The first Nigerian to be appointed professor of medical microbiology at the University of Ibadan, Prof. Olu Osoba, 82, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI about his life
Where did you spend your childhood?
I was born in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State, in 1934, but my parents moved to Ibadan where I had my primary school education at St James’ Primary School, Oke-Bola. After my primary school education, I gained admission to Ibadan Grammar School. However, I moved to CMS Grammar School in Lagos and completed secondary school education in 1952.
In 1953, I travelled to Dublin, Ireland, where I earned my first degree certificate in microbiology from the University of Dublin. I also obtained a master’s degree certificate from the same university. I later went to Queens University, Belfast to study medicine.
Did you stay in the UK to work after your study?
I returned to Nigeria in 1965 and I was fortunate to be offered a job at the University College Hospital, Ibadan. At the time, most of the doctors were Britons, so one had to work hard to make progress professionally. Through hard work and focus, I got a fellowship to go for post-graduate training in Britain. When I returned to Nigeria in 1969, I was appointed a lecturer and consultant in the UCH.
Most of the senior positions were held by expatriates at the teaching hospital but because of my dedication, I rose to become a professor in 1976. My advice to the youth is that the only way to the top is through hard work, dedication and consistency in performance.
I was the first Nigerian to be appointed a professor of medical microbiology at the University of Ibadan. There were very few Nigerian professors then, but I thank God I was able to reach that level.
What brought you into the international lime light where you became prominent for almost two decades?
After 23 years in service, I retired in 1988 but immediately, I got an appointment to work overseas. I was there until 2006 when I retired again. Between 1988 and 2006, I had various international appointments with the World Health Organisation in Africa, India, Japan, Germany, US and many other countries.
That was when I became more well-known outside Nigeria than inside because I delivered many lectures and attended several international seminars all over the world. I also wrote a book on tropical venereology which was published by Churchill Livingstone. It has been translated into French and Spanish languages. That is why I said that I am more known outside Nigeria. Based on the book, I was invited to give lectures in South America. After a very busy career, I decided to quit in 2006 and I settled in Ibadan.
Did you meet your wife before or after you went to the UK to study?
We met in Nigeria. I had a sister called Mrs. Funmi Ajayi-Tomori who was working in the Department of Economic, UI. My wife also worked there. I was living in UCH campus then and my sister was living with me. She fell ill one day and my wife came to look after her. She cooked pepper soup for her and took over our kitchen. She visited a couple of times until my sister got better. I later found out that she is from the popular Ashiru family in Ijebu-Ode. We became friends and later got married in 1970 and God blessed us with five children who are working abroad.
What prominent role did she play in your life?
In every good home, there must be a pillar which must stand on a foundation. My wife is the foundation of my family and I owe my success mainly to her support.
Many people do not reach the top of their career as doctors but I did with my wife’s help and understanding. When I left the house to work and return late in the night, she looked after the family. She also sacrificed her profession and time for me to move up the academic ladder.
Did your job and that of your wife influence the career choices of your children?
We did not influence their decisions but we guided them. We gave them the freedom to choose their careers based on their strengths.
My first child is a medical doctor, the second is an accountant and the third is an engineer. Their younger sibling studied Information Technology and Economics and the last one studied Information Technology and Mathematics.
The last two chose their careers based on the fact that they grew up in the computer age. While I was working as a visiting professor at Texas State University, my wife decided to join me in the US. The last two children grew up there. They developed their interest in information technology there. My wife is a professor of Economics and she retired from service in December, 2015.
Do you belong to any social club in Nigeria?
Socially, I belong to Egbe Mafowoku in Ijebu-Ode. It is an age-group social club that is only meant for people born between 1934 and 1936 in Ijebu land. It is the leading age group society in the land.
Every year, we celebrate the Ojude-Oba where we parade in our outfit while also paying homage to the Awujale of Ijebu land. After that, we will have a banquet at the palace. The ceremony showcases our colourful tradition and all Ijebu sons and daughters, irrespective of their religious affiliation, come home to savour the Ijebu heritage.
How were you able to attend the festival when you were busy abroad?
I was coming home every year to attend the festival. When I was staying outside Nigeria, I made it a duty to visit Nigeria twice in a year. I carefully planned my visit to coincide with the time of the festival and other celebrations. I was installed Otunba in Owu and I came home for the ceremony.
The Awujale conferred on me the traditional title of Otunba. This is not based on how wealthy one is, but what one has contributed to the land, one’s commitment to the community and how active one is in one’s social group. My wife was also conferred with the same title.
We told him that we were in academics so we did not need the traditional titles. But the Awujale said my wife was worthy because she was at the time the only professor of economics from Ijebu-Ode. He said if we would not accept the titles, we had to go to the markets to announce our refusal.
The tradition is that when the king confers a title on someone, the announcement will be made at all the major markets by the king’s bell bearer. To reject it, the person must also go to the markets to tell the people why he is rejecting the title. But nobody has ever done that. My own Otunba is Atajogboye of Ijebu land because I came from overseas to receive the title.
Why did you choose Ibadan as your home since you are committed to Ijebu heritage?
I have worked almost all my life in Ibadan and I had my primary school here too. My parents lived here and a street was named after them in Agbokojo.
At a time when Gen. Yakubu Gowon (retd.) was the head of state, staff of the University of Ibadan went on strike. Gowon then said we could go on strike but we must move out of the houses provided for us by the university.
That opened our eyes because we had nowhere to go. We had to go back to work. Because of that experience, we approached the Housing Corporation to get plots of land in Bodija which was just being developed. That was how some of us built our houses in the area. There are many former colleagues in the university living on the same street with me in Bodija.
As an Ijebu man, which of the traditional delicacy do you enjoy most?
Unfortunately, my favourite food is rice and beans. I cultivated that habit when I was in boarding school in Lagos. I don’t like amala, pounded yam or heavy food. When I was in Dublin, I cooked a lot of rice during weekends.
For someone used to travelling around the world, is retirement not boring for you?
Despite being retired, I am still as busy as before. I am on the editorial board of many professional journals. In the last two years, I have been involved in various church activities in Ibadan and Ijebu-Ode. The St. James’ Cathedral appointed me as a member of the Greater Chapter of the Cathedral. I was also the chairman of the cathedral history committee. I have been doing a lot of reading, typing and research.
What do you do to keep your body in shape?
I have a small fish farm and I go there once or twice a week when I want to exercise my body. It is about five kilometers from my house. When I go there, I move around and feed the fish. There is fresh air there, so I enjoy a lot of it within the hours I stay there.
I love watching football matches, especially the ones that involves Manchester United.
I became a fan of the club when I was studying in the UK in the 1950s. I watch matches every night on television. I watched the last World Cup, the Olympics and the African Nations Cup competitions. But most importantly, I love playing gospel music a lot. It keeps me busy a lot.