I used to have a recurring dream about trees. In 2006, when my father, Ajibola Olusola, passed away, at 69, we took him back to Nigeria to bury him. When we were driving to his village from the airport, I saw the trees from my dream. They must have been the last thing I saw in Nigeria before we came to the UK when I was a young child.
I contracted polio at 15 months, while my dad was in the UK studying. My mum, Christianah Adejoke, didn’t know whether to tell him or not, but her relatives persuaded her to write a letter. Immediately he said, “Let’s formulate a plan to get Ade to the UK.” But they couldn’t afford to bring my older sister Omoyile over as well.
It’s hard to fathom all the disruption in my parents’ life, moving from Nigeria to Plaistow, east London, in 1976 – as a three-year-old it all goes over your head. My younger sister Adeola was born in 1978, and my younger brother Adeolu came along the following year. Omoyile is 18 months older than me.
My parents’ qualifications weren’t valid in the UK, which was a shame because they come from a family of teachers. But my dad said that to have been a black teacher in the East End in the 1970s and 80s would have been really difficult. At my school, the one black teacher had a really hard time. I would have hated my parents going through that.
My mum’s sister stayed with us for a year and I remember a 10-year period between 1976 and the mid 80s where every weekend we would visit family for a Nigerian party. It was a lot of fun.
Omoyile rejoined the family in 1986 when we’d been in the UK about 10 years – we were teenagers. She has Down’s syndrome, but I never realised until she came here. She’s really cool, very forthright in her views. I see a lot of her. Independent living is something we’ve been working on for my older sister because at some point, sadly, mum, who is 66 now, won’t be around to look after her.
My dad was a bit of a comedian and used to think he was funny in a “dad way”, which I’ll probably inherit. As it was his birthday on 1 October, he used to say it was a day of national celebration and the whole of Nigeria used to celebrate. At 13 I realised it was actually National Independence Day.
I left home just after I turned 17 because my parents wanted me to take up a profession. I told them I was going to become a professional wheelchair basketball player. My dad was quite angry: “We’ve made all these sacrifices and left our family in Nigeria to give you a better life, and you’re throwing it away.”
After my 21st birthday I went to Spain to play professional wheelchair basketball. My dad wasn’t at my birthday – we didn’t reconcile until I was 26 – but we were talking tentatively. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics my dad saw me on television for the first time playing basketball. That’s when he got it.
When I was estranged from my parents I could have bumped into them at any time. In his mid-50s, my dad achieved his dream to buy a house in Stratford. I lived about a mile away – they never knew.
When we started to reconcile, I made the mistake of giving my mum a spare key. There were some embarrassing moments when my mum came into the house when I was in with girlfriends. Really embarrassing – let’s leave it there.