By Adeola Akinremi
When she arrived in Nigeria 60 years ago, the late Mrs Sheila Solarin was eager to start a new life away from the western life she had known before that time. She was convinced about many things, but she stuck to social justice. Her husband, the late Dr. Taiwo Solarin, whom she met at the University of Manchester, was spending more and more time at meetings of social crusaders and that instantly emboldened her resolve to tread the path of social justice.
Sheila arrived in Nigeria in 1952 and married the late Solarin at the age of 27 years, a marriage that lasted for 43 years before death separated them.
On arrival in Nigeria, they both worked in Molusi College, Ijebu Igbo, but they disagreed with the politics of the day and religious discrimination in schools, and so they decided to build their own school which they could run in line with their world views in a town called Ikenne.
On January 27, 1956, Sheila and her husband founded the first and only secular school in Nigeria, called Mayflower School, Ikenne, Ogun State.
Using blocks made from clay, they constructed two classrooms, each able to accommodate 36 pupils. The students also helped in the construction of more classrooms.
“They had their bunks at the back of the class, and the desks at the front,” said Sheila who has been an English teacher for 50 years.
“We didn't ask anybody what their ethnic background or religion was, we simply wanted to provide an education for all the children in the area.”
The school began to grow in fame and essence, and Sheila and her husband were forced to extend it, making it one of the biggest private schools in the country. They even made the furniture for the school on site, much of it using wood from trees Sheila planted herself.
For her efforts, Sheila, a British born, was honoured with Member of British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II on October 17, 2007 for her educational services in Nigeria.
Sheila officially retired only two years ago at 86 and passed much of the responsibility on to her children: Corin and Tunde.
She passed away last Sunday at the age of 82.
Since her death, Nigerians, including political leaders and captains of industries, have been paying tributes to her long years of service Nigeria.
Ondo State Governor, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko, described her death as a great loss to the nation in general and the educational sector in particular.
Commiserating with the family of the deceased, Mimiko said no doubt, Sheila left a vacuum that may be very difficult to fill in her chosen sector.
Describing her as an educationist par excellence, Mimiko said the deceased was a rare talent whose experience of two diverse cultures made her unique and very rich in terms of knowledge that many benefitted from.
He said even though her death was painful, especially coming at this time when the educational sector needs her knowledge, the nation and her family should take solace in the fact that she left a mark by investing in the future of many, adding that some of the people she invested in actually blossomed while she was still alive.
Ogun State Leader of the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), Chief Olawale Okunniyi, described Sheila’s passage as a devastating blow to the growing army of aspiring youths and masses in the country
Okunniyi in a condolence message Monday in Lagos, recalled his various encounters and relationship with both Tai and Sheila Solarin, especially during his political activism and during his student’s days and described the Solarins as a great influence and inspiration to his political career.
The coordinator of the June 12 Movement in Nigeria, however, regretted that Sheila’s indefatigable role for the restoration of civil rule in Nigeria in 1999 was unsung though “she was among the very few mainstay of the mass action in Nigeria at that time; working relentlessly in alliance with our movement from the Ogun axis.” She joined in the anti-Abacha protests led then by the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO).
“At this glorious but regrettable exit of the true mother of the impoverished people of Nigeria, we wish to solemnly celebrate the unwavering resilience of the English-born martyr, Sheila, who was a dependable ally of her husband with whom she spent a lifetime fighting as a voice and defender of the downtrodden Nigerian masses.
“The Nigerian progressives and the aspiring army of youths will obviously miss a great deal of the inspiration, which comes with the usual solidarity of an impetus like Mrs. Solarin, who, though was not a Nigerian by birth, became a pillar of encouragement for the Nigerian people at different times in the struggle for the well being of the Nigerian masses,” he said.