In celebration of Black History Month alumnus Tola Makanjuola (MSc Innovation Entrepreneurship & Management 2014) interviewed his grandfather, one of the engineers who was responsible for the structural design of the expansion of Imperial College London, South Kensington campus in the 1950s. Michael Oladosu Alabi is pictured above, third from right (standing) with Nigerian staff of Ove Arup Partners 1959.
Setting the scene
My grandfather is one of those rare souls with the capacity to sustain the same level of optimal energy for decades. Literally. For as long as I can remember, he has extended the same greeting towards me with the same humorous and energetic delivery, “ATOOLA! Man about the house, how are you?” Why did he place an ‘a’ in front of my name and stress the ‘o’? That’s a good question, one that’s never really crossed my mind till now. I tend not read too much into certain things, especially my grandparents’ idiosyncrasies. Why question an obvious outpouring of love?
Fast forward to COVID in 2020, and I’m trying to gauge the extent to which my grandfather’s irritation with my beard would manifest itself. I’d spoken to him on video call on a number of occasions, and he never failed to point out that I needed to shave my face. A couple of months prior to our meeting on the 30 September, he had refused to chat with me because I showed up on screen with a face yet unshaven. Why is the 30 of September so signiﬁcant? Well, Imperial College London had approached me to write a contributing article for Black History Month. It didn’t take me too long to ﬁgure out I could write a feature on my grandfather, Michael Oladosu Alabi, who was on the structural engineering team that constructed the Imperial College London building in South Kensington in the mid to late 50s.
I’m grocery shopping, and I get a call from my mum, and she happened to be with my granddad. As good luck would have it, I had a face mask on, a societally mandatory requirement when in a supermarket. This not only oﬀered protection from COVID, but protection for my still unshaven face from the ire of my grandad. My mum handed the phone to my grandfather, who picked up on my good fortune right away, but didn’t dwell on it. I put forth my request, from behind my mask, and secured the date of the 30 September for the interview.
It didn’t take me too long to ﬁgure out I could write a feature on my grandfather, Michael Oladosu Alabi, who was on the structural engineering team that constructed the Imperial College London building in South Kensington in the mid to late 50s.
Time for the big reveal
It’s the day of the interview. I had thought sporadically over the course of the week about what my grandfather’s reaction would be when he would inevitably ask me to remove my mask. Culturally, it was incomprehensible that I would engage with him if he took issue to my evergreen facial hair, except with a smile. Nigerians heritage and all that it pertains, respect for older people is paramount. But I wasn’t going to shave.
I’m at his door at 13:30. He opens, and the eternal greeting rings loud, “ATOOLA, how are you?” We chat for a bit, and I help him with a few things (he’s 87). Then it was time for the big unveiling. “Oh Tola, you can take your mask oﬀ, you don’t need that”. I take oﬀ my mask...and he doesn’t assess my burning bush of a face for a fraction of a second. I don’t question his non-reaction, but between us, I was mildly relieved.