“Tai was my greatest motivator from the time I met him in 1947 till his death in 1994. If more people had listened to him, Nigeria might have made better progress.”
The memory of Madam Sheila Solarin will remain evergreen in the minds of thousands of people whose lucky paths crossed that of this diminutive angel who has left her giant footprints on the sands of time as attested to with the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) and MFR (Member of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) honours awarded her from her country of origin and country of adoption by marriage respectively. Her 88 years, 4 months and 3 weeks of exemplary life from 31 May 1924 to 21 October 2012 is worthy of emulation by the younger generation of today.
The octogenarian lady of honour we are celebrating her life and times today was an epitome of positive femininity, selfless philanthropy and embodiment of humility in greatness as well as an ideal wife and passionate teacher. She was a gentle celebrity who deliberately deferred the monopoly of klieglight to her equally cerebral husband cum human rights activist while she took care of the home front as the de facto administrator of the school.
Just two of the hundreds of students across the globe who benefited from the university scholarship of the Solarins are Dr. Wale Omole who immortalised the great couple with the name of his Lagos-based hospital, T & S Hospital complex in Apapa and Mushin (T for Tai and S for Sheila) and Pastor W. F. Kumuyi of Deeper Life Christian Ministry who graduated with first class in mathematics from the University of Lagos. “Many of those who benefited from Solarins’ benevolence are established professionals and consultants in virtually all fields both within and outside Nigeria today,” so admitted Dr. Omole in a recent interview he granted a Saturday Tribune reporter.
According to her authorised biography Sheila: A Lady of Courage by Adewale Bakare, “I married Tai because he was very hard-working, very honest, had a good sense of humour and was very handsome. We had known each other four years before we got married, so we had plenty of opportunity to change our minds but we didn’t.
"I came to Nigeria without knowing much about it. The culture was different. I gradually began to understand it. Fortunately, my parents were poor. I didn’t grow up in the city but the countryside. There, we didn’t have electricity supply until I was in my teens. There was no pipe borne water in my house or water toilet. The ability to survive in Nigeria was helped by my background. I was lucky that Tai was the kind of man he was. If he had been a less supportive person, it would have been difficult. Again, his family accepted me.”
The selfless community leader who was once the chairperson of the Ikenne Local Government Education Authority explained further that "Nigeria then was better in many ways. There was no corruption, cheating or fraud. There was much honesty. You could go anywhere at any time, day or night. Life was safe and secure in the 60s and 70s. Then you could drive anywhere. But now, if I have to go to Sagamu, I will think twice. I believe part of the problem is that of inequality. The country is producing thousands of university graduates with no job and it is now reaping the harvest."
Tai Solarin on the other hand went down the memory lane in his autobiography To Mother with Love to regale us with many lessons to be learnt from their 43 years of excellent matrimony. "Sheila and I met during my second year in the university. We went to the dance and cinema together, but I did it with the casualness that had been the trait of my relationship with all other girls I met. We were all students with some time off duty for a spree. I never proposed to any girl that I disappointed in my life.
"Any time we were together, I was surprised by the versatility of Sheila’s mind. She was a competent electrician. She could darn perfectly. She was a first-class cook and any time I commended her cooking, she always said it was nothing as compared to her sister’s. Not once could I talk about a book in those days which she had not read, or a news item she had not picked up on her own before me. In every aspect, she was my better.”
The social critic haply laid the foundation of his egalitarian marriage by jettisoning the age-old culture of patriarchy ab initio. "I remember visiting the registry a day before our wedding on the 14th day of September 1951and carefully checking over the passage that was to be read at the ceremony. I found that the wife must obey the husband. I told the registrar that sentence should be deleted. I did not want my wife who was more intelligent than I was to obey me. If she was to obey me, the family would die of mediocrity, as my wife would be taking dictation on decisions that might not be in the best interest of the family. The registrar accepted my wish and that portion was deleted.
"Sheila and I have achieved a very healthy and happy union. Our relationship has been very symbiotic. I listen to her, she listens to me. I also remember that a few weeks before the wedding, Sheila reported her mother saying that she would be happiest if I got married to her daughter in the church. I asked her to tell her mother that the church and I had parted company for good. Mrs. Tuer, her mother, did not take it badly at all. She wanted people to practise what they believed. She listened and accepted. And today, without the blessing of the church, our marriage remains highly fruitful.
"Long before we got married, I asked my wife how many children she would like to have. ‘About four or so,’ she said, her mother had six. I would like to be father to only two children – a boy and a girl. She acquiesced. I told her I wanted to have as much time as possible to serve the public in any way I could, but that a crew of children would create an impediment. We have two children – a girl and a boy.
