My mother feared I would be killed if I was made Iyalode –Alaba Lawson
Iyalode Alaba Lawson, a socialite, business woman and school proprietress, shares her experiences in this interview with SAMUEL AWOYINFA
Would it be right to say you were born with a silver spoon?
Never. I was not born with any silver spoon. My father, late Pa Emmanuel Abiona Jiboku alias Jiboku Tannatanna was an electrical technician with the old Electric Company of Nigeria for 42 years. And my mother, late Ruth Olabisi Aina Jiboku(nee Aderupoko- Coker) of the famous Itesi area of Abeokuta was a trader. She started her trading activity with selling of clothes. Later she started selling ogi(pap) in Ago Oko, Abeokuta.
From what I just said, one can see that I was born just like any other ordinary child in the neighbourhood, nothing special. The only thing I believe was special about my birth is that I was named Alaba, despite the fact that I was born next to a set of twins.
And according to Yoruba tradition, anyone born immediately after a set of twins should be named Idowu and not Alaba. Rather, my parents named my immediate younger brother Idowu, and when I asked them why this transposition, they said it was divine arrangement.
Was your birth peculiar?
There was nothing peculiar about my birth, at least as far as I know.
How would you describe your childhood?
I attended St. James’s African Church School, Idi Ape, Abeokuta between 1957 and 1962. Before that time, my father enrolled his children in a kindergarten school founded by a Sierra Leonean woman who we called Mama Saro. All she taught us were bible verses and we crammed them.
She taught us Psalms 1-150. It was like we were singing songs while reciting them.
It was while I was in the primary school that Nigeria attained her independence. Then I was in Primary Four.
A whole cow was slaughtered and they cooked it for us in the school and we all ate. We were also given copies of the Bible, caps, pencils among others.
I later went to Abeokuta Girls Grammar School between 1963 and 1967. That was the school that moulded me. That was where I was taught how to be a lady. Our Principal, Mrs. Marian Hughes, taught us to always sit with our back straight and we must not open our legs. We were taught to speak with confidence. We were also taught needlework; we could mend our clothes when it required mending or altering.
Besides, when we were in junior class, we were exposed to quotes like ‘Time does not wait for anyone,’ ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness,’ among others.
Did Mrs Hughes use the cane on the pupils?
She never used the cane, but she had another way of doing this. Her countenance when anyone misbehaved was more potent than the cane. Once her countenance changed, one got the message.
Would you say you were a quiet kid or a troublesome one?
I was not troublesome but I stood for my right and asked for it. No other student could cheat me and I never gave anyone the chance to cheat. No one could take me for granted.
How often did you get into trouble especially as a teenager?
I got into trouble each time I took my mother’s clothes and wore them for a photo shoot. I would have poured perfumes on the clothes and my mother would get to know. She would then report me to my father, who would use cable to beat me. You know my father worked with the ECN and he did about two years with the National Electric Power Authority before he retired, so he had cables to beat anyone of us that misbehaved.
Were you pampered by your parents?
No. Pampered ke. My parents were disciplinarians. If my father asked any of us to recite any verse of the Bible and he or she fumbled, he or she got spanked. Again, any of us could be asked to handle the morning devotion and such a person should not mess up or else… There was a cable nearby to beat sense into your brain. We were well trained, most especially in the fear of God.
We learnt you later travelled to England to further your study. How was the experience in England?
Yes, I travelled to England. I attended the St. Nicholas Teacher Training College, to train and at the end of the third year, I graduated with a First class diploma. I really loved the training I got.
Were you ever faced with any racist situation?
None at all. We were close to 30 Nigerians who went for that training. Blacks and the whites co-existed in a convivial environment. We were treated like human beings.
That brings us to the Xenophobic attacks in South Africa, where blacks are up in arms against Nigerians and other African nationals. How do you react to this?
I think those South Africans doing that are crazy. They have forgotten so soon what Nigeria did to help them fight the apartheid regime to a standstill. Nigeria spearheaded the boycott of the 1983 Commonwealth Games because of apartheid. The United Kingdom which was then hosting incurred losses due to the boycott, because so many other countries joined Nigeria in boycotting the games.
