Review of Femi Osofisan’s ‘Gamaliel Onosode Classicus, An Honourable Life’ – Olukorede S. Yishau
Lovers of poetry may like the part of Femi Osofisan’s ‘Gamaliel Onosode Classicus, An Honourable Life’, which gives an insight into the personality of the late Christopher Okigbo, one of Nigeria’s greatest poets of all time. Okigbo was killed during the Biafran war. The Okigbo that emerges on the pages of this book took ‘advantage’ of the closeness of the University College, Ibadan to a nursing school with pretty ladies as students. However, the Okigbo unravelled here is just a scratch of the naughty one in Obi Nwakanma’s ‘Christopher Okigbo 1930-67: Thirsting for Sunlight’.
The book has an interesting account of Onosode’s relationship with the late Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, who was Minister of Finance and an in-law. Other accounts that make the book stand out involve his relationship with Pro-Chancellors in his time, past Nigerian leaders such as Yakubu Gowon, Shehu Shagari, Sani Abacha, Ibrahim Babangida, and Ernest Shonekan.
This book provides startling insights into the lives of many renowned Nigerians whose paths crossed with Gamaliel Onosode, who was in his lifetime known as the boardroom guru.
This new book by Osofisan, ‘Gamaliel Onosode Classicus, An Honourable Life’,looks beyond his involvement in corporate Nigeria. It reveals his soft sides. This book is not your everyday kind of biography. Call it a literary biography or creative non-fiction and you will be spot on. It reads, in parts, like a novel and at times, like an interview and in some parts, like a thriller. Those seem the best ways to describe Femi Osofisan’s brilliant biography of Sapele-born Mr. Gamaliel Onosode, one of Nigeria’s brightest minds who died some years back.
The book, ‘Gamaliel Onosode Classicus, An Honourable Life’, is not the first on Onosode so Osofisan devised an ingenious approach to tell the story of this great Nigerian whose contributions to the public and private sector are still there for all to see. He also reveals details that have not appeared in the previous publication.
Osofisan tries to avoid dwelling on the known parts of Onosode such as his uncompromising rectitude, his probity in business, and his integrity. He dwells instead on his moments of distress, his disappointments, and his other soft sides.
The Onosode Osofisan unveils in this book was a man who had an early exposure to books, who stammered in his early years, who developed optical challenges at the university which made him end up with a Second Class Lower, and a man who despite his best efforts ended up having his first child out of wedlock during his studies in the United Kingdom.
The book kicks off in Onosode’s home in Surulere, which bore so many memories of his life and times. Through this opening chapter and the one that follows, we meet one of his children, Christopher, who started playing the piano early in life, we get to see the changes to his home over the years and we get to see how Onosode could be described as a cat with nine lives.
During his lifetime, Onosode had over ten surgeries and on many occasions, his family had almost given up only for him ever bouncing back. In June 2013, he started feeling severe pain in his shoulder. Some months later, he was in England and consulted doctors. He was diagnosed with cancer of the bone marrow. He was told that it had affected his kidneys and he was placed on dialysis for three weeks. He was told his kidneys would never function normally again for the rest of his life. Dialysis was going to be a constant in his life. Onosode believed he could beat the prognosis. He did and his kidneys started functioning again leading the doctor to dub him “the miracle man”.
One day in 1979, he collapsed in his bedroom and vomited congealed blood as a result of a perforated ulcer. Cadbury and Dunlop, two companies he had served, organised an air ambulance to take him to Germany for surgery. The aircraft developed an engine problem and had to turn around to Lagos from around Kano. The ambulance was fixed and he was taken abroad. Not a few family members had given up on the possibility of his returning alive. He did and with a miraculous touch: the wound disappeared without any surgery. And the surgeon told him he was free to eat and drink “nails and broken glasses”. That was how convinced he was of the healing from the ulcer.
There was another miracle in 1996. This time, he had just turned 63 when he travelled to the UK for business. He developed pain in the head and surgery was recommended. This particular instance was peculiar because an in-law of his had just died at 63 and somehow he had concluded that good people were meant to die at 63 and he feared he would not come out of the surgery. Well, he ended being operated on twice. And he lived many more years after.