"I owe the volume of work – for what it is worth – I have given Nigeria today to the fact that I did not have an army of children to shepherd round. And I consider any educated man these days with four children or more a very irresponsible man. The fact that such men are irresponsible is the reason why most Nigerian men never tell how many children they have in the public. Great nations are built only by great families but great families are in short supply in Nigeria. All societal evils in Nigeria stem from the overabundance of pseudo-families. Citrus trees in many orchards are better tended than most of Nigerian children. This is the core of the chaotic and amorphous character of Nigerian citizenry.
Three years before his death on 27 July 1994, Dr. Tai Solarin proudly revealed more secrets that were the hallmark of their unique compatibility to the Winslow magazine of Mayflower School. "Sheila and I have so much in common. We do not hold secrets between ourselves. We remain honest and trustworthy in our relationship with each other. If I take money out of our joint account, Sheila never asks me why or what I use it for. Like me, she does not buy clothes or jewelleries. We have no need for them.
"I can safely assume she shares my stand on religion, though we have never discussed the issue. She allows me all the degree of freedom I can ever need. I don’t need to inform her beforehand of my social crusades or my public statements or roles, yet she’s ever so supportive. I don’t have to discuss the contents of my articles to her before publication, yet she shares the tribulations with me when they do occur.
"She’s a courageous woman, very brilliant too. I respect her. I’ve never shouted at her and I’ve never raised a finger against her in the forty-plus years of our marriage. Ours has been a happy and highly successful marriage and Sheila has been a strong positive influence in my life.”
The founding chairman of defunct People’s Bank of Nigeria climaxed their didactic union with these profound statements in his autobiography, "In our 40-plus years of married life, we have never had a day of sorrow. Ask me why not. My guess is that we spend each day as our last. We fill each day with plenty of activities in the service of others – that of course is our religion."
The great couple also shared a common work ethic which formed the buttress of education for self-reliance they taught successive generations of students who benefited from their tutelage in both Molusi College, Ijebu-Igbo and Mayflower School, Ikenne-Remo. Hear Sheila in her above-mentioned biography, "When I was a student, I sold cloth in the Saturday market, cleaned the apartment for one bachelor and mended socks for another. I worked as a waitress in a hotel in the long vacation; one summer I worked on a farm. On fine days we were outside working on the fruit farm. On raining days we were inside packing sweets made from fruit juice, or making wooden crates to pack the fruits for market. There was no day when a lazy worker could put his head down on the table.
"Tai worked an average of 15 to 16 hours per day all the time I knew him. Even before he came back from Europe, he had worked on a farm in Sweden and hit the headlines as the man who could pick twice as many potatoes in a day as any other farm worker. When he was in the air force in Canada, he collected the socks that his mates were too lazy to wash from the dustbins, washed them and sold them back to those who had thrown them away.
"Tai also worked as a mortuary attendant. And he was already a graduate at that time, but he had learnt to take any job available. If you get a job, work harder than you are expected to do and be ready to put in longer hours if need be. Whether you will get extra pay or not, you will be training yourself to work and building a reputation that will always be useful."
In the words of Tai Solarin: “Without Sheila, it would have been impossible for us to build Mayflower School. She had been the very strong pillar in the construction,” that is why the school’s Founder’s Day has been dedicated to the birth date of Sheila on 31 May every year in spite of the school being founded on 27 January 1956.
The co-founder of the Students’ Second Home, Ikenne, and proud mother of Corin and Tunde who eventually served as a former principal of Community High School, Ikenne, averred, “There were times when we worked through the night – staff, students, office workers, cattle herdsmen, all. We were not divided by tribe, religion, skin colour or sex. Everybody worked and I believe everybody enjoyed it.
“Tai and I created our own culture. We did not spend much time socialising with either Nigerians or Britons. We spent most of our time, quite enjoyably, in working. If we had time to relax, it would be in reading, or in my own case, sewing or gardening. Quite a lot of people of all nationalities, Nigerians inclusive, seemed to enjoy the culture we created. We have had a lot of fun.
“I think it is an error to think that you are entitled to stop working at some point because of age. Many great men have gone on into their 80s and 90s productively contributing to the improvement of society. I hope I can stay in good health and work till I drop. It will be simplest and quickest to bury me alongside Tai. My late husband and I disliked the senseless ostentation of funerals; so we had agreed on absolute simplicity.
“I would like to be remembered for hard work, honesty, some kindness here and there, and an effort to make the best of the mental and physical equipment I was born with.” Rest in peace Mama Sheila. Mayflower School is missing you. Tai Solarin Organisation is missing you. Tai Solarin College of Education, Omu-Ijebu, is missing you. Tai Solarin University of Education, Ijebu-Ode, is missing you. Nigeria is missing you. But we are taking solace in your legacy of greatness.