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Posts Tagged ‘african school life

the saga of a continent
by john otim

A figure from out there
In the placid days of our innocence when everyone high or low rode bicycles, Teacher on his bike was a distinctive figure on the land. Teacher was unmistakable in his neat white sleeves, khaki shorts, matching khaki stockings smartly pulled up. There was about him the look of a man in uniform.
               Teacher was a presence on the land. To wide eyed kids playing ball on the plains, kids for whom the world was heavenly, teacher was a hero. To the local community dancing in the soft lights of the moon, tending fertile plains by the day he was a figure from out there that they revered, that they consulted on all, on everything. Teacher was Teacher. 

"class in session"

wide eyed kids

               Those placid days a great African leader took for himself the title of Mwalimu, which in Swahili meant teacher. But Teacher was Teacher before the Mwalimu became the Mwalimu and the President of his country.

Let Peace Reign
There was a magical quality about the land in its green gentle contours. In the conical dwellings peasants lived in. In the song of the many rivers that crisscross the land. The colors of the morning, the peace of noon and the reveries of sunsets were sublime. No one said let peace reign. Peace just reigned. Where did peace come from? Who took peace away?

               When independence came and white people left did they cast a spell that one day brought war? Who stole the peace?
               Teacher said that if you looked closely at the stories from before, you discovered there was nothing like the Congo, like Darfur, like Somalia, like northern Uganda. These pathologies were new pathologies. Where did they come from? Who crafted them?
               The white man that once ruled the land could drive from one end of the country to the other end. He drove alone without body guards. No armed escorts no sirens heralded him. But a man there was those days that had the habits of sirens. In all likelihood he invented it.
                A colorful chieftain dying for attention, the man imagined himself a king. He had men with buffalo horns sit in the front of his huge American limo. In ceremony the men blow the instruments whenever the limo approached a trading post or a market town.
               From his corner the great chief stirred, waved joyfully to cheering onlookers. This was theatre. Today sirens on the roads are something else, part of a growing culture of intimidation. I will deal with you. I will teach you a lesson. 

Where did Peace go?
Elders in the villages remember how the local white representative of the white ruler walked the land freely unmolested. He charted with locals along the way. He gathered intelligence. He filed reports to the Center on the abundance of the land waiting to be tapped and evacuated to the Center. Little kids joined him, they made fun of him. He was zestful and energetic. The kids loved him, he was friends with them. They taught him the language, they taught him many things, he learnt fast. Well, he was young himself, barely a kid out of college.
               The local white priest from the Veronica Fathers did the same thing. His color like those of the white boy, gave him standing, conferred upon him the stamp of authority. Under empire color was everything. You are everything and everything is you. Diana Ross once serenaded. But it was of love the goddess sung. But really in the colonies color was everything.

            In his white robs, for he was young too, the priest walked from village to village, tireless, winning hearts, gathering the faithful. The local trader was Indian but sometimes Arab. The black color of the people set the Indian off as white. He sold his goods, made what profits he could, minded his own business. Not for him authority. He did not seek over lordship. He filed no reports. But he benefited from the color bonus. In the colonies it mattered if you were black or white.
               Where did the peace go when the white people left? They said the Congo burst into violence the day after independence. Today in Africa leaders move in armed convoys like mafia bosses. Armored limos, personnel carriers, tanks, all are on display. I will deal with you. You don’t know me.
               The local trader does not ride his car except he is in the company of hired thugs armed to the teeth. Walls and barbwires have taken over the green belts of the commons where once kids played. People say there are guns and armies behind those walls, armies ready to go on the rampage at the lift of a finger. We will deal with them. Just say the word, Bwana. We will saw them. We will bomb them back to the dark ages. Once an army commander confessed, we did horrible things there. 

