“Age shall not wither her …” – Soyinka quotes WS at Lady SAN’s 75th

January 3, 2012


Folake Solanke (nee Odulate of Alabukun fame) had her secondary education at Methodist Girls’ High School, Yaba, a school that holds her as its most distinguished alumna.  She would later travel to the U.K. where she earned a first degree in Mathematics before  working for a degree in Law, a rarity in those days.

She has not only excelled professionally but has led a life of service and activism that has led to her rising to the post of International President of the Zonta International, a service organization for professional women in many countries of the world.  She was the first African woman to hold the position, a post that followed her becoming the District Governor for a region that spread from Nigeria to The Gambia, the first West African and Nigerian.  Chief Solanke also has many other firsts among which are first woman commissioner in the old Western State and one NEVER to be omitted, first woman Senior Advocate of Nigeria, a first that has earned Solanke the endearing name, “Lady San”!  And, a lady, indeed, Auntie Lady San will always be.

During her presidency of the Ibadan Zonta Club (then a single club of which this blogger would later become a member) in 1979, she pushed for the participation of women in running for positions AND voting: the sonorous “Calling all women …” still rings in my ears!

Talking of activism, Solanke added her voice to those of others asking President Jonathan not to remove the so-called oil subsidy just last month as reported in newspapers, including The Vanguard of December 14 while presenting a speech at the Special Court Session organized by the Oyo State judiciary in honor of the Late former Chief Judge of the State, Justice Timothy Ayorinde:

“FIRST female Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Chief Folake Solanke, has warned the Federal Government against its planned removal of fuel subsidy.

While giving the warning yesterday in Ibadan, she noted that the proposal would do the country no good but would further impoverish the lowly-paid workers in the country…” – Ola Ajayi

Chief Folake Solanke, B.Sc. (Mathematics), LL.B., Senior Advocate of Nigeria

Chief Folake Solanke, popularly called “Lady SAN”, a sobriquet earned for her honor of being Nigeria’s first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria way back over a quarter century ago, celebrated her 75th birthday this week in a grand manner at Ibadan – and it was a roll call of who is who in law, industry, academics and society.  The first of the activities lined up to mark the occasion was the presentation of her autobiography at the Paul Hendrickse Hall at the University College Hospital.  The medical/academic setting was right because her late husband, Toriola Solanke, was an emeritus Professor of Surgery at the UCH for decades; so was the choice of Birthday Lecturer, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, an old family friend and an Egba like her ‘Toriola’ – and on a lighter note- so, too, is the title chosen for this essay because of Lady SAN’s ageless beauty.

In deference to the ongoing 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade from British colonies, Wole Soyinka gave a lecture along the line of one he had delivered in England a couple of days earlier.  Attendees who were perhaps looking forward to another deep look at the Nigeria situation were taken on a political trip of another kind.  Soyinka believes that the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and talk of reparation should make us – Africans – look inward. The dehumanization that takes place in many parts of the continent, especially Zimbabwe, abuses of our collective humanity and the myriads of ways in which African leaders perpetrate the same sins for which we continue to blame European slavers, should give us food for thought.

With African dictators not much better than the old slave catchers, do we need to wonder why blacks are not included in the definition of “humanity”?

Taking a look back at the Abacha-era visit of Louis Farakkhan, Leader of America’s Nation of Islam to Nigeria who called for a Universal Day of Atonement, Soyinka believes that inward examination is as important as any atonement blacks may get for the sin of slavery in view of people calling for reparation for slavery.  The Nobel Laureate looked at Globalization and the unavoidable marginalization that goes with it in poor countries where labor is cheap. He told his audience what they later learnt, mercifully, is a parody.  I say “mercifully” because I can already see thieving dictatorial leaders who would jump at the idea of a new form of slavery providing avenues for more untold riches: “compassionate slavery” or “full stewardship” in which “foreign investors” – with a powerful Western organization a la WTO giving rich countries the necessary muscle – “to buy and sell anything, including humans” whom they can also OWN!  One can see Nigerian PDP so-called “chieftains”, et al lining up to increase their “investments” with “foreign partners” in this nightmarish modern day Road to Hell.

