I was sitting waiting for the boarding announcement for my flight when I noticed an insistent buzzing in my pocket. I retrieved my phone, glanced at it and realized that it was a call from my friend and colleague, Chikwe. I wondered why he was ringing when he knew that I was out of the country and therefore unlikely to pick up my phone in order to avoid the high costs of roamed international calls. As I continued to wonder the phone began to buzz yet again. It was still Chikwe’s number. It was 3 pm in San Francisco meaning that it must be about 11pm in London. Why on earth was Chikwe ringing me so late? Now worried I sent him a frantic text:
“I’m at the airport waiting to board. I’ll be back tomorrow. Trust all ok”
Almost immediately I got a reply that caused me to shout out, drawing concerned furtive glances from the serried ranks of prim lipped English passengers waiting, like me for the flight to be called. As I bowed my head, embarrassed at having caused a scene, the import of Chikwe’s text continued to ring in my head. His text read:
“Bros, terrible news…Omololu ran into robbers in Lagos. Bros, the guy is dead, Bros…
That was how I learnt that Omololu Falobi, pioneering journalist and activist, a human being par excellence, a devoted father, friend and brother had departed this life.
My first encounter with Omololu was via the internet. I was enrolled on a Master’s degree programme at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and was doing research for a project on HIV. When I typed in the words “Nigeria AIDS” into the Google search engine, it took me straight to the website for an organization called Journalists Against AIDS. Once on it, I quickly signed up to join the electronic forum organized by the group and from there became immersed deeply in the Nigerian HIV world. There I could read messages from people all over the world and in all parts of Nigeria relating t all aspects of HIV in Nigeria. There were researchers seeking collaborators, students seeking information, field workers sharing examples of best practice, epidemiologists exchanging updates on knowledge, people with HIV sharing their unique perspectives, everyone debating Nigerian HIV policy or the absence of it-in short, if it related to HIV in Nigeria then you could find it there. I could not believe my good fortune in finding the site and wondered who had had the foresight and expertise to set up such a useful resource. Searching on the site, I soon found that the organization was the brainchild of a gentleman called Omololu Falobi. I became a regular contributor to the site and often recommended it to colleagues and friends who had questions about HIV in Nigeria. Indeed, the forum inspired me to write a piece calling for greater political engagement with HIV in Nigeria, which was subsequently published in the Lancet.
I first met Omololu in the flesh on a warm afternoon in a plaza outside the seminar hall in Barcelona where the Journalist to Journalist programme was taking place as part of the 14th International AIDS conference. I was a volunteer facilitator on the programme and Omololu was one of the listed speakers. I was proud that a fellow Nigerian was billed to speak and when it was his turn, he did not disappoint me. He spoke with an eloquence and passion that spoke of his commitment to the fight against HIV, and with a deep understanding of the issues at Nigerian and global levels. As he mixed with the delegates adroitly, it was obvious that he was highly respected. At the end of his session, I went to meet him and introduce myself.
“Ah, my brother, thank you for your contributions to the forum”
And so we began to chat. I soon realized that he was that rare being, the truly committed individual who looked beyond self aggrandizement, colour, ethnicity or creed towards achieving progressive goals. His passion shone through and impressed me, as did his in depth understanding of the HIV issue. He introduced me to other members of his team who were in Barcelona for the conference and from then we kept in touch infrequently via e mails. Later I was to discover that he had already established a close working relationship with my friend and colleague, Chikwe which served to confirm my high opinion of him.
Omololu became a trusted friend and compatriot, one with whom I knew I could speak to frankly and honestly. One from whom I knew I could get an unbiased assessment or analysis of developments in the Nigerian HIV field. Yet close as we became it was not until last month, at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto that I got the opportunity to see another more private side of the man.
Chikwe and I had resolved that we would spend time with Omololu to have a proper discussion and to explore the ways in which we could work more effectively together to improve public health in Nigeria. We wanted to get a blunt assessment from someone on the ground and so we resolved that we would have dinner together one evening in Toronto.
That evening we met at the appointed place and headed in search of a restaurant where we would have dinner and also talk. Omololu was in high spirits- indeed we all were after an exhilarating day listening to various inspiring speakers. We may have been physicall exhausted but mentally we were on a high. Our first task was to find a suitable restaurant, and as we mulled between Chinese and Canadian, we began to stroll vaguely in the direction of the restaurant. By the time we got to one that we all liked, we realized that it was nearly time for the candlelight vigil in memory of all the people who had died of AIDS. And so we headed to the Square where this event was billed to take place. Omololu was in high spirits, handing out the plastic nightlights that passed for candles to the members of our group. I remember him asking for an extra couple to take back to Nigeria for his children. The nightlights were plastic tubes containing liquid which when you squeezed them, mixed and began to emit a fluorescent light- a fascinating thing for us adults, let alone children. We chatted and bantered with people from all over the world and joined in the singing and the remembrance. There was a particularly haunting performance from a South African a cappella group that had many eyes glistening with tears as each remembered the loved ones lost to AIDS. It was a moving evening.
The vigil over we moved on to the restaurant where we all laughed as Omololu asked the waitress what she recommended that he order. She told him what her favourite dish was and we teased Omololu that he might find the oyibo food inedible. In any case, when our meals arrived, we were all pleased and were about to tuck in when Chikwe asked Omololu how and why he had become involved in the whole HIV/AIDS field.
And so he began to tell his story. A
nd what a fascinating story it was. He began by telling us that no one had ever asked him that question before- a statement that I found incredible considering what a pivotal role he had played in the Nigerian HIV arena.