Sunday, July 14, 2013

New Encounters, Fresh Vistas

     FSAS was located on Ogbor Hill, Aba on the old road to Umuahia. We were about the third set of students admitted into the school and it was a great melting pot of sorts of students who had attended federal government colleges and other elite schools such as St. Greg's and King's College in Lagos, Federal Girls', Owerri and Federal Government College, Enugu. Most were the children of powerful officials or wealthy businessmen. I was among the very few who had come from what was then regarded as village schools, meaning those in non-urban settings and, therefore, deemed farther removed from civilization.
     While a majority of the students were of Igbo, southeast origin, there were a significant number of Yorubas, Ijaws, Efiks and others. A significant population of the students was South African, Zimbabwean, Angolan, Namibian and Mozambican refugees. These included ANC, ZANU, MPLA and FRELIMO cadres, brought over to further their education on Nigerian government scholarship.
     The names that still come to mind among them include the Zimbabwean pair, Lawrence Takavarasha and Sam Murakwani. Then there was the South African, Aubrey Mathole, with a receding hair line, who was an excellent guitarist and among the first to make me think of trying my hands on the instrument. Though the South Africans were the most in number among these Southern African exiles, they tended to cluster more to each other and socialized less with the rest of the students. There were even three girls among the South Africans, but they avoided coming to the weekend dances we had, and when they did only danced with their guys.
     But from the little interactions I had with Aubrey and some others, I could tell they were political radicals. They talked about Marx, socialism, revolution, liberation against apartheid and colonialist regimes. I remember one of them telling me one day that minus the racial discrimination that South Africa was far more advanced than Nigeria materially and economically.
     "The streets of Soweto are far cleaner than the streets of Aba," he said. "If we were content with that there would be no point in fighting. But we don't have political freedom."
     However, Takavarasha and Murakwani were the more gregarious ones. All the foreign students from Southern Africa were paid a monthly allowance by the Nigerian government. We could always tell when they'd been paid by the drunken sprees of Takavarasha and Murakwani, evident as they staggered into the school at twilight. It would go on for about a week to 10 days until the money was spent and the periods of soberness would dominate until the next pay day. 
     My perception of the Zimbabwean duo as mere drunks changed one night when they came to the arts block to do their night studies. They were both maths, physics and chemistry majors and their night studies often comprised of solving equations on the blackboard. On this particular night they used the blackboard in our arts classroom. Murakwani was about to wipe the blackboard clean and wanted to know if we still needed the notes left by the history teacher on the Mahdist revolt in Sudan. Of course we didn't, we told him.
     Then Takavarasha commented familiarly on the topic. "Looks like you guys are studying Egypt and the Nile Valley?" he said.
     "You seem to know the subject?" I answered, taken aback that science majors knew so much of an arts subject.
     "Yes," answered Murakwani. "I've read about Egypt under the Mameluks up to the rise of Mohammed Ali."
     "That was before Egypt went into Sudan," Takavarasha added.
     And so they took the story down the entire east coast of Africa, through Kilwa and down to Zanzibar, mentioning key events in history with astounding depth and surprising grasp for science students. Something snapped in my head about the idea of compartmentalizing knowledge in such a way that people knew so much of one and so little of the other.
     That encounter was to have a lasting impact on me. I took up the challenge to break barriers of disciplines and it marked the start of a multidisciplinary approach, where I sought knowledge on a need-to-know basis, not minding disciplinary boundaries. It was a liberating experience with an impact that shaped the rest of my life.
     We also studied the French Revolution with the memorable Dr Mbah, who liked to walk into the class dressed in trousers with braces, wearing a tie and smoking a pipe. He would then put the pipe and his Erinmore pack aside on a table before starting the classes. Mbah taught us about the various influences that helped spark the revolution such as the writings of Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Balzac and so on; the rise of the capitalist bourgeosie and their rejection of the divine appointment of kings. "All men were born equal but everywhere they're in chains," he said often, citing Rousseau. Then he went on to the bread riots to which Marie-Antoinette had retorted that the masses can have cake if they can’t find bread.
     Mbah taught with great verve, infecting the students with his enthusiasm as traced the reach of the Hapsburgs, as he vividly described the Fall of the Bastille and the march to the guillotine of Louis XVI and his dear Marie-Antoinette. Then came came the Reign of Terror and the emergence of Maximillien Robespierre as the dominant figure of the revolution until he also was guillotined. We found very remarkable the incident where one of Robespierre’s rivals pointed at his house on his way to the guillotine and said: “You’ll follow after me!” And truly Robespierre ended up at the guillotine like him. The revolution continued to eat up its children until Napoleon Bonaparte, the soldier from Monaco, took over and steadied matters as he went on to build a French empire.
