You are gathered this Sunday at the stately Methodist Church of the Trinity at Tinubu, in the heart of Lagos to honour the memories of Dr Kwao Sagoe, and his wife-Chief (Mrs) Jumoke Sagoe, who died all of forty years ago.
Tinubu Square these days is not the Tinubu Square of your younger years, at once bustling and homely, portraying the essence of the Lagos way of life. The square wears a very ‘hard’ concrete and mortar look, without much of a soul.
This effect hits you in the face, despite the obvious efforts of government and purists to recreate the look and feel of old Lagos, to hark back to a kinder, gentler, Lagos.
The fountain is up and running. There are people sitting on deck chairs and stone ramparts within the enclosure.
‘Area boys’ stand about the Church entrance. They are only ‘boys’ by conventional description – many of them are getting on in years, showing streaks of grey in their hair. It is a tough unrelenting atmosphere where people clutch their bags tight as they pass, and the hard concrete of the newly resurfaced road and sidewalk has pushed the decay and decline of a congested inner city out of sight – unless you look very closely.
The event is an evening of Community Hymn Singing, and it is taking place in the expansive auditorium of the Church. It is striking to the untutored outside eye entering the venue that in the heart of Lagos Island, in the area known as CBD – Central Business District, where every square meter of land is reputed to be worth a pot of gold, there is so much space under one roof, serving a purpose that is other than commercial.
But this is no ordinary Church, and the crowd is no ordinary Sunday evening crowd. The Methodist Church Tinubu is one of the oldest Churches in Nigeria, having been founded slap in the centre of the city of Lagos in 1862. It bears an organic relationship with Methodist Boys High School, located a short distance away. The school was itself founded in 1878, and is the second oldest secondary school in Nigeria. The whole atmosphere reeks of History – personal, spiritual, educational, even social.
At the celebration of one hundred years of the Church, fifty five years ago, Dr Kwao Sagoe had written the definitive history of the Church from its inception. He had himself attended Methodist Boys High School, and later become Vice Principal in the self-same school.
Towards the building of the modern Church, Dr Sagoe had contributed the princely sum of three hundred pounds. His wife, had contributed two hundred pounds.
The Hymn singing is already under way as you make your way into the crowded Church and seek out seating place.
Each song is preceded by a short introduction from a member of the family or one of their close associates. The preamble gives a bit of historical background about the author of the song and the context in which the particular song was penned.
…Let us with a gladsome mind
Praise the Lord, for He is kind…
Crowd and choir are in fulsome voice It is a happy occasion, and a somber occasion, rolled into one.
There is History, at every turn.
Chief (Mrs) Sagoe, nee Nelson-Cole, was born into a prominent Lagos family at Palm Church Street. In 1934, at the age of 23, she was engaged as a teacher on the staff of a newly formed ‘Queens School’. She eventually became Headmistress of the Junior School. Only a few years later, in 1937, she got married to Dr Kwao Sagoe, a Glasgow-trained medical doctor. With him she embarked on a tour of duty that took them to different regions in Nigeria.
The couple returned to settle in Lagos in 1946.
Soon after this, she resumed her teaching career at what had now become ‘Queens College’, Yaba. She would remain there for twenty odd years, teaching Yoruba and Religious Knowledge to several generations of Nigerian girls.
The lady sitting next to you, you quickly discover from your conversation, had attended Queen’s College, and was Head Girl some fifty years ago.
The Queens College ‘girls’, many of them of quite advanced years – if you ever say that about ladies! – would take the stage at a point down the proceedings, and would congregate in front to sing their school song and mouth their familiar slogan to celebrate the life of a woman many of them knew as ‘Mama’.
And the refrain:
‘Pass On The Torch!’
Among Christian denominations, the Methodists pride themselves on having the richest song-book. The evidence is in the fact that many of the songs that have become staples of Christian worship were written by Methodists.
You have come to a song that always arouses in you a sense of the infinity of time and space embodied by the concept of ‘God’, by contrast with the extremely short life-span and presence of even the most long-lived human being. Dr Sagoe and his wife had worshipped here, had come here Sundays and other days, had held meeting, sung songs, read lessons. Some others of the great and the good of Lagos society over one and a half centuries had worshipped here, had added colour and verve to the lives of the congregation. Other people sit in those seats now. Life goes on.
