It was dance that brought them together, far away on a dance floor in London. He was from Nigeria while she was from Scotland. He was 20 years older yet the age gap never stopped the teenage girl from being captivated by the dance steps of the doctor-to-be from Nigeria.
Whatever dance craze was sweeping English ballrooms in 1952, the Nigerian seemed to be good at it. The Scottish lady was hooked for good and their relationship began from there.
That is the brief story of Dr. Jameson Akintola Maja-Pearce and Mrs. Marion Donalda Pearce (nee Cameron) on how they met in London, as told by their eldest child, writer and journalist, Adewale Maja-Pearce.
Venue was the Maja-Pearce’s out-of-the-way, tidy, pink storey building in a quiet Close, Off Falolu Street in Surulere where you seldom hear motorists tooting their horns needlessly. The occasion was the double celebration of the lives of both father and mother.
Maja-Pearce worked as a medic for the colonial government before he left Nigeria to study ophthalmology at Moorefield’s Eye Hospital in London. On her part, Donalda, Scottish by birth, was a teenager who was training to become a nurse at the time.
From the dance floor where they first met, the relationship grew until they married. The union was fraught with difficulties from the start.
First, Donalda’s father opposed because he feared that if his daughter eventually relocated to Nigeria, she would be prone to tropical diseases such as malaria. Second, she was underage and couldn’t marry legally in London. What to do? The pair eloped to Gretna Green in Scotland where they were legally married.
With four children between them – Anthony Adewale, Robert Akinbiyi, Martin Olatunde and Marion Ella Yetunde – Dr. Maja-Pearce and his young wife lived, at different times, in Lagos and London. But the Scottish woman was always irresistibly drawn to Nigeria.
For her, in the words of her first child, “Nigeria was an exotic alternative to the austerities of post-war Britain where everything was rationed.”
On Donalda’s first visit to Lagos, for example, “she spoke about disembarking at the Island and being immediately overwhelmed by the array of neatly arranged, brightly coloured fruits, many of which she had never seen before. She was also struck by the equally brightly coloured flowers.”
Like Paul Gauguin getting inspiration from the tropical brilliance of the flowers in Tahiti, Donalda was equally bowled over by the flowers in Lagos, and so began her lifelong passion with gardening.
Dr. Maja-Pearce and his wife died in the same month but on different days. He was 65 when he died in Lagos on November 20, 1981. His wife, nee Cameron, died 34 years later in London on November 11, 2015. She was 82.
Instead of having separate memorials, the children presumably settled on a double remembrance to hold on the same day. It couldn’t have been better planned, considering the select guest and the general ambience of the memorial itself.
It was Saturday afternoon last week. Just by the side of the storey building, a canopied tent had been erected, a buffet table behind it. Hung on the gate leading to the house was a photograph of the doctor and his wife, a visual reminder of the occasion at hand.
Also reminding guests of Donalda’s passion for gardening are the trees and flowers planted almost everywhere in the house, this time by Adewale, confessing that “my modest attempt at gardening wherever I have found myself began” at an extensive garden his mother cultivated at Ikoyi where the entire family lived at one time.
The host himself was in white, with a full moustache and tall like the man you saw earlier in the photograph but also light-skinned and pointy-nosed like the woman juxtaposed with the doctor. His wife, Juliet, a professional artist, also wore white. Both played the perfect host and hostess, welcoming guests, receiving family members and friends sometimes with a bow, a pat on the back, a shoulder touch or, in the case of Juliet, curtsying to senior relatives of the Maja-Pearce.
From tables and chairs covered with white, guests sat and dined, drank and carried on decent conversation. There were the regulars to any Maja-Pearce soiree, people like Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, a soul mate, Sticky, a school mate, Wale Olanipekun, a friend.
Among the guests was Alhaja Gbajamiamila, mother of House of Representatives Minority Leader, Hon. Wale Gbajamiamila. At 86, she exuded understated elegance, a grandmother whose youthful looks belied her. Next to her was a sister, and daughter, at 64, who reminded one of how her mother looked like at that age.
“What would you like to eat?” Adewale had asked me soon after I got there. Other guests were similarly asked as soon as they sat. From one corner near the entrance to the sitting room, a disc jockey plied the audience with respectably low music, low enough not to make you tilt your head to your table partner to hear him.
One of the qualities of a savvy DJ, Jimmy Jatts once told a biographer, is to know the age and read the mood of your audience. The DJ at the Maja-Pearce memorial did just that. Most of his selections were Old School, ranging from numbers by Shalamar to the Whispers, Kool & the Gang and Evelyn King, Lakeside and Michael Jackson, not to mention Prince and Lionel Ritchie.
“We grew up with these great compositions by these great artistes,” someone was overheard boasting to a table partner.
Veterans of soirees at the Maja-Pearce’s say there is never a shortage of alcohol. It was so on Saturday. Beers and wines appeared on tables as fast as they were drained. Two large drums were literarily brimming with liquor from where you could help yourself. Several male guests, including yours truly, made frequent trips to the drums.
Thus did the party continue till late in the evening, some people coming sober and clear-eyed but departing rather groggily and bleary-eyed. Most everyone liked the feeling and the camaraderie.
Typical of a Maja-Pearce party, there was something for departing guests, loaded take-away packs for others at home to celebrate the lives of two lovers whose paths crossed for the first time on a dance floor. For as Maja-Pearce himself mused, “all that is left to us, the living, is to attempt, however inadequately, to honour those who gave us this precious life.”