Dear Beloved Reader, today’s story is a very special one and it is on one of the foremost Nigerian icons of cultural history, the quintessential explorer. Europe had Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook, and Marco Polo, Asia had its Ibn Battuta and Zheng He and Africa had OLABISI AJALA. A very Nigerian man at heart and a proud African in soul, Ajala shattered all records of travel, voyaging into lands that no black person had ever seen not to talk of setting their feet there. Ajala had the world in his pockets and the world bowed at his guts. From the physical boundaries of nations to the piercing demarcations of racism, Ajala tore through them all. This is his tale.
BIRTH, BACKGROUND AND EDUCATION
Born Moshood Adisa Olabisi Ajala in Ghana to an African Muslim father with four wives, Ajala grew up in a large family. He was one out of 25 children. In his own words in his legendary book, An African Abroad, he said:
‘I was born in Ghana, of Nigerian parents, and brought up in Nigeria, where I had my schooling at the Baptist Academy, Lagos, and Ibadan Boys’ High School. At the age of eighteen I went to America to further my studies. My father, a traditionalist who belongs to the old school…’
Ajala’s initial goal was to study medicine and as a matter of fact, he was the first black student to be pledged by the Delta Upsilon Pi ‘fratority’, a co-educational Greek-letter organization at De Paul University in Chicago in January 1952 where he was a pre-medical student. He was so active that he was made the feature editor of the campus newspaper, the De Paulian. Ajala said at that time that once he became a medical doctor he was going to return to Africa to in his words ‘wage war on voodoo and other superstitions.’ He said he was proud of his 24 siblings, one of whom was a student in England. Ajala said: ‘The world should send doctors to Africa, and missionaries to Chicago. The gangsters here need converting much more than we do.’ He would never fulfill his dream of becoming a medical doctor as he stumbled on something far more enchanting.
BICYCLING ACROSS THE UNITED STATES
Fame came to Moshood Ajala in 1952 when he decided to embark on a lecture tour across the United States from Chicago to Los Angeles, all on a bicycle. Aged 22, Ajala set out on the 12th of June 1952 from Chicago on a bicycle tour covering an incredible 2,280 miles. He arrived the Los Angeles City Hall on 10th of July, two days ahead of his 30-day schedule. Upon arrival, Ajala was received by the city mayor Fletcher Bowron. While narrating his experience of the cross-country tour, Mr. Ajala said everything was generally fine and the only nasty incident was a time in Topeka, Kansas where he was jailed for 44 hours after the white YWMA refused him a room and called the police when he protested (kindly note that that was time when the United States of America was bitterly divided with segregation politics gaining ground). A man not to be cheated, Ajala filed a suit against the Topeka YMCA and its secretary via the Nigerian ambassador in Washington. He was determined no one was going to mess with a Nigerian citizen and get away with it, not even a band of unruly Americans in Kansas.
But what was the purpose of his travel? Ajala was a psychology junior at the Roosevelt College in Chicago and his goal for the tour was to educate the American public on the progress made by his native West African country of Nigeria. The tour included stops to deliver lectures at 11 major cities. Ajala also did his tour wearing native Nigerian costumes described as ‘elaborately flowered robes with a felt-like head-dresses to match’, to which Ajala said:…will show and prove to Americans that we do not go about nakedly in loin clothes.’
Ajala also appeared on television and this was how he was described in Global Television Formats: Understanding Television Across Borders:
‘Perhaps even more significant for our discussion of the show’s global and local dynamics, however, was the participation of Nigerian contestant Olabisi Ajala, a sophisticated world traveller and secretary to his country’s prime minister. Olabisi was an attractive and charismatic black man who held a degree in psychology from Columbia University and was an expert in ethnology, the subject he chose for Lascia o Raddoppia? Olabisi recurrently appeared on TV wearing traditional Nigerian clothes, and he managed to transform every night on the show into a celebration of his ethnic and cultural heritage. The final night however, Olabisi entered the TV studio wearing an impeccable tuxedo, while Mike wore the traditional Nigerian costume, demonstrating once more his ability to interact with his contestants’ most genuine aspects of identity, be it regional, Italian or foreign and ‘Other.’’
