Dr Orode Doherty is the eldest daughter of the first female vice-chancellor in Nigeria, Prof Grace Alele-Williams, who died on March 25 at the age of 89. She tells ALEXANDER OKERE about her late mother’s life and times and legacy
Please tell us about yourself.
My name is Orode Doherty and I am a paediatrician and public health physician. I am the oldest daughter of my mother (the late Prof Grace Alele-Williams). I have two older brothers, a younger brother and a younger sister. My eldest brother is an economist. The second one is an engineer. The one after me is an engineer and my sister studied finance and works as a director of budget in the Washington Metropolitan Authority in the US.
To the public, your mother was simply an academic of repute and a mathematics guru. How would you describe her?
She was unusual. She was very gentle. She was very kind and compassionate. She was a loyal person and she was fair and kind. She was stricter when she was younger but as she got older, she became a grandma and less strict. She had a lot of energy and capacity. When you think about the parable of the talents, she was one of those people who did not bury their talents. She was all out; she did everything she needed to do and could do. I described her in my tribute as somebody who died empty. She lived a very intentional life. She didn’t miss the opportunities to do what she had the ability to do and did everything to the best of her ability.
You said she was unusual, what exactly does that mean?
In Yoruba, it is called ‘shasha eniyan’ (an unusual or rare individual). It refers to a type of person who comes along once in a while. While she was someone who could easily have been arrogant, she was far from it. People described her as strict, which she was and had to be. She was disciplined, and yes, she was a disciplinarian; that certainly came through and was amplified in her seven years at UNIBEN (University of Benin). That was necessary.
People who met her outside of that capacity would tell you she was kind, caring and certainly approachable. My mother was not difficult. When we wanted to attend parties, she allowed us because she knew it was natural for us to want to attend parties at that age. However, she wanted to know who we were going with and who she could call when she needed to reach us. We did not have to sneak out to attend parties in other cities. She knew exactly where we were and who we were with.
After she passed on weeks ago, tributes poured in. Were there some that particularly struck you?
The commonest word used to describe her is icon. We have been struck by how consistent the descriptions of her have been; I am particularly struck by how many of our friends regarded her with awe – I wouldn’t have known it. People have indicated they would like to do a movie on her or write her biography. There is a lot that people don’t know about her; what I think she would be remembered for is that she was a multi-faceted person. She served her family, her community, and the university communities where she worked. Her life was purposeful.
In which city did your family settle down when you were growing up?
We grew up at the University of Lagos. We were there until I was 15 when she was appointed as the VC (Vice-Chancellor) of the University of Benin. We were in Benin for seven years and returned to Lagos with her. It was in Lagos that we all got married and those who went abroad left from Lagos, etc. We always lived with her.
What exactly was it like growing up as children of Prof. Grace Alele-Williams?
It was normal; a professor’s house at the university. When we returned from school in the afternoon, we did our homework. We went out to play with our friends and returned on time; otherwise, she made us understand why we should not be outside the home late. There was nothing extraordinary. We knew she worked very hard. We interacted with the people she worked with and we used to go to her office a lot.
You noted earlier that a lot of people saw her as a strict person. Do you agree with that view; what was responsible for that impression?
Definitely. During her tenure at UNIBEN for seven years, people came to fear her. She was decisive and courageous and did what most wouldn’t dare. It was always in the interests of the university and the students. Essentially, there were some things that people would call a committee on and dither until inaction itself was a decision. Mummy wasn’t afraid to break eggs, and people hadn’t quite come across that before in the public sphere. Don’t forget that everything she did was now in the full glare of the newspapers and media – she made history. So, everything was reported and she wasn’t afraid to do difficult things and those were reported, and the persona was created of a woman who was tough as nails and who shouldn’t be messed with.
As long as one wasn’t breaking rules, one had nothing to fear. Everybody who knew my mum attests to her kindness. When she was at UNIBEN, she showed that it had to be run like a university, so she did what was needed. There was cultism; it was rife on campus and she dealt with it. When the occasion arose, she did what she needed to do.
What was her method of disciplining you and your siblings when you did wrong growing up?
There were rules and they were not meant to be broken. We grew up in a time when children did what their parents said. I remember that each time we had a quarrel or fight, she made us recite Psalm 133 multiple times until we begged and told her we were no longer fighting. When we weren’t calm, she taught us to pray for wisdom to address our problems, and then get up and act on the wisdom received.
