Professor Aminu Mohammed Dorayi is a renowned educationist whose area of specialisation is Chemistry. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and a Master of Science and Doctor of Philosophy in Physical and Theoretical Chemistry from the University of Oregon, USA. In this exclusive interview, Dorayi reminisced over his early childhood days at Dorayi Quarters in Kano city, where he was born; his teaching and working career in the Kano State Government, as well as a record-breaking trip he made by driving from London to Kano, a distance of about 4,000miles, in 24 days.
You were born in Kano on November 16, 1942, how was growing up like?
Growing up in the period starting from 1942 was a very peaceful period. Education, of course, was not as common as it is today. So, fewer people were going to school. My father happened to be educated and a trained medical personnel, who interacted with doctors and nurses of British origin when he, along with them, set up the then Kano City Hospital. He was influenced by his colleagues and he made sure that all his children were educated, which was not the norm. So, we grew up as educated children and subsequently, educated elites. Movement from primary to secondary school was easier because the students were fewer and the vacancies were available.
Dorayi Quarters, which was behind the hospital and initially started as staff quarters for nurses, was alongside Zango, which was a craftsmen and artisans (in metals and woodworks) quarters. Further down was Zage Quarters, which was famous for dye pits. I grew up going to school and interacting with children from these quarters when I returned, which gave me dual experience and value. Some of the things I learnt from those children, of course, were not taught in school.
So, growing up for me was a mixture of education in the elitists’ scene as well as mixing with the children of artisans and traders.We spent more time to learn because you would go to school from morning to 1 or 2pm, and most times you would spend the rest of the period playing with those children from the time you left school till late night. And on Fridays there was no school, so you would spend the whole time with them. Also, like every Muslim parent of that period (the convention is still here), parents ensured that their children attended Qur’anic school. So, after the western school in the afternoon we went to the Qur’anic school. These children too were my schoolmates like those in primary and secondary schools. The relationship I built with some of them continued even up till now.
What are some of the things you learnt from those children of artisans?
You know what they say about DIY (Do It Yourself); talking about repairs in the house, whether electrical, metallic and so on. Anybody who is conversant with the western concept of DIY knows that whatever goes wrong in your house, you try whether you can repair or fix it. I had a small workshop with tools. I could repair cabinets, metal doors, etc. These are some of the things I learned. Also, because we were in the Arabic/Islamic school together, we learnt from one another about Islamic culture, education and background, which is where they came from. Some of their parents were great mallams, so we learnt those aspects from them as well.
You went to Kano City Primary School, how would you describe your experience?
At that time, there were only four or five primary schools in Kano city; one at emir’s palace; one at the Alhassan Dantata area; there was one in Shahuci (near the hospital), where I went to; there was one at Gidan Makama; and another one in Tudun Wada. As I said earlier, there were few people going to school, and so the schools were also few, but children came from all over the city. I got friends from Dala and Yakasai areas and some other parts of Kano. Because the schools were few, anybody that wanted to put his child in school had to go the extra mile.
It was very pleasant, our teachers were great disciplinarians, and as a matter of fact, if we were truant, they would say, “I will tell your teacher” and you would stop. So teachers were responsible for children’s upbringing and training, not only in school subjects but also in manners, etc.
It was a very pleasant experience. We played a lot of games together. The friendship and bond we built lasted for a lifetime. We were few, so we knew one another. We were very focused. And we retained the friendship as we went on in life.
After primary school you left Kano for Government College, Kaduna. What was it like, moving from Kano to Kaduna?
Actually, the way education was structured at that time, you would do primary school in two stages: classes one to four were in those areas I mentioned, classes five to seven were separate schools; and there were four of such schools in the whole of Kano Province, which later became Kano and Jigawa states. There was one in the city of Kano, one in Hadejia, one in Birnin-Kudu and one in Gwarzo. So, children from all parts of Kano Province were brought together into those four schools. So it was when you finished class seven from those four schools that you proceeded to the secondary level of education or any other level of education because secondary education was a small part of all. Some went to technical, some clerical, etc. So, it was after the second level that I had the opportunity to be selected to go to Government College. It was Secondary Technical School, Kaduna.