‘… O God our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come…
…Before the hills in order stood
Or earth received her frame
From everlasting thou art God…
When mighty men of Politics begin to think there is no life without them, you think, when valiant ‘liberation heroes’ like Robert Mugabe become quintessential oppressors and begin to believe they can go on for ever, someone should sing this song to them.
…Time like an ever-rolling stream
Bears all its sons away
They fly forgotten as a dream
Dies at the opening day…
The very existence of the Methodist Church on a vast expanse of prized land in the Central Business District of modern Lagos is connected to the history of the Sagoes. The land on which the Church stands to this day was donated by J.S.Leigh, a Consul of the city. He was Mrs Sagoe’s maternal grandfather.
There are people in the audience who are living embodiment of the spirit and essence of a city that seems more and more to exist in myth and memory than in reality. On one of the front pews is Mr Akintola Williams – doyen of the Accountancy profession. He is going to be one hundred years old in two years – that should be a celebration of life for Lagos- nay, Nigerian – society. The posture he cuts is not an aggressive defiance of mortality, like Mugabe, and the attitude of those who fawn on him is not that they cannot live without him. It is that life is richer, better, with him in their midst, in the front pew that is the rightful place of an elder.
The Right Reverend George Bako – retired Bishop of the (Anglican) Diocese of Lokoja. Sir Anthony Adegbite.
Names to swear by – rare commodities in the Nigeria of 2017.
Dr Kwao Sagoe was born in 1895 to the Sagoe family of Campos Square Lagos. His parents had immigrated from Cape Coast, Ghana, His mother was from Togo. He attended nearby Methodist Boys High School. After his education, he became a teacher in the school, and rose to become Vice Principal. From there he travelled to Glasgow to study Medicine. After qualifying as a doctor, he did post-graduate work in London and Dublin. On his return to Lagos in 1931, he joined the government’s medical services and was posted to work at various remote locations in Eastern Nigeria and the area known then as ‘British Cameroons’.
Retiring from the civil service in 1952, he continued to work as a contract medicalofficer with the federal and then the Lagos State governments.
He lived at Old Yaba Road, on the mainland. He was famous, among other things, for running a private medical clinic in Yaba, where he offered best-in-class medical services to citizens of Lagos, whether they had money to pay or not. He also participated in the establishment of free Church Clinics, accessible to people of all faiths, at Ebute-Ero Church and, later at Hoare’s Memorial Methodist Church, Yaba.
In addition to all of these, he was at various times President of the Nigerian Lawn Tennis Association, Vice President of the Nigerian Football Association, and Medical Officer to the Nigerian Boxing Association.
A man of great merit, obviously deserving of honour. In 1963, he was honoured with the Order of the Federal Republic.
The programme is winding to a close.
There is a rendition of a song titled ‘Messiah Baba Mi’, composed by a famous local musicologist – Ayo Oluranti.
It is time for appreciation.
Out steps one of the Sagoe siblings, the famous Professor Aba Sagoe – ‘Sisi Aba’ to you. Your paths have crossed in various places. She was one of your teachers in Medical School in Ibadan. Then she was Provost of LASUCOM – the College of Medicine of Lagos State, for part of the time you were Chief Medical Director of LASUTH –the Teaching Hospital. And yes, she was your Head of Heamatology, and midwifed the hospital’s famous relationship with the Institute of Human Virology to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
‘Sisi Aba’ speaks with a clarity of voice and elocution that is entirely her own.
It is a short walk back to the office block where you parked the car. You suspect the security man who gave you leave to park did not do it out of altruism, and would be expecting ‘payment’. You put aside some money for the security man, and for the area boys on the way, just in case.
As it turns out the road back is smooth, even with you carrying the bulky take-away bag of goodies the family has laid down for visitors.
The security man is effusive in his thanks, as if he was not expecting reward.
It is time to get back from History and step again into the harsh realities of ‘modern’ Lagos city, 2017.