In 2013, the waters of the Internet were given a huge stir with emerging pictures of a Volkswagen pick-up truck handwoven using raffia fibre. Not only the exterior was wrapped, but every part got a make-over, from the seats to the steering wheel, dashboard and tyre wheels. It was the first of its kind, and it certainly got jaws dropping and eyes popping out of their sockets. The man at the centre of attraction was “40-year-old” Ojo Obaniyi.
At the time, he said his motivation was to prove that Nigerian artisans are also talented. “I wanted to prove that it is not only the educated elite that can make positive changes in society. We, the artisans, also have talents to effect a change and make a positive impact in the society,” he had asserted. However, one general election, three budgetary years and countless political speeches after, talented artisans such as Obaniyi are still far from being recognised by the government.
In an interview with the Community Manager at Ibadan Tech Community, Rasheed Ridwan, Mr Ojo Olaniyanju Obaniyi shed light on his work while lamenting apathy from the society, especially the government. Interestingly, Rasheed and his team had walked past Obaniyi without realising because the environment they found him was unexpectedly small and unbefitting. Who they met was indeed Ojo Obaniyi but the internet superhero of years ago was nowhere to be found. Though the interview was conducted primarily in Yoruba language, it could be deduced that Mr Obaniyi was an eloquent speaker of English.
Disappointed by Oyo State Governor, Abiola Ajimobi
When asked why he was conducting his trade in such a humble workshop, out in the open, he highlights the failure of government as one of the major factors. He was in fact exploited by the current governor of Oyo state, Abiola Ajimobi, who used his car during his electioneering in 2011 but has abandoned him ever since.
“It is the government that has failed to turn up, especially Oyo state government. The Oyo state government has disappointed me the most because the governor, Abiola Ajimobi, cannot claim not to know me. He knows me and has seen me on several occasions. As a matter of fact, he has seen the car I beautified which I placed by the road.”
“When he was campaigning before his first regime as governor, one of his campaign officers approached me to release the car for campaign, and I did. But after he became governor, he no longer looked towards my direction,” he says.
Asked if he was given any monetary compensation for this gesture, he implied otherwise.
“My thought then was it would be a government that would give priority to public good. And any citizen who means well for his country must not always be concerned about money.”
How about private individuals?
While it is understandable, within the Nigerian context, that the government is the way it is – blind to talents and innovators, the weak support system seems to transcend the corridors of power. Obaniyi also reveals that no individual has truly assisted him; they are only good with making promises.
“When it comes to individuals who have come, I believe it is not yet God’s time. They have not followed up their words with action. None of them has responded to all the problems I earlier highlighted. Is it the little money I make that I will use to hire a shop, when I am still trying to get my children schooled so that they do not become second fiddle in the future?” he asks.
“I saw that you made a mistake earlier by passing by this place without realising I was here. I had told my apprentice that it seems you were looking for me, but you did not find me at the place you had imagined. People like you have also come from Lagos expecting that they would meet me in a very big company, which is far from the reality.”
Why he is never exact about his age
Obaniyi is never really exact about his age. For this reason, many reports online often claim he is a 40-year-old even though they are published years apart. The underlying reason for this is shocking. He reveals it in response to the question: “how many years have you spent on this craft?”
“Aaaah,” he exclaims, and after pondering for a moment, “it would have been over 20 years.”
“Your people do complain that when they read my past interviews, they say I’m 40-years-old. And again, when they read another, published perhaps after a year, it says the same thing.”
“After thinking about it, I just felt if one starts paying attention to one’s age, one would only succeed in aggravating ones sadness. That is what has led me to just base it in that manner. And it is the same thing I can say about the number of years I have spent on this occupation. It is often a source of sadness for me, because with what I want to achieve with this job, my vision has yet to be actualised.”
He did not attend school, yet he speaks fluent English
Even though Ojo Obaniyi is more inclined towards speaking his native tongue, Yoruba language, it does not take a sixth sense to notice his sound grasp of English language with the way he borrows from its bank of words occasionally. It is therefore surprising to learn that he never enjoyed formal education within the walls of a school.
Born into and brought up from a poor background in the town of Ibadan, his parents could not afford to send all their children to school. While his younger ones were attending school, he would stay back at the cassava farm to assist his mother in raising funds for their education.
The genius he is, however, he would get the slates from his siblings after each school day and revise with them; and he often would comprehend much faster. He attributes this to his older age.
“Even though I did not go to school at all, I used to write letters for my grandma to the village,” he says.
“So you see that my talents aren’t mine. It has only pleased God to bless me with them. But Nigeria has not deemed it fit to build up my talent in order that it may benefit coming generations. No government has done this.”
Fish on the road
Obaniyi was not willing to rest on his oars despite the little fame his spectacular project got him and his disappointments from the Nigerian and Oyo state governments. At the time of the interview, he was working on yet another big project. He calls it “Fish on the Road.”
He explains: “You know what a tilapia is? That is how it looks. It will move on the road and it will move on the sea. I will be implanting the engine very soon.”
“It is not that anyone is training or instructing me; it is just the talent God has blessed me with. And if you come here tomorrow, I will take you to where the project is. I will soon transfer it here since it is almost time for me to start weaving.”
“If I was in the West, don’t you think the government would be interested in such a project, if they do not even finance it?” he asks, expecting no reply.
Afraid of dying, without change
Not getting any younger, the thought of dying and having his gift buried with him without maximisation worries Obaniyi a lot. He is evidently passionate about how Nigeria can benefit as a developing country from his genius. And he thinks he can be helped to help his country if he is assisted to learn more about better technologies he can incorporate into his trade. He is also in need of a befitting working environment to practice his craft.
He ends with these heartrending but thought-provoking words: “Whenever I sit to think about the talent God has blessed me with, I start to cry. I cry bitterly because I have realised I may be buried with it, and no individual would develop it to benefit our country, at least so that we may ultimately use it to advance just as foreign countries where everyone is taking his children.”