Bolanle Awe

Renowned Administrator And Scholar

A historian, scholar, teacher, author and gender analyst of high repute, Bolanle’s love for the lettered world has not waned. Through her pen and voice, she has worked tirelessly to inform and to change people’s erroneous beliefs, especially as they pertain to women. The widely travelled intellectual colossus continues to win admiration and respect for her hard work, integrity, humane spirit and numerous achievements.


I spent the first eight years of my life in the big, bustling town of Ilesa which was noted then for its active commercial life dominated by Lebanese and Ijesa traders operating in its famous main street, Adeti. Although my father was an Ibadan indigene, my first contact in those early days was with my mother’s people since my father worked for John Holt & Co., a shipping and general merchandise company with a branch in Ilesa. It was therefore in Ilesa that I became aware of the larger family and relations.

My mother was an Ijesa woman from the Abede family, a branch of the royal family, the Uyiarere ruling house. The Abede base in Ilesa is Omofe in the neighbourhood of the newly constituted Holy Trinity Cathedral Omofe. I grew, to know two of my grandfather’s wives – Iya Pupa who was of a fair complexion, and Iya Dudu who was dark. My grandmother was Iya Dudu. She was a true matriarch and the focal point for her own branch of the Abede family. Her building, which was placed quite close to my three uncles’, was the rallying point for all of us her grandchildren. She was an extremely industrious women and her house was always full of activities while we her grandchildren played round, helping ourselves to whatever delicacies she gave us.

Although I stayed with my parents in our small nuclear family in another part of the town, I was always at Omofe, at any given opportunity. I enjoyed the fun of being there with my many cousins and other relations. Another focal point was my mother’s eldest brother, Chief E.A. Ariyo.

Like his father, he was also a prince, governor of Ibala, another town outside Ilesa. He was a prosperous cocoa trader. Prominent in the compound was his impressive and, for us children, gigantic storey building, built in the Brazilian style. He also had many wives and many children. Babaloja Ibala (as we called him) was very lively and accommodating. We children felt free sitting with him in the evening listening to his jokes and stories. When eating, he would give each of us a morsel of pounded yam well-laced with rich soup and sometimes pieces of meat. Because of his generosity, all of us girls wanted to be his wives!

We always enjoyed his company. The older cousin used to go to his farm at Alabidan a few kilometres on the way to Osogbo after school hours. Sometimes, I followed them and returned home proudly carrying a tuber of yam to show that I had also gone to the farm. At times, I stayed in Omofe for so long, especially as it was near my school. On such occasions, my father would walk into the compound and, without any ceremony, drag me back home. Life at home was quieter and certainly more disciplined.

My father was of a quieter disposition, though my mother was more outgoing and interacted easily with people in our neighbourhood. After spending some years in Ilesa, my father was transferred by his company, John Holt Co. to Ibadan. Ibadan was a new experience for me in many ways. It was a much bigger town with more of the amenities of modern life. The first marvel for me in Ibadan was the discovery of electricity! I couldn’t help hiding my amazement that by ‘pinching the wall’ (that is by putting on the electric switch on the wall) the light would appear! It was a new experience; unlike Ilesa where we used lanterns, candles and local oil lamps!

In Ibadan we lived in Araromi street, in an area generally known as Oke Padre (the settlement of the Roman Catholics). A big Roman Catholic Church was a prominent feature of the landscape. But our street, Araromi, was virtually a village within this area. It was inhabited primarily by civil servants, white collar workers, clerks etc. In many ways, they were a diverse lot – Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Muslims and adherents of African traditional religion. They came from different parts of Nigeria and even West Africa. I can remember quite dearly the tall and stately Mama Aganyin (Ghanaian woman) who was very popular with us children because of the exquisite taste of her fried plantains! We all lived together in peace and harmony. We were exposed to the different religious practices including that of the old lady who placed offerings in a black broken pot for the Eṣu deity every five days. Of course, we children broke the fast in the evening with the Muslims. It was a happy place to be. The houses faced one another along the one main street, Araromi. We were like a large family; the fathers and mothers acted as loco parentis to all of us, the children.

