By Agatha Emeadi
Prof. Sarah Oloko, 84, who retired from the Department of Educational Foundation and Distant Learning Institute (DLI), University of Lagos in 2005, is the Board of Trustees chairman of four non-governmental organisations (NGOs). They include the Human Development Initiatives (HDI), where she has presided for 25 years, Health-Sure based in Osogbo, Osun State; Eternal House of Divine Mercy, where children of mentally deranged women are cared for and the Women Grassroots Development (WGD). Prof Oloko is a sought-after multi-national consultant who prides herself in the quality and choice schools she attended with meritorious scholarships and the many students she has built, made and taught in over 50 years of academic work. In this interview she looks back, to recall beautiful memories and expresses pain over the plight of the education sector.
Considering the health challenges life throws at people, how do you feel being active at 84 without loss of memory?
First of all, I am deeply grateful to God for the gift of 84 active years. I didn’t particularly know that I would live this long with all the work because seeing the way people are dying, knowing that longevity in this country is very low, I thank God, my Creator. My mother died at 77 in 1989, while my husband died at 79 in 2010. Since I am in Nigeria working and walking around, 84 for me is also a call for preparation to meet with my Creator, which I want to happen in higher spiritual crescendo. But then, I will not say since I am 84, I will stop contributing to any aspect of the society and country. That will be defeating and mean that I am old. If interviews are relevant, I will grant them, if I have conferences or book to review, I do all that, I still read and write, chair events, attend conferences and workshops and I thank God that I have not lost my memory.
Now that you have retired after a meritorious service, looking back, what are the fond memories you hold dear in your heart?
The differences I made to my students are the first memories I would recall. When I got my Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree from Harvard University, I came back to Nigeria and started from English Department before I went to Education out of interest before Prof. Ibidapo-Obe moved me to DLI and made me head of a committee. It was from DLI that I retired. Now, how pleasing is it that one would be woken up with a telephone call which says, “Please Ma, I was your student, send me your account details.” One day, I went shopping at Yem-Yem stores, University of Lagos; I was coming and saw one of my students who recognized and ran after me; he shopped until my cart was filled up and he paid for everything, turned to me and said, ‘Ma you made me’ and it was a big shock to me. Another time, at the eateries, I heard a voice behind me where I queued. The person said to the sales staff, ‘whatever she buys, I will pay for it.” Later, he came to introduce himself as my former student at the University of Lagos. Another happy moment was when one of my students, whose PhD thesis I supervised, became a professor two years ago at Olabisi Onabanjo University at Ago-Iwoye. It was a zoom conference where I was invited; my former student introduced me specially and other students of mine, who were on the same zoom platform sent me text messages and said, “Your students are here to honour you, Ma, you made us.” The recognition made me so happy. One of my female students whose papers were sent to me for PhD assessment, blocked me at 6:00am Mass one Sunday morning. She ran to me and said, “Mummy, I became a professor yesterday.” The testimonies are endless. Again, it gives me great pleasure to see my students understand with maturity. When I was the Head, Faculty of Education, I had many doctorate degree students who had challenges with their programmes; I prayed to God to help us; I took it personally and began to call and harass them one after the other; nine submitted their thesis and within time, they all got their PhDs. It made me happy that they were not frustrated out of PHD programmes and that is the role of a teacher, if you ask me. A teacher teaches, encourages and brings out the best from a student for greater heights. I am proud to have raised students who are professors like me. When my husband died, my students called from all over the world, it was joy enough. When you do a befitting work, you will see the progress. I took it upon myself to go to various departments and asked for a second chance for some struggling students.
Yesterday, Nigeria marked her 62nd anniversary as a country. The government voted a huge amount for the event. Did the country have any genuine reason to celebrate?
They should have suspended the celebration and used the budgeted amount of money to rebuild what has been destroyed. What did the government celebrate? Corruption? The country is still problematic with many youths who loiter the streets without jobs for them, universities have been closed for long, so what did we celebrate? The government and academic stakeholders are supposed to think out of the box and ask what can be done to salvage the situation and integrate our students back into the school system. Seeing how our students are protesting on the roads and the airport is worrisome. Both should seek creative and positive solutions to the problems and not negative. Now, I hear that the private universities have admitted students above their carrying capacity. By the time this strike is over, our best students would have gone to the private universities.
What was educational system like during your days in the university? How do you feel about what Is it close to what we are seeing today, how do you feel about it?
