Gbenga Omotoso highlights the legacy of Chief Guy Gargiulo, an educationist responsible for shaping the future of many notable Nigerians
First, a confession: The subject of this article is well known to this reporter. So, dear reader, take it easy, if you feel that there is more than a tinge of subjectivity here. But, I promise to be as conscientious as I have always been.
Our first meeting was in September, 1974. The sun was getting set to set, its recession a bit slow. Behind the hills that ring the town, the sun was showing its face, bright but weak. And there he was, just after a long row of palm trees that lined the red-earth, dusty road that led to the school premises, mowing a field of green grass that had grown wild. He had on only a pair of white shorts, his trademark, as I discovered later. No top.
As he looked up from what I later found out to be a routine for him when students were on holiday, he wiped the sweat off his brow and continued his business.
I announced my presence.
“Good evening sir.”
“Pele o (hello). How’re you?”
“I’m Gbenga Omotoso, the table tennis player you discussed with Mr Babajide in Ibadan.”
His face brightened up. He burst into laughter and grabbed my hand as he screamed: “Ping pong!”
And so began my relationship with the man who paid my – and many others’ – way through secondary school, a teachers’ teacher, father of many children –none of them his, biologically – worthy chief, consummate farmer, confident trainer and frontline humanist.
Chief Guy Gargiulo, an Italian naturalised Briton, was the Principal (Headmaster) at Ajuwa Grammar School, Okeagbe – Akoko, Ondo State, from 1963 to 1978. He had had a stint as a Physics teacher at Igbobi College, Lagos before moving to Okeagbe to help give the new school a push.
He reached age 85 on August 13 2017, but all was quiet as he was away in England. He has since returned to Nigeria and a reception was held in his honour last Saturday on the very premises where he helped shape the future of many students who are today prominent citizens
Among them: Otunba Solomon Oladunni, former Vice Chair, Mobil; Tuyi Ehindero, ex-Managing Director, Unilever, Zambia; Dr Tunji Abayomi, rights activist-lawyer and politician; Akinwunmi Bada, ex-CEO, Transmission Company of Nigeria; Oba Oladunjoye Fajana, ex-African Development Bank/World Bank chief and now Ajana of Afa, Okeagbe; The Right Rev. Jacob Ajetunmobi, Bishop of the Anglican Communion, Ibadan Diocese; Senator Tayo Alasoadura, Hon Minister of State for Niger Delta Affairs; Rear Admiral Sanmi Alade, Commandant of the National War College; Mike Igbokwe, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and a legion of others in banking, sports, industry and government.
There are not many people of whom one can say: “O…he had a great influence on my life.” Many there are who can proudly say this of GG, as we excitedly call him. All his efforts were geared towards implanting in us all the virtues to which he subscribed – hard work, courage, loyalty, endurance, honesty and more.
He feared nothing. The only fear he ever had was being bitten by snakes, he told us. But the day he held one and was bitten, the fear ended. Then he started reading about snakes. We were taught how to catch and keep them. But GG warned us never to go near the cobra, saying there was no remedy to its poison. The last time I visited, he had at home two snakes, one of which he nicknamed Angelina.
Gargiulo’s idea of education is not the mere acquisition of a certificate as a visa to some perceived Eldorado; not a theoretical exploration of some esoteric facts and figures, but a total package to prepare the youth for any challenge that life may hurl on their way. Every student was encouraged to learn a trade – bricklaying, auto mechanic and others. The Ajuwa Printing Press, which was run by students, was central to the programme. It printed our exercise books, report cards, inspirational poems, such as Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling’s “If” , and the ubiquitous poster, “Speak English, remember your WASCE” that adorned our classrooms.
Gargiulo persuaded us all to love farming – we all had copies of a poem he wrote on then Head of State, General Olusegun Obasanjo’s “Operation feed the nation” (everything in that military era was an “operation”) as he led the way every evening. The maize farm was a beauty to behold, the sheer greenery and the glittering golden, thread-like strands sprouting from the cobs. The vast row of teak, shedding their rustling leaves in the harmattan. The short palm trees and their scarlet fruits. The gmelina.
