Remembering David Oluwale: the Nigerian man who was the target of police abuse

  • David Oluwale was a homeless man in Leeds found dead in the River Aire
  • Oladipo Agboluaje spoke to students on Oluwale's life and his play The Hounding of David Oluwale
  • In an exclusive interview, Agboluaje speaks to the Northern Quota about racism, homelessness and mental illness

During the first glimmers of summer in 1969, David Oluwale experienced what would be his final breath of the Leeds air he loved so dearly. 

A Nigerian man who emigrated to England with hopes of being a tailor but could not find his fit, his story is one that still resonates today.

One such person is Oladipo Agboluaje, 49, a Hackney-born playwright of Nigerian descent who adapted a biography written about David Oluwale into a theatre production – The Hounding of David Oluwale – which aired in 2009 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. 

At an MMU event on Thursday,  Agboluaje spoke of Oluwale, his life and the play as part of  Black History Month.

The very first slide in his presentation quite aptly fit all of the known facts of a man who has been mostly forgotten. 

He introduced Oluwale in a few short sentences: “There aren’t many details we know about David’s life. We only know that he arrived in England in September 1949 after sneaking onto a cargo ship headed for Hull, then found himself between sleeping on the streets and incarcerated in a mental asylum,” 

What happened to David was terrible. It was a prolonged denial of this man’s right to be here. It was a systematic hounding.

Oluwale was found dead, drudged out of the River Aire, in the early morning of 4 May, 1969. His death was not considered to be suspicious by the police or the coroner but, in October of the same year, rumours within the police circulated that Oluwale had been the victim of “systemic, varied and brutal” violence by at least two officers.

This led to an independent investigation by Scotland Yard which resulted in two officers, former Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker – who was already serving a prison sentence for his involvement in the cover-up of the police’s murder of a 69-year-old woman – and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching being convicted of assault and being sentenced to three years and 27 months in prison respectively. 

In Agboluaje’s play, Oluwale is both in the scenes and commenting on them as they happen, like a ghost re-visiting their life. He is seen actively speaking to the Scotland Yard inspector and setting the record straight. 

“I wanted David to tell his own story. The problem has always been the fact that other people get to tell the stories of marginalised people. We never hear the voices of those people themselves,” said Oladipo.

“So I thought in 2009 that it would be wrong to tell the story naturalistically because it would mean that at some point in the story David would die and he wouldn’t be there anymore, therefore he wouldn’t be the central focus of the story.”

Oluwale was a homeless man, a man who spent a decade in mental asylums, who found himself lost and forgotten in a place he called home. 

Oladipo added: “Most of the official records, where most of the information we have of him is found, say mostly negative things. He was seen as a vagrant, mentally ill. He was seen as a criminal,

“This was like David coming back and telling his side of the story, bearing witness to his own life. The idea of him coming back as a ghost and looking over the events that happened in his life and commenting on them is done so he’s telling this story to the investigating officer who is trying to piece together David’s life.”

When Agboluaje first read Kester Aspden’s The Hounding of David Oluwale he was immediately hit with rage. A feeling some of the actors would mirror during rehearsals, with one actor struggling to continue due to the vehement nature of the scenes. His exasperation only grew as he wondered how he had failed to know about Oluwale’s life. He tells me he would ask his aunts and mother about him:

“Did you ever hear of a man named David Oluwale?”

“He was the man who drowned? Why do you care? Why do you care now?”

He said: “My impetus to write was anger, I think I needed that anger or I would have broken down myself. To read about these things that happened to a person who wasn’t just Nigerian, but also Yoruba like myself, a person who came from the same place my father did. My father might have known this person.

“Thinking about other Nigerians who’ve been in a similar situation, for me it was a no-brainer to write this. This could have been me or anyone I knew. Writing this was difficult because it was so emotional. This is the most emotional piece I’ve ever written.”

There are many parallels between Oluwale and Agboluaje. Beyond their Yoruba origins, they both felt British.

After being prompted to answer where he was from, he joked that he “doesn’t really know. I feel British. I feel Nigerian. It depends on who is asking”.

Oluwale never gave up on Leeds. Repeatedly he was reprimanded in the town centre by policemen who would then drive five to six miles away from the city and drop him off. He would walk back to where he called home every single time. We know this because each time he was told to leave the city, then forcibly deposited outside of it, he would return to file a police report. He believed it was his right to live in Leeds and that eventually he would become part of the community. 

The issue of society’s attitude towards homelessness is both serious and contemporary. More than 250,000 are homeless in the UK according to a study done last year by Shelter, and over 4,000 people are said to be homeless in Manchester

Agboluaje reflects on the unpredictability of life: “Some people might think it was a moral failure from that [homeless] person. And if you’ve not been in that person’s shoes you can’t know how someone can move from having a home to being on the streets.

“The first thing to do is to get rid of that judgmental nature. It can happen to anyone. No one chooses to be homeless. It’s circumstances. And we live in a society where more and more these circumstances are becoming more pronounced.”

Playwright Oladipo Agboluaje in 2010

Oluwale found himself on a similar boat. He was the only black person in the town at a time where Africans were seen as a different species, a lesser species. He wasn’t afforded the opportunity to flourish, Agboluaje tells the auditorium of students. Being different was an insurmountable gap in 1969.

“The idea is that you come to a country and there is a certain way of behaving, a certain way of doing things. For instance, a Muslim who says he won’t drink when drinking is a big part of the culture is already living differently,” he told me. 

“I don’t think something like this can ever go away, the question is what choice does that person have? Assimilate or segregate. There is a sense of these people living dual lives where in the public sphere they project a British like identity, they change the way they dress and talk.”

Oluwale’s story is one of the tragic and unremitting dehumanising of a human being. His memory is still a difficult one for Agboluaje to revisit, but an important one nonetheless. In tackling the harsh realities with empathy, he believes society can heal itself:

“I think the arts can humanise these stories. The author of the book found information from records and documents that don’t tell you anything about the life of a person. As to how this person felt it doesn’t tell you anything. The arts are very good at representing flesh. That’s why it’s so important to tell these kinds of stories,” he said.

“David’s story is one out of many, almost every day every month, hardly a month goes by without some other atrocity happening to another human being from police enforcement or by the state or by other people. So the arts can shine a light on these issues and also see them as more complex than they are. Because a lot of people see them as black and white but the arts can find common ground, our common humanity. It’s about creating a dialogue from opposing sides. About how we as human beings can live together.”

He leaves me with a little bit of Yoruba wisdom. Speaking on the circular nature of African religions, where a God doesn’t tower above man, but rather man, the unborn, and our ancestors rely on each other for sustenance. In Yoruba there is a saying, when translated states: “without man, there is no God”, so even Gods are reliant on humans co-existing. 

“In the Yoruba world view it can incorporate a Western way of thinking because it is entered into this world. Instead of saying this is white and this is black we say this can become something else,

“That circular way of thinking doesn’t allow for a hard and fast view of the world. That all white people are one way, all black people are one way. It allows you to move fluidly and create an imaginative space where you’re not rooted in one or another.”

Agboluaje still hopes that his play is revived so that more people can know what happened to David Oluwale