AJALA THE ACTOR
Photo info: Studies Script For First Movie: Movie star Robert Mitchum goes over script of 20th Century-Fox motion picture White Witch Doctor with African-born Olabisi Ajala, who landed his first role (supporting role as the second male lead) in the movie after bicycling cross-country from Chicago to Los Angeles in December 1952. Here, he was under a $300-a-week contract. The cast was headed by Susan Hayward and Robert Mitchum and Ajala was to play the role of Ola, a companion of Loni (Mitchum), a famous African hunter. It is interesting to note that Ajala was given the screen test at 20th Century-Fox on the suggestion of an actor named Ronald Reagan (who would later become the President of the United States). Both had met in London in 1949.
Actor Moshood Ajala in court with attorney Elias Powell.
Following his daring bicycle trip across continental United States, Ajala became the darling of many. Newspaper journalists besieged him and he was made a celebrity overnight. Deals, endorsements and contracts came flying at him. One of such was the movie contract he signed with Eagle-Lion Studios in Hollywood in August 1955, the deal involved making a series of drama and spy films with European and African backgrounds.
After his deportation from the United States, Ajala proceeded to Canada and spent nine months perfecting his acting skills. It was while he was there that he starred in the stage play Lost In The Stars.
BRUSHES WITH AMERICAN LAW AND THE DEPORTATION
A free-spirited individual known for crashing into movies amongst other interesting ways of expressing his liberty, it was not long before Ajala surfaced on the American security radar. In July 1953, things had taken turn for the worse for Ajala. But what happened?
In March 1953, the police of Beverly Hills, California arrested and jailed Ajala on three felony charges. He was accused on one count of forgery, two grand theft and three, worthless cheque charges. To add to his trouble, he had also been sued by a former Chicago nurse for refusing to accept paternity of his child. Back to the forgery case, specific charges against Ajala indicated that he made attempts to work a ‘bunko’ game by opening a savings account at a branch of Bank of America under the fake name of ‘Edward Hines’ then made deposits at other branches with worthless cheques. Officials said Ajala made five of such phony deposits of about $450.
He was eventually found guilty of forgery and deported from the United States of America, he was aged 24, an exchange student from Africa and an actor. Ajala was not really deported solely because of the grand theft charges (to which he pleaded not guilty before Judge Orlando H. Rhodes), he became a subject of deportation also because he failed to maintain his studies at the Santa Monica Junior College, thus invalidating his visa. For the forgery and grand theft charges, Ajala pleaded not guilty saying with all firmness and seriousness that he was duped by Arnold Weiner, a white male ex-bank accountant. Weiner said while it was true that he showed Ajala how to write cheques, he did not dupe him in anyway.
However, it must be stated that Ajala’s deportation was not without drama. After he was convicted of passing bad cheques in Los Angeles, Ajala was ordered by the American authorities to be deported to England from Ellis Island, New York but Ajala resisted and you know what he did? While awaiting deportation at the Terminal Island in Los Angeles after he was given a one-year suspended jail term, Ajala climbed an 80-foot radio tower and threatened to kpayn himself (that means to commit suicide for my readers who might be raised on Banana Island and do not know what kpayn or kpef means). From atop the tower, Ajala screamed that he ‘would rather leap to my death’ than be deported. Mr. Ajala was on the tower for almost 24 hours while the immigration authorities pleaded with him. Finally, Ajala fell to the ground from a height of 15 feet. He was examined by doctor at the island’s hospital and they said all he suffered was just a sprained back. Immigration authorities said Ajala made the death threat because he feared what they called ‘tribal execution’ if he was packaged back to Nigeria. They quoted Ajala saying:
‘My father will kill me if I am sent back without completing my college studies.’
Immigration officials said Ajala dreaded tribal execution so much so that when the judge sentenced him to a one-year suspended sentence, Ajala dropped to his knees two times and touched the floor with his forehead saying he was ‘calling on Allah’ to bless the judge for the ‘mercy’ shown as the sentence might just save him from execution back home in West Africa.
