Gboyega is the son of the late second Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Prof. Hezekiah Oluwasanmi. He talks about his father’s life and career with GBENGA ADENIJI
Please tell us more about yourself.
I attended Staff School, University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Loyola College, Ibadan, Oyo State, and studied International Relations at the International University Europe, Watford. I worked for several years abroad before I returned to Nigeria. Upon arrival in Nigeria, a farm, Araromi Farms Enterprises, that my father started in our hometown, Ipetu-Ijesa, Osun State, had become derelict. I took it upon myself to resuscitate it. Although I had no knowledge of farming prior to that time, there was no was no way I could abandon it.
Tell us about your siblings.
I have two sisters. The younger one, Yewande, is deceased while my elder sister, Folashade, lives in the United States of America.
What childhood memories with your father can you recall?
My father was a disciplinarian. He was a stern person but fair. He had no room for mediocrity. He was a very astute and disciplined man. I recall waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and seeing him in his study. There was no day I woke up without seeing him reading. It seemed to me then that he worked 24 hours and I wondered if he ever slept.
Another memory was when the university gave us a colour television to replace our black and white TV. My father wondered why the university had to offer him a colour TV as if the black and white TV in the house was not okay. We were not happy then because as young people, we wanted to join the modern bandwagon to also watch colour TV. He was an austere man as he felt why the black and white TV should be changed as long as it was working. He rejected the offer. He didn’t like to waste resources and believed in doing things right. Even though we lived in the Vice-Chancellor’s Lodge then which was built during his tenure, he wasn’t the kind of person who craved big cars or excess life. The lodge had cars, stewards and drivers, but he only wanted a functional place to allow him do what he was supposed to do.
Later on in life when we moved out of the place to a small, clean, beautiful, nice place which I felt was not right, I began to understand that what he was doing was for future generations and not for himself. That is one of the things I appreciate about him. Also, people call me ‘Prof’ and wherever they know who I am, there are usually good stories about my father. I have never heard bad stories about him.
What was his idea of discipline?
Hezekiah and his wife
He never used the cane on us but he might raise his voice in a stern way and you would know that you did something wrong. If he asked you to do something, he expected you to do it. He took care of his children by providing us with everything. He had a goal and was focused on it to build the university to a world-class standard.
What privileges did you enjoy while in secondary school?
I remember that we had a driver and a car. He had left the university then. It was not too common then for everybody to have a car and a driver.
Did he influence the career choice of any of his children?
Not at all. My late younger sister studied Law at the OAU, while my elder sister studied Engineering at the Spelman College, US. I never remember him telling us to choose a particular discipline.
How did he react when angry?
When he was angry, he would be stern and tell you why you shouldn’t do what he was angry about. He might be angry but he would explain to you so that you would know why he did that. You would know deep down your heart that he was fair except you chose not to.
How did he relax anytime he was not involved in any academic engagements?
I remember that anytime he returned from work and we came back from school, we always saw him reading. He relaxed by studying. He read several volumes of books. We are putting together his library. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep his books properly and some of them had mildew and had been infested by rats. But I am lucky to have many of them back. My father was an avid reader. I knew he didn’t drink and never womanised. I cannot recall him having any social life. He was always studying.
Tell us about your mother.
She was a Jamaican from St. Mary, Port Maria. She studied at the London School of Economics. She also worked for a publishing firm in Benin City, before running the library in the then University of Ife.
How do you feel being a son to the late Hezekiah Oluwasanmi?
Like I told you, imagine being called ‘Prof’ when you are not one. Imagine going somewhere to have a drink and people who hear who you are tell good stories about your father. You feel proud that you have something to do even when you don’t fit into his shoes. You know you must achieve something too.
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Do you think you are under pressure considering who your father was?
I think so. I look at what I am going to do to make the lives of people better because that was what my father did. I will not call it pressure and that is what his foundation, HAO Foundation, is trying to do. We intend to focus on rural agriculture to let the farmers know the funds the Federal Government disburse to the states and how the local governments are distributing them.
Your father’s quality of service and dedication to education are unique till date. Did he tell you what motivated him to live for public good?
