How my parents ignited my passion for Law, Medicine –Yemisi Solanke-Koya
‘Why I’ll forever be grateful to Ibadan’
‘Lessons I learnt from Haruna Ishola’
By YINKA OLUDAYISI FABOWALE
Dr. Yemisi Solanke Koya is a star child! Born the first child of Nigeria’s two foremost professionals – renowned surgeon, the late Professor Emeritus Toriola Feisetan Solanke and Chief Folake Solanke, the first woman Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in Ibadan, decades ago, Yemisi made history following her two parents’ passions. She studied and qualified as a medical doctor and a lawyer, arguably the first known Nigerian to achieve the feat!
Currently working as the Director of Communications, Education and Policy at the Maryland Board of Physicians, a state agency charged with the regulatory oversight of the practice of medicine in Maryland, USA, Solanke-Koya is also a social justice activist and international award-winning poet.
She is married to Dr. Ibikunle Koya, a nephrologist who practices medicine like her, in Maryland, treating patients with hypertension and kidney disease. The soft-spoken lady, who insists on having the title, Esquire, behind her name, is blessed with three daughters- Oyinade, Feyisope and Moyosore, who, in addition to studying economics, Journalism and Neurobiology respectively, are also lawyers. The last born, Moyosore, is in her first year at the Francis Carey School of Law in Maryland.
During a short visit to Nigeria from her US base recently, she shares glimpses of her exciting and versatile life with Effects. Excerpts:
Tell us what it was like, growing up under such illustrious parents?
I must emphasize that it was a privilege, a real privilege, to grow up with them, because the household was full of love and kindness as well as discipline, scholarship, commitment and perseverance. There was abundance of love from both parents; my mother and father, raising us in a nurturing environment and to appreciate the galaxy of opportunities before us. They loved their children and their’ love for each other was palpable, a sign of which is forever etched on my mother’s engagement rings as “ToriFola”. That is why I believe in the construct that the child or human being is both the product of nurture and nature, because the home, as part of the child’s total environment is crucial to the upbringing of the child. It is the foundation of awareness, and where the child can feel that they are loved and valued as a member of the family, a nuclear family and especially in Nigeria, the extended family. This gives the child an anchor and an enduring reference point for life. Discipline was a constant aspect of the fabric of the family. As a consequence, I subscribe to discipline, used to assist with the development of an individual who is then disciplined to face the future. I observed the virtue of kindness in both parents in their interactions and generosity toward people. Then, in terms of support, my parents supported us in everything that we aspired to do.
What position are you among the children?
I’m the first child. Definitely, as the first child, I had responsibilities towards my siblings, Tunde and Busola. It was definitely my pleasure to do that; emulating what my parents taught me and being able to convey that to my siblings and later on, my children.
Can you paint a picture of Ibadan of your childhood?
Growing up in Ibadan was very memorable. Ibadan at that time was an eclectic metropolis; we were exposed through Ibadan to many things that nurtured the upbringing of a child: science through the university, arts through the university and to the richness of diverse cultures from interacting with many people. We had the marvelous zoological gardens in Ibadan, the UI Zoo. My father used to take us to the zoo regularly and he would teach us about different animals.Then, when one went to a zoo elsewhere in the world, we found out that the Ibadan zoo compared spectacularly well. All the animals, I remember them with fond memories – the peacocks, the gorillas, the lions, beautiful gazelle, and the bird aviary was breathtaking. So, when you went to other countries one could boast that our zoo in the University of Ibadan in Nigeria was at the same level. I confidently say one of the best in the world at that time. And there was the horticulturist delight of Agodi Gardens.
We also had the opportunity to watch great art, including the great Hubert Ogunde, Duro Ladipo, Kola Ogunmola, traditional dancers, the Armchair Theater, Village Headmaster and the other shows, that exposed me to more of the indigenous aspect of the Yoruba culture and other cultures in Nigeria.. As a child, I remember listening to many folktales and the stories of the childhood of my parents. If you recall, most of the folk tales have a moral, and at the end of the tale you were asked what the moral of the story was, a noteworthy traditional mechanism used to impart lessons to distinguish evil from good.
My love for music is an offshoot of my parent’s love for music. I have never forgotten the experience of watching James Brown at the stadium in I think 1970 with my parents. I was mesmerized by his electric performance and his iconic song – “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”. It was an empowering moment for me as a child.
I met many different people growing up and was enamoured by their life stories and accomplishments. Through my family’s association with Papa and Mama Awolowo, I appreciated at an early age, how vision, foresight and the judicious exercise of political power could positively impact the lives of the masses. We used to visit their house at Oke-Bola and I have the distinct memories of them visiting our home. Growing up, my family, teachers, friends and colleagues of my parents all demonstrated through affection and encouragement that they invested in me and my success, for that I am grateful. I’m much obliged to Ibadan.
When did you relocate to the United States and how often do you visit home (Nigeria)?
I relocated to the United States in 1988, so, it’s been sometime. I travel home often, but recently, I have been coming home as frequently as possible, in the last two years, maybe twice a year. I was here last December and I am here now, this is April.
The period you just spoke of was also a time of great activism in the arts; we had great icons such as Prof. Wole Soyinka, Demas Nwoko, the Mbari Mbayo movement, there were the Jimi Solanke and the rest. The scene has since changed, have you noticed on your visits?
That is a very good point, because if you remember, I said we were exposed to the arts at the University of Ibadan and at that time, there was a children’s theater that was called the Arts Theater. Every Saturday, the children at the university, and I believe it was open to others, would attend that programme and through that, we were exposed to great art, activists and visionaries. Artists like Wole Soyinka, Jimi Solanke, produced plays that advanced the noble cause of the human agenda, the advancement of human rights. Sometimes, unfortunately, certain things are lost as you mentioned. But I believe that some of us must be custodians of our history and what is important so that we can encourage a revival of passions past. We must advocate for a society that will encourage individuals, to reach the pinnacle in any field of endeavor, not hinder or oppress them. This is the obligation of everyone, not just the artists.
