started. Later on, we agreed to be together and she came to join me in England in 1960. I went back to Liverpool in 1959.
How long was your courtship?
It lasted for about two or three years. We got married in 1960 or 1961, when I was in Liverpool. The Adestosoyes I wanted to see the other time came to Liverpool and some other Ondo people that we had met came to the wedding to celebrate with us.
You’ve been married for 53 years now. How would you describe your marriage experience?
I’ve enjoyed my marriage. There is no problem.
What’s the secret of your successful marriage?
We are committed to one another. And I share the little money I have with my wife, even when I buy shares; I buy for her, as well as for my children also.
What is your advice to young people about marriage?
They should be committed to one another. They should be more understanding. They should not get involved in drinking and smoking and it would help them to show more interest in their children. But they should first chose a profession, they should have something to do.
How many children do you have?
I have four children, three boys and a girl. One of them is based in Chicago and studied industrial design. Another is a pharmacist based in Maryland, US, another is an estate surveyor, also in the US; while the other studied political science and law, he is based in Nigeria.
What is your favourite meal?
I like Nigerian food. I also like vegetables and fruits.
What’s the secret of your longevity?
When you are looking for how to transform the society, and read books, nothing will distract your attention. You only wish that people around you have the same vision as yourself so that you can move together and achieve goals.
So reading enhances one’s longevity?
Yes, reading sharpens the mind and helps one to live long. It’s good to be inquisitive about things that can transform you and your society. I’m currently reading Grow Younger, Live Younger: 10 steps to Reverse Aging.
You’re still fit. Do you do any form of exercises?
Yes, I take walks when I feel like it. I used to play lawn tennis in those days. I love gardening. I still find time to read. When I want to remember certain things, I go back to my books. I write too. I thank God for everything.
How do you unwind?
I take care of the garden in my compound; I go to church and community meetings. I used to travel a lot before, US, Europe, Switzerland, and so on. We need to study how well these people run their countries.
Do you have any regrets?
I have no regrets at all. My parents did not have the money to send me abroad. But they supported me as far as they could and gave me the right influence.
What’s your advice to parents, especially academics, who want to influence their children or prefer their children to tow their line of study?
Parents cannot over-influence their children. It depends on what the children come across and the people they interact with will largely determine the set of things they want to do themselves. If you as a parent try to influence them too much, you may misdirect them. The best way to guide them is to ensure they face their studies properly when they are young so that they are not left behind. Also, support them in whatever career path they choose.
As an academic, what’s your view about the perennial strike actions embarked upon by the Academic Staff Union of Universities?
Thankfully, we have a President that is an academic himself; because he has a Ph.D. He should know exactly what is going on in our universities. But then, he should be encouraged to ensure that the academic standard of our universities does not go down. The number of students our tertiary institutions are admitting now has increased and there are too many students to one teacher, unlike in our days. The teachers today must have the opportunity to travel abroad and see what goes on there. We need to have a research culture in this country.
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