Like all humans, she never chose when to come to this world. Like all of us she did not choose where to arrive. For all we know, she arrived this small world of ours beyond the Lagos oceans perhaps on a gentle wintry day. But when she was able to choose, she chose the tropics to serve, to work, to build, to sing, to laugh, to cry, to wipe away cries and tears of others, to help, to wake and to sleep eternally and divinely in the bosom of the divine.
Though she had wiped away my cries, my tears, though she had laughed with me, though she had breathed a life force into my thought, though she had laughed with me, cried with me, inspired me, taught me, I never met her, she never met me. But I know her beyond the boundaries and limits of flesh and the body, for the beauty of mind and soul can never be detained by the limits of flesh and the material world.
I never met her, but she wiped my cries one somber week in 1984 AD. Before then, I had read everything her soul mate, her heartbeat, her brother, her husband, her twin, her body and soul-Dr. Tai Solarin-had written. “May Your Road Be Rough” by Dr. Tai Solarin was a compulsory reading for we young ones growing up in Nigeria in the 70s. It was a statement for us youths never to look back when we set forth and put our hands on the plough. It was a work ethics, the moral of life that industry pays, hard work pays, belief in self pays, that self reliance is reliance on self, that we must not ask what the country can do for us, but what we can do for our country, our community, that life is a tumble, tremble and stumble, but that you must stand firm and keep moving each time you fall, your hands must never leave the plough.
The legendary Mayflower School Ikenne built by Sheila and Tai Solarin breathes the ethics and morals in the little essay “May Your Road Be Rough”. This means Sheila was there on “the road”, in “the road”, in the essay for no soul mate writes without his mate, without his soul, and Sheila was that soul in the essay, in the “rough road”. I never met her, but I knew her on the “rough road”, in the “rough road” as the Solarin Spartan ethics bristle and ooze out the balm to make the weak knees walk on the “road that is rough”. “Never look back my son,” she would sing invisibly with a gentle warm tap on the shoulder.
I never knew her, but I sent someone, a person in flesh to her one tropical day in a somber week in 1984 from the city of Ilé-Ifẹ̀, western Nigeria. I never knew her, but I was a teacher like her, as I took after her and her soul mate Tai Solarin, with a chalk in hand molding young lives as a high school teacher in Urban Day Grammar School, May fair Ilé-Ifẹ̀, western Nigeria. I never met her, but I lived her, as I stood before young minds-male, female, chalk in hand facing the blackboard in this Ilé-Ifẹ̀ school. I never met her but I taught the young minds the ethics she taught me, the industry she taught me, the patriotism she taught me, the love she taught me, the kindness she taught me, the humanness she taught me, “May you all triumph over the rough roads” I would whisper then in an invisible manner to my students at Urban Day Grammar School Ilé-Ifẹ̀, western Nigeria.
So on this tropical day, this student of mine staggered into my room. He was a social and biological orphan. Taking a cue from what Sheila taught us, what Tai taught us about the centrality and value of education, about “rough roads” and how they must be overcome by our youths, my wife and I (like most of us do) had struggled to keep the boy going in school-paying his school fees. But also our purse was becoming lean, thin and slender. The “rough road’ was weighing our funds down. We were no Mac Arthur Foundation. We were no Ford Foundation. We were no Bill Gates Foundation. We were no Rockefeller Foundation. I was just a mere high school teacher, and my soul mate was just a secretary, but we struggled to smoothen the dusty and jagged “rough roads” of our youths, for Bayo my student as Sheila and Tai taught.
A knock on the door, a tearful tear from the door, and Bayo entered: “They drove me out of school” the boy sobbed. School fees problem. He had one more year to finish high school. My sadness was double for I could not reveal to the boy the state of our finances. May our hands not reach the depth of our pocket so goes the African moral fragment. But the “road was getting rough”, too “rough” with the support my wife and I gave and I could not tell Bayo because if we had struggled on the “rough roads” to get him to this point and he had just one year for him to finish and cut the high school tape, then we got to do something even if the “rough road” is getting steep. Yet, we faced challenges on this “rough road” too.
Then something occurred to me. I reminded Bayo that we had always talked about Sheila and Tai Solarin as sources of hope, faith and inspiration for our education. He said yes. I asked if he was ready to travel on the “rough road” from Ilé-Ifẹ̀ to Ikene –both in western Nigeria- to see if Sheila and Tai will help. Bayo chuckled “but we do not know them… how will they help…?” I touched him warmly, in a fatherly manner, and said, “Have faith”. He asked: “how are we going to do it?” I said, “I will write a letter. Mom will get your transportation money, and things for the “road” for you, and you will go and come back by God’s grace…”
I sat down. I wrote a letter to Sheila and Tai. The letter introduced Bayo. The letter asked for support for Bayo’s education. Mom got things for the “road” for Bayo. The second day, Bayo set forth on the “road” to Ikenne, Ogun state from Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Ọ̀ṣun state. It was 1984 Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Nigeria. Neither phone nor email access had we to monitor Bayo on this “rough road” to Sheila and Tai in Ikenne. But we had the hope Sheila and Tai had taught. We commended that to Bayo and we hoped that he would survive on this “rough road” to Ikenne.
Surprise! Sheila did not know Bayo from Odùduwà, from Adam, from Eve. Sheila did not know me from Eve or Adam or Odùduwà. She ONLY saw the letter I wrote. But it was 1984, Nigeria, it was not the days of Google, so Sheila could not Google who I was. But Sheila saw my letter, which Bayo gave to her and Sheila BELIEVED. Sheila took Bayo into HER HOUSE, HER PRIVATE HOME from the street and “rough and stormy road”. And Bayo was there for a week. When Bayo got back on the “road”, he said “ah she did not know me, she read your letter, and she took me into her house, … you are sure you do not know her before…?” Given his age, I am not sure Bayo believed at that material time of his return from Sheila that I did not know Sheila.
Bayo returned with financial support from the Solarins –Sheila and Tai-for the rest of his education.
Neither Ford nor Bill Gates, nor Mac Arthur, nor Rockefeller foundation the Solarins were, but from their bare hands they mould us on these “rough roads”. From their beautiful and soulful hearts they sang to us the song of love of, of hope, of triumph, of belief, of faith, of honor, of service. Atheistic, but they were the theist of the first order in their kindness, grace, love and faith in the invisible populated by humans on “rough roads”.
Sheila was surrounded by those humans, those kids, those youths on the high seas, on “rough roads” when we were told she “fell” and got the Final Call to eternity.
Sheila, you represent that African Yoruba Global, Cosmopolitan and Civic Call that “Ibití à ń gbé ni à ń ṣe” which means that “wherever we are as humans on the globe, we have the moral and social call to take on our lived environment and be part of it in a non-hegemonic sense, in an inclusive sense”. This is the ethics of African Yoruba cosmopolitanism, the ethics of inclusion, the ethics of non-hegemonic cultural melting. Sheila you represent these and more as you came from Europe to Africa to be part of us, to include us in you, and you in us, to melt, to breathe life into Nigerian youths on the “rough road” of life.
We just as humans have the moral obligation to say to you-Sheila –Unto You We Grant, For Here Lies the One who came from Europe to be us, for us to be her, and who breathe life into us in our rough moments on the rough roads.
Good Night Sheila Solarin nee Tuer, When The Bell Tolled, It Tolled For You, It Tolled for Me. It Tolled For Our Children.
Adeolu Ademoyo firstname.lastname@example.org Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.