I left nursing over fear of corpses—Ex-Deputy Director, UCH, Ibadan


A former Deputy Director, University College Hospital, Ibadan, 70-year-old Otunba Iyabo Alabi, tells OLUFEMI OLANIYI about her decision to study nursing and love for climbing trees, among other events in her life
Where were you born and what was growing up like?

I was born on July 12, 1950 at Mercy Hospital, Itafaji, Lagos State. My father was Alhaji Salawu Aderonmu and my mother’s name was Alhaja Sariyu Alatede. I have two siblings from my mother and I have seven siblings from my father.

Which school did you attend?

My first school was Children’s Home School, Oke Ado, in Ibadan, Oyo State. I also attended NTC Primary School, Oke Ado. After that, my mother took me to Alafia Institute, Mokola, Ibadan and I was in boarding school throughout. Then I left Alafia Institute to Yejide Girls Grammar School. I was also in boarding school there; in fact, I never stayed at home. I was in boarding school throughout.

Why was that?

Maybe because I was troublesome, right from my primary school days; I think they took me to boarding school to tame me. When I left Yejide Grammar School, I went to Adeola Odutola for my Higher School Certificate but I did not finish there. After, I went to Goethe-Institut in Hamburg, Western Germany, to study Dutch. After spending about two years there, I decided to leave.

Why?

I realised that if I had to study with the German language, I would have a problem when I returned to Nigeria. I would not know how to deal with the problem because everything would be taught to me in German. How would I have been translating it into English when I returned? I went to the United States and, luckily for me, I had an uncle there, a diplomat. He was the consul in charge of education, Mr Bayo Oladapo. He is dead now. He got a school for me and my mummy paid.

I realised that I would have a problem when I got back to Nigeria because I knew it would be difficult to get a job if I trained as a nurse in Germany. So, I moved to the US to avoid that. In Germany, they didn’t teach their children the English Language; everything was taught in German. They so much appreciate their language and (I felt) that would affect me later.

Did you have any difficulty learning German?

No, I didn’t have any difficulty. In fact, I loved the language and I was the best student in the class.

Do you mean you were better than Germans with their own language?

No. I didn’t beat the Germans, but among Africans, I was the best. I learnt the language very fast.

What did you read in the US?

I decided to read Dietetics.

Why did you change your mind about nursing?

I just changed. My mother didn’t even like nursing. And again, I am really scared of dead bodies. You know that you cannot study nursing without seeing dead bodies. In fact, right from the school, you would be taken to the mortuary to see dead bodies. But dietetics is not like nursing; you don’t see dead bodies all the time. You don’t deal with dead bodies, so I decided to study Nutrition and Dietetics, although it was not common in Nigeria as of that time. I went to the New York Institute of Dietetics, where I spent one year for a diploma. For my degree, I went to Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York. It is an expensive school, owned by the Jews. Majority of us, Nigerians, in the school were Hausa and they were there on scholarships. The Yoruba were few because only the rich could afford to send their children there, but my mother sponsored me. When I graduated in 1977, I went to New York University for my master’s degree.

But did your mum not feel bad that you abandoned nursing for dietetics?

She didn’t feel anything. She was at Gbagada Market selling fabrics. She was okay with anything I did, provided it was not something bad. NYU was also a very expensive school and my mum still sponsored me. It was much more expensive than the Pratt Institute. I graduated in February 1979 and stayed back in New York for two years because, when you finished, immigration would give you two years to practise.

What happened after that?

I came back to Nigeria in 1982. I was told that I would serve for one year under the National Youth Service Corps. My ‘twin’ sister knew Chief (Folorunso) Kila, who was the Director General of the NYSC then, and she told him that I wanted to serve in University College Hospital, Ibadan. They so much loved me there because I was not just learning; I had worked in New York and I brought the experience gained to UCH.

Were you retained after your NYSC programme?

I thought they would give me job after that but they did not. I didn’t want to go to Lagos; I wanted to stay in Ibadan, but UCH did not employ me. Despite knowing influential people, I couldn’t get a job there. I applied and filled eight forms to no avail. I went to the US to have my second child and returned later. One day, I was told Prof (Benjamin) Osuntokun wanted to see me. Prof Osuntokun of blessed memory was a nice man. I went to UCH and he said, ‘You went to NYU.’ He said NYU was a very good school. He told me that he had affiliation to the university. He then asked, ‘Didn’t you want to work here?’ I said I wanted to but I was not given a job. I told him how I filled several forms and nothing came of it. He then instructed somebody to go and look for my forms but they couldn’t find them.

