Professor Bola Akinterinwa
Former Director General, Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Professor Bola Akinterinwa, takes a walk down memory lane with Ademola Olonilua as he shares some of his life experiences
Did you grow up in your village, Ile-Oluji in Ondo State?
I spent my early days in Ile Oluji and I attended my elementary school there. I went to St. Joseph College, Ondo. I am a village man and I always ensure that I visit the village regularly because the village setting is the best. I love the village setting for many reasons but I did not appreciate my early days in the village till I became an adult. There are many things that we learnt as kids that were not formal like the moral lessons learnt from moonlight stories. However, while growing up, we took those moral lessons for granted; there are some Yoruba parables or proverbs that I say to my children but they do not know the meaning because they were brought up in the city. There are some proverbs and exercises that we partook in school as children that taught us to be fearless and courageous in life. That is one of the beauties of the village setting. Also, in the village, the air is oxygenated.
Aside the fun you had as a child growing up in the village, did you also visit the farm?
Of course, I went to farm with my father who was a bricklayer at the time and he visited his farmland regularly. In fact, he would leave home around 5 am to the farm and we had to follow him. At that time, there was nothing like torchlight, so we relied solely on the moonlight and when there was no moonlight, we had to use the bush lantern. During planting season, everyone must go to the farm with my father, including his wives and we would all work. Everything we ate was fresh from the farm. My father would never give any of his wives money to buy foodstuff for the house. The wives rotated cooking and taking care of the family. Each wife was expected to take care of the family’s need for a month and it included, cooking and ensuring there was peace. If I did not go to the farm with my father, I had to go with my mother especially when it was her turn to take care of the family.
How many wives did your father have?
My grandfather had about 16 wives while my father had just six. Some of my grandfather’s wives, about eight of them, moved to Ondo and settled there while the others stayed in Ile Oluji. My mother was the first wife of my father and she just passed away a few months ago at the age of 97.
While growing up, my father must never hear that two of his wives were fighting. They might have a misunderstanding but immediately my father was present, it fizzled out; everybody behaved as if nothing had happened.
How about among the siblings; was there anything like sibling rivalry?
No, as I had earlier said, one woman was responsible for the affairs of the whole family for a month, so she would be the one to cook for all the children. We ate from the same source. Under my father’s roof, there was nothing like sibling rivalry. Every Christmas, he would buy the same clothes for all of us and I copied this style from my late father while relating with my children. I taught them that whatever anyone wanted to do should be done on behalf of everyone. When my wife turned 60, we woke up one morning only to be told that we had a message from someone waiting for us outside. We told the security man to usher them in but they insisted that both of us should come outside, so we obliged them. When we reached outside, we were presented with a brand new car. It was from our children to celebrate their mother’s birthday. I was surprised that my children made such a gesture because they had told us that they did not have money. I tried to find out the amount each of them contributed but nobody opened up to me, so I let the matter slide. Till date, they just say that the car was from all the children.
Being the son of a bricklayer, did you visit building sites with your father?
Of course, I did. I know a lot about bricklaying. During that time, the kind of bricks they used to build houses is different from what we use now. It was not cement block. We used our legs to mix the mud that we used to make the mud bricks. Depending on the type of building being constructed, you needed about six head pans of sand to mix with water to make a brick; you needed to use your legs to mix the mud for a while for it to solidify before it could be used. It was a very tedious process but the bricks were more solid and stronger than the cement blocks. In fact, while a bullet can easily perforate a cement block, that cannot happen with a mud block.
While we were in the village, we had no shoes and we went to primary school with our bare feet.
At what stage in your life did you then start wearing shoes?
In 1964 when I entered secondary school. As a college student, you were compelled to wear shoes. I was about 15 years old. They mandated that we must have a pair of sandals, shoes, among others and that was how I started wearing shoes.
How did you feel the first time you wore shoes?
We saw ourselves as ‘big boys’ because we were in the college. To be sincere, when I started wearing shoes, I was not comfortable, I still preferred to walk bare footed. At the end of the day, we began to see life differently as college boys.
In St. Joseph College, Ondo, we had reverend fathers who were Americans, Canadians, Irish and people from various countries. They gave us milk imported from Canada, the food we were eating was not from Nigeria. There was no way you would not get fat after six months of joining the college.
How was it then to be in college or was it the preserve of the elite children?
In Ile Oluji, education was very competitive. For instance, the mere fact that you succeeded in going to college was a source of pride to your parents. It gave them bragging rights among their peers and they would tell other parents boastfully that their child had gone to the college. So if the other parent’s child was not in college, then they were not qualified to talk. Every parent worked very hard to ensure that their children were sent to school. Also, if a child went to school and failed, it was a source of ridicule to the person’s parents. Anybody who wanted to get hitched in the village at the time also ensured that they were getting married to someone who was educated to a large extent.
With such enjoyment at the college, did you always look forward to going home for holidays?
Whenever we were going home on break, it was always a time of happiness. We normally had a bus that would convey all of us home and on the journey, we would sing some patriotic or inspiring songs all through. When we got home, we might not have the kind of provisions the school offered because back then, only a very rich man could afford to eat canned sardine but when we got home, we were fed with organic food. We returned to eating eba, amala, and the like. However, the beauty of it was that while the school fed us with a three-course meal, at home, we had only one-course meal which had more nutrients than the foreign food we were fed with. When our mothers prepared a soup like okro, it had ingredients like fish, ponmo, assorted, abacha, abodi, roundabout, snail, everything in one soup and everything was fresh.