Weddings, christenings, etc., were celebrated together. There was certainly no formality in the interactions, particularly among our mothers who visited one another without any ceremony. I also got to know members of my father’s family at Oje. Every Sunday, we went, as it were, on pilgrimage to Oje to meet them. We would walk from Oke Padre, through the Olorisa Oko market, then by different shortcuts we would climb Oke Sapati (Shepherd’s Hill, named after an early European trader in that area), then descend to Yemetu and finally across to Oje. It was always, the same happy gathering as at Omofe, Ilesa. We children would play all kinds of pranks, climb some of the fruit trees particularly in Papa Ajagunna’s compound, and struggle especially for the agbayun fruit which leaves a sugary taste in one’s mouth, making everything eaten thereafter sweet! In the evening, we would find our way home to Araromi Street.

Such were the environment in which I lived my childhood in Ilesa and Ibadan. It was for me and my late brother, Dapo, a happy childhood about which I still feel very emotional. It was also quite clear to my brother and me that our parents cared and took the job of parenting very seriously. My father cherished us particularly because of his background. An only child, he lost his mother when he was young, and he showed in the way he treated us that he appreciated having a family. He loved children generally and showered love on the children that came his way. He related to us in such a way that we felt comfortable with him; that notwithstanding, he could be firm and brooked no nonsense.

He insisted on good manners and stressed the importance of being courteous in our interactions with others. He was a stickler for observing proper etiquette at all times and insisted on good table manners, for instance, in the way we handled our cutlery and the eating of our food. He and mother complemented each other in this parenting business. Mother was a typical Ijesa woman – very strict and an extrovert who brooked no nonsense. She believed that we should stand up for ourselves. I remember coming home crying once having been the victim of a bully’s attack. Mother told me, ‘Go back and fight back. You are not to return home in tears, feeling helpless; you must learn to stand up for yourself.’ I acted on her words and the bullies became my friends. They were surprised at my courage.

Initially, I in particular baulked at what I regarded as her high handedness, but later I began to understand her and appreciate the great depth of love behind her actions, and gradually we became friends. My father’s death while I was still abroad and her own departure soon after I came back from Britain were and are still of a source of a sorrow whenever I reflect on their lives.


With such kind of parents, schooling was not a problem. It was taken for granted that we must have formal education. Both my parents could be described as well-educated within the context of the standards of those days. My mother was a professionally trained teacher, one of the first set to be so trained in the United Missionary College, Ibadan.

My father attended Ibadan Grammar School and from there went to England to spend a few years in Dulwich College, a public school in London. There was therefore on ceremony about enrolling me as a pupil at Holy Trinity School Omofe-Ilesa along with my numerous Ariyo and Ilori cousins in that neighbourhood. I enjoyed the school, particularly as it was near my grandmother’s house and I easily disappear for snacks as well as enjoy the company of the company of my cousins. In 1942, however, I had to move to Ibadan where my father was transferred. Again, it was enrolment in another Anglican primary school, St. James’s School, Oke Bola. It was not too far from Araromi, Oke Padre. We took a short cut to the Salvation Army Church and then went along the Ogunpa River, to Gbagi where the Lebanese traders, local traders and other firms had their shops, across Ogunpa River once again, then by a bush path to the junior primary school near the old church. It was fun.

Though the teachers certainly did not spare the rod, we had nicknames for all of them. At break time, one of my friends, Funso Olugbode and I used to go to the farmers working near the Ogunpa River to buy a long stick of very juicy sugar cane for one tenth of a penny instead of snacks! We moved to the senior primary school which has since been demolished to make way for a petrol station! We spent one year there and many of us in that class took entrance examinations to various secondary schools. Four of us girls, Grace Moore, Funso Olugbode, Margaret Osifeso and I gained admission to C.M.S Girls School Lagos while some of the boys went to C.M.S Grammar School and Ibadan Grammar School.

Going to Lagos was for me a new experience; I had to be chaperoned for my first trip. My late Aunt, Mrs Helen Omolola Oluyide, took me there for the entrance examination. Starting in the school in January 1946 was a big jump! I was going to be in the boarding house, and have my first experience of leaving home. There were only twenty-five of us boarders but there was a strict seniority hierarchy. Proper deference to the senior girls was expected especially if they were two classes ahead of one. But it was all fun. The classes were small. We were only twenty-five in the first Form in 1946, but by 1951 when we were passing out, there were only twelve of us left. Such was the rigour of the teaching and the high standard.

