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. He was one of the foremost Nigerian icons of cultural history, the quintessential explorer.
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.
Birth And Early Days
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. He never fulfilled his dream of becoming a medical doctor as he stumbled on something far more enchanting.
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. 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 1955, he married a British actress Joan Simmons aged 19.
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).
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 10thof 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 The Actor
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 kill himself . 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.
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 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.
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.
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 stroke which paralyzed 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 Taiwo and Kehinde in the United States as well as Bisola in England. But 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 which 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.
Legacy And Honours
Ebenezer Obey immortalized him in his song below through which many Nigerians first heard of him.
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.
- 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.