When Ajala noted that his protest at the order of the immigration authorities did not work, he embarked on a 30-day fast which was the immigration officials translated it to mean a hunger strike to stop his deportation while Ajala insisted he was simply observing his Ramadan fasting as dictated by his Islamic faith. Whatever the case, Mr. Ajala was deported and gallantly flown to London. Immigration officer Justin Bennett confirmed his deportation without any fear of any execution and also stated that Ajala’s request to be sent to Canada was rejected because Canada has refused to approve his application.
Upon arriving in the United Kingdom, Ajala said he was going to work on a new movie at the Ealing Studios in London and talked of his plans to return to the United States.
By September 1954, Ajala was back in the United States with his American-born wife, Hermine Aileen. He explained to reporters that the deportation order only banned him from stepping on American soil and his plan was to resume his acting career in California.
THE GLOBAL TRAVEL
- He visited nations such as India, Russia (then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR), Jordan, Iran (not an Islamic Republic then but a monarchy and America’s greatest ally in the region headed by a monarch), Jordan, Israel and Australia using nothing but a motor-scooter (popularly called Vespa) and met with some of the most powerful people in the world.
These included personalities like Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa who was Nigeria’s first prime minister, Marshal Ayub Khan of Pakistan, Golda Meir of Israel (she was the first female prime minister of the nation), Makarios III of Cyprus, Jawarhalal Nehru of India, Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR, the Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi), Gamal Nasser of Egypt, General Ignatius Acheampong of Ghana, Odinga Oginga, former vice president of Kenya and others. Ajala released a book titled An African Abroad documenting all his experiences on the trip, the book was supposed to be the first volume of a trilogy. In all, he visited over 85 countries with his scooter over a period of six years.
- I must point out that Ajala caused a stir in Israel when he entered without an entry or exit visa. When he arrived the Mandelbaum Gate, he just whizzed by and that was indeed quite shocking for many. Manned by Israeli police officers and security operatives, the Mandelbaum Gate then was a checkpoint that separated the Israeli and Jordanian portions of Jerusalem, it existed until the end of the Six-Day War in 1967.
LOVE AND MARRIAGE
Charismatic and charming, Ajala was a man of so many women.
In early 1953, a baby boy weighing six pounds and eight ounces was born to a former Chicago nurse named Myrtle Bassett who was residing in Los Angeles. This lady said Ajala was the father of the baby and had previously filed a paternity suit against him when he flatly refused he was the father. But the mother of the child countered saying Ajala did not only name the baby (Oladipupo), he also signed the birth certificate. Ajala stuck to his guns and insisted he was not the father. He told Jet that time that: ‘1. The mother had refused to have blood tests for the baby so he could prove he was not its father. 2. He had contributed $300 to cover the medical and hospital expenses to cancel a restraining order against his $300-a-week salary at 20th Century-Fox Studio, where he completed work in the movie White Witch Doctor and 3. He had given her $150 after the child’s birth and promised $200-a-month for support, pending settlement of the case.’ Ajala was scheduled to begin work in Columbia Studio’s movie Killer Ape on the 2nd of February 1953 when all this allegations and court issues about paternity came. In fact, Ajala planned to launch a countersuit to the paternity case saying:
It is the only way I can prove that I am innocent of the charges. She refuses to submit the baby to a blood test. I think it is a trick.
Eventually, when the lady in question said she was ready for the blood tests, Mr. Ajala was nowhere to be found and the court had to rule against him. In March 1953, a Los Angeles domestic court ordered Ajala to pay Myrtle Bassett the sum of $10 per week for support of her baby boy, Oladipupo.
In August 1955 in London, United Kingdom, Ajala revealed to journalists that he and his American wife, Hermine Aileen were divorced and that he was planning to marry his 19-year-old white London radio-TV actress Joan Simmons in December of the same year (see their photo below). Hermine had divorced him over adultery and when Ajala was questioned about the philandering charges pressed by his wife, he said curtly: ‘This, I am not contesting.’
- When Ajala passed through Australia in his trip, he met and fell in love with a local girl, whom he married. This union sparked the interest of many because as at that time, only about 100 blacks (Aborigines) had become Australian citizens and most of them did so via marriage.