From there you also proceeded to Provincial Government School, Kano?
I think the way it happened, which is spelt out in detail in my biography, was that around 1955/1956, the Government of Northern Nigeria planned to produce technicians, engineers, etc. I think in 1956, they set up a secondary technical school in Kaduna, and all the teachers were technical people from Britain (white people). They sent those people all over northern Nigeria to select pupils that are technically inclined. For example, a British man, Mr. Sydney Williams, came to the Kano Primary School, where I was, to select through interview into secondary technical. And we held sessions, including leavers. We did not know what was happening, but he was interviewing us. Of course he wanted good English.We had to understand English language and be technically and mathematically inclined. I was a prize winner in Mathematics in elementary school. That put me in the position to be selected. We went to Kaduna and met children from all over the 12 provinces of Northern Nigeria; between two and three children from each province in a class. I found myself in a class with people from all the tribes and religions from northern Nigeria. We were all speaking English to one another. We became friends, brothers and valued one another’s culture and tradition. This is why religion was not an issue at that time. Culture was not an issue because we saw ourselves as brothers and the girls saw themselves as sisters. That was how we started in Northern Nigeria.
We usually left Kano by train. You would get a warrant from your local government and go to the railway station and exchange it for a ticket. We travelled to Kaduna in the Lagos train, which they called Limited. They now call it Express. When we left Kano, the next stop was Zaria. It was a slow train with fire engine; you would see people putting charcoal. We stopped in Zaria, then Kaduna. The secondary technical (later named Government College) was less than a kilometre from the train station, so we carried out loads on our heads and just walked across to the school.
The following day, we met other children from other parts of Northern Nigeria and all the white British teachers we never saw before. We were taught in the primary school by Nigerians, Kano people. But we went there and discovered that we would be taught by white teachers. You had to speak properly, exhibit good manners, and you had to be neat. This helped us to be trained on manners, etiquettes and courtesies. We did everything the way we were supposed to. This helped us in our subsequent individual careers.
I liked playing football in primary school, so when I got into secondary school, the space was wide open. I was selected into the school team when I was in Form Two. I was small, but very skillful that by the time I got into Form Four in 1960, I was good enough to be selected to play for Nigeria. I played on the Nigerian Independence Day on October 1, 1960. Nigeria’s secondary school children’s team was set up and we faced the Ghanaian team. They called it “The Junior Academic School” in front of the great Kwame Nkrumah, Tafawa Balewa, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
I was so good that our games master, who was British, wanted to get me a team in England to join and play professional football. The team was Ipswich Town. But my Chemistry master, also British, said to me, “I will advise you not to go because when you play football, by the time you are 30, your career is over, even if you have no problem. You are a good science student, you can get a degree in Chemistry and you can work till when you are 60.”
Of course, now I’m 77, I’m here teaching, doing academic work, surrounded by students, books, and I go to classes and give lectures. So the Chemistry master was right, even beyond his own expectations.So, life in Kaduna was like that.
What was the outcome of the match you played against Ghana on Independence Day?
I regret to say that Ghana won 2-1. Just like the recent match where Algeria beat Nigeria; I was pained. I still watch football and follow the game.
In 1965 you were admitted to the Ahmadu Bello University to read Chemistry. Why the choice of Chemistry?
The system of education at that time influenced our choices. We had Ordinary Level after six years of secondary school, then you would go and study for Advanced Level (we called it GCE advanced level). When I went to the secondary technical, because of my inclination towards Mathematics I very easily fitted into Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Mechanics, and things like that. After that stage, I took the Cambridge School Certificate, after which I was given a space in Provincial Secondary School, Kano to study for the advanced level. I studied Physics, Chemistry, Pure Mathematics for two years. That meant that if I succeeded and proceeded to the university, I had the option of reading Physics, Chemistry or Mathematics.
It was a professor of Mathematics, a Dutch, who headed the Department of Mathematics, that went scouting for students to come study the subject. As a prize winner of Mathematics at my A’ level, I fitted well to be selected. So, right on the spot, he gave me the admission to come to ABU to read Mathematics. Even before my final examination, I was admitted. But the structure of degree programmes in the ABU at that time was that during your first year, you must do three subjects. I offered Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, which was what I did at my advanced level.