Our school founded in 1869, was the oldest girls’ school in the country and the first to field female students for the West African School Certificate and teach science subject. The teachers were dedicated and highly qualified. Discipline was high and for any bad behaviour we were sent out of class to stay under the mango tree in front of the Principal’s office. This was the height of public disgrace as the Principal’s office was in such a place that the school could see that one was guilty of a misdemeanour. Emphasis was on good behaviour as was to be expected of a Christian School. Academic achievement was also rated high. My class had 100% success when we left the school and certainly set a good standard for a school which had moved its location from Lagos to Ibadan and is now known as St. Anne’s School. We were the first set to graduate from St. Anne’s School.


After school at St. Anne’s, the next port of call, which most of us in our class took for granted, was moving on to a tertiary institution and acquiring a profession. Usually, all of us became professionals in one field or another – Medicine, Law, Teaching, Nursing, etc. For some of us, the ultimate ambition then was to study in Britain even though University of Ibadan was already doing well. I, for one, had the mistaken belief that Ibadan students worked too hard and were under excessive pressure to do well. On the contrary, I felt it would be plain sailing studying in Britain! I was lucky that my parents who had to foot the bill agreed with me and gave me that opportunity.

After the initial traumatic and deflating experience of seeking admission for the Sixth Form programme to study for my Advanced Levels in a boarding school, I got a place in a public school, the Perse School for Girls in Cambridge for the same purpose. It was a day school but I was fortunate to have as my guardians Uncle Ainshe and Auntie Pat (Russel) who took me to their home for the two years. Luckily for me, their daughter, Catherine, attended the same school and we left together every morning on our bicycles to get to school before 8am. Incidentally, cycling became my mode of transportation throughout my student days for the eight years I was in Britain. Life at the Perse School was exciting. The emphasis was not just on academic attainment though that loomed large and we were encouraged to go to Oxford, Cambridge or any other frontline university. However, there was a serious attempt to introduce us to the different cultural aspects of British life such as music, especially classical music, the theatre, the arts, sports – swimming in the River Cam, skating on it in the winter, and of course cricket. We had wonderful teachers who encouraged us to think about our environment, the political situation, etc. I made many friends with whom I went youth-hostelling to different parts of Britain and Europe.

I moved from Cambridge to St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. Two of my mentors, Mrs Phabean Ogundipe and Mrs C.F. Oredugba had attended this beautiful university by the sea. There could have been no better university for an overseas student at that time. St. Andrews city was essentially a university town with a few retirees who liked the clean healthy environment where they could play golf. The Ancient and Modern golf course was famous and still is the Mecca for all serious golfers. But everything else in St. Andrew’s revolved round us students, and to be happy and to enjoy one’s stay, one had to fall into the spirit of an active student life.

The university was small, one of the oldest in Britain and it had a great deal of history about it. Lecturers and professors were friendly and approachable. It was therefore not difficult to discuss with them my ambition to do postgraduate work. My professors in History were products of Oxford University and they both suggested that I should apply to Oxford. I therefore sought admission to Somerville College, the old women’s college in Oxford. After my initial disagreement with the history tutor about the feasibility of research into African History, as against the history of Europeans in Africa, I was admitted to that College.

It was again another exciting experience. I was the first African postgraduate student in Somerville. The Principal of the college, Dame Janet Vaughan, a distinguished scientist who worked on the effect of the Hiroshima Bomb on human beings, took up the challenge of ensuring that I stayed in the course; so also did my supervisor Dame Margery Perham, the biographer of Fredrick Lugard, who was also highly reputed in colonial circles in those days. Of course, my moral tutor, Ms Agatha Ramm, who initially was sceptical about research into African history, constantly monitored my progress. Living and studying in Oxford constituted a tremendously unforgettable but enjoyable learning experience both academically and culturally.

