The founder of the popular Whispering Palms resort at Badagry, Lagos State speaks about its beginnings, and the country’s arts and hospitality industry.
Dressed in a faded beach shirt, brown trouser, boots and fez cap, Prof. Olufemi Pearse’s nondescript appearance would make you take him for an old hired hand instead of the owner of Whispering Palms Resort, Badagry, conceived 36 years ago but which opened its doors to guests a decade later.
Witty and quick to poke fun at himself, the 85-year-old retired professor of medicine is delighted that the objectives of the resort have been realised, especially since people didn’t think he would succeed.
“Our vision has been well realised. We are happy that we are making Nigerians happy. This is a beautiful country but we don’t seem to know it. We are showing Nigerians that it’s a beautiful country. When we came here in 1981, people said the man must be crazy. He’s a professor; he has read too many books, he doesn’t know how to spend money. He’s wasting money in this bush but now they say something different. It’s a matter of mission fulfilled for us.”
Back then, academics are not known to be wealthy, so how did he acquire the resort’s expansive land?
“In 1980, I won election to be Provost of the College of Medicine, University of Lagos and University of Lagos had trouble with their Vice Chancellor [Prof Babatunde] Adadevoh, who was removed; the Deputy Vice-Chancellor was removed, the Registrar was removed by government and six other professors were removed. According to the statute of the University of Lagos, in the absence of the Vice Chancellor or the Deputy Vice Chancellor, the Provost of the College of Medicine is next to govern the university.
“So I was to have three positions; acting Vice Chancellor of the University of Lagos; Provost, College of Medicine and Chief Medical Director, Lagos University Teaching Hospital. Now, that would be three jobs for one pay so I told my wife one night, ‘iku ti de’, death has come. We must have a retreat or else we will die on these three jobs. In January 1981, I started looking for land. I decided to work very hard from Mondays to Fridays; Saturdays and Sundays were free days to look for the retreat because I made up my mind that I would not die on the three jobs. That was how this place started. We are very happy; what gives us fulfilment is that we can make Nigerians happy. Many people don’t realise that the very essence of governance is to make the people happy.”
Funding the billion naira project, expectedly, was not a piece of cake as he reveals: “We sold our houses in Lagos in order to build this place; we sold our houses and land in Agbara in order to concentrate on this place. I told my wife, there’s no point having too many houses in Lagos or Agbara. Let’s put everything in one place so that we can supervise it. We used to live at Agbara but we sold the house for N24 million because I told her going back to Agbara at night is risky. I said let’s sell the house, put the money into this place. That’s what we did to survive and of course we had some stocks which we also used to finance this place but even then the finance was not enough.”
From that humble root, Whispering Palms has since become a popular get-away for couples on honeymoon, pre-wedding photo shoots, companies and organisations who appreciate quality.
Prof. Pearse, whose father was also a medical doctor laughs heartily when asked if there’s a master plan for the resort.
“When you don’t have too much money, you can’t have a master plan. Government can have master plan but here everything depends on what is in your pocket,” he says still laughing. “Master plan can be developed when you have big capital or maybe you have stolen big government money and you want to do something huge. But when you are doing something for pleasure, it’s a day-by-day event. We thank God that our ideas have come out as if we had a big master plan. We had no master plan; all we wanted was something for the family and ourselves. Later, we changed and decided to open it up to the people because it was getting more expensive to maintain even that time. But we have no regrets in the sense that we’ve opened it up to people to enjoy themselves. To keep Nigerians happy is our mission and we are happy we have fulfilled that mission.”
Though there are palms around the get-away, they are neither whispering nor talking. So why did he chose to name it Whispering Palms?
He explains that it’s the name of a resort he and his family stayed when they went on a trip to Kenya and the Copper Belt. Though his children wanted North America and Europe, they were eventually very happy with the choice of Africa after the trip.
“We went to Kenya, Mombasa. There was the Indian Ocean and we stayed at Whispering Palms for three or four nights; it was a German resort. We went to Maasai Mara to see the animals, to Zimbabwe to see Zambezi Falls and the artificial lake; we also went to the area known as the Copper Belt. We returned to Nigeria and I was happy that I had a good time. My children, who were previously abusing me for not taking them to North America and Europe, started praising me that it was the best trip of their lives. I told them that Africa is beautiful; it’s just that we have bush men, bush politicians running Africa; that’s why everything is upside down.”
Back in June when we had our chat, Nigeria had not officially exited recession and the doctor, whose mother was a teacher, youth leader and politician discloses that the resort, like the wider hospitality industry, was also feeling its effects.
“All the big companies making profit don’t come regularly anymore because they want to save money. Previously, we used to have a lot of companies here. At least once a month we had a big company having retreats .Now you don’t see that anymore because the country is dry; dry in every way,” he says.
Apart from the beautiful structures and games at Whispering Palms, there are also several artworks, a museum, mini zoo, and an exhibition space for Hodonu, underscoring Prof Pearse’s love of the arts. Though his interest in the arts is innate, it’s also acquired as he explains: “You are doing a hard job in the university, a thinking job and one of the ways to relax is to appreciate the arts. Then, my wife used to be Human Resources Manager of Gulf Oil and Chevron. Whenever expatriates were going home, on retirement, leave or secondment, she would have to organise presents for them; Benin bronzes and things like that. That helped us to acquire a lot of artworks and appreciate them too.”
Having invested a significant amount of his life in hospitality and the arts, it’s not surprising that Prof Pearse’s wants more for the sector and the country.
“Nigeria has a lot of beautiful facilities but before we can do much, we need to develop domestic tourism. If foreigners know you are happy in your country, foreigners will like to share in that happiness. If we do not succeed with domestic tourism, we won’t succeed with international tourism,” he warns as the interview ends.