By Olu Obafemi
Mighty congratulations, Mama, Professor Bolanle Awe, as you step gracefully and gingerly into the Nonagenarian Season of life. This is a wintry age in which the beauty which you have worn these many decades, through the rough and tumble of life, has transfigured into admirable inner charm and grace as we celebrate your exceptional and pioneering exploits in scholarship, academia, intellectual pursuit, posting administrative and cultural landmarks.
Today, many will sing for you and justifiably garland you in the many resplendent colours that you have garnered, as you journeyed through life as a woman in a world proverbially ‘ created’ as it seemed, for men, but in which you have shone, radiantly and brightly, through the ages.
You have smashed, remarkably, many myths and fables of existence to attain this rare and enviable age Ninety. Congratulations Mama.
The hi/story books, written and oral, are replete with the narrative of your life and struggle as a first female lecturer and historian at the Premier University in Ibadan where you rose to become one of the few female Professors of your time: you became one of the two members of the Oyo State Cabinet under General David Jemibewon. Then of course, you held many top positions in the country. As Chairman of the Governing Board of Directors of the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospitals, I was privileged to work under you as a Board member. You had also served as Pro- Chancellor and Chairman of the Governing Council at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In all of these many stations of service to humanity, you have been an admirable success story, and not a mere adornment and token to womanhood as it may be idly perceived. You functioned in those positions in your own right as a veritable study in exceptional merit, genius, compulsive and propulsive industry, inimitable patriotism and excellence in service and accomplishments.
As I hinted earlier, I have been privileged to work with and observe you at close quarters– as an administrator, manager of men and ideas and as an active unionist. I have benefitted tremendously from your leadership style and qualities in those positions.
For example, in the mid- Eighties, Professor Bolanle Awe was the Chairman of the Academic Staff Union of Universities, University of Ibadan Chapter, while I had just ended my term as the Chairman of the Unilorin chapter but still actively engaged in the Union’s activities. I had had occasions to travel with her in difficult circumstances and on very long distances. On these occasions, what I found and delightfully encountered was thoroughness and firmness as her character traits, even as she enthused a gentle and humane mien. She was simple but no- nonsense, resilient and tolerant but ideologically and intellectually lucid and focused. Certainly not passable as a radical, and unpretentious about her liberal disposition, she was unequivocal about her commitment to the pursuits of the struggles of the Union in its mediation of the festering decadence of the nation in the clutches of military oligarchy.
Professor Bolanle Awe’ s capacity to contain the more volatile elements in her union Executive and was always able to stand her ground admirably and instructively in turbulent moments in the Union’s life.
I witnessed this her capacious containment of rough times on one of our trips. This was from Ilorin to Jos where she came to join us from Ibadan on a trip to a National Executive Council Meeting. An argument ensued between her and one of her branch officials, Mrs Laide Soyinka, who was evidently impatient with what she believed, was Mrs Awe’s genteel handling of issues. Those of us from Ilorin on the trip, younger in age, were afraid that the hot argument might deteriorate into fisticuffs as it became hotter, more aggressive, even abusive in the station-waggon Peugeot ferrying us to Jos. However, the cool- headed strategy finally deployed by Prof Awe to marshall her points tempered the exchanges. In the end, it was laughter and banter throughout the long journey to the Plateau. Prof Awe was a humane and active unionist who carried through her conviction with disarming simplicity, covetable humility, incredible sense of humour, laced with anecdotes.
Working with Prof Awe on the Board of the Unilorin Teaching Hospital was a period of robust mentoring for me. A woman and leader endowed with the gift of patience, endurance, thoroughness and a genuine approach to difficult matters, Mama led the Board with charm and distinctive charisma. She would sit through meetings for many hours without recess and without meals, crunching her kolanut and sweets. One rememberable occasion of anxiety was when the Unions went on strike over unpaid or unapproved allowances. The Unions barricaded the Teaching Hospital gates, carrying placards, hauling vituperations at us and singing unpalatable, derisory songs as we sat, trapped in the bus for hours. Her unperturbed poise, calmness and smiles in those stormy moments allayed our fears for her and ourselves. In the end, she graciousness carried the demands of the striking unions to government and the recommendations we made under her leadership influenced the positive outcome for the entire paramedical Associations of the Teaching Hospitals.
Prof Bolanle Awe, Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, FNAL, has impacted many lives, mine inclusive, with her uncommon kind- heartedness and humane approach to difficult matters with enviable generosity of spirit.
At Ninety, she remains amiable, candid, and charming with a gaze unto the future. There are many untold stories in your intellectual armoury, Mama: stories we cannot wait to hear in the years to come and before your centurian Season.
Happy Birthday Mama Bolanle Awe. It is yet great and warm summer Sun in your winter years.
• Prof. Obafemi writes from Abuja