Onosode, according to the book, inherited the history of hospitalisation from his mother, whose marriage story is bound to intrigue you. Onosode’s great grandfather came to trade at Igun, which was then known as Kokori Waterside. He made a friend, Pa Gogobi, there, and to cement their relationship it was decided that their children must get married. So, the great grandfather’s friend gave him his young daughter to live in his household to eventually become the wife of Pinnock, Onosode’s father. She was very young then and lived with the Onosodes for years. One interesting thing about this marriage, which produced the great Gamaliel, was that for years his mother assumed that all his children were products of incest and that her husband was her brother and silently resented her husband, but she never mentioned it. But her patience ran its course one day when Onosode received a sudden guest in his Lagos home. The guest told him his mother was sick and his attention was needed. When he travelled with the visitor to the hospital his mother was in, the doctor told him she had limited time to spend. She wanted to spend it with one of her daughters, but Pa Pinnock insisted she must be brought to his house. Onosode and others felt his father was weak and would not be able to give her the care she needed. They all decided to go with their mother to convince Pa Pinnock to let their mother stay with the daughter in Benin. The old man would not budge. He shouted on Onosode and others. Then all of a sudden, Aguara, the sick mother, screamed at her husband and said he had no right to determine where she would stay.
“I say, nonsense, Pinnock! The pretending Man of God. No, you don’t decide for me anymore!”
She continued: “That…that is all over now. You’ve seized and controlled my life all these years and now it’s over. I’m not staying with you. I’m escaping, going with my children.”
She went ahead to talk about her belief that Pa Pinnock was her sibling who had forced himself on her and made her pregnant. She was terrified of his hot temper and never mentioned it and now that she felt she was dying and that she was being punished for participating in incest, she let it all out, if only to clear her mind before her death.
The old man burst out laughing and went on to narrate how she came to live with them and why. Her relationship with her husband improved after that and she lived ten more years contrary to the medical advice. In those ten years, they lived like Romeo and Juliet following each other everywhere. He died in 1975 and she died in 1981.
Very instructive also is the chronicle of how Pa Pinnock saved a preacher from kidnappers, acquired education, and eventually became a pastor. This has a bearing on how Gamaliel and the other Onosode children turn out.
Other soft details in the book include Onosode personally washing his socks and underwear and carrying the tray to the kitchen himself after breakfast. You will also marvel at the revelation that Pa Pinnock demanded money from Onosode only once and he came to Lagos for the first time for this purpose and not knowing where his son was living, he went to the police station in Broad Street, and the police through the First Baptist Church on Broad Street helped to fish him out.
The author’s recollection of the day Onosode broke down in tears while narrating the death of Benjamin, his immediate younger brother who died in 2011, also shows another soft side of this icon. Onosode had told the author that Benjamin was like his first son and he had hoped he would be the one to look after him in old age.
The book also unveils the naughty Onosode who as a pupil was fond of teasing teachers. There was a Lagosian, Mr. Williams, who taught him Mathematics. Onosode was fond of embarrassing the teacher because of his deficiencies. He so frustrated the man that one day he screamed at him: “I hate you!” and that was what made him change his naughty ways. The duo eventually became friends.
There are also moments of hilarity in the book, a key one being the recollection about a pupil who was acting in Williams Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and added these words to his lines “carry am make we dey go” forcing the teacher to say Shakespeare could not have written such a Pidgin line.
The book also reveals the fact that before his death, his first child (whom he had out of wedlock) renounced him and adopted the surname of her step-father. They had had an issue over her dating of a married man whom she later had a child for.
The chronicles of how he met his wife and married her less than one month after proposing to her, his failed love affair with a lady he met at UCI, and the ‘disastrous’ attempt to arrange a wife for him after he came back from post-graduate studies in the UK also add to the appeal of this book.
The mixture of first-person narration, third-person recollection, and dialogue techniques add to the beauty of this work. Only one with a literary background like Osofisan can pull off a biography in this unorthodox way.
Osofisan ends most of the chapters on a cliff-hanger thus encouraging you to flip to the next. It is a technique thriller writers use to keep readers glued. He also uses flashbacks in ways only common with fiction. The diction in this book is easy to follow, the syntax is on point and the narration flows with accustomed ease.
When you read this book, especially if you skip the introductory part, you are likely to go away with the impression that the author interviewed one superwoman with extraordinary knowledge of the subject, but it is all a literary device. Osofisan interviewed so many people and only chose to present all of them as a single loquacious female voice, and it works well.
Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘In the Name of Our Father’ and ‘Vaults of Secrets’.