Our yam came from the school farm. The eggs we had once a week came from the school poultry. It was fun caring for the rabbits and watching the cows graze. Our farm produce were sold and the proceeds invested in shares in the name of the school.
Sport was for GG a priority. The yearly marathon was compulsory for all. So was swimming. The community and the students built a dam to facilitate this. From the dark brown pool and the pontoon that were carved out of the dam, boys and girls were moulded into national champions. No fewer than two former students are now coaches. This reporter was a table tennis star, the very reason he won GG’s heart.
GG believed that no student was so bad that there was no redeeming feature. He once told of a student who led the mechanics club. He was poor, academically, but Gargiulo predicted his greatness. The man rose to become a top Leventis Motors manager, admired by all for his deep understanding of Mercedes cars, just like the Germans who built them.
It was not all fun at Ajuwa, however. I recall a riot. GG had gone to Ibadan to buy books. The day he was to return, students stormed the Okeagbe-Ikare road, wielding cudgels and clubs and chanting war songs. Some sympathisers advised GG to stay away to save his life. He refused.
He parked the van a few metres away from the school and walked. His face creased by a big frown, he asked the unruly students:”What’s going on here?” “You want to kill me? Go ahead now!” He was booming like a lion and swearing–he always did when seized by anger.”Bloody hell!”. His hair sprang up and his hands betrayed red hot blood coursing through his veins. His face was red – it was always so whenever he got angry. Oh, how we used to panic on such occasions.
One after the other, the students dropped their weapons, ran to hide behind the palm trees and sneaked into the classrooms. Later that night, GG relived the incident. “I saw that you, like the others, held a stick, but I was damn sure you wouldn’t hit me,” he told me.” “It was the wise thing to do; otherwise you would be attacked,” he added. “I never knew he saw me among the mob.”
GG had few friends. Prominent among them was the late Tai Solarin, the frontline educationist and social activist.
GG was always struggling to speak Yoruba. He reasoned that if he could speak Yoruba, there was no reason for us not to speak English. His favourite proverb is “Aya nini ju oogun lo” (Being bold is greater than having juju). To those who scorned him for always wearing shorts, he would say: “Sokoto gbooro ko d’ola” (A pair of trousers is no symbol of wealth). He wore trousers only on special occasions, such as when a governor was visiting.
When Immigration officials harassed him in Akure, the Ondo State capital, demanding his papers, they got more than they bargained for. They asked him to be reporting in their office every day, wondering why he would not relinquish his British citizenship if he so much-loved Nigeria. One day when he was tired of it all, GG faced the officials and said: “Gentlemen, “ti a ba ti n fi apari isu han alejo…” (When hosts begin to show the guest the hard top of the yam, it’s time to leave.”
“They didn’t let me finish,” he recalled. They said ‘go; just go now!’ That was the end of the matter.
But he wondered why he should suffer to earn a permanent stay here after about 30 years. “Even in my old age, I can still contribute to building this great country.”
Thankfully, Gargiulo’s immigration issue has been resolved. I hope and trust that Nigeria will reward him with a national honour – soon.
The last time I visited my alma mater, less than two years ago, I learnt of how Gargiulo shed tears on seeing the destruction of his dream. I was touched. Ajuwa is like a war- ravaged town, battered and bludgeoned by the very people who swore to care for it. Plundered. An old lady, used and dumped. Gone is the press. Wrecked are the mechanic’s workshop and the tractor. No cows and chicks. Rabbits? Gone. All gone.
Rot, rot, rot everywhere. But this is the story in almost all areas of our national life. Ajuwa’s fate is not strange. But, when cometh another GG?
*This article, first published in 2013, was rerun on August 13, 2018 with some changes as a tribute to this exemplary man on his 85th birthday. His remains will be buried tomorrow in Okeagbe-Akoko, Ondo State.
*Omotoso is Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Lagos State