She definitely threatened us with that a few times. I have a brother on whom she used a whip on several occasions. But I won’t mention his name (laughs). She also gave a few slaps to help reset any wandering brain, and help you focus.
All of you turned out well. Was there something peculiar she did to ensure that her children didn’t fall into the wrong companies or get derailed?
We saw who she associated with and we associated with such people. We lived on a university campus, so most of the people there were children of lecturers. Even if they behaved in a certain way, they were not bad people. I never heard her telling us not to talk to certain people. Her association and behaviour with people taught us how to interact with people. Mummy interacted with everyone whether wealthy or poor, she treated everyone with respect and kindness and led by example.
As a renowned mathematics teacher, was she particular that her children must also be well-grounded in the subject that is dreaded by many students?
Yes, she taught mathematics education, so she taught teachers of mathematics. But she taught us mathematics at home. We all did well in mathematics. It was not a problem at all.
Your dad was also a lecturer. Were they always working in the same university?
They were always in the same place. When she was at the University of Ibadan, my father taught at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ibadan campus. They were very young then and we had not been born. When they moved to UNILAG also, I think only my eldest brother had just been born. My father retired in Lagos and did business there. When we went to Benin City, my father remained in Lagos but we saw him regularly.
In 1985 she broke a record by emerging as Nigeria’s first female VC. Can you recollect what the mood of the family was following her appointment?
We were all in Lagos. She was the director of the Institute of Education at UNILAG until October 1985 when she was appointed. I was about to graduate from secondary school at that time. I was in a boarding school preparing for the Senior School Certificate Examination when the news came. The first person that told me was Jumoke Oduwole, now a professor; her father was then the vice-chancellor of Lagos State University. When she came, she was excited. She said it was announced in the news. I was in a boarding house and, like most teenagers, caught up in my own life: I knew everybody was excited but I didn’t understand why.
When we moved to UNIBEN, she had a big office and we had an interesting house, but I still didn’t understand what this all meant. When I went to the university as a medical student, I had a normal life. I remember she warned us specifically about working hard and not failing because her name is Grace and not ‘Disgrace’.
How did it feel to attend the same university where your mum was the VC?
I was fortunate. I think people knew me more than I knew (people) but I had my group of friends. I think I was like every other student. I stayed in the school hostels for the first two years. I didn’t feel special; no one singled me out to give me any special help. I had to work hard like every other person.
She led UNIBEN at a time when leadership in the educational sector was dominated by men. What were her concerns?
I wish you could have asked her that question. But I can tell you that a very important thing for her, even in her writing, was her recognition that she could not afford to fail. She recognised it needed to be demonstrated that women who merited positions of authority could succeed. Again, she surrounded herself with good people. She did not run UNIBEN alone, she had two deputy vice-chancellors. She had a full complement of principal staff members of the university. She relied on a big network of people and a strong network of women who were leading in other areas to be successful. She was not successful by herself. She also relied on advice, prayed, and knew early that her reliance was on God and that God would send her helpers as she needed them. I think she was mostly successful because she leaned on every form of support. By the grace of God, she was never afraid to make difficult decisions.
Do you think some people misunderstand her advocacy for women?
I think she was definitely a strong advocate for women but it was not about making it compulsory for a woman to occupy leadership positions. She believed that if a qualified woman was available, there is no reason why she should not be given the job. She said if there is a group of decision-makers and they are all of one gender, then something vital is missing and it is the perspective and voice of women and that means half of the propulsion isn’t represented. She believed people should be represented across the board. My father was from a Muslim family, she was Christian, they were from different ethnic groups, she recognised the value of representation and so believed in the equitable representation across gender, ethnic and religious lines. She taught and trained across Nigeria and we travelled across the country with her and the value of our diversity was never lost on her.
What significant changes do you think her time as VC brought to the University of Benin?
She instilled discipline and growth. It was a young university when she got there and it had two campuses. There was a lot of need in the university and there was a lot to be done. Growth and development characterised her administration.
After her tenure as VC, your mum served in other capacities in the public and private sectors. Would you say she was a workaholic?
She served mostly within the country. She worked on a World Bank project at the National Universities Commission. She was not a workaholic at all. She worked hard and made hay while the sun shone. Some people believed she was a workaholic but she knew how to enjoy herself. Family time was a protected time. She worked hard when it was necessary. There is a time in your life when you can work very hard. There is a time when you have to slow down. She encouraged everybody to work hard.
What would you say her driving force was?
