It was World AIDS Day yesterday. We debated about writing a piece about the size of the epidemic, which at over 3 million cases in Nigeria is the second largest on the continent. Also there are over 500,000 on treatment, almost all donor-funded. We considered writing about the tragic situation of continued mother to child transmission in Nigeria. We also considered the tragedy of the disappearance of the disease from public discourse in Nigeria. But ultimately we decided to take a step back and remember a gentleman who influenced a lot of the work we do on Nigeria Health Watch: Omololu Falobi, Founder of Journalists against AIDS.
We decided to re-publish the piece Ike Anya wrote in 2006, first published in Nigeriaworld.
OMOLOLU FALOBI – A HERO DEPARTS
By Ike Anya – first published Saturday, November 11, 2006
I was sitting waiting for the boarding announcement for my flight when I noticed an insistent buzzing in my pocket. I retrieved my phone, glanced at it and realized that it was a call from my friend and colleague Chikwe. I wondered why he was ringing when he knew that I was out of the country and therefore unlikely to pick up my phone in order to avoid the high costs of roamed international calls. As I continued to wonder the phone began to buzz yet again. It was still Chikwe’s number. It was 3 pm in San Francisco meaning that it must have been about 11pm in London. Why on earth was Chikwe ringing me so late? Now worried I sent him a frantic text:
“I’m at the airport waiting to board. I’ll be back tomorrow. Trust all ok”
Almost immediately I got a reply that caused me to shout out, drawing concerned furtive glances from the serried ranks of prim lipped English passengers waiting, like me, for the flight to be called. As I bowed my head, embarrassed at having caused a scene, the import of Chikwe’s text continued to ring in my head. His text read:
“Bros, terrible news … Omololu ran into robbers in Lagos. Bros, the guy is dead, Bros …
That was how I learnt that Omololu Falobi, pioneering journalist and activist, a human being par excellence, a devoted father, friend and brother, had departed this life.
My first encounter with Omololu was via the internet. I was enrolled on a Master’s degree programme at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and was doing research for a project on HIV. When I typed in the words “Nigeria AIDS” into the Google search engine, it took me straight to the website for an organization called Journalists Against AIDS. Once on it, I quickly signed up to join the electronic forum organized by the group and from there became immersed deeply in the Nigerian HIV world. There I could read messages from people all over the world and in all parts of Nigeria relating to all aspects of HIV in Nigeria. There were researchers seeking collaborators, students seeking information, field workers sharing examples of best practice, epidemiologists exchanging updates on knowledge, people with HIV sharing their unique perspectives, everyone debating Nigerian HIV policy or the absence of it – in short, if it related to HIV in Nigeria then you could find it there. I could not believe my good fortune in finding the site and wondered who had had the foresight and expertise to set up such a useful resource. Searching on the site, I soon found that the organization was the brainchild of a gentleman called Omololu Falobi. I became a regular contributor to the site and often recommended it to colleagues and friends who had questions about HIV in Nigeria. Indeed, the forum inspired me to write a piece calling for greater political engagement with HIV in Nigeria, which was subsequently published in the Lancet.
I first met Omololu in the flesh on a warm afternoon in a plaza outside the seminar hall in Barcelona where the Journalist to Journalist programme was taking place as part of the 14th International AIDS conference. I was a volunteer facilitator on the programme, and Omololu was one of the listed speakers. I was proud that a fellow Nigerian was billed to speak, and, when it was his turn, he did not disappoint me. He spoke with an eloquence and passion that told of his commitment to the fight against HIV and with a deep understanding of the issues at Nigerian and global levels. As he mixed with the delegates adroitly, it was obvious that he was highly respected. At the end of his session, I went to meet him and introduced myself.
“Ah, my brother, thank you for your contributions to the forum.”
And so we began to chat. I soon realized that he was that rare being, the truly committed individual who looked beyond self aggrandizement, colour, ethnicity or creed towards achieving progressive goals. His passion shone through and impressed me, as did his in depth understanding of the HIV issue. He introduced me to other members of his team who were in Barcelona for the conference, and from then we kept in touch infrequently via e mails. Later I was to discover that he had already established a close working relationship with my friend and colleague Chikwe, which served to confirm my high opinion of him.