     Mr Maduakor taught us English social history, including the emergence of the Chartist Movement and England under the Napoleonic Wars. He said it wasn't possible to study history without geography. So the first thing he did on starting his lessons was to draw a map of North Africa and on the right edge add two straight strokes depicting the Suez Canal, forming a horn at the base, the Horn of Africa. Then on top he marked out lines showing Spain and Portugal and the rest of the Mediterranean to the Balkans.
     He would develop the map further as his conversations with us required. He would go up the Atlantic to mark of the British Isles when he spoke of their empire. And he would go across the Atlantic to map out North and South America if his talks took him in that direction. Then he would start wiping them off with his duster when he was done, until we stopped him, pleading that we needed the sketches. "Oh, you should all have it in your head by now," he would say jokingly and leave the map deformed where he stopped wiping. And we would marvel at the ease with which he did it until the next teacher called for a clean board. If it was the last lesson of the day, it would probably remain there until whenever the next class held.
     Another interesting teacher we had in those days was Mr Zeph Chibundu, a slim, wiry fellow with a rough beard, who walked holding up his head at an angle and swiveling it on his neck from side to side and smiling at anyone he caught in his panning sweep. His subject was economics and his style was to saunter into the class without notes, smiling and saying:
     "Where did I stop?"
     Once anyone told him where he stopped, he would ask the class, "Are you ready?"
     "Yes!" we would chorus.
     He would tap his fingers on his forehead as if calling forth the words. And he would start dictating notes, stopping now and then to answer questions and expatiate on points. "According to David Ricardo," he would often begin. Where ending a sentence required saying "and so on and so forth," he substituted with the Igbo version, saying: "Ma oshigi, na oshigiya!" With time this became a chorus we chanted for him when the moment required. We called him Prof and it was great fun to be in his class.
     One day he was discussing the role played by banks in safeguarding valuable documents for customers and then suddenly started addressing the boys in the class. 
     "That is one reason you boys have to be very very careful," he said, feigning sternness. "I know you're all writing letters to the girls, telling them I love you more than my mother. They can take such letters to the bank for safe keeping, and it could mean serious problems for you in future."
     The class burst into laughter, while he stood upright in front of the class, in a blue safari suit, twitching his upper lip to suppress his mirth.
     "You people should learn to talk with your mouth only and let the wind carryyyyee..."
      "Goooooo!" The boys chorused while the girls in the class maintained coy faces.
     "Don't put anything in writing," he said, wagging a finger in warning. It took a while for the excitement in the class to die down.
     For me it became an abiding lesson and I tried to use it in subsequent years. Even when I broke the rule, as one had to with some sisters, I was keenly aware I was being carried away. Ezewunwa, my good friend and classmate at FSAS, who was in the same economics class, also took it to heart. He told me 34 years later that he applied the lesson across board, in all his dealings, not just for the feminine gender.
     Chibundu told us that he fought as a Biafran soldier in the Civil War and that he was known as Captain Blood, Commander of the Suicide Squad. We had no way of verifying this but we all thought he looked that part. He was very popular with the students, never seemed inclined toward treating us as kids that still needed to be put under restrictions – something we resented very much then – unlike Dr Mbah and some of the others. Some of us students who were already drinkers by then sometimes ran into him in some of the neighborhood bars.
     So when we rioted over a new proposal spearheaded by Dr Mbah, who was in charge of student affairs, that we must sign exeat cards before leaving the school and put an end to the weekend dances, it was Prof that the school authorities called upon to try to talk to the students. And as he came toward us where we were picketing the school gate, we burst into shouts of “Prof! Prof! Prof! Prof!” He raised his hands to acknowledge the salute. He told us that he fully understood our point that we really were no longer kids.
     “I even meet some of you in the bars around,” he said, to sustained applause and more shouts of “Prof! Prof! Prof! Prof!”
     “Prof, you’re not the problem. We want Dr Mbah,” a voice said and was supported by several others.
     “Oriela mbo mbo,’’ Prof said, signifying with up and down motions of his forefingers that Dr Mbah had taken to his heels.
     There was so much laughter.
     “Well, the school authorities have heard you. You won’t have to sign anything to leave the school compound and you’ll have your weekend dances!”
     We went into great applause and chants of “ We don win! We don win! We don win!.”
     A few weeks later the school closed for the academic year and ended with a major dance, where new love vows were made and old ones broken by boys and guys in their late adolescence. When we returned for a new session in September, all those considered spearheads of the riots were expelled from the school. I narrowly got away because the very crucial role I played with my friend Asonye in pasting posters around the school the in the dead of the night, urging students to take action, wasn’t discovered.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

