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9th Jan 2018 | by: admin

Remembering Thomas Adeoye Lambo and the mysteries of the African Mind

-Femi Olugbile


It is fourteen years – almost, since the great Thomas Adeoye Lambo died. He was a very imposing man. Nobody could meet him without coming away with a powerful impression of being in the penumbra of a force-field that radiated power and presence. Some people, and these were the majority, liked and admired him, and wanted always to be near him to catch his radiation as it diffused into the atmosphere. Some people, in the end a tiny minority, did not care for him. They were mostly people who held some of the more colourful events of his past, especially his tenure as Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan, against him.

The most significant of those events was the death of a student named Kunle Adepeju. Whatever might have been the details of that unfortunate happening, it led to students fighting police on the rugged and undulating streets of Ibadan, and left a scar on the souls of some people. It led to the declaration by the Students Union of a day of the year as ‘Kunle Adepeju day’, to be marked by students in succeeding generations. Several years after, when Lambo had since gone on from University of Ibadan to higher things, the anniversary became a lightning rod for whatever grievances against government or University authorities existed that day. Students would gather for noisy commemorative events that lasted all day long, glad – if the truth be told – not to be going to lectures for the day. They would listen to fiery speakers such as Comrade Ola Oni denouncing the government, whoever that was, and proclaiming that students were the authors and defenders of ‘Democracy’, whatever that was. Sometimes matters got heated, there was violence, and the University was forced to close and send the students home.

Lambo’s attitude to the whole drama was to dismiss it as a rather unfortunate little thing that became a big thing. He did not fault any of the actions he took. By implication, though you never heard him put it quite like that, he did not believe he deserved the implied opprobrium of succeeding generations of students celebrating the sad fallout of an unhappy day.

The true Lambo, the one the world remembers, was the intellectual giant who introduced to the world some of the complications and peculiarities of the African mind. In so doing, he both demystified and particularised the African mental experience. The removal of mystery was necessary because up till the point of his emergence, virtually all the descriptions of the African mind had come from Euro-American psychiatrists like Carothers and Carl Gustav Jung who spent brief periods in Africa, and made assumptions and extrapolations based on anthropological theories of dubious veracity but great attractiveness to people of a colonial mind-set. The ‘particularisation’ prised the perception of the mind from the other extreme pole of the argument – the one that articulated – without a need to present the slightest shred of evidence, the ‘liberal’ notion that ‘we are all the same – really’. The Lambo descriptions to the scientific world of the paranoid explanatory reactions common in Yoruba culture, the tendency to project rather than to ‘introject’, basically told the world that the Yoruba mind was ‘not better or worse, just different’, and opened up new possibilities for understanding the African mind. At a physical level, he introduced the Aro Village concept to the world. Aro, even today, is a sleepy little village on the outskirts of Abeokuta. Within the circles of world Psychiatry, Aro has more name recognition than Lagos, or Ibadan, or Abuja. Aro’s place on the world Mental Health map was entirely due to Thomas Adeoye Lambo. It was substantially a case of turning necessity into invention. When Adeoye came back from his studies in the United Kingdom to assume the mantle of clinical leadership in a fledgling Aro Psychiatric Hospital, the buildings that were to be used as wards for the patients were yet to be completed. He was an impatient man, raring to go. As the son of the Iya L’oja of Egbaland, he was deeply entrenched in the lore of the land and knew his way around. It was not too difficult for him to persuade the people of Aro Village nearby that they would be doing a good thing if they allowed mentally ill persons and their relatives, who often had travelled long distances to seek care in the hospital to live in their midst for the duration of treatment. The whole panoply of doctors and nurses would be close by to administer treatment and monitor the patients’ progress. Since most of the patients came from such a rural environment, the fact of getting treatment in an ambience close to what they were familiar with would make them get better faster – perhaps? It was a bold innovation, and it caught the imagination of the world. Even after the hospital wards were completed and the hospital commenced full operations as a ‘traditional’ Psychiatric hospital, the Aro Village project continued to flourish. It had acquired a life of its own.

