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Ajala the traveller: The Nigerian Christopher Columbus

Ajala the traveller: The Nigerian Christopher Columbus

As a child, whenever a neighbor or family friend announced their return from another trip, I would overhear my parents or older relatives refer to them as ‘Ajala the traveller’. Initially, I assumed it was merely an expression for someone who enjoyed traveling. It wasn’t until later that I discovered Ajala the traveller was more than just a figment of speech – he was an actual person.

Moshood Adisa Olabisi Ajala, also known as Ọlábísí Àjàlá or simply Ajala the Traveller, was indeed a remarkable figure in Nigerian history. His adventurous spirit and audacious journey on a Vespa scooter through approximately 87 countries during the 1950s captured the imagination of people around the world. As a journalist, travel writer, actor, and socialite, Àjàlá broke boundaries and defied conventions, leaving a lasting legacy as an icon of exploration and cultural exchange.

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His early life

Ọlábísí Àjàlá was born in Ghana in 1934 to a Nigerian family, part of a large, polygamous household with four wives and approximately thirty children. He was the twenty-fifth child. When he was young, his family relocated to Nigeria, where he attended the Baptist Academy in Lagos and later the Ibadan Boys’ High School in Ibadan.

At 18, he ventured to the United States to pursue pre-medicine studies at the University of Chicago. Notably, he became the first black student to join the Delta Upsilon Pi fraternity, a co-educational Greek-letter organization. His initial intention was to study medicine to combat superstitions upon his return to Africa. However, he diverted from this path, choosing instead a life of exploration.

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At the age of 22, he gained fame by embarking on an epic journey from Chicago to Los Angeles, covering an impressive distance of 2,280 miles – all on a bicycle. His arrival in Los Angeles was met with acclaim, even being received by the city mayor, Fletcher Bowron.

During his tour, he made stops in 11 major cities, delivering lectures to educate Americans about Nigerian and African culture, dispelling misconceptions such as the notion that Africans went about nakedly in loincloths.

However, his adventures were not without setbacks. Due to a number of run-ins with American immigration authorities for petty offences and his neglect of academic responsibilities, he received a one-year suspended jail term and faced deportation back to Nigeria. Refusing to accept this fate, he staged a daring protest by climbing an 80-foot radio tower, threatening to jump unless the deportation order was rescinded. Despite pleas from authorities, he eventually jumped, sustaining a back injury in the process. Despite his protests, he was deported, but instead of Nigeria, he was sent to London.

His traveling adventure

Àjàlá’s big adventure began on April 27, 1957, when he left London to travel the world for six years. He rode a Scooter Vespa motorcycle and visited 87 countries.

In 1963, Àjàlá wrote a book about his travels called “An African Abroad.” In the book, he talked about how people lived in the places he visited, the politics there, and stories about the leaders he met.

He visited India, the Soviet Union, the United Arab Republic, Iran, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Türkiye, Hong Kong, China and Australia. The journey attracted the attention of several world leaders, and Àjàlá met and conducted short interviews with Jawaharlal Nehru, Golda Meir, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Gamal Abdel Nasser, The Shah of Iran, and Nikita Khrushchev.

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During this period, Àjàlá made money as a journalist. Over the course of his travels, he sold travel writing to newspapers and magazines across West Africa.

But his travels were not always easy.He was popular for his encounter with authorities and brushes with the law. If not for petty crimes like being caught with a counterfeit cheque, then it was in fights over a woman. In the Soviet Union, he was accused of trying to hurt Nikita Khrushchev just because he got too close to him at an event. And in Jerusalem, he almost got shot by Jordanian police for crossing the border too fast.

His family life

Àjàlá, renowned for his amorous pursuits, left a trail of offspring across the globe.

His first son, Oladipupo, also known as Andre, was born to a Chicago nurse named Myrtle Bassett. Despite initially denying paternity, a court ruling confirmed his fatherhood.

Subsequently, Àjàlá tied the knot with an American model named Hermine Aileen. However, their union was short-lived, as Aileen filed for divorce citing his infidelity, a charge he did not dispute. Undeterred by marital woes, Àjàlá entered into matrimony once more, this time with a 19-year-old London radio-TV actress named Joan Simmons. Across the seas, his Australian wife, Wajuan, bore him four children: Femi, Dante, Lisa, and Sydney.

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In England, Toyin Ajala shared parenthood with him, bringing Taiwo and Kehinde into the world. And in Nigeria, Sherifat was among the mothers of his children, among others.

Upon his return to Nigeria, he married Alhaja Ṣadé, and was reputed to have children by a few other women

His acting career

Àjàlá dabbled briefly in acting, landing a role in the movie “White Witch Doctor,” based on the novel of the same name by Louise A. Stinetorf. He credited his connection to Ronald Reagan, whom he had met three years prior, for helping him secure the part.

Additionally, he was slated to appear in the 1953 film “Killer Ape,” but the project never materialized. Another role he undertook was that of “Ola,” a companion to “Loni,” a renowned African hunter portrayed by Roberts Mitshun.

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His return to Nigeria

Afterwards, Àjàlá returned to Nigeria, where he became a famous socialite. He also became an entertainment promoter and publicist, who worked with artists like Sikiru Ayinde Barrister. Although their relationship eventually soured, leading to litigation between them. Despite withdrawing his lawsuit, Àjàlá’s influence and fame waned over time

His once-glamorous lifestyle notwithstanding, the rented apartment he resided in on Adeniran Street in Bariga, Lagos, presented a starkly different image, reflecting his diminished fortunes.

While living in Lagos, Àjàlá suffered a stroke in the early

days of 1999. He died on February 2, 1999.

Today, Àjàlá remains celebrated as Nigeria’s most renowned traveler, his name synonymous with adventure and exploration.