My First Poem

One day while we were in the last weeks of our form four in 1977, Mr Ezekannaya, the vice principal whom we called Snowball or Napoleon, walked into our class with a sheet of paper in his hand. When all had quietened, he read from the paper, announcing a poetry competition under the auspices of the Anambra State Ministry of Education.
    "It's not compulsory," he said as questions erupted, including those who wanted to know how exactly to write a poem. "If you think you know how, even though you've not been taught how, send your poems to me."
    In his usual curt style Mr Ezekannaya read out the closing date and other requirements. Those who wanted to participate should send in their contributions typed double-spaced. He gave the last date for submitting the entries to him and left the classroom.
    The question that agitated many minds in the class afterwards was how do you go about writing a poem, how do you even start? The general attitude was that it was the business of those students offering Literature in English for their school certificate. Since the assignment wasn't compulsory, most students declared they would have nothing to do with it. Several among them taunted Isidore and I, who were regarded as the best literature students, that it was really our duty to respond to the call of that competition.
    It was a responsibility we felt and tried to own, even if we felt we were unduly singled out. Where does one learn how to write a poem? We decided to head to the library toresearch. We went through different encyclopaedia. What we found were entries on poetry, poems and poets.  Then we also found different types of poetry: lyrical, ballads, epics, sonnets, what have you. We also read about rhythm, rime and meter, but never saw any entry on how to write poetry. After several days of research, we came off convinced we knew what poetry was, who a poet was, without knowing exactly how to write one. The one fact we gleamed was that poets are usually inspired, and we sought inspiration without knowing how to find it. We realized ultimately that we needed to put pen to paper anyhow and hope that the right thoughts and words would flow.
    Through digging deep into my conciousness and rummaging through the storehouse of ideas and impressions I had formed over time, I put pen to paper. What came out was my first poem, written at age 16, with the title: The Ill-Motivated Visitors

We were at our home
Happy and free from trouble
When they came
First they acted as visitors
Later, forcibly they became landlords
Yet in our home

At our home
We had our culture
We were contented with our ownings
They condemned these our things
And took home the precious ones
All these in our home

Back at our inner home
We became realistic
We started to fight them
They were reluctant about going
We made the fight more serious
As this is our home

It's true we have won half-way
But they still have our brothers and sisters
They're still interested in our black soil
But prepare brothers and sisters
Let us fight them to finish
This is our home

