A Tribute to T. M. Aluko
On May 1, 2010, Timothy Mofolorunso Aluko went to join the ancestors, and/or as he himself believed, to take his seat at the feet of Jesus. Anybody who knew him will know that he certainly earned that place.
Writing this in Liverpool during lockdown, I am mindful of the fact that when he was born in June 1918 in a little village near Ilesha, World War I was still raging, and the Spanish Flu pandemic was six months old. It apparently infected about a third of the world’s population over a two-year period, with approximately a tenth of the infected dying. We therefore know that Covid-19 will pass, and that given the right combination of luck, hard work and opportunity, even Nigerian children born today of rural parents with little or no Western education, have every chance of becoming internationally respected engineers, civil servants and writers. It was as the last of these that Daddy was best known – as author of the novels One Man, One Wife; One Man, One Matchet; Kinsman and Foreman, Chief The Honourable Minister, A State of Our Own, and Conduct Unbecoming. Daddy told us the story (and wrote in his memoirs My Years of Service and The Story of My Life) that he would probably never have gone to school had he not accompanied his mother to Ilesha to sell yams and corn one particular day. On this day, he saw a group of school children marching to the palace grounds in their pristine blue uniforms. The date was May 24, 1926, the occasion was Empire Day. The rest, as they say, is history.
The British Empire, impressive as it appeared to our forebears, was milking us dry as brazenly as it could get away with, despite the horrors Britain and her cohorts had perpetrated during the Slave Trade. T.M.’s novels were satirical takes on various aspects of Nigerian life during the pre- and post-independence eras, as informed by his identity as a Yoruba, an engineer, a loyal and honest civil servant, a Christian, a man with one wife – our mother Janet Adebisi Fajemisin to whom he was absolutely devoted – and an observer of politics.
Having left home in my teens and long before my interest in African History really developed, I deeply regret having missed the opportunity to discuss many topics in depth with our father. I remember him talking of attending a conference of West African Chief Engineers hosted in Ibadan in the early 1960s. Many of the visiting delegates were from former French colonies. For one session, the interpreter was absent, but the proceedings carried on in Yoruba! I was unable then to link that to the Partition of Africa in 1884/5, and to the related question of Pan-Africanism, a cause most prominently championed by the likes of W E B Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah.
Another incident he recalled occured when he was a participant on a foreign student summer project at the M I T in Massachusetts, USA in 1952. On a trip down to one of the southern states, as the only Black participant he was told that he couldn’t join his colleagues at an evening dinner, and would have to eat in a separate room. He quietly declined the meal, and went to sit on the bus, alone. After a while one of his colleagues came to guide him back to the high table with the hosts. By the time Barak Obama was in the White House, Daddy had sadly succumbed to Althzheimer’s disease, so we couldn’t talk about the progress made in the half century since that summer in the South. At that time of course, the racism that we now see Africans being subjected to in China was still a long way off.
T.M. had suffered a severe stroke in1987, which left him paralised down his right side for the rest of his life. It is well known that after rehabilitation, he would go on to start writing again, with his left hand, in practically the exact same style as he had previously with his right hand! It was with that left hand that he wrote the manuscripts of My Years of Service and his final novel, Our Born Again President, launched on his 90th birthday. It was also with that same left hand that during rehab, he did a lovely watercolour painting, even though he had never painted before, to my knowledge.
I like the idea of using T.M’s brain as a metaphor for our country, and indeed our Continent: something that demonstrated immense talent and great achievement but suffered a serious trauma, from which it would recover and flourish again. As we watch China join the countries lining up to take more from Africa than they give, the Continent as a whole needs some serious therapy, and it is clear that this must include the kind of unity that was demonstrated when a common language shared across artificial borders was used to get around the interpreter problem at the Ibadan engineers’ conference.
Last year, the Ghanaians, with their “Year of Return,” welcomed our cousins from the Americas back home to celebrate and be inspired by our resilience as a people. Kwame Nkrumah and W E B Du Bois would have been proud.
I recall being at a conference myself in Liverpool in 2000: The African Intellectual in the New Milennium, at which I provided some entertainment as a singer. A renowned Pan-Africanist American scholar turned to me and asked,
“Say, Tayo, are you related to one T. M. Aluko?”
“Yes,” I said, “he’s my father.”
“No sh*t!” he exclaimed, “Hey, Dee, come here, this guy is T.M. Aluko’s son! T.M. Aluko was one of the African writers that inspired us during the civil rights movement!”
Along with my siblings and our children, I am rightly proud to be one of T.M. Aluko’s scions. I for one hope that in taking inspiration from him and those who went before, and by embracing today’s Pan Africanist project, all Africans will come together to rescue our Continent, and in doing so, make our own descendants proud – including any born to humble parents during this time of Covid-19.
Tayo Aluko, the youngest son of T.M. Aluko is an actor, singer and playwright in Liverpool.