Lambo was an incredibly bold man. He made the boldness work for him, despite the alarm it often engendered in other people. One example would suffice. A scant two years after Nigeria’s independence, he decided that he was going to organise a Pan-African Psychiatric Conference, and bring the cream of Psychiatrists and other Mental Health experts from all over the world to Abeokuta. This was in an era where most of the intellectual world did not know where Nigeria was on the map, not to talk of Abeokuta. Abeokuta was a town steeped in rich history, ruled over by the Alake. It had not one decent room of hotel accommodation. There were no conference facilities anywhere in the city. Talking of bringing powerful, intellectually daunting figures like Sir Peter Brain and Sir Aubrey Lewis to Abeokuta was not only a daunting prospect. It was – sorry to say – a mad idea!

Several years later, after the death of the man, you would sit with ‘Mama’ – Mrs Diane Lambo, as she recounted those days, and you could feel yourself into the drama of the occasion. Her eyes still rolled with the wonder of it all. ‘I said – Thomas, its not possible… He said “I will do it myself if you will not join me” And I knew that he would…’

She knew the fearsome reputation of the eminent citizens of her husband’s profession. They were people who cut grown men down to size with one look, one word. They had their oddities. Sir Brain, the world’s last word on the Neurology of the brain, had a life-sized statue of himself sitting prominently before him in his office. ‘I just couldn’t understand how a man could stand staring at himself every day…’ Mrs Lambo would say, the wonder not gone from her voice even after half a century.

Together they went on to host a conference that was hugely successful and became the gold-standard for international conferences in the country. Conference delegates were accommodated by the eminent citizens of Egbaland in their homes in Abeokuta, or they slept in the newly completed, yet to be occupied wards of Aro. Food was cooked by Mrs Lambo, assisted by a retinue of ‘expat’ wives, and a lady from the Alake’s family who had just returned from the UK with training in Catering. The visitors met the Federal Minister for Health, and were bussed to an audience with the Prime Minister of Nigeria, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.

By the time the conference closed, the name of Thomas Adeoye Lambo was in the Psychiatry firmament. He was, remember, a young man, not quite forty. Things seemed to come to him easy, but in reality his physical effort was only sequel to a meticulous effort of thought, and an unwavering self-belief. From Aro he went on to start the Psychiatry Unit at the University College in Ibadan. In time he became its first Professor. By his sheer effort of will, he ensured that Mental Health would never be consigned to the backwaters, but would always have a central prominence in the Ibadan scheme of things.

In the fullness of time, he became Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan. Culture flowered in the days of the Lambos in the Vice Chancellor’s lodge. People, not just lecturers, were expected to dress well and act with a certain decorum. The Lambos’ sitting room was a lively gathering place for the friends of their sons who wandered in to eat Mrs Lambo’s food, or partake of the genteel conversation that ebbed and flowed. As Layi Erinosho, Professor of Sociology, and one of that privileged class would recount, Professor Lambo would always smile at you, then ask you seriously what you wanted to do with your life. And try to guide you. He was a natural, self-appointed guide who had a habit of immediately taking people under his wing, especially those he perceived to have talent and possibility. Some of these people were his professional colleagues who were only a few years younger than he. They became known as ‘the Lambo boys’. When he left Ibadan for an appointment with the World Health Organisation as Assistant – later Deputy – Director General, the rituals and solidarity of the Lambo boys solidified, rather than attenuate. He took the responsibility of guiding his ‘boys’ and opening doors for them in his stride, as a natural part of his duty. In return he expected them to do him the honour of always walking in his train. When he came home on his occasional visits from Switzerland, he expected ‘the boys’ to be at the airport in Ikeja to receive him. From there perhaps they would stop somewhere to have lunch, or drive in a convoy from Lagos to Ibadan, he standing out in their midst or in their fore like royalty. ‘Boys’ like Jide Osuntokun and Bode Akindele were all the while rising in the ranks of their own profession – whether it was Psychiatry or Neurology, and becoming internationally acclaimed experts. But they remained his ‘boys’, and were happy to be so called.