According to the programme at that time, during your second year you would offer two subjects, so I chose two from the three. I became close to Physics and Chemistry professors, and they all wanted me to study their subjects. So during my second year I studied Physics and Chemistry. During my third year, I chose a combination of Physics and Chemistry. But I did my project in Chemistry, which gave me a degree in Chemistry. However, I was strictly a physical-chemist to the point that even my Ph.D was in Empirical Chemistry because I used the Mathematics knowledge to apply to Physics and Chemistry, which enabled me to do the things I did academically.
Aside the academic exploits in the university, were you involved in school politics?
You know, if you are a sports person you would become popular, whether in the public or in school. That gave me an edge, such that even at the advanced level in Kano, I was dragged into student’s politics as the president of the Sixth Form Students Association. When I came to the ABU, I was also dragged into the student’s parliament that paved way for me to be president of the Students Union Government for 1966/1967. Going forward, even when I was in the USA doing my master’s and PhD in Chemistry, I was the president of the Nigerian Students’ Association. I was also the president of the African Students’ Association. Also, when I started teaching, I was the vice president and later president of the Science Teachers Association of Nigeria.
I got involved in students’ politics, but I made sure that it did not distract my academic life and I also did not take interest in translating that into open politics because that would have taken me away from my academic and my interest.
By the way, something that is of interest to me was that after my PhD at the age of 30 in the US, I was offered a job. I was also offered a job at the ABU to teach Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. We were very patriotic at that time and Nigeria was very good, so I declined the offers in the universities in the US and I came to the ABU to work.
When I came teaching Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics, the late vice chancellor, Ishaya Audu, invited me to join the Faculty of Education and produce science teachers since I could produce teachers in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. Ishaya Audu’s dream was that the teachers I would produce would go to secondary schools to produce more science students for the ABU that will come and study sciences, Medicine, Engineering, Agriculture, etc. I accepted the offer.
Then I had to go and study in England, the University of Reading, where I obtained an advanced diploma in Science Education. I became certified in the UK, which meant that I could teach anywhere in the world. I retuned to Nigeria and started teaching Nigerians, who went back to teach in secondary schools.
What became the most memorable aspect of your trip to England?
I had been to England before then, either passing through or on tour for few days, but going there for a session and staying there gave me a lot of experiences. Because I wanted to be a teacher, I studied the British system of education very thoroughly. I tried to see how we could modify it to fit the Nigerian educational system. I applied this later in my life. I also benefited by knowing the British people.
You also made a record-breaking trip by driving from London to Kano, a distance of about 4,000miles in 24 days, how did you do it?
I will say that from hindsight, this is madness. It is something that I will say nobody should do the way I did it; you can do it differently. I did it singly, with just a vehicle. I will say it was youthful exuberance. I read about it. I have been keen on adventures, even since secondary school. I read about the Marcopolos, the Mungo Parks, the stories of adventures fascinated me. I became very keen that even when I was doing my PhD in the US, I had a Volkswagen which I bought for about 600 dollars at that time. I used it to drive across the desert over there. I am highly adventurous, that is why even my autobiography is titled, The Adventurous Chemist.
I bought a Peugeot 504 at 1000 pounds and hit the road. I was assisted by the British Automobile Association (AA). They gave me the guidelines, the map, the route. They told me what to do in crossing the desert, and what not to do. So, I was quite prepared. Since I went to secondary technical school, I was technically inclined and I could service my car. I came from a technical background. Going back to Zango in Kano and hanging out with friends, they taught me confidence. So this thing has been in me for years. I enjoyed reading about trans-Sahara.
Were there no rivers to cross when you were driving through?
England is an Island. So when you reach Southampton you have to take a boat, you and your car, to Calais, France. I started driving through Paris and so on through Madrid, Gibraltar, and when you reach Gibraltar, you reach the Mediterranean Sea where you also take a ferry to Algeria. From there you enter the road all through, though there is no road, so to speak, across the desert because you are guided by your compass, your map.
The AA provided that information, and then, after sometime, maybe 200-300miles, you would get to an oasis and sit down and have some cold drinks. In fact, you don’t eat food because if you experience a running stomach, you are in trouble.