(Exclaims in excitement). Oh…my goodness! I studied at University of Ibadan on scholarship from the defunct Western Region government when the university was awarding the University of London degree. I was in Queen Elizabeth Hall. I went to Harvard on scholarship too. We were treated like kings and queens, we lived one person per room, but the universities were small then and we ate the best of the land. I was very lucky to have gotten government scholarship from Western Region to attend Ibadan Grammar school. Our result from Ibadan was better than Queens College, Lagos because we worked so hard. In school then, both boys and girls were is serious academic competition and there was nothing like examination malpractices. Then, when the government gives scholarship, one is tied to teach in that school after graduation. After that, I got scholarship again and went to Harvard for my PhD. After my secondary school fees, all other education that I acquired was on scholarship.
Based on the requirement of western region for the scholarship, did you teach after graduation?
When I came back from Harvard, where I met Professor Olatunde Oloko of blessed memory who became my husband and I got pregnant as well, I got a letter from the headteacher of St. Anne’s School that the Sixth Form class needed an English teacher. I told my husband that I was honour-bound and took my advanced pregnancy to Ibadan and taught for three months. The students just passed the examination before I gave birth; but I had a responsibility to report myself before I returned to Lagos again. I wrote them a letter, to say that I could not come back again even though I signed a document then to teach upon graduation; that I did not run away, rather I became a new mother, and they allowed me go. But people are no longer that detailed to meet up with their responsibilities. When my mother died in 1989, I met with all my appointments in different radio houses, held meetings before I went to Ibadan to bury my mother. The sense of responsibility that was drilled into us by the mission schools then is lacking today. No one should leave his or her duty post for anything except life and death. The joy of life is not about the money, but the values inculcated in others.
Now that you are retired, what are you doing?
I became a consultant in 2005 (after retiring that year) and functioned in that capacity till 2010. I was actively involved in consultancy for ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and USAID (United States Agency for International Development). From 2010, I began to do more things for the church. Pope Benedict made me a knightof St. Sylvester in Rome. I was flabbergasted because the Cardinal recommended me based on the works I had done in the church. So, the joys of life are not about money alone. The way I live now is simple. I sold my car, because it was going to give me headache, but my daughter sends me a car and driver when I need one. My life does not depend on any car. If UBER is not available, I take Keke Marwa and enjoy the fresh air. It does not matter to me how I get there. The society has become increasingly much more materialistic. Are we doing what God sent us to do credibly, so on judgement day, one can have a feeling to have served God and humanity.
What fond memories do you have of growing up?
I was born at No 74 Jubilee Road, Aba, Abia State of Yoruba parents. My father was a big time mechanic who later died, and his rule was that I should be with his younger brother who was also a mechanic in Ikot-Ekpene, but my mother later came for me to take care of me because she was a very hard working woman. She was a long distance trader who owned a lorry and a bus. When I was a teenager, I asked her, ‘Mama I have never heard you complain at all.’ She said to me, “If I was a man, I would have been taking care of my wife and children, but I am a woman taking care of you, why should I complain?” She was a merchant who traded on various items. She told me how a man insulted her with a car meant to carry her goods, she ran out that same afternoon and bought a car on the dint of hard work. I enjoin husbands to do their bit, but wives work and make your home the goal. Whatever you do outside, know that the home needs the service. Even as a professor, I am a housewife at home. My mother used to call me palemo-palemo (one who tidies the home). The moment I came back from school, my mother would scream and say, “This girl will tidy me out of content. I knew where my properties were, now I cannot find them because of my palemo-palemo.”
So how did you meet your husband?
My late husband, Professor Olatunde Oloko, and I met as students at Harvard University in the United States of America. We got married in 1966 and had our first child there. We lived together for 44 years before he passed on to glory. I was very lucky I had a good marriage; I had a man with a good conscience, but again, I did my job. The man is the head of the home and that is very clear in the scriptures. All the education, big degrees and work is to service the home and society, not for ego massage. Men want to be respected before God, give him his due. Whatever you are, when you reach your doorstep, leave it there and be a housewife. When there were no domestic workers, I would sweep, dust, scrub, cook, wash and take care of my children. I thank God for grace, but above all, be a Christian and serve humanity. I don’t forget when we were visiting Nigeria with our baby, officials at the airport in New York halted our trip because they said we could not travel with an American citizen without his passport. We thought our Nigerian passport covered him, we waited for another week to process his travel documents before we came down. That is the pride of the nation.
How about your children and grandchildren?
I am blessed with both and thank God. One of my granddaughters graduated from Harvard as well while one went to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an engineering school that is an equivalent of Harvard. I was so honoured when one of them said, “Grandma is my role model.’ It was mind-blowing. I told my grandchildren that are overseas never to allow any colour bias distract them; they should rise up to the occasion with hard work. The fight wherever chauvinism seems to raise its head should not be interpersonal but with hard work. Do your work.
The typical woman is fashion conscious. How do score on that?
I did not wear laces until my 70th birthday. I wear my simple English wear and hat for occasions. I started wearing simple native with the introduction of auto-gele which has made life much easy. At least in 10 minutes, I am dressed.