She always talked about development for women and expanding opportunities for women. One of the things she did when she got to Benin City and within her years there was that more opportunities opened for women and I will tell you why. She started part-time post and undergraduate programmes. So, a lot of women, who ordinarily might not have had the opportunity – women who were working or otherwise would not have had access – began to have access.
What was her appointment before she passed on?
She did a lot of non-profit work. She was on the board of Zenith Pensions Custodian, New Nigeria Foundation, and City Profs Educational Foundation recently. In between, she did many things.
Your mum was said to have authored ‘The Politics of Administering a Nigerian University’. What worried her the most about how government universities are managed?
I am not aware of a book, perhaps she authored a manuscript; but to answer your question, we have common management problems in Nigeria – square pegs in round holes. Competence and character.The need for the right people to be given the job, and for people to focus on the mission of the university, which is to educate and foster research and drive thought leadership. Once the focus is taken away from the primary purpose, then you lose the plot. And of course, corruption and the way it has spread throughout the country is not limited to Nigerian universities.
How did she manage the challenges, including the pressure to cut corners, that came with being the VC of a public university?
I am sure there were pressures. She had good advisors. She was very clear about her work. She did not steal money. She did not cut corners. A probe was carried out when she left and nothing was found to have been misappropriated. Nothing was taken. I was told even the furniture was counted. She did not take what was not hers. She was uncompromising in terms of her integrity and that was how she trained us.
Was she also vocal about the chronic industrial actions by the Academic Staff Union of Universities and other labour unions in tertiary institutions? What was her stand?
My mother was already getting along in years when the strikes as we know them now started. If she had an opinion, she would have shared it if she was asked. But she was focused on children getting into schools and teachers being able to teach. I don’t know that she has a stand per se.
You mentioned that people knew you more than you knew them because of your mum. As a highly respected academic and administrator, did her name open doors of opportunities for you?
If it did, we are not aware because like everybody else, we struggled. When I said people knew me, I was specific about UNIBEN. It is very interesting that some people have in the past few weeks told me they never knew she was my mother. Her name was not something we flaunted. People who knew us as her children knew she was our mother and knew her as Aunty Grace. We did not treat her like a celebrity; let me put it that way because she did not behave like one. She did not arrive at church or a party late. She was just a regular person.
But do I think her name opened doors for us? I think there are people who would have wished to give us opportunities but I think we made our way, by and large. I can speak for myself and my siblings. I don’t think anybody did us any favours.
What was her philosophy about life?
Her philosophy was “work hard, play hard, keep straight”.
Your dad passed away in 2010. How did she cope during his absence?
She didn’t just cope; she did very well. She was thrown into organising and putting things together. Again, she was a strong person. She was already in her 70s when my dad passed on and she was quite independent; they both were.
What was your last moment with her before she passed on? What did she tell you and your siblings?
The last thing she told me before she died was, “You have done very well.” I told her, “So have you”. She hugged and thanked everybody for looking after her. We thought it was her usual way of displaying her gratitude.
What is the most unforgettable advice she gave you?
She advised me to marry the man I married. She also told me why she said so. I took her advice. I have never regretted it.
She didn’t give you a reason. Did she?
I won’t tell you. That’s between me and her. She explained why and it made sense. I was already dating my husband before she gave me the advice. She understood what I needed.
What type of friends did she keep?
She had very few lovely friends. Most of her friends have also died.
Did she tell you why she chose to have a few friends?
No, she didn’t. We grew up knowing her friends. They were friends she had made growing up, she met them in secondary school, the university or when she started teaching.
What were her likes and turn-off?
She liked hard-working people. She liked anyone ready to work but had no time for laziness. She disliked dishonesty. It was a sure way to be ejected from her surroundings.
Your mum seemed to love looking natural as she was seen wearing her natural hair at ceremonies. What was her style?
She had many styles. When my dad died, she shaved her hair and wore her natural hair for several years. She was very natural. She didn’t wear makeup except for red lipstick and a little powder. Her style was classic and elegant. At UNIBEN, she used to wear a dress. She always travelled in a pantsuit because it was comfortable.
How did she love to relax?
She read or played solitaire. As she got older, she watched a bit of Dove TV and listened to music.
Was she selective when it comes to food and drinks?
She was a careful eater. She didn’t eat too much. She was always a healthy eater.
Was she also the type that told jokes?
She loved to tell jokes. I actually put that in my tribute. She loved comedy. She had a great sense of humour. She grew up in Warri (Delta State) and knew how to tease people. Her dad was Itsekiri while her mum was of mixed race – Nigerian (Itsekiri) and Scottish heritage.