Soyinka described such social dehumanizing practices like “osu” of Igboland in Nigeria, the “untouchables” of India as nothing but modern variants of slavery.

While he was elaborate on each of the above, it is the issue of dehumanization that women are made to suffer under various guises in many countries on the continent that pays the most homage, in my opinion, to Lady SAN. Soyinka asked his audience to imagine the horror of the celebrant having possibly “been carted off as a child bride”: a degree in Mathematics and another in Law before her chain of achievements on the national and international stages would have been lost just as would have been lost the high achievements of her already high-flying daughters; she also has a successful son.

In many parts of Africa today, there remain practices that are geared towards suppressing women although these practices masquerade as culture and the audience cheered loudly – I’m sure it was women-driven – when Soyinka intoned that fear of competition from women leads men to enforce these dehumanizing “cultural” practices although he knows culture does have its very positive side.

Apart from “osu” and the “untouchables”, Soyinka referred his audience to a group in Ghana in a village about 50 miles outside Accra – literally in our backyard – where female child enslavement was brought to public consciousness through a CNN program some years ago.  This Ghanaian “culture” that allowed a female child to be enslaved to a man, was even unknown to the Ghanaian government.  The girl dared not think of running away because the family would consider it their shame, and would either find her and return her to slavery OR give a replacement to the man!

Such females – as are “osu”; “untouchables” or the Nigerian “sex workers” in Italy are slaves who do not realize as in the words of Sojourner Truth, the African-American leader of the Underground Railroad during slavery – that they are slaves.

Does the “osu” of Eastern Nigeria consider herself a slave?  Does an Indian “untouchable” – or even the high-caste Indians – think the low-caste “untouchable” is a slave like the slaves of by-gone era?  Soyinka referred to a question once asked fromMs. SojournerTruth, the African-American organizer of the Underground Railroad – the secret passages from America’s South to freedom in the North – if it was true that she had helped thousands to freedom through the metaphorical railroad:  “That may be true but thousands more would have been freed if they had known they were slaves,” Ms. Truth was said to have answered.

Slavery will continue to endure as long as we do not slap the label on abhorrent “cultural” practices that have all the marks of slavery: humans owning other humans and the persons being owned possessing no choice about their situation and no way of escape from their predicaments.

Soyinka includes the Nigerian sex workers of Europe, especially Rome, in the “slaves” category.  While many may dismiss his opinion as being “extreme”, pray, what choices do young women who are lured to leave corruption-driven poverty in Nigeria have when they arrive in Italy, stripped of their passports by their recruiters and given whopping bills they could never settle as prerequisite to regaining their freedom.  Meanwhile, night after nightmarish night, these young women are forced to parade the streets of Rome in scanty outfits – no matter the weather – with overseers like those on slave plantations standing near by. It fits perfectly the situation described achingly in Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” although both journeys started with different expectations and prayers”:  “You the Ashanti, the Yoruba … Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare, praying for a dream …” These latter day slaves may leave their homeland in Nigeria with a dream but it is always short-lived as they soon discover once they arrive in Nightmare Land.

I believe that the monumental looting going on in Nigeria by her political rulers today is slavery of a special kind, a slavery that is as real as the unfortunate fact that the slaves are unaware of their situation. The idea of a “slave revolt”, as happened in Haiti when Toussaint L’Ouverture succeeded in freeing fellow slaves from the shackles of French oppression more than two hundred years ago – is therefore remote.

In closing the lecture, Soyinka praised the celebrant for her great achievements, including an eye for details (Lady SAN once sent a particular correction on his Ake, the years of Childhood – twice because she noticed that it was not corrected even in the second edition!), and quoted another master in describing her classic beauty:  “…Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety …” – Shakespeare’sAntony and Cleopatra.


The Nation on Sunday, March 2006.



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