Ade Adepitan: ‘At Sydney my dad saw me playing basketball for the first time. That’s when he got it’

The wheelchair basketball player and Paralympics presenter talks about moving from Nigeria to the UK when he was three and being estranged from his parents for several years

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.

• Ade presents Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympic Games, live from Rio, from 7 September and New York: America’s Busiest City, Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC2

Interview by Susan Gray

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
David Gower: ‘School was a lifeline when my dad was seriously ill’
The former cricketer and commentator talks about being an only child, growing up in Africa and how his dad helped him to remain so calm (though less so playing tennis)

Interview by Lucy Benyon

19, Aug, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Damon Hill: ‘I worshipped my father but when he died I had a chance to be myself’
The former F1 driver talks about his father, Graham Hill, sibling rivalry, his quartet of formidable great aunts and his bowels-obsessed grandma

Interview by Donna Ferguson

23, Sep, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Michael Douglas: ‘Kirk was film star first, father second’
The actor talks about his parents divorcing, his famous father, and being much more hands-on in his own second marriage

Interview by Richard Barber

07, Oct, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Tony Bennett: ‘I can’t say my wife and I didn’t notice the 40-year age gap when we met’
The singer recalls his parents’ generosity and the most important lesson his mother taught him: to hold out for quality

Interview by Angela Wintle

12, May, 2017 @11:59 AM

Article image
Naga Munchetty: When I said I was studying English, my mum said, ‘What are you going to do – become a poet?’
The BBC presenter talks about her strict childhood and how she and her husband find playing golf together is great for their relationship

Interview by Joanna Moorhead

17, Jun, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Christian O’Connell: ‘If I had a time machine, I’d go back like a shot to my childhood’
The radio DJ talks about his excitement at getting a BMX one Christmas, having an Indian granny, and why the little moments with his kids are the best

Interview by Camilla Palmer

15, Sep, 2017 @11:59 AM

Article image
Patti Boulaye: ‘My mother hid up to 30 people at a time in our house’
The singer talks about her childhood in Nigeria during the Biafran war, her parents’ separation and her own 40-year marriage

Interview by Roz Lewis

03, Jun, 2016 @12:00 PM

Article image
Levi Roots: ‘My parents moved to Britain when I was four. I didn’t see them again until I was 11’
The chef and musician recalls the day his parents left Jamaica for England, how he rejoined them in south London seven years later and how he got his love of cooking from his grandparents

Interview by Katherine Hassell

21, Jul, 2017 @12:00 PM

Article image
Nitin Sawhney: ‘My cousin won Miss Universe when I got nominated for the Mercury prize. She had to trump me’
The musician and composer recalls a music-filled childhood and growing up as the only Asian child in his class

Interview by Donna Ferguson

14, Jul, 2017 @11:59 AM

Article image
June Sarpong: ‘I have been a daddy’s girl my whole life. When he moved to the US, it was a shock’
The presenter talks about growing up in a London working-class community, her parents’ divorce and the importance of education in Ghanaian culture

Adeline Iziren

28, Oct, 2016 @12:00 PM