Despite being slowed down physically by Parkinson’s disease, 86-year-old Sheila Solarin, widow of Tai Solarin, the late renowned educationist and social critic, still reads newspapers daily. Very passionate about education, Mama, as she is fondly called, sponsors about a hundred students, including those who are not students of Mayflower School, Ikenne, Ogun State, the school founded by her late husband. Still brimming with intelligence and passion for life, she tackled the controversy over the reported agreement with the Ogun State government to hand over Mayflower School to her, as well as issues surrounding her adopted country, Nigeria. She speaks with Arukaino Umukoro, staff writer. Excerpts.
You strongly desire to have Mayflower School back under your wings, what are your reasons?
First of all, we were asked if we would take the school back. We did not go to beg for the school. And a few years ago, the previous commissioner for education asked me that question and I said no. But I have seen over the recent years that the physical structures are deteriorating. And when we were asked again, I asked my children and they said they were up for it, that we were going to take it back.
But the government has not yet fulfilled its promise?
Well, I don’t understand why or how because there was a memorandum of understanding, which we all signed and it was very clear. And it was very strange to me that it is not going to happen. But I think it will.
What are your plans for the school when the government finally hands it over to you?
It’s obvious to anybody who comes to the school that the physical structures must be either demolished or improved. They can’t be left halfway. And then, the morale of the children needs to be raised because all this confusion is damaging to them, they don’t understand what is going on. So I hope that we can improve their morale and that of the teachers.
It looks like it is going to need a massive injection of funds. How do you hope to do this?
It’s a terrible job and I would think in the next 10 years, the struggle will go on. I think also that there are quite a lot of people that could help in different ways that are waiting for this handover. We have computers, cartons of books, those donated by my late brother and sent to the school. And I got N2 million on the (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire) TV show, which I decided would go into buying science equipment.
What are the strong points that Mayflower teaches?
That you can do a lot more than you thought you could do. You learn to face any situation and try to make it work. They learn to take any employment; whatever jobs you can get, even if you get a job digging holes, dig a deep hole, dig the best hole. Whatever job you’re doing, do it well. And self-reliance. It’s no use looking behind you to see if somebody is going to push you or show you what to do. Make your own mind up and do something.
You’ve been in Nigeria for more than half a century now and have seen the rise and fall of public school education. How do you think the country’s education system can be revived like you want to do for Mayflower?
There is a saying in England, put your money where your mouth is. If you want to make a good educational system, you have to put good funds into the system and make sure that they go to the place where they should go. But corruption, in this country, has killed everything. Nobody enjoys paying schools fees, they only do it because they feel their kids are not getting enough of what they should get.
You talked about corruption. Most people of your generation say that ‘during our days, we had a better value system than now’. What would you have to say about this?
Well I think the value system is not only what you teach. You can’t stand in the front of the classroom and teach people values. You can only teach them by the way you live, by the way you behave, by the way you treat other people. I am convinced that one of the main reasons for most of our social ills in this country is the inequality of income. The people at the top are getting way too much, and the people at the bottom are getting less. So, until people begin to realise their actions would affect everybody else, we won’t get anything done. I read the papers and see at least six examples of corruption in the nation. It starts from home, from school, and it starts from us. We are all responsible.
Do you feel any sense of fulfilment having spent this long (half a century) in a country you were not born in? Are you fulfilled?
I’ve been busy. I don’t know about being fulfilled (laughs). I’ve been kept occupied and I can say entertained. I’ve enjoyed it. Sometimes, fear, sometimes anger, but it’s never been dull. Every morning, you never know quite what is going to happen at the end of the day. And I like it like that.
It’s been almost two decades since Tai Solarin passed away. With all what has happened in this country, do you think the state or federal government has done enough to immortalise his legacy?
Tai never wanted pictures of himself. He never wanted any statue. The best legacy anybody could give him would be to improve on the situation, particularly as far as education is concerned. If the children of today had a better deal than they had 50 years ago, I’m sure that he would be very happy. And if he could see that the children in 10 years’ time are going to get a better deal that the children are getting now, then he would be happy. He was a humanist. He was caring for people. He gave the best he could give wherever he found himself. And I feel the same way.
How have you coped with life since he passed on?
Well, I take each day as it comes and I do the best I can do with it. I miss him because we were not only husband and wife we were friends. We were work partners. We worked together and for a long time, 40 plus years. So it’s not easy.
I know you can’t mention everything, what are the things you miss most about him?
The fact that he had courage to stand up and say something and do something when he saw that something was wrong. He did not sit down and say, ‘oh, make we go manage am’. He would go and do something. And that I think is a very necessary part.
You were here during independence. You saw the hopes and dreams of a new Nigeria. Do you think those expectations have been fulfilled?
Not really. We were very hopeful, personally. But I think the corruption came in quite early. And it just got much worse. And it’s not only in Nigeria; most African countries have the same problem.
Would it be correct to say that you’re passionate about Nigeria?
I think so. I went to do my masters in Toronto (Canada) and then I realised that I was white inside but black outside, because the only people I could really relate to were people from third world countries. And I have very little connection with the UK; I would feel completely out of place there.
Is there a future for Nigeria, do you think?
I hope so. We’ve got a lot of intelligent and honest people in Nigeria. We are not all crooks. Perhaps it means we need something to make us aware of what we must do, what we can do. I hope there is a future. I can’t say that I am 98 per cent sure. But I hope and I think we all have to play our part. We all have to realise that what I do affects everybody else. You know, you often hear people say, “What can one man do in the kind of desperation?” One man can do a lot. Tai did a lot and he was just one man. Awolowo did a lot and he was just one man. One man can do a lot. We can all do a lot.
Nigeria has just celebrated her 51st independence. What do you expect from Nigerians generally?
I would like to see people working hard, seven days a week. I would like honesty in all our actions. I would like tolerance, that we accept that people are different and we can still live together. Hard work, honesty, tolerance; I think these three things would take us a long way.
Do you harbour any ill feeling towards the military government, especially Babangida’s, for the arrest and detention of late Tai and the ordeal he went through under them?
I don’t feel any antagonism to them personally. If they had been perhaps better educated about the jobs they were in, maybe they would have done a better job. These military leaders were not trained to govern and may not have had all the qualities they should have had. I don’t have any animosity towards any of them.
What cemented your decision to stay in Nigeria?
There was more to do. There was more work to do. I can achieve more. I could give out more. You know in Europe, so much had already been decided, put in shape and is going. But here there is so much to do. And I enjoyed that. I liked the challenge. I liked putting something in myself. So I think that is really what has kept me.
What would you want to be remembered for?
The same thing: hard work, honesty, tolerance and the ability to get on with all kinds of people.