Olabisi Ajala: Finding the Legendary Backpacker With the Famous Travel Name

If you belong in my generation or older, Bisi Ajala’s legend is inescapable in Nigeria. You encountered him in songs and stories describing him as the world’s greatest traveler. He was Nigeria – and Africa’s – answer to Marco Polo.

Ebenezer Obey was wise to sing his praise in English, thus ensuring that Ajala’s legend became nationally embraceable. Hear Obey:

Ajala traveled all over the world

Ajala traveled all over the world

Ajala traveled

Ajala traveled

Ajala traveled all over the world

Long before all those theories of migrancy, movement, errantry, deracination, cosmopolitanism, diaspora, borderlands, contact zones, globalization, flows (make I continue?) became compulsory menu items for graduate students in Departments of English all over the world, this Yoruba man was already a human canvass of all that jazz. He was even born transnationally. He was born in Ghana but returned to Nigeria for his education only to leave for the United States at 18. After his studies in the United States, he decided to be an early ancestor of today’s Western backpacker.

When our undergraduate kids in Canada and the United States look forward to backpacking across Europe or South America or Asia in the summer, I take considerable delight in telling them about their Nigerian ancestor who did that in the 1950s-1960s.

Hear Ajala in his own words:

“From America I went to Canada (where I spent a couple of years) and later on to Britain. In 1957 I began my one-man Odyssey around the world. It is still going on as I write this in Sydney, Australia. In nearly all the eighty-seven countries I have visited during the course of my six-year jaunt around the world (ranging from North America to Eastern and Western Europe, through Africa and Asia and as far east as Korea, Indonesia and Australia), I have observed many different political regimes both in democratic and communist states.

I have met with brutality and racial intolerance. I have felt the bitter evil of man’s inhumanity to man, and have marbled at the goodness of the humane-hearted” 87 countries in six years – and mostly on a scooter! As I followed the lively discussion of Ajala on Jesse’s Wall, silently crosschecking the facts being supplied by discussants with everything I heard about him growing up and the bits and pieces I have subsequently read over the years, something new came up, a new detail I knew nothing about.

Somebody posted the cover jacket of Ajala’s book. Wait a minute, Ajala wrote a book? Somehow, I never heard about it until this evening and have been so thankful for the opportunity of being able to follow that conversation.

As it happens, I was with my cousin, Asaju Tunde, on campus at Carleton University and I drew his attention to Jesse’s thread. We both followed it with considerable excitement. Then, on a hunch, I dragged Tunde to our main library. If Ajala wrote a book about his life and travels, I needed to see it. I needed to sign it out immediately.

We got to the library, I checked the catalogue, the book jumped at me: Olabisi Ajala, An African Abroad (London: Jarrolds, 1963). The catalogue says its on the 5th floor of the library. Tunde and I hurried to the elevator. Ten minutes later, I signed out the book. Brand new. Tunde remarked that Carleton probably acquired it in 1963 and it has never been read or signed out by anybody.

As we walked to my car on the parking lot, the inevitable happened to both of us: sadness, despair. Nigeria will not kill me. We were both in despair over the same thing. Those moments are familiar to Nigerians abroad: something happens and without talking, you all know that you are having the same uncomfortable, depressing thoughts.

Here we are, Tunde and I. We happen on a Facebook discussion of Nigeria’s legendary 20th century contribution to such cultural notions as “citizen of the world” or “at home in the world” on the Wall of Jesse Adeniji. Somebody in the thread mentions a book published in 1963 in London. Ten minutes later, I am signing out the book at the library.

Imagine if we were reading Jesse’s Wall in Ibadan, Ife, Nsukka, ABU, and feeling the urge to read the said book – which carries so much of Nigeria’s cultural history – immediately? What are the chances of finding it in any of those libraries? And in good condition?

I recall that moment when I was spending vacation time in Ibadan in 2003 with Lola Shoneyin and Nduka Otiono. I had returned from the US for summer in Naija. The editor’s of Social Text had accepted an essay of mine for publication and needed me to urgently add a reference from one particular book about Nigeria. They called Penn State and was told that I was in Nigeria. They finally reached me by phone in Ibadan. I agreed to add the reference. Nduka drove me to campus. Rem Raj did some chest beating and took me to the library. For where? The book was not available. I went to Ife.

No luck. Unilag nko? No luck. I had to call friends in America to scan and send the required two pages of the book to me in Nigeria as time was running out.

Getting Ajala’s book within ten minutes of hearing about it depressed Tunde and I. We thought about home and I cursed Carleton University for hurting my feelings. They couldn’t even pretend that it was lost, give me some difficulty accessing the book, so I wouldn’t sink into depression because my Western employer produced immediately on demand a book written by a famous compatriot of mine that I would have needed anointing, praying, fasting, and twenty-six and a half halleluiahs to find in Nigeria in weeks.

I am halfway through this delicious half-travelogue, half-autobiography.

I am finally getting a firsthand account of how Ajala met virtually every important world leader of the era during his trips. Personal audiences with Nehru, Golda Meir, Kruschev, Shah of Iran, etc.

I am pleased to discover that the book’s introduction was written by Tom Mboya!

A Nigerian born in Ghana has his book introduced by a Kenyan.

This is cosmopolitanism on a foundation of Pan-Africanism! The syllabus of the graduate seminar I am teaching on African self-writing next semester has just gained a new entrant!

This article was written by Professor Pius Adesanmi

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