Sheila Solarin and the rest of us

Just last week we got news of the death of Mrs Sheila Solarin, wife of the late author, educationist and social activist, Dr Tai Solarin. Mrs Sheila Solarin was very much but not just the wife of her husband. In her own right, she deserves a special mention and recognition for her contribution and achievement as person and personality. Since her death, we have indeed read a lot of tributes from both private and public sectors of the country. Showing respect, expressing appreciation and offering any form of support we can to her family is the least in these circumstances.

Beyond and maybe, whilst mourning and showing solidarity with the family of the deceased, we as a people should however take time to reflect on some issues on the life and death of this great woman. Let us start with her death. According to reports, Sheila Solarin died at the age of 88 years old in a Nigerian hospital at Ogun State where she lived. For our own sake, we need to contrast that mode of passing away with where and how many other notable Nigerians have being getting treatment and dying lately. Yes you are right, they are doing it abroad.

Sheila Solarin, was a private citizen who could have thrown her personal funds into getting treatment abroad without having to respond to anyone; she was also by birth a British citizen and through her own commitment and will had served the country during the second world war and so fully entitled to the best health coverage in the UK and anywhere in the EU. Contrast that with some of our past and present rulers that shamelessly use the country’s fund entrusted with them, to go or send their friends and family abroad for often trivial and sometimes serious treatments in countries they have no ties to. We have seen many die abroad during these trips; when they don’t die there, they come back home and still do nothing tangible to improve the health sector they are paid to manage. No other way to put it, such inactions are clear signs that they lack dignity and sense of purpose, they are simply too petty compared to the office they have the privilege to hold.

Anyone interested in education in Nigeria will be aware of the importance and uniqueness of her Mayflower school in Ikenne, Ogun State. If for any reason you don’t know about that school, please take time to find out. Read about it; speak to students from the school. The essence of Sheila Solarin’s life can be fully appreciated in that institution she cofounded and nurtured to greatness with her late husband. It is worth nothing here that her school was probably the first secular school in Nigeria and that it was founded in 1956, because she and her husband could not stand the politics and discrimination being practiced in the former school they were working in.

Students and staff from Mayflower school will tell you of how Sheila Solarin, was able to give them an impressive mix of discipline, care and generosity. They will tell you of how hardworking she was and how committed to making sure things were done properly. Anywhere you go in the world, if you come across those that were taught and mentored by the late Sheila Solarin and her husband; you can tell they have been exposed to something great. Even when they laughed at the eccentricities of their mentors, they were always quick to recognise that there was something unique about their devotion to education and commitment to moral integrity and creativity of young people. We cannot overstate the importance of such elements for the building of a viable nation.

In a country where national awards are giving to a throng of interesting characters, not one government considered giving a national honour to Sheila Solarin for her services to the nation. Rather, our institutions denied her request for a Nigerian passport for over thirty years. One after the other, Nigerian governments and their advisers were too busy honouring those that loot and wreck the nation. Luckily for the rest us, someone else noticed what Sheila Solarin was doing and in 2007 the Queen of England awarded her an MBE for her contribution to education.

In her school, they all considered her a mother and teacher and fondly referred to her as “mama”, unsurprisingly her students even had a song for her. All these happened before the Babangida era, hence there was no first lady craze, if there was one, maybe she would have been called the first lady of Mayfair School.

We need to contrast her life with that of the first ladies we have and had in Nigeria, all of them, from spouses of national to state office holders. Earlier this year, at a social gathering, I had to caution an overzealous party supporter for addressing the wife of a local chairman councillor as first lady of the area. Let us ignore their levels of education, professional experience, passion for excellence and dedication to humanity and ask what these first ladies did and are doing with their position as privileged spouses for the country?

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