Did you have encounters during the journey?
Well, there were interesting episodes. There was a place I passed in Algeria, and the day I arrived, it was raining heavily. Little children of 13 years and below were running helter-skelter and crying. When I asked the elders why, they said those children had never seen rain before. No rain for 14 years, so they thought the heaven was falling. They had to be counseled by their elders. That’s something I clearly remember. For me, it was helpful because the rain made the soil hard. So the driving became easier through the plain desert. I passed by a camel market in the middle of the desert, which convened only twice a year. I saw thousands of camels in the market, they all came by their camel back to exchange one thing or another. They exchanged pleasantries. I enjoyed that scenery too.
You are credited with setting up the popular Sharada Industrial Estate in Kano. What was the intention behind it?
There were interesting things from that period. For example, Nigeria had never held a trade fair. When I got there as commissioner of trade, with my international exposure, I decided that we needed to start trade fair in Nigeria. So I took some people and trained them. We went to Ghana, UK and Shanghai trade fairs and saw what they were doing there. We came back and held our first Nigerian trade fair in Kano. This was before the Federal Government started. We had the first trade fair in Kano, which was very successful. It was held in 1977 at the Race Course because there was no site. So the whole country became alarmed that trade fair was something to go into. I was called to Lagos to lend a hand to start a trade fair. I wrote papers, gave advice and they did the first Nigerian (Federal Government) trade fair in Lagos.
Industrial areas in Kano were only at Bompai, but residential buildings had choked up the whole place, such that new industries could not get a place again. At that time, outside the gate in that direction of Sharada, there was no building, so we started the place by providing basic amenities. That time, government had money to develop the country. Government tried its best by providing water, electricity, etc. So, by opening up another site, opportunities became instantly available for people to set up businesses and employ people.
As I said earlier, Kano has been a trade centre since trans-saharan period. People were coming from Mali, Tunisia, etc, across the desert on camels to buy goods and go back. We did that (Sharada) and it served its purposes.
What do you think affected the industrial growth of the country when juxtaposed with the development in other countries?
Later on, industries in Nigeria, and some other African countries, ran into great difficulty for two main reasons, one of which was self-generated as a result of our inability to provide enough power to serve these industries, which caused industries to suffer. The second one was international trade organisations that provided trade laws that prevented one country from banning some goods from entering your country. With this, the not-so-developed countries could no longer protect their own industries. Being a member of such organisation made our market an open one to outsiders who are better able to compete. They can make their goods in their countries and bring it down here to sell. It is cheaper compared to the prices of our own industries. These two factors killed industrialisation or slowed down industrial development in the country, almost to the point of no movement. For example, there was a period when you could not import textiles into the country, but as time went on, importation began, partly through smuggling.
We had a very good opportunity and we used it to develop industries and commerce to the advantage of the Nigerian populace. But later, power became less available, which made production cost become higher. Later, participation in the World Trade Organisation made it impossible for us to protect our industries, in terms of competing with foreign ones.
At 76, closing in on 77, you still look strong and healthy, what is the secret?
I have a very strong family; very united, and we are all together. I have one wife, so all the children belong to one mother, which means less palava. Also, I made sure I pay attention to the education of my children. I have a pharmacist; medical doctor; lawyer working in the Presidency; accountant, who died in motor accident; chemical engineer; pilot a computer scientist. The last one just finished his degree in Business Management. They all studied in Nigeria for their first degree and went abroad for higher degrees.
One of the things that help a family is the need to be focused, guide them and look after them. In fact, internally, I regard myself as a dictator because I will not let them do what is wrong. I will not allow them to do what they want, I mean, they would have known that they will not have peace with me if they don’t follow my instructions, if they do not obey and do their homework. In fact, I let them know that I could not go and beg for admission in the university for them. I would rather pay lesson teachers to train them rather than beg for somebody who did not score well to be taken, it’s not possible. I know people who take their children to the ABU, they opened accounts for them, put N5million and bought them cars. I never gave my children cars while they were in the university. I could afford it, but I did not.