He told the man to go and bring a new form and I filled it right there inside his office. He didn’t know me from anywhere. He just saw in my file that I served there. Was that not a miracle? It was later I knew that my father had helped his brother in Jos. My father was working with Nigeria Railway Corporation and Prof Osuntokun’s brother wanted to come to Ibadan by train, but he had difficulties with his luggage. My father helped him and you see how the man’s brother helped me, unknowingly. After filling the form, he said I should follow the man he sent to give the form to a lady who was the Director of Administration at UCH. When we got there, I stayed outside and the man took my form inside to the woman (DA). When he came out, I asked if the woman had signed the form but he told me that the woman threw my form away. I went back to Prof Osuntokun and told him what the man said. Prof called the Deputy DA and that one signed it and I started work the following week with my newborn. It was a miracle.

You said you were troublesome as a child…

Yes, I was very troublesome. I loved climbing trees and plucking fruits. We had an almond tree at our house in Oke Bola. I would climbed the tree and pluck the fruits, while Bimbola Aboderin and Gbeminiyi Smith would gather them on the ground. I was warned on many occasions not to climb trees but I didn’t listen. One day, a lizard fell on my head while in the tree and I thought it was a snake. You should have seen the way I jumped down; I never climbed trees after that. I was nice but adventurous. I also loved singing, dancing and action. When I was at Yejide, we went to Benin to sing and act for the then Oba of Benin. But I was taken to boarding school because I was troublesome.

Were your parents disciplinarians?

I didn’t live with my father. I lived with my mother and grandmother and they were very strict. Everybody knew them; Mama Alatede Aboderin and my mum were very strict. Those two women were so strict. My mother used to beat me with koboko (horsewhip) and, after some time, I became used to it; it no longer pained me. But they gave me everything I wanted, though they did not spoil me. I wore good clothes; I really enjoyed my childhood. Because of them, I did not have any boyfriend throughout my secondary school. The boyfriend I had was after my secondary school and, just six months after, I travelled abroad.

So, despite their discipline, you were still troublesome, climbing trees?

Yes, they kept beating me, but I became used to it. That was why they took me to boarding school; it was to tame me.

You rose to the position of a deputy director. What were the challenges that came with that responsibility?

I thank God because I was the first dietician to rise to the position of a deputy director. I just did my work and I was myself.

Did anybody doubt your leadership capacity?

In fact, God really led me. When I was the head of department, Prof Abiodun Ilesanmi came on as the Chief Medical Director before my boss left. When I was the HOD, we faced many challenges while Prof Ilesanmi was carrying out many changes. He brought a fast food outlet into UCH and dismantled the carpenting department. You know that fast food is not good for patients but he brought it to UCH. I was having difficulty with him and we clashed. Dieticians were counselling patients to avoid junk food and the CMD brought an outlet into the hospital. He knew I would not take no for an answer and he used to call me a tough woman. At times, I would not leave work until 11pm. I would carry the food to patients in the Intensive Care Unit by myself at night. Whenever I knew I was on the right path, I didn’t bend.

What were the qualities of your husband that endeared him to you?

I am married to Otunba Clement Ajibola Alabi. He is a nice man. He is reserved and doesn’t get angry. But if he gets angry once, you won’t like him. He is loving and caring. We have two children together, who are now men living in the US. He’s a very responsible father.

How did you meet him?

We met in New York through a friend. We were both students when we met. We met through a friend, Bola, of blessed memory. My husband is a Catholic and I am Anglican but I became a Catholic because of him and I have no regret. Catholic doctrines just blend with my upbringing of honesty. There are certain things a Catholic is not expected to do, like telling lies, being frivolous or getting divorced, among others.

How do you relax as a retiree?

I don’t relax. I am always busy; I have always been active from my childhood. I have church meetings and programmes. I counsel clients of my friend who has a massage business. We in the Aboderin family celebrate a lot because it is a large family and I always travel to Lagos because of these celebrations. You would think I live in Lagos.

