Africa’s most legendary traveller.
Moshood Adisa Olabisi Ajala popularly known in Nigeria and across the globe as Ajala the traveler was the man who toured the United States of America on a bicycle, and the world, on a motor scooter better known as Vespa.
The name, Olabisi Ajala doesn’t really rings a bell to the younger generation of Nigerians, but the older generation would certainly know all about Ajala. A man of many parts who created fame for himself through his workaholic achievements in the world we live. Ajala, who supposedly went to 87 countries in 6 years and mostly, on his bicycle.
Moshood Adisa Olabisi Ajala was born in Ghana into a Nigerian polygamous family of thirty. He was one of the twenty-five children produced by his father and his four wives. His father was a traditionalist.
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 where he was admitted into the University of Chicago. He started his travels in the 50s.
He was a renowned globe-trotter, socialite and free-lance journalist, described in many Nigerian songs as Africa’s greatest traveller. He put his nation, Nigeria, on the world map because of his drive to explore the unexplored and chart the uncharted.
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 where he found something more interesting to him than donning lab coats and using stethoscope.
Ajala came in to 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-dress 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. He wanted 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 US like wildfire and quickly made it to the dailies and television. He was described as an attractive and charismatic black man who held a degree in psychology from Columbia University and was an expert in Ethnology.
He 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. What a good heritage to tap from the life of the legend!
Ajala’s fame also landed him his big movie roles. After his bicycle tour across the US, 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 supportive role of Ola, a companion of Loni, a famous African hunter played by Robert Mitchum. In August, 1955, he signed a movie contract with the Eagle Lion Studios of Hollywood which involved making movies with European and African backgrounds.
Ajala did not limit his tour to the USA; he visited a total of 87 countries with his scooter in 6 years. He visited countries such as Israel, Australia, India, Iran, Russia, Ghana, Cyprus, and Egypt and so on where he met with some of the greatest leaders in the world.
Ajala’s travels got him to wine and dine with heads of states and leaders, including the former Nigerian Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and the Late Greek President amongst others.
Way back then in 1972, Legendary Nigerian music wizard, Chief Commander Ebenezer Obey even composed a song in the hero’s honour to immortalize him, with part of the lyrics saying:
“Ajala travels all over the world! (2ce),
Ajala travels (2ce),
Ajala travels all over the world!”
He 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 Myrtie Basset filed a paternity suit against the legend for denying being the father of their son who 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. He 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 Andre. That year, things did not go down well for Ajala. In March, 1953 he was arrested on the charges of forgery, grand theft and worthiness check by the police of Beverly Hills, California.
Ajala pleaded not guilty to the charges and 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.
Ajala’s 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. He had climbed an 80-foot Radio Tower where he screamed that he would rather leap of his death than be deported. He protested on the tower for about 24 hours turning deaf ears to the pleas of the immigration authorities.
Ajala eventually jumped down from a height of 15-feet but was lucky to 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 tuned 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, 1955, Ajala married a 19-year-old white London Radio-TV actress, Joan Simmons.
Olabisi Ajala got married to an Australian wife, who gave him four children and based in Australia. Like his travels, Ajala’s offspring scattered all over the world. He also has two children in the United States of America and one also in England. A legend was gone, and not honoured.
In 1999, he died in his residence, a rented apartment and his grave in Central Lagos which is not different from any other human beings. Although it looks like Ajala had gone and already long forgotten, but thanks to his travels, his foot prints are still indelible on the sands of time.
Ajala who was the son of a traditionalist rose to a global celebrity and his name became a song sang on every lip. During his lifetime, Ajala was envied and praised by both the young and old for his courage, determination and success. What a great exit of a colossus and cynosure of all eyes!
Moshood Adisa Olabisi Ajala, the popular Nigerian traveller who toured the world on a Vespa. Adieu!
Written by: Teslim Opemipo Omipidan