Omololu became a trusted friend and compatriot, one with whom I knew I could speak to frankly and honestly, one from whom I knew I could get an unbiased assessment or analysis of developments in the Nigerian HIV field. Yet close as we became, it was not until last month (August 2006), at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto, that I got the opportunity to see another more private side of the man.
Chikwe and I had resolved that we would spend time with Omololu to have a proper discussion and to explore the ways in which we could work more effectively together to improve public health in Nigeria. We wanted to get a blunt assessment from someone on the ground, and so we resolved that we would have dinner together one evening in Toronto.
That evening we met at the appointed place and headed in search of a restaurant where we would have dinner and also talk. Omololu was in high spirits – indeed we all were after an exhilarating day listening to various inspiring speakers. We may have been physically exhausted but mentally we were on a high. Our first task was to find a suitable restaurant, and, as we mulled between Chinese and Canadian, we began to stroll vaguely in the direction of the restaurant. By the time we got to one that we all liked, we realized that it was nearly time for the candlelight vigil in memory of all the people who had died of AIDS. And so we headed to the Square where this event was billed to take place. Omololu was in enthusiastic, handing out the plastic nightlights that passed for candles to the members of our group. I remember him asking for an extra couple to take back to Nigeria for his children. The nightlights were plastic tubes containing liquid which when you squeezed them, mixed and began to emit a fluorescent light – a fascinating thing for us adults, let alone children. We chatted and bantered with people from all over the world and joined in the singing and the remembrance. There was a particularly haunting performance from a South African a cappella group that had many eyes glistening with tears as each remembered the loved ones lost to AIDS. It was a moving evening.
The vigil over, we moved on to the restaurant, where we all laughed as Omololu asked the waitress what she recommended that he order. She told him what her favourite dish was, and we teased Omololu that he might find the oyibo food inedible. In any case, when our meals arrived, we were all pleased and were about to tuck in when Chikwe asked Omololu how and why he had become involved in the whole HIV/AIDS field.
And so he began to tell his story. And what a fascinating story it was. He began by telling us that no one had ever asked him that question before – a statement that I found incredible considering what a pivotal role he had played in the Nigerian HIV arena.
His story began, he said, from his university days, when he had been an active participant in student politics. Upon graduation and starting work as a journalist, his activism somewhat waned as he began to concentrate more on the more mundane issues of living. At a point, he decided to enrol for a Master’s degree in political science at the University of Lagos while still working as a journalist. It was this course, he said, that reawakened his passion for social activism, for bringing about change in society. At this point, he recounted, he was not yet sure what form this activism would take, but he knew that it would be in an area that not many people were paying attention to. The turning point was the death of the musician Fela Anikulapo Kuti. Omololu was a great fan of Fela’s music and was a regular guest at the concerts which the maverick maestro held at the Shrine.
On the day that Fela died, Omololu remembers deciding to head for the press conference convened at the Shrine by the elder brother of the late musician, even though he was in features and not on the entertainment desk. He was drawn to the conference because of his love for Fela’s music. While that press conference has gone down in Nigerian history as the first time that a public figure was announced as having died from HIV, it also apparently was the trigger for Omololu’s groundbreaking involvement in the field of HIV. He described to us his shock, mouth agape, as Professor Ransome-Kuti, respected former Minister of Health, announced that his late brother had died of AIDS and exhorted all Nigerians to protect themselves from the virus. Omololu went for a long walk that evening mulling over the implications, wondering how he could become involved in this battle against HIV.
The next day, on getting to the office, he drafted a press release announcing the formation of an organization Journalists Against AIDS Nigeria which would be committed to fighting HIV in Nigeria. Thus was JAAIDS born.