Not in many words. I never had that opportunity but we discussed why he chose the course he did at Morehouse College, US. We also talked about how he worked in the library to send himself to school. In talking to his peers during the period, they said he was disciplined, knew what he wanted and didn’t deviate from it.
The university where he worked named a library after him in recognition of his contributions to the school. Would you say that honour was commensurate with his sacrifices to the university?
It is a fantastic honour. There is a joke that OAU students often tell bookworms to take it easy and not ‘Hezekiah’ themselves by thinking that the school authorities would name a library after them. How many vice-chancellors have their names written in the sands of time by having places in universities named after them? In all honesty, the foundation is thinking of what else could be done to immortalise him. We have come up with several ideas which would be made known in due time.
Your father passed on in 1983. How do you remember him annually?
We do it among ourselves in the family. When I was giving a vote of thanks during the memorial symposium on the 35th anniversary of his death on August 16, 2018 at the OAU, people asked me why we left it for so long. As a Christian, I believe there is a time for everything. In the family, we always talk about him and have dinner sometimes together. We are thinking of doing a lot more now because the time has come.
How does his name open doors for you?
My father’s name opens doors from meeting people who attended UNIFE (now OAU) who are now captains of industry to those in high or low places in society.
What was his favourite food?
He liked solid food and efo riro. He also liked bush meat but enjoyed fish more. He was health conscious.
What values did you imbibe from him?
He taught us to be focused and that if one starts something, one must try to finish it. He also taught us to always have empathy for others. He was also humble. Like me tell a story about that. We were abroad one day and my father was in a queue to buy some things. One of his students saw him and said, ‘Haa, Baba Hezekiah, please come to the front. But my father, who appreciated him, said ‘‘No, you came before me. Go and buy what you came here for. I am not in a hurry.’’
He had empathy for people at the grass roots. He did all he could to lift people up and he knew he could do that through education. That was why I believed he focused on building the university. He also believed in teamwork because if he knew any Nigerian who graduated with a first class abroad, he would call the person to return home. He was always on the look-out for intelligent people and he encouraged them with incentives to return home.
How did he create time for his family despite his busy schedules?
We travelled abroad together often. We also went to Jamaica. It was during the travels that my father used to have the chance to relax. But even at that, he still found time to read. We always had dinner together and if any of us was not around, the person’s food was kept in the oven.
Who were his friends?
I remember clearly Prof. Akin Mabogunje. He used to visit the house with his wife and they would discuss. There was also a statistician who is now late, Prof. Adenola Eagle and Prof. Sam Aluko. My father’s friends were people from the academics. He also had people from his hometown who visited too.
Did you have an opportunity to watch him teach?
Yes, that was when he did one year as a visiting lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US. I remember that he took me to one of the classes. The Nigerian students in the university didn’t miss the class because they wouldn’t want to miss the teaching of a Nigerian professor of his standing. I was young at the time and felt intimidated.
What career do you think he would have chosen if he didn’t dedicate his life to academics?
I think because of his nature, he would have studied law because he didn’t like people being cheated. He believed in being straightforward. I see him becoming a lawyer.
In fact, if he became a lawyer, he would have been a professor of law instead of going into the courtroom. He was not looking to make money. I believe strongly that he would have been a lawyer for the fact that he didn’t like people being cheated.
What do you miss most about him?
I miss his sense of security. He always ensured that the doors in our home were locked and that everything was safe. He would always walk round the house. He made us feel secure.
Where were you when he died?
I was abroad and he died of health-related issues. He died at 63 and a lot of people said that he put too much stress on himself doing so much for others and the nation.
Did he have preference for any type of music?
I know he loved classical and Jamaican music. I am sure he loved his own indigenous music too like that of King Sunny Ade and Ebenezer Obey because of their sensible songs. He would ever listen to any song lacking sensible messages.
Did he tell you why he ventured into farming?
He didn’t have to tell me in many words because we went to the farm together. I knew he had a passion for agriculture as an agricultural economist. He also wanted to establish something in his hometown. He felt it would not be right to leave the earth without practicalising what one studied. On the farm, we focus on cassava now but while he was alive, it was corns.
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