Teacher and his friends
On this landscape once so placid, where love once grew, Teacher rode his bicycle from one end of the country to the next. He covered miles, one day at a time, resting wherever nights took him. As he moved he felt the wind and the breeze around him, he heard the wheels of his own cycle sing. On every branch will blossom, dreams for me and you. A tree of love stays ever green, if your heart stays ever true.
               But it was the voice of Cliff Richard, the dark boy from Calcutta, who moved to the Center and became a star. But not before he fended off taunts from school mates. Where are your bows and arrows?
               Teacher found ready welcome in the homes of other young teachers. On rough chairs crafted by local carpenter, around steaming cups of sweet tea and salted nuts they gathered. They chatted and argued till dawn. Love and romance was in their hearts. But they talked of India, the land of the free; they talked of Japan, of Russia and of America. They talked of Jomo Kenyatta and of the Mao Mao. They imagined a future in which a black man would one day rule and the people live free and in peace. They had a dream. “Japan Japan kum wu gum, Ikare man ducu an aparo pwonyere na” their students sung as they marched joyfully to class.
               In their reverie the teachers enthralled about ongoing preparations for the various inter school competitions, especially football and music competitions coming up in the capital. They felt their lives were charmed. The gods of their forefathers were alive, were smiling on them. Jo jok amalo. Everyone felt their own school would win. Had they been Nigerians they would have said God dey. God is there.
               It annoyed them that a village music teacher and his remote school won the music prize year after year. How did he do it? The football trophy by comparison lay wide open. Today this school, tomorrow another takes the glory. The games produced great brilliance, showed up great talents. Today’s football greats would smile on these kids. They surely would.
               The year before several of the teachers were on the national squad that toured England. Teachers were young those days. Straight from hot Africa they came and played bare foot in wintry conditions. They upset not a few metropolitan clubs. Metropolitan newsmen paid them back. They mocked the hell out of them. But the journalists did notice something. The chaps approached football the same way they hunted lions, in groups, in formations. They were a team. The lion never knew from which direction the spear was coming. Watch out man, the natives are coming.

Moments in the woods
Teacher was a sportsman from beginning to end. One day as he was fond of doing, Teacher was on his bike. This time he was in the company of two other teachers, young men like him. On their brand new cycles ridding through the land the three teachers were a sight. They approached the bridge on the river. It was  a most scenic spot.
               In the morning mist, dimly through the morning light, the young men saw emerge three wholesome figures wearing rows of colored beads round their shapely

"youruba girls"

market day

waists. Just about all they wore. The girls laughed and waved and laid their bets. Huge African butts in the sun, the wind came howling. The robins sang on the trees. On every branch will blossom, dreams for me and you … I love you so, don’t you know that it’ll be true till the leaves turn blue, on the evergreen tree … on the evergreen tree.

The girls laughed and teased and made fun. They were irrepressible. Now each maiden laid a claim on the teacher of her choice. Tonight I will celebrate my love for you. The young men dismounted … were led into a wonderland. They lost precious hours. The journey before them was long and the weather uncertain. But who cared?
               For years Teacher would recall those moments in the woods. He remembered the sounds of the frothing river. He remembered how they could not tear themselves away. The encounter reminded him of the Illiard. The ship of the good king took a turn on the Aegean Sea. They come upon a bevy of maidens in their morning rituals by the waters. The men are immobilized, would not move.
"River Nile at Karuma"

the frothing river

Where have all the young men gone?
Years later Teacher set off again across the land on the same old bike he used to ride on, still wearing white sleeves, khaki shorts and khaki stockings. But times had changed. The land had a strange look, as if it was a new country. Nobody smiled anymore.
               Many of Teacher’s old comrades were in Parliament in the Capital. They were surrounded by luxuries they never dreamed of. But they were not smiling. Half dozen of them were in the new cabinet, lead by a young smart trade unionist. A war raged across the boarder. Columns of troops were on the move. Everyone that was anyone was recruiting and assembling an army. There were sounds of distant fire. There were rumors of a coup in the Capital. People talked in whispers. They hurried, they carried long faces.
               Teacher rode across the land, fearful now for his life and for the lives of those around him. A storm was brewing over the great inland ocean. Over the roar teacher heard the wheels of his old cycle sing again. But it wasn’t Cliff Richard. It was the voice of gentle Marlene Dietrich, transmitting the desperations, the frustrations, the pains of the new age. The flighty dreams of Cliff Richard, the dark boy from Calcutta, were gone.

