Recap: In Part 1, we saw some of the joys and pains of early childhood in a polygamous family. Part 2 takes us on my journey through primary school.
PART 2: In the Beginning (contd)
My father ensured that my elder sisters went to school. All three of them attended and passed out of Uromi Girls’ Primary School (fondly called Girls’ School) located along Convent Road, just about a hundred metres from our home. But that was where school ended for them. For girls from wealthier and more enlightened homes, it was almost guaranteed that they would proceed to Our Lady of Lourdes Girls Grammar School (Our Lady’s for short), also around the upper end of Convent Road, a couple of hundred metres from our home. Many young children, and the not too young alike, used to line up along Convent Road on Sunday mornings to catch a glimpse of the ‘angelic’ Our Lady’s students, always beautifully turned out in immaculate white gowns and blue scarves, chaplets around their necks and their ‘European’ reverend sisters in tow, as they marched to St. Anthony’s Catholic Church for mass.
Other girls who did not make it to secondary school almost always proceeded into early marriages after learning a trade, mostly sewing, if they were so lucky. The second option was the lot of my three elder sisters, though the eldest one later went back to enroll at Agba Grammar School Uromi and obtained her secondary school certificate in her thirties.
Many did not believe their eyes when they saw her in school uniform and in class with children almost the age of her own kids. It was from her that I first learnt that it’s never too late to pursue your dream and that it doesn’t matter what people think or say about you; what matters is what you think and make of yourself. With exceptional focus and determination, she went through secondary school and passed in brilliant colours.
My father’s decision not to send my elder sisters to secondary school was not for lack of the means to do so, as much as the misconception rife among the uneducated then, that it was unwise to send female children to school as their husbands would be the beneficiaries of their education. For this reason some did not even send their daughters to primary school.
I went to the defunct St. Michael’s Primary School, which was later merged with Idumun-Egenlan Primary School. Before then, I enjoyed the ‘First Son’ privilege of attending a nursery school not far from our house. It wasn’t in the mould of modern nursery schools. In fact, it was called Garri School. That alias derived from the practice by most of the children who attended the school, (as I realised later) of coming with garri in their pockets and putting tiny handfuls of the stuff in their mouths to assuage the pangs of hunger. Much of what was done at the school was play, eat, play again and recite a few nursery rhymes.
Primary school was a different ball game. Somehow, despite my smallish size, I managed to pass the selection test which consisted of putting your hand over your head to touch the ear on the other side of the head. Those who could not touch their ears were considered too small for primary school. Till today I have no idea who invented that ‘apartheid’ procedure which kept those who could not touch their ears at home for at least another year.
St. Michael’s was also known as Afuda Primary School. As I remember it, the classrooms had very sparse furniture. Pupils were made to bring their own furniture from home. Parents who could afford it made two-in-one seats (table and chair combined) for their children and these the children carried to and from school every day to prevent the items from being stolen from the classrooms with perpetually open windows. Some of the pupils came to school with their mother’s wrappers tied around their bodies and knotted at the back of the neck until they were able to afford school uniforms.
I did not particularly like going to Afuda Primary School. Some of my friends who attended Government School, right next to the Royal Palace and St Anthony’s (later Okpuje) Primary School opposite the Catholic Church in the heart of town had fancy stories to tell about their schools and I wondered why my father did not send me there. I found out later that he did not like the idea of having to cross the ever busy tarred road traversing the town to get to those schools. Private and commercial vehicles, including those going to the North from the East and vice versa, were constantly plying that road. Clearly, the man did not want to stake the life of his precious first son in such a risky venture.
Another thing I did not like about my primary school was the regular manual labour. Aside from clearing the field from time to time with almost blunt slender cutlasses, pupils were also made to repair the fence surrounding the school. This fence was made of bamboos tied together with ropes. Pupils had to fetch these bamboos and ropes from the bushes and those who could not submit good materials got a hiding. Those of us from ‘town’ were always at the receiving end of such punishments for we were not as used to the bushes as those pupils from the surrounding villages that always brought the best materials.
It was also taboo to get late to school. The punishment for that consisted of hot strokes of the cane from the Headmaster that left you sitting with one side of your bum for the rest of the day – depending on which side got the hottest strokes. Unfortunately, many pupils always turned up late, especially on cold mornings when it would take their mothers some time to get them to rise from their beds or mats, some time to cajole or force them to have their bath, and some more time to finish their breakfast if there was any.
For me, and many others, breakfast consisted mainly of leftover pounded yam from the previous evening’s supper, which was deliberately kept aside by our mothers for that purpose. Otherwise, when you were lucky, you got some pennies to buy akara on your way to school. That too contributed to the lateness as, sometimes, you had to wait on a queue for the akara to be ready and if you were unlucky it would be finished before it got to your turn. For lunch, we almost always had boiled yam or cocoyam with bitterleaf sauce or palm oil and salt. Where these were not available we settled for boiled bobozi (cassava) chips with palm kernel or drank garri and hoped there would be supper.