How was the son of a bricklayer able to bag his first degree at the University of Paris?
In St. Joseph College, most of the staff members were foreigners except a few Nigerian teachers. What happened was that, there was a French teacher who would gather all of us especially those taking French classes for WASSCE. The teacher would teach us some French songs which were very melodious. At the time, they normally said a phrase, ‘see Paris and die.’ This French teacher encouraged us to have a pen pal relationship with people living outside Nigeria. We would write letters to some of our friends in Niger Republic, Cote de Voire, and other African countries. I chose a friend from Dahomey, now Benin Republic and we discussed how beautiful we heard Paris was. Anytime I heard that the French teacher’s melodious song, it motivated me to the extent that I promised myself that I must go to France one day. At the time, Massachusetts Institute of Technology offered me an admission but I rejected it, likewise Yaba College of Technology but my mind was already bent on going to Paris, so I was desperately looking towards achieving my dream. That was how I applied to different institutions but they all insisted that my knowledge of French must be good enough before I could be given admission.
I had to enrol at Alliance Francaise in Lagos to learn more about French even though I offered the course during my secondary school days. That was how I decided to go to France. When I got there, they informed me that my French was not good enough so I had to do another two years of intensive training in the French language before I was able to continue my schooling in 1975. It was not easy especially because the French language is directly opposite the English language. Since I wanted to do international relations, I had to start afresh and it was not an easy task.
How were you able to adjust to life in Paris?
When it comes to speaking their language, the French are very fast. At first, the people there thought that I was a French guru from Nigeria but I soon realised I was not hearing the native speakers speak their language. The vocabularies we were used to in Nigeria and even Africa was completely different when I got there. I left Nigeria for France on September 22, 1973. It was during the autumn season and I got to see snow for the first time; that was when I understood the phrase, ‘as white as snow’. I saw life from a different perspective when I got to Paris. As at 1973, electric power supply was still a bit stable in Nigeria but when I travelled to France, I realised that there were some places in the world where their electric power supply was uninterrupted. I visited some sights with beautiful lightings. You needed to see the way they planted their trees which provided shade for those who wanted to relax or have a picnic; it was wonderful. It was not until I got there that I understood what they meant by ‘see Paris and die.’ I was particularly happy. I also noticed that the French could be excessively nice. When they discovered that you did not understand French but was only making an effort, an average French person could leave his business and help you till he was sure you are fine. Education in France was fantastic because there was no discrimination against foreign students. We all paid the same fees, unlike the way it was done in the US or UK. During summer, we all worked together.
If it was so tough for you to get into the institution, how come you were able to graduate with distinction?
In 1975, the university wrote me a letter stating that any mark less than 5/20 meant expulsion. When I got my result, I realised that I had 6/20 which means that I narrowly missed expulsion by one point. I had the effrontery to meet the school authorities and complained to them that my mark was that poor because I was a black man. They did not take it lightly and they called for my papers. They brought out my manuscript and I discovered that I was marked down for any grammatical error, punctuation, syntax; my overall score was actually 16/20 but I lost ten marks because I did not understand their way of writing.
In English, you cannot start a sentence with a small letter or write December with lower case but in French, it is the exact opposite. Where I put a comma in English, they don’t do that in French. So they sanctioned me for all this because they believed that I was supposed to have been schooled the French way. A Cameroonian who was on the panel pleaded on my behalf that I was a Nigerian and that we didn’t speak French in my country. He said I did not mean to insult them because they saw my mistakes as an insult. They then advised me to go back to the drawing board. I had to resume French classes again. After intensive studies, I understood their ways and I became so good at French that in my class, they gave me the nickname, ‘citoyen du monde’ which meant a citizen of the world.
One would have thought that you would end up marrying a French woman…
No, I couldn’t marry a foreigner. I am a village man. I think the best people God ever created are the blacks. He did not make a mistake with us. I went to France because I loved the French people in Nigeria, the language and the songs, not to the extent of going there and claim that I was a French man. My father and mother went to prostrate to my in-laws as far back as 1973 before I even travelled, so why would I go to Europe and act against my father who had already blessed our union?
How did you meet your wife?
We were living together somewhere in Surulere. Her father owned the house and his flat was in front while we occupied the boys’ quarters. Her father was a chartered accountant trained in London. My sister was initially living in the boys’ quarters before I joined her from the village. My wife was still in secondary school at the time and I saw her one day while she was coming from school and that was how we met. Her parents really liked me because before they woke up, I would have washed their car and clean the compound; so they knew that I was a very industrious young man. At the time, she was calling me ‘brother’ because I am older than her. Before long, we began to date but her father and my sister did not know about it; in fact, nobody knew. We would both go out to Bar Beach Show by Art Alade. We went there and contested in a dancing competition. At the time, the rave of the moment was James Brown and I was very knowledgeable about the current trends. I had a friend whose house was not far from ours, so my wife and I normally met at his place even though we lived in the same compound. The day her father found out that I was dating his daughter, he saw us on the television dancing to Haruna Ishola’s song; in fact, it was that week that Haruna Ishola came out with the song, ‘Ina ran.’ The song had a dance step and while my wife and I were dancing to the song, the camera caught us and that was how her father saw us live on the television. He said it was impossible. At the end of the day, her father was not angry at us because I was a good boy and since I would be travelling soon, they made all the necessary arrangements for us to be together. So on that basis, there was no way I could have married a French lady. I could not leave a woman who had the blessings of both of my parents.
Source: Saturday Punch