When I heard of the death of Dr Bolaji Ajenifuja, I was immediately assailed by a wave of sadness, and a feeling of déjà vu. He was a man of impeccable manners and great politeness in life, but he was also a man of firm resolution and great deliberate-ness.
The communication in a privileged visit to him two days before the announcement convinced me the end was here, not too soon, or too late, but at a time appointed for it, even while doctors, his family, friends and proteges rallied round to try to keep the love story going a little longer.
No matter how long a truly loved soul lives, a family man, a people’s man blessed with the common touch, a man who has made epochal contributions to the society and the people around him, it is never easy to let them go.
Three years ago, I attended Dr Ajenifuja’s 90th birthday celebration, at his residence at Ogalade Close, in the heart of Victoria Island. I wrote about it, and him, in Human Angle. That house was where he had ministered to thousands of Lagos children. His expert treatment of their pneumonias and malarias and countless other childhood ailments navigated a safe passage to adulthood for them.
The families never forgot. The children in turn became adults and parents. They brought their own children to be cradled in the soft, safe hands of Dr Ajenifuja, to be reassured by his kindly voice even when he had to give them injections that made them cry.
For some families, Dr Ajenifuja recalled, in easy conversation, one day, as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world, he had nursed grandmother, mother and child through the vicissitudes of childhood.
No matter what they paid for such services, and sometimes it was nothing at all, no payment could ever be enough to take away a permanent burden of gratitude owed to him by Lagosians, I replied.
I had heard of the great man, but never had a chance to see him up close until he became Chairman, Court of Governors of the nascent Lagos State University College of Medicine (LASUCOM). As Chief Medical Director of LASUTH, I interacted with him at meetings of the Court. I was impressed by his deft, decisive control of proceedings.
LASUCOM was in a parlous state in its infancy, and the state government let it be known it had many other things on its plate, competing for its scare resources. It had taken the personal persuasion of the then governor, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, to press Ajenifuja into service at a time when he considered himself ‘retired’.
At that time, life consisted of seeing sick babies at Ogalade Close in the mornings and going to Yoruba Tennis Club in the evenings to parley with friends such as Chief Femi Okunnu and Baba Eto Chief Toye Coker.
Not a man ever to act by half-measures, once he accepted the assignment, he put everything he had into it. He mobilised prominent Lagos citizens to contribute money to the development of the fledgling College of Medicine.
Sometimes after meetings, he would stop by in my office in the hospital for a chat. He had a penchant for describing the most momentous events with a deadpan expression. Pioneering the conversion of Massey Street Hospital to a full Children’s hospital. Bringing together his friends Olikoye Ransome Kuti, Ishaya Audu, Asuquo Ntia and others to form the Paediatrics Association of Nigeria in 1968.
Retiring early from Massey once he had placed it well on track to face his private practice. First President of the Paediatrics Association of Nigeria. First Nigerian to be President of the Union of African Paediatric Associations and Societies. Standing Committee member of the International Paediatrics Association.
“They never allowed me to rest,” he would say with a rueful smile.
‘You have so much to give. You’re a powerful inspiration. Many younger Nigerian doctors chose to study Paediatrics because of you, sir.’ I said to him.
Outside work, he was a bon-viveur, loving the good things of life. His annual holiday in England with his wife Iyabo before her sad loss was sacrosanct, and nobody was allowed to schedule anything for him in that space. He had a stately house with ample grounds in Victoria Island, and a well-appointed country home in Ikorodu. His favourite car was a lumbering black Mercedes limousine which epitomized power and prestige.
‘Ki omo to j’ogun, Baba a je ogbon’ he once said with a laugh.
A rough translation of that would be ‘I will leave a handsome heritage, but I will not stint myself.’)
He was very ‘Old Lagos’, in his candour, which could be disconcerting for people who did not know him, in his generosity and his love of life and his people.
That 90th birthday party three years ago, in many ways, was his swan song on the Lagos social scene. Sitting by his side at table were Baba Eto, and Chief Femi Okunnu, Dr Bucknor and other doyens of Yoruba Tennis Club, Island Club, the Exclusive Club of Ikorodu and various other clubs and associations he belonged to.
The large room swirled with the presence of another generation of health workers – paediatricians, surgeons, and other specialists whose lives had been touched by the celebrant. Every so often, one of them would walk over to Dr Ajenifuja and bend low to pay their respects, to be photographed for their own family albums, to share a moment with a figure of history.
Dr Bolaji Ajenifuja, Fellow of Royal College of Physicians, London, 1976, President, Union of African National Paediatrics Societies and Associations, 1977-85, Standing Committee member, International Paediatric Association 1979-85, one of the fathers of Paediatrics in Nigeria, and member, Executive Committee Anwarul Islam Movement of Nigeria, lived a life that was full, and overflowing.
May Allah grant him Al Jannah Firdaus.