By Banji Ojewale
Tai Solarin, Nigeria’s under-celebrated educationist, social critic and visionary reformer, wrote a newspaper article 55 years ago to usher in 1964. He simply titled the essay, “May your road be rough”. It was the great man’s prayer that the going should be tough and rough for his compatriots during the year.
Hardly a wish to say ‘Amen’ to by millions who were in churches across Nigeria and worldwide to usher in the year 2019. In his days, as it still is in our age, Solarin realised the controversy his position would generate. So, early in the write-up he allayed his readers’ fears. He wasn’t wishing them evil, he averred.
“I am not cursing you”, he said. “I am wishing you what I wish myself every year. I therefore repeat, may you have a hard time this year, may there be plenty of troubles for you this year!” If fellow citizens didn’t know how to respond to that strange salutation on New Year’s Day, the Ikenne-born writer offered this counsel: “If you are not so sure what you should say back, why not just say, ‘Same to you’? I ask for no more.”
Tai Solarin said he based his stand on empirical and philosophical perspectives that great nations like the old Soviet Union and the United States of America had exploited to transform into powerful societies. According to him, “Our successes are conditioned by the amount of risk we are ready to take…The big fish is never caught in shallow waters. You have to go into the open sea for it. The biggest businessmen make decisions with lighting speed and carry it out with equal celerity. They do not dare delay or dally.”
He told the story of a local farmer close to where he lived. The man, he said, appeared to be self-sufficient. He had almost everything he needed to sustain him: fish, snails, pepper, fruits, cocoyam, etc. He didn’t have to go to the town for anything. The farmer said he had no ambition whatsoever.
Tai Solarin wondered what would have been the course of history if we were all like that farmer: No challenges, no risks, no rough road to navigate, no tough times to test our courage and character, no radical reaction to setbacks or disappointments.
He wrote: “You cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, throughout the world, there is no paean without pain. Jawaharlal Nehru has put it so well…He wants to meet his troubles in a frontal attack. He wants to see himself tossed into the aperture between the two horns of the bull. Being there, he determines he is going to win and, therefore, such a fight requires all his faculties…I found, by hard experience, that all that is noble and laudable was to be achieved only through difficulties and trials and tears and dangers. There are no other roads…Life, if it is going to be abundant, must have plenty of hills and vales. It must have plenty of sunshine and rough weather. It must be rich in obfuscation and perspicacity. It must be packed with days of danger and of apprehension.”
I think Tai Solarin’s “May your road be rough” ought to be so dignified. It will teach us to set a premium on hard work. Every first day of the year, it will lead us to tough resolutions followed by energy-sapping hard work that takes us to the precincts reached by illustrious inventors and reformers who have improved the lot of mankind over the centuries.
But the millions of Nigerians who ‘watched’ the last night of December 31, 2018 slip into January I, 2019 are not likely to have read this 55-year-old essay. So they would rather opt for the easy route of only praying, ignoring the solemn injunction of our Lord Jesus Christ that we should ‘watch and pray’, and not just be on our knees all day, all year round. Prayers should be a preparation to go into the world to work. Praying ought not to be a replacement for activity.
We condemn Tai Solarin’s irreverent atheism or humanism. But this does not degrade what he teaches in this sublime presentation set in exalted and poetic prose.
Some decades ago, the essay found its way into a textbook for teaching English Language in secondary schools across West Africa. That was where I first read it. I recognised its noble language. Then, years later, I came in touch with another majestic composition: Abraham Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg Address’.
I often recommend the Lincoln oration to speech writers of Nigeria’s political leaders. What we get from the local scene is drab writing that serves more as lullaby meant for nursing mothers who want their kids to go to bed. They are tomes of kilometre-long constructions. Let our speech writers read it, and study it word for word, line by line. The Gettysburg Address is only 272 words. But history is honouring it as one of the greatest in the genre.
Now, I think Tai Solarin’s “May your road be rough” ought to be so dignified. It will teach us to set a premium on hard work. Every first day of the year, it will lead us to tough resolutions followed by energy-sapping hard work that takes us to the precincts reached by illustrious inventors and reformers who have improved the lot of mankind over the centuries. When we absorb what this essay is teaching, our leaders would no longer be satisfied with giving 200 million Nigerians lame déjà vu budgets.
So, this election year, I wish Nigeria a rough road leading to a radical change in our choice of leadership.
Banji Ojewale writes from Ota, Ogun State.