Friday, July 1, 2016 11:48 am
On Wednesday June 15 2016, prior to the commencement of the 70th birthday lecture titled, “Femi Osofisan and the Fascinating Journey along Many Paths”, delivered by Professor Olu Obafemi, Osofisan agreed to speak to Gbenro Adesina, the Ibadan Correspondent of TheNEWS. In the sitting room was Professor Osofisan’s wife, Adenike, also a professor of Computer Science in simple clothes, surrounded by family members. I could see countless awards pinned on two boards in the sitting room. When Osofisan emerged from his living room beaming with smile, he instantly ushered me into the balcony where he also keeps some of his awards from different organizations here and abroad. He then called for a piece of cake in a plate and red wine over which the interview was conducted for about an hour.
Q: How do you feel being 70?
A: I feel the same as I felt before being 70. There is no difference. It is just that I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of good wishes. Several people came to celebrate with me at 70. It was really, really a great time.
Q: How do you feel when Biodun Jeyifo and your other friends at every slightest opportunity tell you that they are your seniors as they were 70 before you, demanding for respect from you?
A: Don’t mind them, they are rascals. I am used to their harassment.
Q: During the ceremony which of the comments touched you the most?
A: It is difficult to say. I am touched by all of them. They are all kind.
Q: What is the uniqueness of 70th birthday to you?
A: It is just the way of our culture here to celebrate age. You will see that there are big differences in attaining 40, 50, 60 or 70 years and so on. Every ten years that one survives, it is a miracle, particularly in our society. There are enormous difficulties in our society: illnesses, depression, frustration, poverty, irrational violence, political betrayals, you name it, each sufficient to terminate your life at any moment. So, anybody at all who makes it to 50 nowadays, is extremely lucky, particularly me. I never expected to be this lucky. I call it a miracle.
Q: How do you mean?
A: People in my family, especially the male, don’t last long. My father died 70 years ago. He died at thirty something. I didn’t know him; I was only three months old. And then his only brother too died young. So, I thought, it’s natural to die young in my family.
Q: What about your mother?
A: My mum lived long, though you could say, not long enough. She had two sons for my father. I never enjoyed fatherly care. I don’t even know what it means to have a biological father. My mother was too poor to take care of us, so we were farmed out to relatives here and there. It was the benevolence of relatives that accepted us that helped us to survive, at least in the early years.
Q: So how did you manage to get to where you are today?
A: Luck and hard work. The funny thing about life is that those who have everything are the ones who don’t work hard. Since they have everything, they have no incentive to work hard. It is those that don’t have anything that always work hard. If you don’t have anything, you will depend on what you can do with your own hands. So, for me, good luck with the benevolence of God helped me this far.
Q: While growing up, who were those that really played significant, unforgettable roles in your life?
A: Those who brought me up: my stepfather, my aunty and her husband, though, things later got sour on that side, and quite a number of people who helped me all along when I needed them.
Q: What lessons did you take home from your birthday anniversary?
A: I am frankly not thinking of any lessons now but simply savouring the joy of having so many people at my birthday anniversary. The turnout of people means that one is considered significant in one way or the other. Kindness and compassion from people have brought me a long way and I believe this kindness is something that must be returned.
Q: Why haven’t you joined the likes of Wole Soyinka, Biodun Jeyifo, Niyi Osundare and the rest abroad for greener pasture?
A: With Soyinka, it is a bit different from the others you mentioned. All of them went abroad for different reasons. Soyinka went abroad because he was to be killed for his unceasing opposition to the military regime. Remember, he was eventually sentenced to death by General Sani Abacha. So, he had to go. Jeyifo and Osundare had left earlier because of family problems. But I didn’t have any pressing reason to go, so, I didn’t go.
There is no doubt that when those people left the country, things were tough for the university system. Things were going down terribly. Morale was low, so, many left for more lucrative jobs. Others left because of persecution. They were fleeing from the military government. Those who left for job satisfaction felt they could not find the tools and resources they needed here to succeed in their chosen careers. People were losing confidence in themselves and becoming disillusioned. For me, I reacted differently. I just felt that if the military were trying to destroy education, then some of us should stay around to make sure they didn’t succeed.
Q: Was your decision not too risky for you?
A: It was. But we had to survive by all means. I am sure you were alive then and you know how risky it was but we had to devise all kinds of means to survive. We did and I am glad we did.
Q: Are you saying that it never occurred to you at any point in time to leave?
A: It did, many times because of the children. They were getting letters from their friends whose parents had left, asking them why their dad was still staying in Nigeria while other children were enjoying themselves abroad with their parents. They were under a lot of pressure, and it did occur to me to leave too because of them. It is only that I decided that I wasn’t going to go and my wife fortunately bought into that. Also, I felt that I should raise the kids to a certain level, to maturity, to give them firm roots here. That was it, though, it wasn’t easy at all. But I must tell you that I feel happier that they finished their secondary schools and universities before they decided to move. Education is not just what you get in the classroom. It is the combination of what you get in the classroom, from the home, and the cultural environment. The kind of education you get gives you self-identity.
As you grow up in this country, you have a notion of who you are, and where your roots are. The experience we had abroad in our time imprinted it on us that it is terrible for young children to be sent abroad at a very early age, when they have not developed any kind of self-knowledge or self-defence. They don’t know who they are and they are going into a culture that discriminates against black people and they have nothing to defend themselves against that. That’s why we lament about those Yoruba parents who will not allow their children to speak Yoruba. In Lagos, in the cities of the south-west now, it’s the ‘sophisticated’ practice. And the children grow up more or less like aliens, unable to speak their mother tongue, and not even speaking good English either! We strongly advocate that parents should speak Yoruba to their children and allow their children to speak Yoruba as best as possible, because at that age, children can master five to six languages easily. But being Yoruba, and being able to speak it fluently, strengthens their sense of identity and their ability to stand and compete with others anywhere in the world.