In the photo below taken in September 1958, Ajala is shown back in London after a nine-month motor scooter tour of Europe, Asia and the Soviet Union dancing with his wife, Patricia, at the ‘welcome home’ party they organized for him. As at the time this photo was taken, the couple was planning a year-long scooter tour of China, South America and Australia. The tour was slated to start November 1958. Keep in mind that Nigeria was not even an independent nation when Ajala was carrying out all his exploits.
Recall that Ajala had many children from his various romantic liaisons with women. One of the most striking stories of his children includes that of the child mentioned earlier on, the one he had with Myrtle Bassett. Ajala did not set his eyes on the child for 23 years and when he finally met him in December 1976, he was ecstatic with joy. This was how it happened. After the court ruled in Bassett’s favor, Ajala soon disappeared from the radar and when he turned 46, he was overwhelmed with so much guilt that he said of the meeting with Oladipupo (then called Andre). Ajala explained: ‘I was very happy to find Andre. He is my oldest son and he is so full of life. Im overjoyed that I found him.’
Ajala was just 24 and a student at Roosevelt University in Chicago when he met a student nurse there and later moved to Los Angeles with her and shortly gave welcomed the baby boy. But a couple of months after Andre was born, Ajala had ajala-ed himself back to Nigeria, leaving his family behind. But the shame was too much for him as a father and decided to return to the United States to find his son whom he found in New York already working as a musician and a guitarist. An excited Ajala said he would love his son to visit Nigeria the following year (1977) and perform at the World Black Arts Festival (1977). See the two of them when they reunited after 23 years:
As a result of his exploits and global travels, Ajala became famous. He became so famous that one of Nigeria’s most foremost juju musicians, Ebenezer Obey immortalized the only Nigerian to globetrot on a scooter when he sang: ‘Alhaja ló se Obokun fun Al’Ajala’ meaning ‘It was Alhaja who feted Al’Ájala to catfish.’ The song became an instant hit in Nigeria of the 1970s where Alhaja Kudirat Adebisi Edionseri and Olabisi Ajala were the reigning socialites of the day.
SLIDE INTO PENURY
Ajala had seen it all, from the greatest displays of wealth to the stupefying corridors of power. But somehow, by the time death came knocking, he was one of the poorest Nigerians alive.
THE LAST DAYS, DEATH AND BURIAL
Till his last years on earth, the adventurous spirit never left Ajala. In October 1997, few years before his death, he was planning another round of global voyage. On the 2nd of February, 1999, Ajala Travel died abject poverty and scalding penury. He was buried in Lagos in a grave that is now known only to his loved ones and those who care enough. Ajala’s wish of being cremated after his death never materialized. The sorry state of Ajala’s last days on earth was vividly captured in the 20th February 1999 edition of Guardian by Bolaji Tunji who wrote thus:
How renowned globe-trotter and socialite, Olabisi Ajala died in penury in Lagos
OLABISI Ajala. The name may not readily ring a bell to the younger generation of Nigerians, but the older generation would certainly remember him as the happy-go-lucky bearded globe-trotter and socialite who put the nation on the world map, as he traversed the globe on his motor scooter.
Ajala explored the unexplored and charted the hitherto uncharted areas of the world. He wined and dined with heads of state and leaders including the late Alhaji Tafawa Balewa, First Republic Prime Minister of Nigeria, the late Paudit Nehru of India, the late Abdel Nasser of Egypt, the late Golda Meir of Israel; the late Marshall Ayub Khan of Pakistan, the late President Makarios of Greece, the late General Ignatius Acheampong of Ghana and the late Oginga Odinga, one time Vice President of Kenya. The list, indeed is endless.
But on February 2, 1999, the man fondly known as “Ajala travel” died.
He died in penury. The world famous Ajala died unsung and unrecognized.
His grave in central Lags is no different from any other.
For more than a year, Ajala suffered. He had a sioke which paralysed his left limb. But his army of children were not there to give him succor. He only had two of them around, Olaolu Ajala, a 20-year-old student of Baptist Academy, Lagos and Bolanle Ajala, his 17-year-old daughter who had just finished her senior secondary education at the Baptist High School, Bariga, Lagos.
