…By Toyin Falola
HISTORY, it is said, would always remember the brave and the weak, but with different records of deeds. For Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano, who died 40 years ago, it is indeed a record of grace, splendor and wonder, but not without the beating of the sun and the rain that is typical in the journey of every great personality. Born on the 4th of November, 1904, to the family of Chief Edmund Delano, the Aro of Egba Christians, and Mrs. Rebacca Delano, an ardent Christian leader, at Okenla village in today’s Ifo Local Government Area of Ogun State, Chief Isaac Delano was among the earliest Nigerians to go through the emergent Western educational system in the country. This took him to the Holy Trinity School at Okenla village, Ifo, in the then Abeokuta province, for his elementary school education. Between I919 and 1921, he moved on to the secondary level of education at the Lagos Grammar School, where he was tutored by the likes of Solomon O. Odutola, an Anglican Bishop, and Rev E.J. Evans, who was then the principal. He would later leave the Lagos Grammar School for the more prestigious King’s College, also in Lagos, in 1921, where he eventually wrote and passed his Senior Cambridge Examination in 1923. In this prestigious school, then headed by Captain H.A. Harman, the young Delano met people who later became the top-notch movers in the nascent Nigerian state. Among these individuals were Sir AdetokunboAdemola, Justice N.O.A. Morgan, Professor Ajose, Drs. Oni Akerele and AbiolaAkerele, both medical doctors, and a host of others. Some became very close friends with Chief Delano, as in the case of Morgan, a lawyer.
Of course, armed with this exposure, together with his personal reinvention of the self, Chief Delano was able to cast himself in a noble light in the emerging society. Faced with the burden of financing a higher education, which only a few could afford at the time anyway, the young Delano chose to apply for the Senior Clerical Examination of the British colonial government in Nigeria in 1924. The success of this process led to his career in the Colonial Civil Service. And here lies his story of bigger dreams and vision set to be accomplished. As a clerk in the colonial government, Delano acquired the added skills needed by a writer to excel in knowledge production. As such, he started his intellectual career in the face of the tight demands of his office. Although he was invalidated by the Service in 1947 due to an accident that he faintly escaped, Delano had already published four books during his years in the Colonial Civil Service. The Chief made his debut into the intellectual world as a civil servant in 1937 when he published his work titled The Soul of Nigeria. This was followed by three others consecutively trend in 1944. They included The Singing Minister of Nigeria, An African Looks at Marriage and Notes and Comments from Nigeria. These publications were in addition to his articles in newspapers and the translation of the book Robinson Crusoe. So, when the Colonial Civil Service thought his services were no longer needed due to the tragic accident in 1947, it was the universe opening a greater path for him. This path he followed to the latter as he went on to bequeath his generation and those after, with intellectual productions in books that count over a dozen in number.
If he had been staying extra hours in the office and spending his vacation to gather data, mostly empirical as he often did while still in the Colonial Service, the years after 1947 were for Chief Delano a period to own himself. The only clog in the wheel of this freedom was the source of financing his intellectual drives; and not only that but also of his family. Since he was not in this endeavor alone, fate brought him in contact with the British Council Scholarship, which he won in 1952. This took him to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, where he studied Principles and Linguistic Methods through a special arrangement with Professor Forth and under the supervision of Professor Jack Charnorchan. Among other outstanding things this opportunity heralded him, the Chief became known in the West African Linguistic Community as one of the pioneers of the disciplines in the region. He would later return to Nigeria to continue his career in the field of intellectual production as a teacher, researcher, writer, essayist and broadcaster. In addition to this was his engagement with the society as a politician, community leader, and a Christian leader.
All these roles saw to his relationship with the University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Obafemi Awolowo University (then the University of Ife) and its affiliated institutions like the Institute of African Studies; University of Ibadan (then the University College) and its affiliated institutions like the Yoruba Historical Research Scheme; the West African Examination Council; the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London; Oxford University Press; Kraus Reprint; Western Printing Services Ltd.; Lutterworth Press; the Nigerian Broadcasting Services; Egbe Omo Oduduwa, the Action Group; the Anglican Church and many more. Without a doubt, he was one of the building blocks of these institutions in Nigeria. Through his intellectual works, he served as one of the earliest African voices to communicate Africa to the wider world at a time when its detractors were bent on distorting its realities. Like every outstanding intellectual, his efforts and contributions were recognized by different classes of people from far and near. All these instances cannot be noted here due to space, but few might suffice: In recognition of his immense contribution to knowledge, Professor Akinjogbin in a letter written in 1954, had requested for the guidance of Chief Delano on his research which revolved around the Obaship system and traditions in Yorubaland.
In this manner, but in a different context, Professor Michael Crowder, the then Director of the Institute of African Studies, the University of Ife, conveyed the appreciation of the Council to the Chief, based on his meritorious service and contribution to the Institute. This is likewise the commendation of the likes of Professor Oluwasanmi, the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife; Dr. BertheSiertsema, a famous linguist in Holland; Miss Water R. Miller, an European Lady Missionary; and many others also joined in this commendation, but in this case, on the impact of his publications.
His political activities led to his appointment as the first Administrative Secretary of the EgbeOmoOduduwa, a position he held between 1948 and 1951. During and after this period, he served in several committees mapping-out strategies for the independence of Nigeria. Thus, we also must see Chief Delano as a pioneer Nigerian nationalist.
This outstanding man was deeply involved in all of these larger goals and projects until his eventual transmutation to the Angel’s band in 1979. But shortly before this time, with destiny smiling at him, he was awarded the honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Ife in 1976. This, he described as the greatest honor of his life time. In the service of his community, the then Alake, Oba LadapoAdemola, purposely instituted a new chieftaincy title known as Bajiki Ake in 1954, and made Chief Delano the first holder of that title. In addition to this, until his death, he was the Babasale of Ifo. These are deserving honors to the author of AiyeD’aiyeOyinbo, a book of comparative status to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Chief Isaac Delano was a man whose life is worth celebrating for his dedication to the preservation of Yoruba culture, and by extension, that of Africa. This year, he has resurrected with the republication of some of his major books (Dictionary of Yoruba Monosyllabic Verbs and an anthology of four of his language-related works, titled Selected Works of Isaac O. Delano. This is an almost 1000-page book comprising of A Modern Yoruba Grammar; Agbeka Oro Yoruba: Appropriate words and expressions in Yoruba; Conversation in Yoruba and English; and Atumo Ede Yoruba) and the first scholarly monograph written on him by ToyinFalola, Cultural Modernity in a Colonized World: The Writings of Chief Isaac O. Delano. This resurrection, marked by a public event on December 17th in Lagos, would not have occurred without the children of Chief Delano, under the illustrious leadership, care and commitment by Chief Akinwande Delano. He will always remain with us, ever reminding you and I that a good name is better than silver and gold.
-Falola is Distinguished University Teaching Professor and The Jacob and Frances Mossiker Chair in the Humanities, The University of Texas at Austin