The mentoring attitude never departed from him, even after Geneva, even in retirement. Other ‘boys’ – doctors who had nothing to do with mental health at all but had interests in different specializations, including the then-nascent discipline of Managed Care – like Ebun Sonaiya and Kunle Hassan would cluster around his home in Maryland to speak to him, to learn from him, often to profit from his vast wealth of international and local contacts. He was the patron of this and the Chairman of that. But what really mattered was that he was the mentor of all. You would remember the sessions of one-on-one conversation you had with him in his library, in his last few years. His eyes always had a penetrating glint, even while his body ailed. He always dressed up, even when he was only going to sit in the library and pore over his volumes. At one time you toyed with the idea of asking to do his biography, and getting the measure of his psychology. Perhaps he would not like to read it. Or perhaps it would amuse him to be finally disclosed and freed of the saintly image? Worms were sure to come crawling out of all the corners of the can. There were all those rumours about how he had a way with the ladies, but would not have one hair out of place, or his pocket square one centimetre off from its accustomed position by the time he went home to the love of his life – Diane.

Towards the end, he worried always about Nigeria. He was appalled at the goings-on in Politics. It was not right, to him, that the past appeared to be better than the present. As a measure of his despair, he began to advocate that everybody who aspired to political leadership should have his head examined by a psychiatrist. In your conversations, and in public discourse, he went back to the subject with unflagging regularity. And yet he, more than anybody else, knew the pitfalls of that position, surely. Who would order the ‘test’? What would be done with the information? Come to think of it, who was a ‘normal’ person? What about the psychiatrists themselves – some of the eminent colleagues he had attended conferences with in his career had been Nazis and the holders of other offensive political and racial doctrines, despite the fact of being mental health specialists. And more harm had been done to humanity – surely – by ‘sane’ people than by ‘mad’ people – what about that? Your last vision of him was when you went to see him on his sick bed in a quiet little clinic in Ikeja GRA. He was floating in and out of wakefulness, but he was still the polite, urbane and cultured Thomas Adeoye Lambo who was mentor to everybody. He wanted to know when your next book would be published. Unspoken between you was the certainty that he would not be around to be chairman of the book launch, as he had been the last one. A few days after this, he was dead. The world had lost a great soul. Nigeria had lost a great Intelligence. Several generations of Nigerian health professionals had lost their mentor. Today is not a landmark anniversary, or any anniversary at all, and for a fleeting moment as you write this piece, you are wondering why you are thinking about Adeoye Lambo. Perhaps it is an unconscious feeling you have not done enough in his memory. Perhaps it is the endless shenanigans of Nigerian politicians, wallowing in infamy, or the specter of an apparently unstable President Donald Trump in the USA bragging to the world about the size of the nuclear button on his desk. All the scenarios arouse in the thinking mind the old worry about how to protect human kind from politicians, the same worry that afflicted the mind of ADEYEMO Lambo to his dying day.

On Friday the thirteenth of March, 2009, at an auditorium in LASUTH, you had celebrated the fifth anniversary of his death by gathering mental health specialists and a cross-section of the general public to listen to a lecture by a professor of Psychiatry from the Ibadan department founded by Lambo on the state of mental health in Nigeria. For two hours, they had sat still to absorb unhappy information about the terrible state of mental health services in the nation. You could only imagine that if Lambo had been present in the hall, the news would have depressed him greatly, and he might have wondered if his great effort in bringing the giants of World Psychiatry to Abeokuta over half a century ago had been all for nothing. The foreign visitors, and their local hosts – Lambo and Asuni, must have thought in those few days of the conference so many years ago that Nigeria was a land of promise, and a beacon of hope for Africa. Would they still think the same today?

May the soul of Thomas Adeoye Lambo rest in perfect peace. Amen.

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