Reminiscences (GG at 80), By Gbenga Omotoso

FIRST, a confession: The subject of this article is well known to this reporter. So, dear reader, take it easy, if you feel that there is a tinge of subjectivity here. But, I assure you, Notebook will be as conscientious as it has always been.

Our first meeting was in September, 1974. The sun was getting set to set, its recession a bit slow. Behind the hills that ring the town, the sun was showing its face, bright but weak. And there he was, just after a long row of palm trees that lined the red – earth, dusty road that led to the school premises, mowing a field of green grass that had grown wild. He had on only a pair of white shorts, his trademark, as I discovered later. No top.

As he looked up from what I later found out to be a routine task for him when students were on holiday, he wiped sweat off his brow and continued his business. I announced my presence.

“Good evening sir.” “Pele o (hello). How’re you?” “I’m Gbenga Omotoso, the table-tennis player you discussed with Mr Babajide in Ibadan.”

His face brightened up. He burst into laughter and seized my hand as he screamed: “Ping pong!” And so began my relationship with the man who paid my – and many others’ – way through secondary school, a teachers’ teacher, father of many children –none of them his, biologically – , worthy chief, consummate farmer, confident trainer and frontline humanitarian.

Chief Guy Gargiulo, an Italian naturalised Briton, was the headmaster at Ajuwa Grammar School, Okeagbe – Akoko, Ondo State, from 1963 to 1978. He had had a short stint as Physics teacher at Igbobi College, Lagos before moving to Okeagbe to help give the school a push.

He advanced in age to 80 on August 13, but all was quiet as he was away in England. He returned to Nigeria this month and a reception was held in his honour last Saturday on the premises where he helped shape the future of many students who are today prominent citizens: Otunba Solomon Oladunni, former Vice Chair, Mobil. Tuyi Ehindero, ex- Managing Director, Unilever, Zambia. Tunji Abayomi, rights activist-lawyer and politician. Akinwunmi Bada, ex-CEO, Transmission Company of Nigeria. Oba Oladunjoye Fajana, ex-African Development Bank/World Bank chief and now Ajana of Afa, Okeagbe. The Right Rev. Jacob Ajetunmobi, Bishop of the Anglican Communion, Ibadan Diocese. Tayo Alasoadura, former Commissioner for Finance, Ondo State. Commodore Sanmi Alade, Nigerian Navy. Mike Igbokwe, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and a legion of others in banking, sports, industry and government.

There are not many people of whom one can say: “O…he had a great influence on my life.” Many there are who can proudly say this of GG, as we excitedly call him. All his efforts were geared towards imparting in us all the virtues to which he subscribed – hard work, courage, loyalty, endurance, honesty and more.

He feared nothing. The only fear he ever had was being bitten by snakes, he told us. But the day he held one and was bitten, the fear ended. Then he started reading about snakes. We were taught how to catch and keep them. But GG warned us never to go near the cobra, saying there was no remedy to its poison. The last time I visited, he had a snake, which he nicknamed Angelina, at home.

His idea of education is not the mere acquisition of a certificate as a visa to some perceived Eldorado; not a theoretical exploration of some esoteric facts and figures, but a total package to prepare the youth for any challenge that life may hurl on their way. Every student was encouraged to learn a trade – bricklaying, auto mechanic and others. The Ajuwa Printing Press, which was run by students, was popular. It printed our exercise books, report cards, inspirational poems, such as Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling’s If, and the ubiquitous poster, “Speak English, remember your WASCE” that adorned our classrooms.

Gargiulo persuaded us all to love farming – we all had copies of a poem he wrote on Obasanjo’s Operation feed the nation (everything then was an operation; the military era) – as he led the way every evening. The maize farm was a beauty to behold, the sheer greenery and the glittering golden, thread-like strands sprouting from the cobs. The vast row of teak, their rustling leaves dropping in the harmattan. The short palm trees and their scarlet fruits. The gmelina. Our yam came from the school farm. The eggs we had once a week came from the school poultry. It was fun caring for the rabbits and watching the cows graze.

Our farm products were sold and the proceeds invested in shares in the name of the school.

For GG, sport was a priority. The yearly marathon was compulsory for all. So was swimming. The community and the students built a dam to facilitate this. From the dark brown pool and the pontoon that were carved out of the dam, boys and girls were moulded into national champions. No fewer than two former students are now coaches . This reporter was a table tennis star, the very reason I won his heart.

He believed that no student was so bad that there was no redeeming feature. He once told of a student who led the mechanic club. He was poor, academically, but Gargiulo predicted his greatness. The man rose to become a top Leventis Motors manager, admired by all for his deep understanding of Mercedes cars, just like the Germans.

It was not all fun at Ajuwa. I recall a riot. GG had gone to Ibadan to buy books. The day he was to return, students stormed the Okeagbe-Ikare road, bearing cudgels and sticks. They were singing war songs. Some sympathisers advised GG to stay away to save his life. He refused to. A few metres away from the school, he parked the van and walked, his face wreathed in a big frown, even as he asked the unruly students:”What’s going on here?” “You want to kill me? Go ahead now!” He was booming like a lion and swearing–he always did when seized by anger–. His hair sprang up and his hands betrayed red hot blood running through his veins. His face was red – it was always so whenever he got angry.

One after the other, the students dropped their weapons, ran into hiding behind the palm trees and sneaked into the classrooms. GG, later in the night, relived the incident. He told me: “I saw that you, like the others, held a stick, but I was damn sure you wouldn’t hit me. It was the wise thing to do; otherwise you would be attacked.” I never knew he saw me among the mob.

GG had few friends, among them the late Tai Solarin, the frontline educationist and critic.

Gargiulo was always struggling to speak Yoruba. Why? The logic was that if he could speak Yoruba, there was no reason for us not to speak English. His favourite proverb is Aya nini ju oogun lo (Being bold is greater than having juju). To those who scorned him for always wearing shorts, he would say: Sokoto gbooro ko d’ola (Trousers are no symbols of wealth). He wore trousers only on special occasions, such as when a governor was visiting.

When Immigration officials harassed him in Akure, the Ondo State capital, demanding his papers, they got more than they bargained for. They asked him to be reporting in their office every day, wondering why he would not relinquish his British nationality if he so much loved Nigeria. One day when he was tired of it all, GG faced the officials and said: “Gentlemen, ti a ba ti n fi apari isu han alejo…(When hosts begin to show the guest the hard top of the yam, it’s time to leave.” “They didn’t let me finish. They said ‘go; just go now!’ That was the end of the matter. But, why should I suffer to get a permanent stay here after about 30years? I still, even in my old age, contribute to building this great country.”

The last time I visited my alma mater, less than two years ago, I learnt of how Gargiulo shed tears on seeing the destruction of his dream. I was touched. Ajuwa is a like a war – ravaged town, battered and bludgeoned by the very people who swore to care for it. Plundered. An old lady, used and dumped.

Is this strange? No. Considering the rot in almost all areas of our national life, the fate of Ajuwa is not strange. But, when cometh another GG?

Note: This article was first published in The Nation on November 29, 2012. It is being rerun here in commemoration of the World Teachers Day. Chief Guy Gargiulo died on December 2, 2019.

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