After two years, I had fulfilled the six-term mandatory period of stay for postgraduate students in Oxford. By then, I was allowed to change my status from that of Bachelor of Literature (B.Litt.) to that of doctorate student (D.Phil.). I had also applied to the University of Ibadan and was given a position as an Assistant Lecturer in the History Department. I therefore packed my bag and baggage to come back home on the 30 September 1960 on the eve Nigeria’s Independence.


I started my working life on the 1st of October 1960. I was appointed an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of History of the University of Ibadan. It was an experiment as I was the first Nigerian woman to be formally appointed as a member of the academic staff. My department rose up to the challenge and virtually everyone there saw it as his responsibility to ensure that I did not fail. I therefore had a soft landing into the academic world.

However, in 1967 I moved to the University of Lagos when my husband transferred his service from the University of Ibadan to that University. I was appointed in the School of African and Oriental Studies. I taught history there to the student in the Department of History and General African Studies to all undergraduates. The latter, irreverently called African Jazz by the students, was a compulsory course for all students of the university, regardless of their disciplines. Without a pass in that course, they could not graduate from the university. It was a most challenging course to teach as many of the students particularly in the professional disciplines like Engineering and Medicine hardly appreciated the importance of being conversant with the significant facets of their culture with which that course was meant to familiarise them. The gratifying thing about this course is that many students often came back to acknowledge its importance particularly after their sojourn outside Nigeria.

However, I had to park my bag and baggage and come back to Ibadan in December 1969 when my husband again decided to go back to the University of Ibadan as Professor and head of his former department. I now moved to the Institute of African Studies as a Senior Research Fellow and was eventually promoted there to a Professorship in Oral History. I later served as the Director of that same institute from 1983 to 1991. It was initially a research outfit and only later took on the responsibility of teaching African Studies at the postgraduate level. I was able to go more deeply into the area of research on Ibadan which had always been my main area of interest. Research on Ibadan gave me an opportunity to look at our oral traditions and their significance for the reconstruction of the history of non-literate societies like Ibadan. It also gave me an opportunity to look at the contribution of women to the history and development of our society. One of the offshoots of that particular preoccupation was the establishment in 1987 of the Women’s Research and Documentation Centre (WORDOC) by the institute.

I retired from the University in 1995. During my thirty-five years stay, I had the privilege of learning about the workings of that University in all its facets, as a teacher and researcher, as part of the management and policymaking, and as a staff employee having been a member and later President of ASUU (Academic Staff Union of University, University of Ibadan chapter). I retired from the Institute and took up an appointment in an entirely new and unfamiliar field. I became the Country Representative of the John D. and Catherine, T McArthur Foundation. This is an American foundation which was moving to Africa for the first time and chose Nigeria as its focal point. It had three other focal points in Brazil, Mexico and India. Its major area of interest when I became its Representative was reproductive health and the empowerment of women. It had two programmes – one for the development of mid-career young men and women in this area. They were awarded Fellowships to pursue their particular interests in this field after rigorous screening and interview by a panel of distinguished Nigerians. There was also a system of grants-making for NGOs in this field to build up their capacity and to enable them explore emerging issues of reproductive health.

Their grant was designed to make provision for Nigerians in as many different parts of Nigeria as possible. I retired from the Foundation after a period of five years. My employment by this American foundation gave me an opportunity to have an insight into the American system of administration particularly at the level of a foundation, a big Non-Governmental Organisation.


My life did not consist merely of being a professional teacher and the earning of an income. I lived a full life outside the Ivory tower. I was engaged in many extra-curricular activities. For instance, I got involved in the women’s movement which had been pioneered by some of my mentors, and teachers like Chief (Mrs) Bolarinwa, Lady Deborah Jibowu, Lady Kofo Ademola, Chief (Mrs) Ighodalo, Professor (Mrs) Ogunseye, Chief (Mrs) Tanimowo Ogunlesi, Mrs. C. Oredugba. The sixties seemed to be the peak period for the formal reawakening of Nigerian women to their role in the development of the newly independent Nigerian state. Many women’s organisations came into being, notably the National Council of Nigeria Women’s Societies, which was meant to be an umbrella organisation for all women’s societies. Later, there emerged the Nigerian Association of University Women (NAUW) which placed a great deal of emphasis on women’s education. I was deeply involved in both and served as their secretary at different times.

