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Nigerian Girl in Jamaica Born To Run

OH Jamaica, Oh, Jamaica, you’ve always been on my mind.  Idyllic island of reggae made famous by the music of Jimmy Cliff, the “positive vibrations” of Bob Marley and the dancehall groove of music stars too many to count.  I remember all the U-Roys, I-Roys and Shabba Ranks that once ruled the Nigerian airwaves and nightclubs.

The Jamaica of Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world.  The Jamaica of the world fastest women.  Women like Elaine Thompson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.  There has been a lot of debate on what makes a small island like Jamaica to be producing at a fast, sustainable pace, the fastest men and women on the surface of the earth.

Today’s column is dedicated to one of them, an upcoming Nigerian girl born in Jamaica, born to run.  Her name is Olukemi Ogunde.  She is nine, the daughter of my “lost-but-found” good old friend Raheem Ogunde, a licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer who now teaches aircraft maintenance engineering at the University of Trinidad and Tobago.  He is married to a Jamaican, Diahann Caroll.  A graduate of the University of Birmingham where he bagged his BSc in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Ogunde had left Nigeria for Jamaica many years ago through the Technical Aid Corps programme.  There he met Diahann whom he describes as “God’s gift to me.”  They have two daughters: Olufunke and Olukemi.  The younger one Olukemi is the one who is making news as a sprinter with wings on her feet and Olympic hopes and dreams.  The way she runs, she is already being dubbed the next Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce.  Last Saturday at the National Stadium in Kingston, she anchored her team to 1st place in the annual Prep and Primary School Athletics Competition in Jamaica.  Olukemi is a student of VAZ Preparatory in Kingston.  I watched in amazement the video of Olukemi as she anchored the last leg, soaring to the finishing line, all, all alone, leaving far, far behind the other contestants in a record-shattering speed.  A picture of hers shows a determined, talented young speedster holding her baton and sprinting towards the finishing line with no one else in sight.  In the video, I watched her sister, aunty and grandma all cheering her to victory.

Raheem Ogunde, a proud father, told me how his daughter expressed an interest a year ago to join the school’s track team and the parents gave her the approval.  “She has been nothing short of amazing, since then,” Ogunde reveals in our chat over WhatsApp.  “She trains a lot and is very dedicated to running.  Her mum was a sprinter who used to run for the company where she worked many years ago.  She also plays netball for her current company.”

Olukemi obviously inherited her mother’s genes.  From the story of Olukemi’s gold-winning performance on the track, I can see why Jamaicans are doing well in athletics, particularly in the sprints.  Here is a country that strives to catch them young through events like “Prep Champs” whose hallowed corridors stars like Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, Merlene Ottey, Veronica Campbell Brown and Elaine Thompson have all passed.  Wikipedia has this to say about athletics in Jamaica:

“Most Jamaican schools have an athletics program in the curriculum, so Jamaican children are into athletics at a young age. Budding young athletes have to impress at primary school level as this can get them recognised by good athletics schools like St. Jago High, Kingston College and Vere Technical High.  The most important athletics event in Jamaica is the VMBS Boys and Girls Athletics Championships (colloquially known simply as ‘Champs’) which began in 1910 at Sabina Park and were won by Wolmer’s High School. These championships are a chance for athletes under 19 to show off their talents to national and overseas coaches. The championships are incredibly popular in Jamaica and the athletes are normally competing to crowds of 20-25,000 people, which is good preparation for major championships and some of the championship records are world class.”

Outside athletics, I asked Ogunde his general impressions of Jamaica, a country he sees as “home away from home,” a country that “has opportunities and rewards hard work.”

“Here in Jamaica, there is a higher level of honesty than our homeland,” he continues.  “Jamaica turned out to be my Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey.  I lectured at the University of Technology, Jamaica, and subsequently became a faculty member.  From there I left to work for Air Jamaica (1999-2011), Caribbean Aerospace College (2011-2014), Fly Jamaica Airlines (2016) and finally to the University of Trinidad and Tobago where I teach.

“There are Nigerians here in the Caribbean but they are mostly professionals—lawyers, doctors and so on.  I follow Nigerian news closely.  Yes, I am concerned about situations at home, particularly how education has degenerated.  Even educators in Nigeria are lamenting the decline in quality of education as it is now.

“I have not experienced a single outage in my almost one year in Trinidad.  In Jamaica, it is infrequent and notice is usually given and it doesn’t last long.  If outage is due to a fault within the system, it is attended to quickly enough.

“In the Caribbean, Nigeria is not in high visibility now but generally speaking, Nigeria is seen as the leader of the African continent.  Nigerian movies are very popular among the population, more so in Jamaica where Nigerian movie stars like Akii and Pawpaw are household names.  They get to know a lot about Nigeria through our movies.

“I eat a mixture of both Nigerian and Jamaican food.  Jamaican food is very tasty.  It is loved by many around the world.  My wife can cook Nigerian food and I do also.

“Will I encourage Olukemi to take athletics as a career?  Yes, if she wants.  The decision will have to be hers.  I give my daughters a lot of latitude in decision-making, even now in their early years.  I try to steer them.  I was just reflecting before I read the story of your son’s wedding on the Internet.  I said to myself: this is what we worked hard for—to build a solid foundation for our children and generations to follow them.  We did not grow up with silver spoon in our mouths.  Indeed we grew up with no spoon at all.  But praise be to God, He has placed us on higher grounds.”

If in the next Olympics or a future one you hear the name Olukemi Ogunde standing on the podium to be laureled with either gold or silver, just remember you first read about her in this column.  From the way she is running at age nine, the sky is definitely the limit for this swift, high-flying “Naijamaican” gazelle born to run and is running into the future to win big.


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June 2018
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