Secondly, I have been hardworking all through my life. In the university in Zaria, I was once the president of the Student Union, as well as in the sciences. Even a professor of Chemistry, a British man, called me after I was elected and said, “Well, science people don’t go into student politics because if you don’t do your experiment, which is a core course for a certain period you won’t be allowed to sit for the exam.” So I had to make sure I did my assignments and practicals and gave limited time to the union. So, part of the solution was really for one to work hard. If I look stronger than my age, it is the hard work.
I still wake up by 3am every day, including Saturdays and Sundays. If I wake up by 3:30am or 4am, I’m late. I also go to bed by 8pm. By 6:30pm, I have had my dinner and I don’t answer calls from that time till the following day. On my phone, there are only about 40 numbers. I don’t store numbers. I don’t give people my numbers. If they want to reach me, let them send me an email. I check my emails two or three times a day. I wake up, take my tea or coffee. Also, I take tea without milk or sugar. I have been doing this for the last 40 years or longer. Some people cannot do this, but it helps a lot. You have to be active. Also, you cannot eat everything you can afford. You also need constant medical checkup, especially at a later age.
I read and write without glasses, but I cannot drive without glasses.
How did you meet your wife?
It was when I went to deliver a message for someone in Kano that I saw her. That was how we started; it was just by coincidence.
My mother wanted me to marry more than one wife because she came from that tradition. But as I told you earlier, my teachers in secondary school were all British and they all had only one wife. Also, my teachers in the university all had only one wife, except two or three of them. Those who influenced me tended to have not more than one wife, maybe that was part of the reason because my father had four. He died in 1954 when I was only 12 years old. What I am saying is that the way you are brought up would make you to acquire certain habits; and definitely, they go into your blood. If you are lucky, your one wife will be sufficient for you, especially if you have kids, but if you have no kids you may start thinking that you need a second wife.
There is no magic for it, it is God’s blessings because I know some of my friends who will rather use their money to marry more wives and enjoy life. But it depends on what you describe as enjoyment. Even the car I drive now was bought by my children who decided that my former Toyota Camry was 13 years old, so they decided to replace it. But I told them that if they bought me a jeep they would drive it. I don’t want to drive a jeep. So they bought me another Camry. What I think is that with contentment you would be healthy and your mind would be at ease. It will help your body.
Do you still do physical exercise?
You see, when I was with the NIPSS and even the SSS, I did exercise, but since I left the SSS in December 2017, I haven’t deliberately exercised. Up till now, I don’t do any formal exercise. What happened is that I live on the first floor, and I can walk up to the third or fourth floor without panting. When I go for my medicals at my hospital in Cairo, which I go once a year for the last 10 years, they confirm that my health is perfect for my age. Some of the things I do give me good health, even though I don’t do formal exercise like running, going to the gym, jumping, etc.
What constitutes your diet?
I think that for the last 10 years, I take only one meal a day. In the morning, I take coffee or tea without milk and sugar. If you take care of yourself you can eat what you like, but eat moderately. So for me, it is not a question of ‘don’t eat eba, don’t eat rice, or don’t eat meat’, but eating moderately. I like okra soup and I can take it almost every day. I like vegetables. I don’t really care about the red soup. I can eat whatever I want to eat, but I eat modestly or very sparingly. But when there are festivities like Sallah, I can break the protocol. But normally, my stomach is used to one meal a day, except tea or coffee. And I don’t take biscuits and the likes of Coca-cola, Fanta, etc.
If you were not an educationist, what would you have become?
Surely, my first choice is academics, whether as a professor of Physics, Mathematics or Chemistry. The only thing is that some of these hard sciences do not have enough room for practising in Nigeria. So, if I had limited myself to hard sciences, the chances were that all the things I did in ABU, Zaria wouldn’t have been possible. If I were merely a chemistry lecturer, I wouldn’t be the right fit. What I’m saying is that having been dragged by Ishaya Audu, thankfully, into science education, enabled me to broaden my outlook and touch so many bases. The next second choice would have been an academic professor in Physics or Chemistry. But again, it wouldn’t have been as applicable to helping the society to rise and be known, and to offer services.
So, being an educationist has provided me the platform where I can do so many things and meet many people.