Tai School in Lagos: The Sheila Solarin connection

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By SAM OTTI

As the nation mourns, grave silence prevailed at the Tai Solarin Memorial School, a private school established with the written consent of Mrs. Solarin, to promote the legacy of her husband. Established 15 years ago, the school has branches in Okpanam, Delta State and Festac, Lagos, where they run nursery, primary and secondary sections.

The affection, which the school had for the Solarins, was so strong that some of the pupils broke down in tears, when the news of her death was announced at the assembly ground on Monday, last week.

The Head Teacher at the Amuwo Odofin branch, Mrs. Florence Okolie, told Education Review that although Mrs. Solarin never visited the school due to her old age, the bond of love uniting the pupils and staff of the school with the Solarin family was never weakened by her non-visit. Aside the sculptor of her husband set up conspicuously at the gate, the school also lives by the motto of the late Tai Solarin in opening access for children of school age. Okolie said the school would take a step further towards immortalising her by instituting academic awards for outstanding pupils at the end of this academic session.

The pallor of death loomed large over the school, with the school flag flying at half-mast at the nursery, primary and secondary schools premises when this reporter visited last week. Tears welled up in the Proprietor’s eyes, Patrick Ogugua Iwediuno, as he recalled the fond memories he had of the late Solarins, in an interview with Education Review.

Although he was not a close relationship with the family, he quietly admitted that the death of Mrs. Solarin was something of a personal loss. Iwediuno told Education Review how he fell in love with the late Tai Solarin’s column in the Sunday edition of the Tribune. Although he was student of St. Charles College, Abavo, Delta State at that time, he said he spent his pocket money on buying Tribune newspaper because of Solarin’s fearless writings.

To promote the legacy of the fallen hero, one of his popular articles, titled “May Your Road Be Rough” and reportedly written in 1964, was reprinted as a souvenir by the Tai Solarin Memorial School for free distribution to the public. At one of the branches on 21 Road, D Close, Festac, a larger-than-life photograph of the late Tai Solarin was displayed in the office of the Head Teacher, Mrs. Evezi Mazoje Eno. “May Your Road Be Rough,” was one of his articles that inspired me, Iwediuno recounts.

“I was so impressed. What I understood from that article was that before you make it in life, you must pass through rough path. I believed that and worked diligently thereafter.” Iwediuno said he never intended to establish a school, as he later joined the Nigerian Immigration Service. But his interest in Solarin’s writing blossomed, as he read his articles voraciously. It was while he was working with the Immigration Service in Marina, Lagos that he eventually met Solarin in 1975. “I met him about four times and we became friends.

He asked me if I wanted to read more. That time, some of my colleagues were in his school enjoying free education. Unfortunately, our relationship was cut short when he died in 1994”, he recalls. Shortly after his death, Iwediuno said he went to his widow with the request of establishing a school in the name of her husband. Mrs. Solarin was so happy that she promptly wrote a letter of consent for the school’s take-off. He then added that Nigerians would miss Mrs. Solarin’s passion for education, as well as her unrelenting campaign for social justice.

“She was a very good woman, who stood courageously for the ideals of her husband. She was very intelligent, straightforward and hardworking, even in her old age. She was almost like her husband. She told me that Nigeria could have been like America. She said people from various areas of the country can come together and plan the way forward, for the country. That was exactly the kind of person she was, thinking good of others all the time”, he said.

Although Iwediuno runs a private school, he insists that the spirit of Solarin influences the activities of his school. For instance, the fees for the primary school ranges from N35,000 to N38,000, which he considers among the lowest within the Festac area. The Proprietor gave instances of some parents that failed to meet up their financial obligations to the school. Undeterred, the school still admits children from indigent homes. “When I started the school in Okpanam, Delta State, I gave students scholarship. Two students, nominated from each village in my town, benefitted from the programme. Within the first year, we had 62 students on full scholarship.

The cost was so high that I was sending teachers’ salary from Lagos because the money realised from there wasn’t even enough to pay the teachers’ salaries. We never looked back”, he recalled. Contrary to the rigid admission policy adopted by most private schools, Iwediuno insists that every child has the right to education. According to him, the admission policy adopted by Tai Solarin Memorial School gives every child an opportunity to go to school.

This claim was further confirmed by the Head Teacher of the Festac School, Mrs Evezi, who presented a six-year-old girl that was newly admitted in the school, even though she couldn’t read any word. In continuation of Solarin’s passion for skills for self development, the Head Teacher said the school encourages the pupils to learn vocational skills like tailoring, bead making and others.

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