I attended the international U.N. Conferences in Mexico in 1975, and Beijing in 1995 and participated in the seminar and non-governmental forum which raised fundamental questions about women and the intellectual rationale for these conferences. I came to recognise the importance of the cultural context in which we operate in Africa. Some of the outcomes of these conferences were the demands for a special portfolio, as it were, for looking at the concerns of women by each member government of the U.N. In Nigeria, the Federal government set up the National Commission for Women, which became the precursor for the present Ministry of Women Affairs. I had the privilege of being the founding Chairperson of that commission. Apart from such extra-curricular activities, I served at various times on different government committees, councils of government boards and parastatals, the last being that of the Council of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where I was Chairperson and Pro-Chancellor.


However, in spite of all these activities, the interest of my family has always been preeminent. My husband and I met in Britain where we were both students in Oxford and Cambridge. London which was virtually equidistant from both places was our meeting place. It has been a relationship based intellectual foundations of respect and understanding. We also shared the same interests in cultural matters, politics and issues of principle and justice, and so on. Raising a family and keeping a home, and keeping up with my professional and extra-curricular activities did not pose too much of a problem as we were both academics teaching in the same universities. It was also not too difficult for him to appreciate the demands of my professional calling. Being on the campus meant I could juggle professional and domestic responsibilities without too much stress.

Moreover, my children attended the Staff Schools on the campus, while they were young. My joy has been to see them all five graduates in different professions away not surprisingly from the academia and basic disciplines like Physics and History! They have, in growing up, watched the decline in academia and the fortune of academics as teachers in service and as pensioners.

Even though we were both attached to our ancestral families, our cousins, sisters, etc., were always around and even staying (some to attend school, some on holidays), we are still a closely knit family. We insisted that the children must speak our language. My husband, a good swimmer, taught all of them swimming. I love traveling and in the good old days drove with them and other cousins to Togo and Ghana. My husband had a sabbatical leave in 1978 and he arranged it so that we could go right round the world from Nigeria to Britain, USA, Hawaii, Japan, India and then to Cameroon and back home.

Nevertheless, our relationship has not been without its strains and stresses. It is still very much a man’s world and it is important to recognise the cultural context within which we operate, particularly as a Yoruba woman who on first getting married tends to lose status, which she gradually regains as she grows older and becomes the matriarch of the family.

For a woman who has had the advantage of exposure to other cultures where women earn greater respect, it may be galling but a woman has to make up her mind whether she still wants the marriage to work or go through the messy situation of a divorce, particularly where children are involved. Patience, forbearance and tolerance become the watchwords which, on second thoughts, are not peculiar to a particular marriage. It is a general fact.


I still continue with my interest in NGO activities, keeping in touch with my children and grandchildren and my numerous relations and friends. I am more involved in church activities particularly at The Cathedral of St Peter, Aremo, my father’s church where both my parents were buried. I am the diocesan historian and a member of the Cathedral’s standing committee.


It will be appropriate in concluding this brief account to affirm my beliefs and guiding principles. I believe that the grace of God has been the overriding influence in my life. I have therefore met with fortune and kindness wherever I go. As a Christian, I believe in loving one’s neighbour as oneself, and doing unto others as one would want them do unto you. I am also proud of my dual heritage. First, I am a Nigerian and proud to be so in spite of the apparent failings of the present. We Nigerians are full of drive and sure of themselves, never ashamed or timid to say their piece in any assembly whether national and international. In the second place, I recognise the mores and values embedded in the different cultures that make up this country, Nigeria. Within that context, I can proclaim that I am a Yoruba woman and very proud of its culture in all its many facets. Our material culture, whether in the arts, weaving and textiles, show a great deal of sophistication; so also, our music dance, literature and poetry and traditional festivals. Our values, as enshrined in the concept of ọmọluabi, portrays a worldview of a person who behaves in such a way as to earn the respect of his or her peers, because he or she demonstrates in his or her everyday conduct the most highly esteemed mores of the society – courteous behaviour, consideration for others, industry, and yet, possesses a certain degree of humility in his or her comportment. These are the virtues to which I constantly aspire in my journey through life.

Categories: HERstory

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