In fact, the UK introduced payment for visas for Nigerians after that incident. Before that incident, Nigerians didn’t pay for visas to travel to the UK. You can see what we are suffering as Nigerians for standing against the apartheid regime.
The leaders of that country need to talk to their youths perpetrating the attacks. Our lawmakers going there should not take it lightly; it is a criminal case. Killing and destroying people’s property. Too bad.
Why did you decide to go into the education sector unlike most of your friends that would have opted for the corporate world?
It is a divine call. I could still remember that very day at the Green Park in London. I sat there and was enjoying the scenery – the lake, the ducks and the serene atmosphere. Suddenly, I saw some children walked into the park and they were chatting. Something struck a cord in me that I wanted to start something where I could mould the lives of youths. That was when I decided to attend the teacher training college. I went there and graduated with first class. In testimonials by my tutors, they had written that they would look forward to what Alaba Lawson would do to impact the lives of youths in Nigeria. I thank God today that that has been accomplished through Alaba Lawson Group of Schools.
We learnt your father was a Member of the British Empire, how true is that claim?
It is true. It was given to him in 1957 by the Queen of England. It was a solid sterling silver, which I inherited. The day I was given the MFR title in 2004 by former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, I wore the MBE medal.
Is it true that at a time in your life, you wanted to become an actress?
It is true. While I was in the secondary, I was a member of the school’s drama and cultural group. I was good at acting and mimicking others. But that divine call changed everything. But I have no regrets at all.
Do you believe that a teacher’s reward is in heaven?
I don’t believe that. No one can even pay enough for what we do as teachers. No amount of money can pay for our sacrifice. Teaching is like a calling, you must be trained for it and you must have passion for it.
What would you ascribe to be the happiest and saddest day of your life?
I don’t have anything called sad day and I don’t pray for anyone to have a sad day. But there was a day I felt the grace and faithfulness of Jehovah God in my school, when a three-year-old girl swallowed a 5 kobo coin many years ago.
By the time, she woke up from a snap she was foaming from the mouth and she was choking, as she could no longer breathe well. The coin had blocked her trachea. We rushed her to the General Hospital here in Abeokuta and an X-ray was done.
We could see where the coin was in the X-ray film, but we were referred to the University College Hospital, Ibadan for a surgical operation. The bay had been prepared for the surgery when an elderly woman among the surgeons, looked at the X-ray film once more and located where the coin was in the child’s body, and she just gave the child a slap at the zone and the coin jumped out of her mouth miraculously without any form of surgery. Anytime I remember that incident, I give God the glory.
Although you are a well accomplished woman, what is your greatest fear?
I don’t entertain any fear, because I live every day as being tailored by Jehovah God. All I needed, he has supplied.
Many people know you to be an educationist but not many know that you were a big time trader who began at the age of nine.
How did you develop an interest in business and why did you stop being a trader?
My mother trained us the children in the act of buying and selling. As I told you, she started with clothes. She exposed us to the nitty-gritty of trade. She told me the importance of being a trader as early as when I was nine. Again, my brother-in-law, late Adeyemi Lawson of the Grail Message, brought me into commerce by getting me the distributorship of so many breweries and cement companies.
Though I was doing well in this business. At a point, I had to stop to face my school, which was suffering then. Thank God I did that.
How did you feel when you were informed that you would be installed as the Iyalode of Egba and Yorubaland?
When the then Alake of Egbaland, Oba Oyebade Lipede, was about to make me the Iyalode of Egbaland, he sent Chief Toye Coker to my mother and my mother kicked against it.
She had the fear that I might be killed. My mother argued that I was too young to carry such a title and that they should give it to the elderly ones. The Kabiyesi had to enlighten her that they needed somebody who has integrity and could stand for the integrity of the Egba. I was later made the Iyalode of Egbaland on 7th August 1999.
As for Iyalode of Yorubaland, the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi, bestowed that on me on 23rd August 2008, at his palace in Oyo town.
Is it true that the title comes with some mystical powers?
That is not true. Both installations were done openly and there’s nothing hidden about the two titles; there is nothing mystical about it.
Iyalode means prime minister of the womenfolk. It requires someone who has integrity and who’s hardworking. You must be loved by all.
What is your philosophy of life?
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Pray and get along with your life.