The news was all over rediffusion — the radio communication of choice in 1969 Western Nigeria — and everyone seemed aware, except the star boy himself.
“Yaya! Yaya!” a neighbour barged in, breathless. “Have you heard?”
“Heard what?” shot back the surprised Yaya Aregbesola, now 80 and retired Professor of Computational Mathematics of the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, Olori Ebi (family head) of the Aregbesola family of Ilesa, but then a 27-year-old.
“They have been calling your results since yesterday,” the neighbour outed.
It was at Owo. Yaya was immersing himself in work, as young teacher at the Owo High School, owned by the legendary teacher-politician, Chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, later elected governor of old Ondo — now Ondo and Ekiti states (1979-1983).
He made a first class — the very first in Mathematics, at the old University of Ife, in 1969. Yaya Aremu Sesan Aregbesola was among only three such high fliers that year.
The other two first class graduands, both in Chemistry, were Jide Ige and the late Olusegun Olubuyide. Both, as Aregbesola, later become professors and carrier academics at Ife.
Incidentally, Aregbesola and Ige were at Owo, under the tutelage of Ajasin, brand new graduates, but future stars of his new school, after Ajasin had left his job as founding principal of Imade College, which the Owo community owned, when a Unife telegram arrived: “Assistant Lecturer Appointed. 959 Pounds per annum. Letter follows.”
It was augury of a new, glorious era in the academics, a halcyon augury that nevertheless delivered far less than promised. But back then, it felt really good!
First class in Mathematics from Ife. M.Sc and PhD (in Applied and Computational Mathematics), in less than four years (1970-1974) — a record — from Sheffield University, UK.
Much earlier in 1964, at the Oranmiyan Grammar School, Ife, a private school owned by the late Johnson Omisore, the young Aregbesola had earned credits in his GCE O’ Level papers in class four — which he wasn’t supposed to write till two years later.
Then, still officially in secondary school (not in the old Upper Sixth aka HSC), he essayed GCE A’Levels and cleared three papers: Pure Mathematics, Applied Mathematics and Geography, which fetched him his Unife admission in 1966.
Was that the hallmark of genius? Hardly! His response, at a lengthy interview with The Nation, published on October 9, revalidated that popular quip: genius is one per cent inspiration; 99 per cent perspiration.
“How do you define ‘gifted’? “ he fired back at his interviewers, who tended to adduce sheer genius to his Ife Mathematics feat. “I liked doing it; I prepared for it and I’ve always said Mathematics is the simplest subject that one can pass”! — a rather audacious statement that sent the gathering howling with incredible laughter.
Since five-year-old Yaya Aregbesola (then known as Yaya Yusuf) virtually gate-crashed into primary school at Kutuwenji, now in Niger State, he had embraced the scholarly hard way.
The gate-crash was another story. He had followed his mother (of whom he was exceedingly fond) to fetch water at the communal stream down town. He stumbled on a band of kids playing; and asked permission to join them, which doting mum readily granted.
After the play, he followed the kids into a partitioned building where a teacher was teaching, by rote in Yoruba, the first 10 numbers:
“One — ookan; Two — eeji; Three — eeta; Four — eerin; Five — aarun …” When asked to recite the rote, he was the first to rattle it out, though he was the last to join the class — so much so that the teacher noticed him: the “stranger” kid that outshone everyone!
On account of that, the teacher persuaded Yaya’s mother to enrol him, though at five, he might have been too young, since his right hand, arched over his head, could hardly touch his left ear, as was the practice in those days!
Welcome to Baptist Day School, Kutuwenji, a cottage school put together by the ethnic Yoruba in Kutuwenji — a Christian initiative. But there was no discrimination against any kid over his parents’ faith.
Despite his numeric and literary brilliance (at secondary school he took science and art subjects; and acted as Brutus in an Oranmiyan Grammar School production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a Western State-wide drama contest, in which his school beat all comers), his credo was hard work, his acute mind notwithstanding.
At Ife, he met a teacher show boy, who always bragged Real Analysis, a foundational part of undergraduate Mathematics, might be too complex for his awed students.
But then, Aregbesola went up North, discovered Elementary Real Analysis by Harold Gordon Eggleston, and copied out the entire book! The book was available only in the Ahmadu Bello University library. There were no copies to buy in the book stores — and no photocopying machines, either.
By that rare industry, he figured out the preening lecturer’s methods and beat him to his own game!
At Sheffield University, on a Commonwealth post-graduate scholarship, his British tutors (who called him ‘Areg-besola’, because they couldn’t pronounce the gb sound in that name) lost no breath telling him no Black African or Indian had ever passed M.Sc by examination and dissertation in Applied and Computational Mathematics — the course he was opting for.
But after asking for and securing past lecture notes and past questions for 10 years and working hard through them, the same Brits hailed him for rifling through that “impossibility”, and grossing both M.Sc and PhD in record time, of less than four years!
Even then, his brilliance could have crashed in the turbulence of life but for good mentors — and counsellors — that tracked his paths.
After exhausting his savings after the first year at Ife, he would have dropped out but for Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s insistence that no brilliant student should drop out of school because (s)he was indigent.
That was Awo’s part-condition for joining the war-time federal cabinet of Gen. Yakubu Gowon. That policy kept him at Ife, even if Awo never knew him.
So, as the awe-stricken cheered and cheered on that convocation day in 1969, and as the great Awo, then the Unife Chancellor, pumped Aregbesola’s hand for his rare feat, the young man mused in quiet joy: “If only this man knew what he did to make me make this first class …!”
Later, Chief Ajasin would headhunt him and even offered to pay him in advance as an undergraduate; just as Johnson Omisore gave him scholarship after his first year, aside from having him under his roof at the Oranmiyan Grammar School, Ife.
Why, to parody the title of Ayi Kwei Armah’s famous novel, was he so blest!
At 80, Prof. Aregbesola, now “retired-retired” (in own words), after post-retirement visiting professor stunts at both Ladoke Akintola University of Science and Technology and the Osun State University, is happy and fulfilled, after moulding so many minds, many of them now greater than him in global academia.
Still, it is doubtful if the country he served with painstaking diligence has given him his due. Like the many quiet heroes of his generation, he stays largely unsung.
Culled from The Nation Newspaers