According to Chinua Achebe, Eneke the bird soon learned to fly without perching when the hunter mastered the art of shooting without missing. In like manner, some habitual latecomers soon learned to load their buttocks with one or two shorts underneath the school knickers to reduce the impact of the headmaster’s cane. But that did not fool the headmaster for long as those who overdid it gave the game away. The headmaster undressed a particular bully before the whole school one morning to reveal a set of dirty tattered underpants, to the delight of his victims. What the headmaster did next got everyone, including the unremorseful bully laughing, at least for a while. He told the bully to put back on his knickers and invited the head boy to give him six strokes of the cane on the buttocks. Each stroke landed with a ‘puaa!’ sound. At the end of the head boy’s flogging, there was a sneer on the bully’s face. Then, in a dramatic twist, the headmaster instructed the bully to undress to his last underwear. He took the cane from the head boy and administered six mean doses of it on the bully’s buttocks. This time, the ‘puaa!’ sound changed to ‘tuaa!’ and the sneer on his face turned to tears.
In spite of the headmaster’s whipping, there were days that I preferred to get late to school, especially when I was in Primary Five. Those were the days on which we did Arithmetic (or Mathematics) test. Usually, it was the first exercise on such days and our teacher would tell us the day before to prepare for it.
Somehow, our teacher expected us to be as clever as he was. He would give the exact number of strokes of the cane as the number of sums each pupil failed. As I was very good at failing a sizeable number of Arithmetic questions, I reckoned that the Headmaster’s hiding for late-coming was a much better bargain than the Arithmetic teacher’s flogging, for a couple of reasons. First, his cane, the strong and flexible type used in making cane chairs, was bigger than the Headmaster’s. Secondly, this sadist of a teacher (as I saw him then – I’m trying hard to remember his name), would not flog you on the palm of your hand or your bum like others. He would make you lie on a bench and thrash the sole of your feet in such a way that you would tip-toe for a long time after and be automatically sidelined from playing soccer that day. And I loved to play soccer in the evenings. That was the genesis of my woeful performance in Mathematics through primary and even secondary school where Mathematics was the only subject I could not pass with distinction or credit in my WASCE.
On the contrary, I loved English Language. My Reader was a constant companion. I found the stories in the Readers quite exciting and would commit them to memory effortlessly. I recall some of those stories began with “The Lion was ill and did not go out for three days….” “Mr Dauda was a trader…,” etc. And of course, there was the poem ‘My Mother’ which could also be rendered as a song, and part of which has somehow never left my head:
Who sat and watched my infant head
When sleeping on my cradle bed
And tears of sweet affection shed?
When pain and sickness made me cry
Who gazed upon my heavy eye
And wept for fear that I should die?
That is as far as I can remember. By the way, more than half of the class back then grumbled and fumbled through the remaining stanzas but always ended up with My mother; like this:
Hunhan hanhan hanhun hunhun
Hanhun hunhan hanhan hanhan
Hunhun hunhan henhen hanhan
I also loved handwriting tests because they came with prizes. There were these siblings in my class – Michael and Charles – who always succeeded in displacing me from the top spot in those tests. But I did manage to get the prize of a colourful fountain pen with a bottle of Quink ink once. I recall with nostalgia how we used to blacken our slates with a solution of charcoal or squeezed Awolowo leaves (chromolaena odoranta). Ever before we started using ink, there was this funny habit of begging the senior pupils to stain our uniform with ink just to give the impression that we were in a senior class too.
My enthusiasm for school took a knock when Afuda Primary school was merged with Idumun-Egenlan Primary School. I think the merger must have been for safety reasons among others because soon after, the building fell apart and much later, practically melted out of existence. The development meant that I now had to trek a longer distance to and from school. The only consolation was the fact that my mother’s family house was located midway between the old school and the new. I began to look forward to closing time when I would stop over at the compound on my way home. It was a relief to drink very cold water from the earthen pots that served as refrigerators, especially on hot sunny days. But that was not the main attraction. Behind the main house and the cluster of huts that made up the compound was a vast orchard. My mother’s foster father (her father died when she was an infant) and the several uncles in the compound used to indulge me with fruits from the orchard. My favourite were ripe pinkish pepper fruits. On account of this, I had many friends – more of escorts really. That was when I learned trade by barter long before I heard of the subject called Economics. I would exchange my pepper fruits for some Tom Tom, Nico sweets or Goody Goody, which only ‘rich’ kids could afford. I especially loved goody goody for its sweet taste and the way it used to stick to the teeth, which made it chewable. I recall the lines of its advert were something like: “Goody-goody; so chewy chewy, so goody goody .” To most of us, candies were a bit of a luxury. Rather, we preferred to spend the pennies we got for snacks once in a while on more stomach-filling snacks like mukaka biscuits and groundnuts.
As the saying goes, everything with a beginning has an end. Primary school eventually came to an end and it was time to go to college….
Watch out for Part 3.
Excerpt: The news that I had gained admission into St. John Bosco’s College spread like bush fire in the dry season. For one, it was one of the ‘big’ schools in those days. Secondly, I was really small in size then and the feat, in the imagination of many, especially some bigger peers who were not so lucky, was akin to David defeating Goliath. The way my admission was celebrated, you would have thought I had gained admission from Idumun-Egenlan Primary School Uromi to Oxford University London. The icing on the cake was that I was going to boarding school. The distance from home and the cost of boarding school made some parents to not send their children there even when they passed. But my father had made up his mind that since he did not go to school, his first son must not miss out for any reason. So, to boarding school I went though he could ill afford it.
The real thrill, for me, began with shopping for school. The admission letter came with a long list of ‘Things to buy’, most of them things I never imagined I would own in the foreseeable future.
What were these ‘wonderful’ things? Check them out in Part 3.
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