Who was Olabisi Ajala The Traveller?
Moshood Adisa Olabisi Ajala, popularly known in Nigeria and across the globe as ‘Ajala the traveller‘, was the man who toured the United States of America on a bicycle, and the world, on a motor scooter better known as Vespa.
From the ordinary son of a traditionalist, Ajala rose to a global celebrity and his name became a song sang on every lips. During his prime, Ajala was envied and praised by both the young and old for his courage, determination and success.
Even in 1972, the Nigerian music wizard himself, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey, immortalized Ajala and his adventures in a song included in his album titled ‘Board Members’. Obey sang thus: “Ajala travel all over the world (2ce), Ajala travel (2ce), Ajala travel all over the world.” Below is OldNaija’s detailed account of the life, career and death of the legendary and iconic Ajala the traveller.
Moshood Adisa Olabisi Ajala was born in Ghana into a Nigerian polygamous family of thirty. He was one out of the twenty-five children produced by his father and his four wives. Shortly after Ajala’s birth, his family moved down to Nigeria where he schooled in Baptist Academy, Lagos and Ibadan Boys’ High School.
At the age of 18, Ajala went to America to further his studies; he was admitted into the University of Chicago where he studied as a pre-medical student. His initial dream was to become a medical doctor and return to Nigeria to disparage the practice of voodoo and the people’s belief in superstitions but Ajala’s lifetime dream changed along the course of his life; he found something more interesting to him than donning lab coats and using stethoscope.
Ajala came into the spotlight in 1952 when he went on a lecture tour across the United States of America on a bicycle covering a total of 2,280 miles.
Throughout the lecture tour, Ajala dressed in the traditional attires of Nigeria one of which was described as “elaborately flowered robes with a felt-like head-dresses to match”. He did this in a bid to enhance the purpose of his lecture tour which was to educate Americans about the progress of his country, Nigeria, and Africa in general, and to enlighten them that contrary to the popular belief held in America, Africans don’t walk about naked or covered in leaves and loin clothes.
The news of Ajala’s bicycle tour spread across the United States of America like wildfire and quickly made it to the dailies and television.
Below is a text of how Ajala was described in Global Television Formats: Understanding Television Across Borders: “Perhaps even more significant for our discussion of the show’s global and local dynamics, however, was the participation of Nigerian contestant, Olabisi Ajala, a sophisticated world traveller and secretary to his country’s prime minister. Olabisi is an attractive and charismatic black man who held a degree in psychology from Columbia University and was an expert in ethnology, the subject he chose for Lascia o Raddoppia? Olabisi recurrently appeared on TV wearing traditional Nigerian clothes, and he managed to transform every night on the show into a celebration of his ethnic and cultural heritage. The final night however, Olabisi entered the TV studio wearing an impeccable tuxedo, while Mike wore the traditional Nigerian costume, demonstrating once more his ability to interact with his contestants’ most genuine aspects of identity, be it regional, Italian or foreign and Other.’’
Ajala’s fame also landed him big movie roles. After his bicycle tour across the United States of America, he got his first role (of $300 per week) in the movie White Witch Doctor produced by the popular 20th Century-Fox Motion Picture. He played the supporting role of Ola, a companion of Loni, a famous African hunter played by Robert Mitchum. Also in August, 1955, he signed a movie contract with the Eagle Lion Studios of Hollywood which involved making movies with European and African backgrounds.
The already famous Ajala the traveler did not limit his tour to the United States of America, he visited a total of 87 countries with his scooter in six years.
He visited countries such as Israel, India, Australia, Iran, Russia, Ghana, Cyprus, Egypt and so on where he met with some of the greatest leaders in the world such as: Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Jawarhalar Nehru of India, Niki Khrushchev of the USSR, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran, Ronald Reagan of America, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria and many more.
Ajala the traveller was known as a man of many women. His marital life featured different women from different parts of the world. In 1953, a Chicago nurse named Myrtle Basset filed a paternity suit against Ajala for denying being the father of ‘their son’ which she claimed Ajala himself named Oladipupo and also signed his birth certificate.
Despite the lawsuit, Ajala held firmly to his ground denying being the father of the boy. Ajala proposed a DNA test but the nurse was reluctant at first and when she eventually agreed to surrender the baby for the test, Ajala disappeared into the thin air which made the court ruled against him. In March, 1953, a domestic court mandated Ajala to pay $10 per week for the upkeep of Oladipupo, also named André.
That year, things did not go down well for Ajala. In March, 1953, he was arrested on the charges of forgery, grand theft and worthless check by the police of Beverly Hills, California. Ajala pleaded not guilty to the charges, he claimed he was duped by one Arnold Weiner who was an ex-bank accountant. Arnold Weiner in turn defended himself, he admitted showing Ajala how to write cheques but claimed he didn’t dupe him.
However, Ajala was sentenced to one year jail term and later deported from America. His deportation was not solely because of the forgery charges levelled against him but also because he had failed to keep up with his studies at the Santa Monica Junior College, thus invalidating his visa. Ajala resisted deportation and protested because, according to American authorities, he feared tribal execution. The authorities said Ajala was scared of being killed by his father if he was deported back to Nigeria which led to his protest.
Ajala had climbed an 80-foot radio tower where he screamed that he would rather leap to his death than be deported. Ajala protested on the tower for about 24 hours turning deaf ears to the pleas of the immigration authorities. He eventually jumped down from a height of 15 feet but was lucky to only have sustained a sprained back. The authorities also said Ajala, after the tower protest, embarked on hunger strike which Ajala debunked. He claimed he was only observing the 30-day Ramadan fasting. However, Ajala was flown to London instead of Nigeria. He had previously requested to be flown to Canada but his request was turned down because Canada refused to approve his application.
By December 1954, Ajala returned to America with his wife, Hermine Aileen who later divorced him in August 1955 on the charges that he was being adulterous. In December, that same year, Ajala married a 19-year-old white London radio-Tv actress, Joan Simmons.
Ajala the traveler maintained his global celebrity status for a while but soon went out of the limelight though his name still kept ringing in the ears of people. He retired to Nigeria where he lived with some of his children.
Things turned worse for the Ajala in his latter years as he fell from the famous and rich world traveller to a common man struggling to met his ends somewhere in Lagos, a rented apartment in a two-storey building on Adeniran Street, Bariga to be precise.
When Ajala fell sick, he couldn’t get adequate medical care because he didn’t have enough money, and his swarm of children were not there for him, only two of his children lived with him and they are: Olaolu Ajala, a 20-year-old student of Baptist Academy, Lagos and Bolanle Ajala, his 17-year-old daughter.
It is sad to know that the once world famous Ajala the traveler died a poor man on the 2nd of February, 1999 at the General Hospital, Ikeja as a result of paralysis from stroke. However, he has found a place for his name in the history of Nigeria and the world.
Thanks for reading, OldNaija.com
- Innovative Travels- The story of Ajala travel all over the world
- Tunji, Bolaji. ‘Sad End of Olabisi Ajala.’, The Guardian, 20 February 1999, pages 8-9.
- African Actor Jailed For Worthless Checks, Jet, 12 th March, 1953, page 46.
- Abiyamo- The Untold Story of AJALA TRAVEL, Africa’s Most Legendary Traveller
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