In the month of June, 2011, Africa lost one of its most illustrious psychiatrists. Tolani Asuni was born in central Lagos on the sixth of January, 1924 into a small family with a typically large network of extended family relationships. From all accounts he was a rambunctious youth with a penchant for displaying careless brilliance, and defying established order. The title of his memoirs, published in 2009 - ‘Memoirs of a Good Bad Boy’ comes from an incident in which a Civil Servant who had observed him on his escapades offered him the assessment that he was a ‘bad boy’, and he would amount to no good. It gave him great pleasure to go up to this man on the eve of his departure for the United Kingdom, to inform him that he had been offered a place to study Medicine in Trinity College, Dublin. ‘You are a good bad boy’, the older man conceded.
For some reason, this description of himself seemed to make a powerful impression on Tolani Asuni. Indeed his life-story is a remarkable tale of powerful insights and frequent displays of unconventional behaviour.
In 1945, at the tail end of the Second World War, he set out by sea with a group of other youths to study Medicine in Dublin. There were already a certain number of Nigerians that he knew studying and working in places like Liverpool, Edinburgh and Dublin, and he took pains to link up with familiar faces in order to prevent feeling a sense of alienation.
His bent for psychological issues was evident from his student days in Dublin. He joined the Monkstown Group, a saturday evening group run by Jonathan Hanaghan, a man who had been psychoanalysed by someone who had himself been analysed by Sigmund Freud. The group met regularly to discuss matters of Philosophy and Psychology. It stuck in Tolani’s mind that participating in such a group helped people to transcend some of the shibboleths of their environment. He could recall how a member - an Irishman, celebrated the fact that he was able to attend a Protestant Church for the funeral service of a friend of his, despite the strict injunction of his Catholic Church against having anything to do with Protestants or their places of worship.
Among his adventurous forays during his student days was a bicycle tour of France with a fellow student, and an expedition to the Northwest Territory of Ireland in a rickety car with a group of his mates.
On graduating and concluding his horsemanship at the Royal City of Dublin Hospital, he took up an appointment at General Hospital, Lagos in 1953. There followed a succession of postings to places such as Oyo and Shagamu. In 1955, he was posted to Badagry, a riverine community on the western edge of Nigeria.
A chance meeting at the Badagry beach with Dr Adeoye Lambo, the first Nigerian psychiatrist who had by then taken up appointment at the Aro Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Abeokuta led to an offer of sponsorship for postgraduate training in Psychiatry. He accepted the offer, and he was posted to Aro to work with Lambo to gain experience. When Lambo travelled to conduct a study on Nigerian students in the UK, Dr Raymond Prince from Canada came over to hold fort, and Asuni worked under him for one year, a period that was recognised as part of his training when he eventually got to the Institute of Psychiatry, Maudsley in 1957. The teachers who made a powerful impression on him at the Maudsley included Sir Aubrey Lewis and Dr Linford Rees. Since his studies antedated the creation of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the qualifications he obtained from this era were the Diploma of Psychological Medicine, and an MD, for which he wrote a thesis on Child Psychiatry.
In 1960, he returned to Aro. It was at this time that Dr Leighton and his colleagues came over and formed a team with him and Dr Lambo to carry out the Aro-Cornell study. The result was published in the 1963 book ‘Psychiatric Disorder Among the Yoruba’. Asuni played a principal role in organising the 1st Pan-African Psychiatric Conference which was hosted in Abeokuta in 1961 by Lambo. It was an audacious venture, as Abeokuta had no formal hospitality resources of any sort at the time. Foreign visitors were accommodated in the hospital and in people’s homes in town. It was a massively successful conference that helped to place Aro on the world map of Psychiatry. In attendance were Prof Aubrey Lewis, Prof Russell Brain, Prof Alex Leighton, and a rich selection of psychiatrists from across the globe, as well as virtually all the psychiatrists practising in Africa.
Asuni presented a paper on ‘Suicide in Africa’ which was so well received that Aubrey Lewis took him aside and said ‘I hope you will publish it, and not in an obscure journal’.
The paper was eventually published, without change, in the British Medical Journal in 1962.
For Asuni various honours followed.
The Association of Psychiatrists in Africa was inaugurated in Mauritius in 1970. Asuni was elected its first President. In the same year, he became the Associated Secretary of the World Psychiatric Association in Mexico City.
He was a Chief Collaborating Officer in the WHO-sponsored International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia.
In 1971, he organised a workshop of the new Association of Psychiatrists in Africa in Abeokuta on the theme ‘Psychosis in Africa’.
He became a member of the UN Committee on Crime Prevention and Control.
In 1978, he was appointed Director of United Nations Social Defence Research Institute in Rome.
He continued to be active in the prosecution of his passions beyond his retirement from the academic community. He volunteered his service for the running of the Majidun Rehabilitation Centre, a centre on the outskirts of Lagos built for the treatment and rehabilitation of roadside destitutes, many of whom suffer from psychiatric syndromes. He also gave his support to NGOs working in the areas of Drug Abuse, Disability and Criminology.
The launching of his memoirs in 2009 was a major event in Lagos, presenting an opportunity for a younger generation of Nigerian psychiatrists to meet and interact with Tolani Asuni and to show their sense of the debt of gratitude they owed to him as a teacher and mentor. He had not lost any of the sparkle, and there was still a glint of the rebellious streak.
Tolani Asuni died on the 21st of June, 2011. He was buried in Lagos according to Muslim rites two days later. On the 28th of June, 2011, a Celebration of Life was held in his honour at the Yoruba Tennis Club, Lagos. May his soul rest in peace.
– OLUFEMI OLUGBILE
A year on, haven’t stopped missing you.
I miss the discussions and debates we used to have. You are a driving force in my career and I couldn’t be more thankful to have had an influence like you in my life, I just hope that one day I can achieve half as much as you did.