With him also in his last hour was another teenager, 14-year-old Wale Anifowoshe.
Wale was especially fond of him. He kept all Ajala’s money, the little there was.
Some of his children who could not be with him include Dante, Femi, Lisa and Sydney all of whom are based in Australia. They are the children of his Australian wife, Joan.
Some of his other children are also spread around the globe. There are aiwo and Kehinde in the United States as wwell as Bisola in England. Butt all were not around to bid their father a final goodbye except Olaolu and Bolanle.
Indeed it is a sad end for a man whose scooter is now a national monument. Noone oof his numerous wives was around to bid him goodbye to the world beyond.
His first wife, Alhaja Sade, could not find time during the year-long sickness of her husband until he finally died. She lives in Ikotun, a suburb of Lagos. “We told her that he was sick and she told us she would come, but we never saw her, “ Olaolu said.
He was not sure whether she is aware that her husband is dead. Joan only got in touch with him through correspondence. There are also Mrs. Toyin Ajala in England and Mrs. Sherifat Ajala, mother of his last daughter, Bolanle.
But they were not around to tend to the man when he was battling with his sickness.
A neighbor in Bariga who spoke on condition of anonymity said “he could have survived if he had had adequate care.”
Adequate care was indeed far from the late globe-trotter. In no other place was this manifested than his residence, a rented apartment in a two-storey building on Adeniran Street, Bariga .
Climbing two flights of stairs to the top floor, one is immediately confronted with the way life had treated Ajala. A passage leads into a 16-by-12 feet sitting room.
The sitting room, devoid of carpet, has a table with about five locally made iron chairs in a corner. This, the reporter gathered, serves as the dining table. An old black and white television set sits uncomfortably in an ill-constructed shelf. The cushion on the sofa hurts the buttock as it has become flat. The curtains on the windows of the two bedroom flat shows signs of old age. It is indeed a story of penury.
But his two children in Nigeria still hold fond memories of their father. They eagerly answered questions and consulted calendars to give precise dates which they had marked on the calendar. The mantle of responsibility falls on Olaolu who printed the poster that gave the details of his death.
Narrating the last days of his father, Olaolu told The Guardian on Saturday that he had a stroke on June 18, last year. ‘On that day, I had gone to school. When I came back, he told me he fell down on the balcony. We went to call a doctor about three blocks away. It was the doctor who told us that he had a stroke.”
According to Olaolu, medications were prescribed. “We bought the drugs and we followed the doctor’s instruction that we should allow him to rest”.
The doctor who came from a private hospital further advised the children to get their father a physiotherapist. “We got one for him at the Igbobi Orthopaedic Hospital and he was always coming home to give him therapy. And we noticed that he was getting better.”
But the picture changed after three months of home medication. “After three months, we realized that he had relapsed. He was able to walk if he held on to something. But this suddenly stopped. He could no longer walk. “
That was when divine intervention came from a family friend, Morufu Ojikutu, who arrived from Germany. “He advised that we should take him to the hospital when he saw his condition. He also gave us money for his treatment,” Olaolu said.
The reporter gathered that what really stopped the ailing Ajala from going to the hospital was the lack of funds. Says Olaolu, “when he got sick, he did not have money but later my sisters and mum sent in some money for his treatment. And it this that we spent to keep ourselves together.”
But Bolanle chipped in that at times, money sent to their father doesn’t get to him. “Brother Femi (his second son) sent him £ 500 but he never received it and that was what he was harping on until he died”, she said.
In spite of the lack of funds, Olaolu believes that he died because he did not get quick medical attention. “When Mr. Ojikutu came, it was already too late. I think he also knew he was about to die and he did not want to die at home. That was why he insisted that he should be taken to the hospital.”
Ajala eventually ended up at the General Hospital, Ikeja. “He was there for 11 days. Prior to his death, his younger sister also depoited money with an aunt at the hospital to take care of him,” Olaolu said.
It was gathered that before his death, Ajala had demanded that his relatives should bring a more comfortable chair, radio and orange juice. “But when the things were taken to him on February 2, he was already dead,” Olaolu said.