Do you engage in any sporting activity?

No, but I walk round this building between 40 minutes and one hour every day. That is what I do to keep fit. I also do breathing exercises. I do my chores myself. I am not used to hiring housemaids. When visitors come, I cook and wash the dishes. I am used to it.

Can you recall any memorable event while growing up?

My first and second graduations, when I was delivered of my first baby; and when I became a US citizen. Also, my 70th birthday on July 12 was a memorable event, despite the coronavirus. We had a Zoom party and about 400 people attended from Britain, Canada, the US and everywhere else we have relatives and friends. I had a reception here and people came but we made sure we observed social distancing. On my birthday, Mrs (Bola) Ogunshola brought trumpeters and drummers as early as 7am and I didn’t even know they were singing for me when I heard the sound outside the gate, I had to change out of my nightwear and go outside.

There are good and bad (memories). When I completed my master’s, the NYU wrote to me saying I had completed my studies. One night, I got off the train on my way home and I saw a guy behind me. He was wearing gloves and it was summertime, so I was on alert. Someone wearing gloves in the summer suggests something, so I was ready. Immediately I opened the door to the building and entered, he also entered as if he lived in the building, so there was no problem. When I saw him coming after me, I decided not to climb up the stairs but to use the elevator. I didn’t know he could see the floor I was going to because of the elevator button I pressed. Beside our door, there was another door where you could dispose of your garbage. I did not know he had entered that garbage room and was hiding there. When I got off the elevator, I had to put down the things I was carrying before I opened the door to my apartment.

This guy suddenly emerged and grabbed me from behind, pointing a long, sharp knife at my throat. He threatened to stick the knife in my throat if I shouted for help and took me to the elevator, but it was busy. He was waiting for the elevator to come so that he could force me inside. While waiting, I also had my two hands on the knife but I didn’t struggle. I later realised that my hands were touching the handle of the knife. I quickly grabbed the knife from him and God saved me. It was so quick; he wasn’t expecting it. He thought I was an American because an American would not do what I did. That was how I collected the knife from him and he ran. I threw the knife at the back of his head and it got him. He started bleeding but he came back. I called my neighbours and they asked me to come (in) without knowing that he had already attacked me. God saved me. If the elevator was not busy, he would have taken me to the basement and raped me. He would thereafter have killed me because he didn’t cover his face and he would not want me to identify him. I called Uncle Olu that night and he said we should go back to Nigeria. That was how God saved me.

Also, we lost two close persons last year, which was devastating. My ‘twin’ sister died. We were named Ibeji Alatede because we were given birth to on the same day by two sisters. Our grandmother named us Ibeji Alatede. She was born in the morning and I was born in the evening.

I thank God because the people in my family love me so much. Uncle Jibola (The Chairman, Continental Reinsurance Plc and a former Chairman, Punch Nigeria Limited, Chief Ajibola Ogunshola) named me the ‘Custodian of History’ because any time they were looking for a photograph, I would provide the old pictures of my grandmother and great-grandmother. Also, I don’t forget things. They call me Alajobi because I coordinate so many things. I live in Ibadan, but you would see me in Lagos often and some think I live in Lagos. I was the one doing alaga (master of ceremony) for the family anytime we had a ceremony. I have done it more than 30 times. I am also Otunba in Oke Agbo, Ijebu Igbo. My late twin sister’s husband was an Oba there and he gave us chieftaincy titles. My twin sister died and shortly after, Kabiyesi also died.

Were there things that really made you excited as a child?

We used to live at Oke Bola when I was young and our baba, Mama Alatede’s firstborn, Chief Moyo Aboderin, was a politician. He belonged to the class of those good politicians back then. As a child, (Chief Samuel Ladoke) Akintola, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Alhaji Tafawa Balewa would come to Oke Bola and I knew them. They would come to our house to see my uncle and this really excited me. It was as if I saw God. Also, the then Olota of Ota, Oba T.T. Dada, would come to our house to spend one week with Mama. I would eat with Kabiyesi and my mother would ask me not to go to Kabiyesi’s room but I would still go and he enjoyed my company. Those things made me so excited.


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