A tribute to my father, Prof ’Folabi Olumide

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No words will be enough to truly pay a tribute to my father, and all that he was to me. That he was a gentleman and a truly noble Nigerian was undisputed. What is harder is trying to capture nearly half a century of memories of his fatherhood into a few words and paragraphs.

Memories flood back from our idyllic childhood growing up on the University of Lagos campus in Akoka. My father was a busy young surgeon but still managed to have quality time for us kids –from taking us for karate lessons on Saturdays to Steve Rhodes voices rehearsals –and family traditions of sitting down to eat meals together at home. I travelled to many places around the world right from that dining table, all the stories he shared, along with promises to take us on trips abroad.

His coin collection, our stamp collections, the little things he would bring back from the plane. He tried to get an eight or nine-year-old me to eat caviar (Lol!); he taught me how to use dinner cutlery properly, working your way in from the outermost set for each course. He took us out to dine at fine restaurants from a young age, particularly Chinese restaurants, which became a cherished family tradition till the very end. My love for travelling and any sophistication I possess today definitely came from those moulding years. He made sure we were well-rounded in so many ways, avid readers too. At Queen’s College, my friends used to marvel at my vocabulary for a teenager, and my breadth of knowledge on various issues, which was certainly due to the quality of conversation in our home.

My father was a feminist. At no time in my life did he EVER make me feel, let alone say anything alluding to the fact that there are things that I cannot do or achieve because I am female. He never portrayed that men were superior to women or that I had any limitations whatsoever as a girl-child in this world. With three girls and one boy, growing up, our home had complete gender parity. It just wasn’t part of my universe to think that there were roles meant for me or aspirations that I cannot attain in life because I am female or black or Nigerian. To this day, it still doesn’t occur to me. Such is the level of confidence that he instilled in us. He valued family, integrity, hard work, and excellence in education and professionally greatly.

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Daddy was a family man. With him, family, both nuclear and extended, always came first. In discipline, he was a democrat who preferred to engage with his children, and expressed his disappointment in pained words and questions that invariably elicited genuine remorse. No matter who was in “trouble” for stepping out of turn from the family ethos, we four invariably all got lined up to listen to the lecture on the importance of family, and adhering to our core values at all times – over and over and over again! This talk was sprinkled with standard examples about him and his beloved brothers, particularly our Uncle Femi, “My brother is my best friend!” Those sermons were guaranteed to leave you extremely sober with a tear or two running down your face.

He didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the talk in countless ways. Daddy sacrificed for us by going to live and work in Saudi Arabia for over a decade, coming home for only a few weeks a year, just to ensure we lacked nothing in our education and life. He sent me on a trip to London on my own one summer for my 21st birthday. It was only as an adult with a family and life of my own that I truly appreciated the import of his sacrifice and how difficult and lonely it must have been for him.

He was a keenly perceptive father. With his reflective personality, he knew each of us well. He was a remarkably good listener and observed what remained unsaid. I was deeply touched by what he wrote about me in his autobiography – that I have a “knack for identifying the simple things that matter and attending to them with a lot of care.” For me, it was easy to be that person with him. He was not at all demanding and I realised as I grew older that by far the gift he appreciated most was the gift of my time. Indeed, this was also one of the greatest gifts that I ever gave myself – spending time with my father.  All my life, he quietly listened in a non-judgmental way. He was an encourager. Patient and kind. Non-confrontational. His advice came extremely gently, never forced, never overtly opinionated. Whether on dating or education or career issues – he really listened to me, and as he listened and I talked, I was able to land in the right corner. I knew when he was pleased with a conclusion or decision I had reached seemingly “by myself.” He had so many good qualities that I pray to be able to emulate.

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I remember when I discussed with my parents in 2003 about wanting to leave banking and join the academia. My father gave his unreserved support and told me that I could win the Nobel Prize!! He still repeated this to me last year– he attended my inaugural lecture in The Hague in 2014 and told me in 2019 that he wanted me to return to the academia after public service. He was extremely proud of each of his children and made sure he told us so regularly. Daddy really extended his love of family time to my husband, Tunde and our children, Segioluwa and Babatise. Being the only grandchildren living in Lagos for many years, they were so so blessed to have him very present in their lives. He often stopped by ours on his way home to Ajah, then, with all sorts of goodies and contrabands for the kids, and he loved to be visited by us. I am deeply grateful for those precious times.

Daddy was also my life-long doctor. He showed up with my mother at Stanford when I had a serious health issue and stayed eight weeks monitoring the situation. He was right in the delivery room with me for the birth of our second child, Babatise. He loved to watch me thrive and to hear stories of my travels and work, but also often reminded me about the importance of rest, short vacations and proper hydration. Just a couple of years ago, when I was under a lot of stress, he walked into First Cardiology unannounced to personally make an appointment for me to see his former student, Dr Yemi Johnson, on my return from Abuja that weekend.

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Since my father became an octogenarian, and particularly in the last couple of years, I made a conscious decision to contemplate his passing and became more intentional about his living – we talked about life and death, prayed together and reflected. I disciplined myself to pay closer attention, and to never be too busy for my dad. We went through his autobiography together chapter by chapter on the phone over the course of some weeks during the lockdown last year and he shared loads of stories. I had wanted to keep him engaged and mentally active while cooped up at home, but I was the one who got the most out of our time together. It was our greatest honour and privilege to gift him a grand piano on my birthday last year because for him, music was life. By the grace and mercy of God alone, I have zero regrets.

In the last two and a half hours of his life here on earth, all my specific prayers about his transition were answered and more. I have no doubt that he finished his race well and his eternity with God is sure. Like a patriarch of old, he blessed all his children by name, we read Scripture, prayed and worshiped with our family hymn, “Nipa ifeOlugbala”. Daddy said to us, “God is our Protector, He is in control… over to you!” His legacy lives on.

  • Dr Oduwole, Special Adviser to the President on Ease of Doing Business, wrote in from Lagos

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