where have all the flowers gone?
long time passing
where have all the flowers gone?
long time ago
where have all the flowers gone?
girls have picked them every one
when will they ever learn?
when will they ever learn?
Marlene Dietrich

John Otim
Suncolor Consultancy
Kampala, Uganda


King’s College Budo Schooldays
by john otim

I was in the Upper Chamber devouring international publications, British really. They included Boys Own, fine adolescent adventure stuff. They included the Illustrated London Magazine, Filled at the time with glossy pictorials of British elites and their European cousins. The London Times was there as a matter of course.

"Budo's Upper Chamber"

popular student hangout at king's college budo

            Time Magazine and Newsweek, were not officially there. But once in a while some young American on the faculty brought in a few copies. At times he threw in copies of Sports Illustrated for good measure.  Sports Illustrated was typically American. Its contribution to sports’ photography is a story. Its marvelous photos of sportsmen in action, gave the Illustrated London Magazine a run for its money
            The lone Indian teacher at the school had not the resources to showcase the sub continent’s rich heritage. He was a proud man nevertheless and enjoyed nothing more than to rattle a few nerves among the majority English on this White enclave on the shores of Lake Victoria.
            As students we were on our own. There was not a single black face on the faculty. And this was a prestige school. Today King’s College Budo on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda still ranks among the best. Further south in Malawi, President Hastings Banda was yet to create his dream school, the Kamuzu Academy that would rise to rival our school if not surpuss it. On th President’s orders the school when it got going would be staffed exclusively with holders of the masters’ degree from Oxford and Cambridge. People laughed at Haistings Banda. But in today’s Africa Banda’s model is hot cake and they cost a fortune to attend.

"Kamuzu Academy"

Hastings Banda's dream school

            The British authorities at our school were smart. They distanced themselves from the former colonial authorities of which they had been a part. They won a lot of goodwill. While firmly maintaining control they appeared not to insist on anything. They did not verbalize it but they were saying. We are part of the new Africa. We are Africans really. They lined up a coterie of Africans from downtown who came to the school to talk to us. They were young people and immensely successful. They had studied in Europe and North America. They were the inheritors of the colonial state. They talked no revolution. There was no need, independence was won. They were saying. The future is now, you are lucky fellows. Get on with it. Don’t make noise. Look at us.
            One day I was in the Upper Chamber. Named for the room in which Christ and the disciples had the last supper. It was a large upstairs room, wooden floor, large mahogany tables, shelves of books and magazines. The room made you feel good. Here boys and girls converged on Sunday afternoons. You came washed and dressed. For girls these were precious showcase moments.

            Here I was one Sunday afternoon when a stunning young woman made her way. Followed by a crowd of students I knew were members of the Christian Union. This was a group whose membership proclaimed themselves the inheritors of Christ. Now they created a stir. There was nothing to it, the evening was at an end. I stood up to leave. A girl grabbed my hand and bade me stay. I spent the evening receiving the message of Christendom, streaming from the lips of the starlet.
            It turned out the babe was a Makerere University student and had graduated from our school a few years back. Makerere was big stuff. Clearly someone had brought this girl over to dazzle us. I had never seen a woman that lovely. The organizers of the evening for sure had class. Huray! Boys and girls stayed on, nobody left. There was quiet in the room. The young woman began to speak.
            Look around. You are gathered from all corners of this country. You are the best. But you are also lucky. How many of your primary school fellows do you see around? You must be thankful. You are the cream of  the world. We are the cream! What did that mean?
            The theme of duty and of responsibility was absent. You are not here. Luck is not with you. You are not smart. You are excluded. The system said. Exclusion meant neglect. It was demanded of the excluded, that they offer their services in the interests of the lucky ones. Nothing was extended in return. Exclusion degerated into abuse. Primitives, good for nothing. Abuse brought conflict. African education systems such as it was, such as it is, set the course and now provides feeds.

John Otim
Formerly of the Ahmadu Bello University
Zaria in Nigeria