For instance, people like the great Gani Fawehinmi, the lawyer and human rights activist and Comrade Tai Salarin, another champion of the masses were people I grew up observing and hoped to emulate. They not only excelled in their fields of endeavour, but they did not forget that when you are fortunate to advance in life, you must remember to advocate and fight for the rights of other people, because we are all members of the same human family.
Why did you decide to study the two profession of your parents?
Interesting question.You are not the first person to ask me that, but I will answer the question. You asked me where I was in the sibling order, I’m the first child, so, I had the opportunity of growing up observing both parents work diligently in their different fields and as I told you, scholarship was always emphasized in the house. I always saw my parents studying. As a child, I would accompany my father to the University College Hospital, he would take me there and sometimes to his office and I would see how people interacted with him and, of course, without violating any patient’s confidentiality, hear about the cases he worked on, his successes and the sense of happiness when his patients improved. I saw his name in textbooks, for example, Gray’s Anatomy. All this kindled my interest to become a physician. On the other hand, I would go with my mother to court, or to her chambers and observed her commitment to working hard and the joy, when cases were won which also caused me to consider that profession.
When I started my university education, I commenced with the medical degree. Let me make it abundantly clear, neither parent forced me to do anything, they didn’t force me, they were content with me doing what I wanted to do, doing it well, and becoming a responsible adult. They were both overjoyed when I qualified as a doctor. But when I completed medicine, I started thinking about studying law again.
So, you had started practicing medicine before you went for law, were you married then?
Yes, I was married and was practicing medicine. Shortly, after I had my first child, I went to study law in the University of Ibadan.
Which medical school did you train from?
University of Ibadan. I have been very privileged, because the University of Ibadan admitted me to study medicine and then law.
Are you using your law degree now?
That is a very good question you asked. When you have the chance to broaden your knowledge fund, you are not limited in what you pursue, so I have used both professions where I am and in what I do in America. At the Board of Physicians which is charged with the regulatory oversight of the practice of medicine, I utilize both backgrounds to assist me in discharging my responsibilities. I am now involved in communications, education and policy. With policy development, a legal background is extremely beneficial for the enactment of legislation and promulgation or regulations, and the legal background helps with communications, and public relations. There is a saying ‘’Ona kan kowoja’’ . I am a disciple of that adage.
You seem to speak Yoruba very well, in spite of sharing Chief Solanke’s manner of speaking and inimitable diction. How deep are you in the language and has your sojourn abroad not affected its integrity?
Thank you very much, but, let me quickly say in response to how deep, just average, before you begin to set an exam for me. (Laughs). How did I learn it? Well, I am going to credit this first, to learning it at, Maryhill Convent School, Agodi Ibadan. That was the primary school I attended… Of course, there was Yoruba speaking in our household, but predominantly we were speaking in English. I do not believe that my sojourn abroad has affected its integrity because I have the opportunity to speak it often and also listen to iconic figures of our music industry, Haruna Ishola, one of my father’s favourites, Batile Alake, one of my mother’s favourites and I.K. Dairo, a favourite of mine and my husband’s.
How fulfilled are you in what you do now?
I have been blessed by God, because it is through God that all things come to pass. To utilize both professions for public protection and engaging in other fields of human endeavour has been a blessing. I have practiced medicine and law, been involved in regulatory oversight, compliance and enforcement, the enactment of laws and promulgation of regulations, conducted various training sessions on a myriad of topics, facilitated workgroups, successfully mediated difficult disputes, developed corporate enhancement strategies, testified before legislative bodies, engaged in public and motivational speaking and public and media relations, written poetry and made arts and crafts for which I won awards and have a wonderful and supportive family. It is most humbling and nothing but God’s grace.
So you are a poet, an award-winning poet, what award is that and how did you come about your literary skill?
The Golden Poet Award of the World of Poetry in America. I won the award three times and I will explain how my interest in poetry developed. I was exposed to poetry at an early age and immediately after that I found it absolutely alluring. My mother, if you remember, was a teacher before she became a lawyer, teaching Latin, English, Literature and Mathematics in England and Nigeria. As such, when I was at Maryhill reviewing poems as part of my homework and while at Queen’s School, when I was home on holiday, my mother gave me a full complement of Literature classes. My English and Literature teachers at Queen’s School, Mrs. Oderinde and Mrs. Thompson, were remarkably inspirational. Those experiences introduced me to the art of sculpting words together and the deconstructing the words to unravel the true meaning of the words and intention of the poets. From the age of about 12,
What engages you as a poet?
Social justice, oppression, exploitation of the human being, inequities, injustice, those ignite my fervour and the inability of each person to explore opportunities to pursue their God-given talent, male or female.
When I identify that there are problems, within the fabric of the society I am galvanized to write. Corruption is another issue that I find disturbing and it motivates me to write. When I heard the awful news of the Chibok girls, and the inability of the government to return all of them safely to their families I was compelled to write. I attended a boarding school, at Queen’s School Ibadan, for my secondary school education and can only imagine the desperate horror of the girls when they were kidnapped and forced into a life of sexual subjugation, some of them as young as 12. The evidence of that oppression is that some of those that have been rescued came home with babies. I join in the all-important ardent call – To Bring Back Our Girls, all of them. I am also intrigued by the changing scenes of nature and write poetry about those themes.
But you hardly find corruption problem in the American society, or do you?
No, I only write about home (Nigeria) because of the mind-boggling enormity.