According to Wale, who was with him in the hospital, Ajala had been restless since the weekend before his eventual death. “When he first got to the hospital on January 25, he was always playing and joking with the people in the ward. But from Sunday, January 30, he could not breathe very well. He was always breathing through the mouth until he died on Tuesday, February 2,” Olaolu said.
LEGACY AND HONOURS
Olabisi Ajala was more than an inspiring compatriot; he was the very personification of adventure. A truly thrilling a pan-African voyager who made the best of his time the way he deemed best, he remains a global citizen and a legend in his own right. At a time when millions of Nigerian youths are scared and utterly petrified of anything that even remotely reeks of exploration or adventure, the story of Ajala Travel should be more than an inspiration to conquer the world. He conquered the world the way he could, let us do the same and leave our marks in the warps of time.
My thoughts: In a sane nation, Mr. Olabisi Ajala would not only be in the Guinness Book of World Records, he would also be a recipient of the national honours for putting Nigeria on the global map. His book will be embedded in the national curriculum of history and the royalties accruing from the book will ensure his children do not have their future jeopardized by uncertainties of life – not to talk of using some of the proceeds to construct and maintain a befitting museum for him. In the beginning of this piece, I mentioned some of the most intrepid travellers from various continents, I narrate below how they have been honoured by their respective nations. It is not too late for the Nigerian nation to honour and preserve the timeless legacy of her most legendary traveller.
Thanks for your time.
- Olabisi Ajala, An African Abroad, (Jarrolds, London, 1963).
- Deported Nigerian Actor Returns To US With Wife, page 58, Jet, 16th September 1954.
- African Actor To Wed White British Actress, page 19, Jet, 25th August, 1955.
- Moshood Olabisi Ajala, People Profile, Jet, 7th August, 1952.
- African Cyclist Near End of ‘Cross Country’ Tour, Jet, 17th July 1952.
- James Olney, Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature, page 47.
- Jet, 25th December, 1952, page 54.
- Pause For Globe-Girdler, Jet, 18th September, 1958.
- Oladipo GB Ogunseitan, Be Afra, Volume 1, page 528-530.
- Tunji, Bolaji. ‘Sad End of Olabisi Ajala.’, The Guardian, 20 February 1999, pages 8-9.
- Akor, Ambrose. ‘Globe Trotter, Ajala, Plans Another World Trip.’, The Guardian, 5 October 1997, page 19.
- Black African Literature in English, 1997 – 1999, page 204, Volume 6, by Bernth Lindfors.
- African Actor Jailed For Worthless Checks, Jet, 12th March, 1953, page 46.
- African Actor Ajala Deported To England, Jet, 16th July, 1953, page 7.
- African Actot Denies Paternity As Boy Is Born, Jet, 5th February, 1953, page 21.
- Tasha Oren & Sharon Shahaf, Global Television Formats: Understanding Television Across Borders, page 141.
- African Actor Ajala Begins ’30-Day Fast’, Jet, 18th June, 1953, page 5.
- African Student To Make 30-Day US Bike Tour, Jet, 5th June, 1952, page 8.
- Ajala Plans Countersuit In Paternity Case, Jet, 12th February, 1953, page 21.
- Cross-Country African Cyclist Gets Movie Role, Jet, 11th December, 1952, page 62.
- Welcome the Negro? We Can’t Even Assimilate Our Own Coloreds, Say Leaders, Ebony, September 1996, pages 97 – 98.
- African Actor Ajala Faces Deportation, Jet, 14th May, 1953, page 38.
- African Actor Ordered To Support Child. Jet, 26th March, 1953, page 19.
- 23 Years Later, Father And Son Are Reunited, Jet, 23rd December, 1976, page 51.
- African Actor Ordered Deported, Attempts Suicide, Jet, 11th June, 1953, page 4.
- Scooting Through The East, Jet, 29th December, 1960, page 37.
- DePaul ‘Fratority’ Pledges First Negro, Jet, 31st January, 1952, page 25.
- Bolaji Tunji, The Sad End of Olabisi Ajala, The Anchor Online, http://theanchoronline.com.ng/the-sad-end-of-olabisi-ajala/