The next day, he decided that he had to learn more about HIV in Nigeria and from his research identified that Professor Femi Soyinka was one of the leading researchers in the field. So he set out to go and interview Professor Soyinka. On arriving at his office, he told the professor that he was keen to understand more about HIV in Nigeria and wanted to learn all that he could. After granting him a lengthy interview, the professor told Omololu that if he really wanted to learn and write about HIV in Nigeria, then it was very important that he met people who were living with the virus. As Omololu still mulled this suggestion over, the professor directed him to a village near Ilesha where a nurse employed at one of the local hospitals was going round the homes of HIV/AIDS patients in the evenings, providing them with what succour and support that she could. On an impulse, Omololu decided to head for the village that day. Coincidentally, the village was not far from where he had gone to secondary school. On arriving at the nurse’s home, she welcomed him and asked him to join her on her rounds. He watched in awe as this woman went from house to house, offering warm baths, milk drinks, beverages and whatever she could from her own personal meagre resources. He was stunned to see that there were so many people affected. Sitting in the restaurant in Toronto, many years later, he recounted his shock as they approached a house that was familiar to him. One of his friends when he lived in the area had lived there, and he was struck with dread at what they might find on getting there. In any event, his friend had long moved away and it was someone else who was the patient there, but he described that event as one that brought home to him the reality of HIV.
Having spent two days in the village, following the nurse and talking to the patients, he was ready to return to Lagos. As he was about to leave the nurse showed him an invitation she had received from the World Health Organization inviting her to apply for a scholarship to attend an international conference on HIV/AIDS in Geneva. She encouraged him to apply, and when they could not find a photocopier to make a copy of the form, she trusted Omololu with her only copy. She asked him to take it back to Lagos with him and to send it back after he had made the copy. When he told us this story, we were astounded at the nurse’s selflessness, and Omololu promised to introduce her to us, as she was also attending the Toronto conference. Sadly, that never happened.
Continuing his story, Omololu described sending in his application for the conference and being accepted while his original benefactor, the nurse failed to win the scholarship. He described the conference as an eye-opener, and said that it was there that he met Dr Oni Idigbe, Director General of the Nigerian Institute for Medical Research for the first time. He remarked on how Dr Idigbe had jocularly teased him about the picture of his then fiancée which he had put up in his room almost as soon as he unpacked, thus forming the foundation of their friendship. As he went from session to session, he learned more and more, and at one of the sessions, he learnt how to use the internet and how to gain access to online resources.
Armed with this new knowledge and a wealth of contacts, he returned to Nigeria and thus actively began his work in the HIV arena. Fortunately for Omololu, the Punch newspaper group where he worked had been one of the first organizations in Nigeria to sign up to internet access. He was therefore able to put into practice many of the things that he had learned and was able to nurture contacts internationally. The turning point was his being asked to write articles for international organizations for which he was paid in foreign exchange, which then eventually gave him the financial independence to devote more time to his HIV activism.
By the time Omololu had finished this fascinating story, I said to him “Omololu, you must write this down. This is history in the making and you need to document it” He grudgingly agreed, and we moved on our conversation to other things. By the time that we finished dinner, we had agreed to collaborate on a number of projects, and I had promised to come and see Omololu on my next visit in Nigeria in a few months time. The plan was that we would formalize our discussions then. Similarly I extracted a promise from Omololu to get in touch whenever he was passing through the UK. Later he talked about his family and his hopes and plans for his children and again, I was enthused by his passion.
The next day was the final day of the conference, and I remember walking up to Omololu as he sat at a computer in the Media Centre and telling him I was leaving. He got up and embraced me, wishing me a safe journey and promising to do better at keeping in touch. He revealed that the next day was his birthday and asked me to keep reminding him about the need to document his story. I wished him a happy birthday and promised to send him admonitory emails from time to time. We exchanged email addresses yet again and then mobile telephone numbers. I walked out of the media centre leaving him smiling and waving.
That Omololu’s life was ended so suddenly and tragically after that last meeting by armed robbers is yet another sad indictment of the insecurity of lives in our country. What the country has lost in losing such a talent so young is unquantifiable. Omololu’s name may not necessarily have rung bells to those outside the media and HIV circles but to many of us whose lives he touched he was a genuine Nigerian hero whose moral stature and passion far outweighed the slightness of his frame and the briefness of his sojourn on earth.
We will remember him.