    Isidore also put pen to paper and came up with what I remember (as the manuscript was later lost) as a beautiful description of a maiden dance. It spoke of beads encircling delicate, shapely waists as the comely dancers whirled and wiggled about the dancing arena. But he never submitted it. When the time for submission came, he couldn't find the piece of paper, now misplaced, where he had written it. And he really wouldn't be too bothered about it. So I ended up being the sole participant from St. Peter's. Well, I forgot all about it and never heard back from the organizers until almost two years later.
    In the meantime, I proceeded to form five with my mates. Maxim had left the school by now, but I remained determined to study journalism, to which he had introduced me, as a stepping stone to becoming a writer. Only two universities, (Lagos and Nsukka) and one polytechnic (IMT, Enugu) offered the course at the time. Lagos took only A-Level holders and Nsukka was the only university that offered an entrance exam, which was very competitive.
    It was also during this period that I was reading the Daily Star in the library one day and saw an admissions notice by the Federal School of Arts and Science, Aba. The school was seeking candidates with a minimum of five credits, including English and a science subject, to apply for admission for two years of studies leading to the Advanced Level certificate. Those who were about to take their WASCE could also apply if they already had their mock WASCE results, for a provisional admission, pending when their exam results were released.
    I called the attention of my friends to this, but most of them were focused on seeking admission into universities or polytechnics and didn't care much about reading for A-Levels. I was also doing the same, but I reasoned that if I failed in my first try for a university or polytechnic place, it might be a good idea to start studies for A-Levels right away since the papers would qualify one for direct entry into the university, without the need for an entrance exam. So I went ahead to write to the school and posted the letter, enclosing a copy of my mock result. I was pleasantly surprised when about a month later I received a mail from FSAS, Aba informing me I had been offered provisional admission and should present my WASCE results when I get them. All now depended on getting the required WASCE credits.
    When the WASCE results were published, I made the required five credits, including English and a science subject - biology. My performance had surprised many people, including the principal, Walloper, who had considered me a troublesome and unserious student on account of my poor disciplinary record: two suspensions in form five and involvement in a number of high-profile cases including leaving the school without permission to attend dances in neighboring girls' schools. On the day I came into Walloper's office for him to sign my statement of result, and he saw distinctions in literature, history, economics and biology, he declared I wasn't the owner. He requested to see the dean of students' affairs, Mr Enenchukwu, who confirmed I was truly the owner.
    "He was one of our best arts students," Enenchukwu told him, while I sat looking bemused.
    "I didn't know that because he made a lot of trouble with the Uzoatus," Walloper said in reference to Maxim and Isidore. Eventually he signed the statement of result, which I needed to complete my admission formalities at FSAS.
    My father was wondering how I was going to spend the year at home after it became obvious I didn't secure a place in the university that year. Then I mentioned to him the admission to FSAS and he supported my going immediately. With the statement of result, I now went to Aba to complete my registration and pay my school fees.
    The school was like a cross between the university and a secondary school. We wore white uniforms to school but could dress in mufti after classes. Even more exciting for me was the fact that it was a mixed school, and we sat in the same classroom with girls. It was a sea change from my boys only St. Peter's.
    We were also pampered as students, enjoyed generous meals subsidized by the government, had highly qualified teachers (including Nigerian, Filipino, Indian, Pakistani and British) with masters and doctorates in their areas of specialization. I was an arts major, offering literature, history and economics.
    It was one weekend when I went home to Umuahia, where my parents lived at the time, that I received the letter from the organizers of the poetry competition. The letter had been sent to St. Peter's and was redirected by someone to my home address. They had written to say that my poem was one of the runners up submissions and had been selected for inclusion in a volume of poetry to be titled: Let the Children Chant to be published by Nwamife Publishers, Enugu. The publisher was by the letter seeking my permission to include my poem in the collection.
    I was thrilled beyond words. My parents were very pleased and proud, even though the benefits of the letter weren't yet clear. I decided to seek the advise of my African poetry teacher, Mr Nwosu, once I was back to FSAS. When I did, he seemed very impressed and asked me to give the publisher the go-ahead.
    A few days later Mr Nwosu came into our poetry class and asked us to read Gabriel Okara's The Call of the River Nun and summarize our impressions in a sentence. I wrote: "Okara in the poem recalls watching snow flakes fall in London, and how they lulled him to sleep during which he dreamed of his homeland and became filled with nostalgia."
    Mr Nwosu now asked us to read out what we had written, shaking his head when the point was missed and nodding grudgingly when the writer was closer. When it it was my turn and I read out my sentence, he raised his hand to pause me.
    "Can you repeat that?" he said, and I read again.
    "Did you hear that? That's the language of a poet. Do you know he's a poet?" He then went on to tell the class how a poem I had written in secondary school had been accepted for publication in an anthology to be brought out by Nwamife Publishers.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Night time study and surfing electromagnetic waves

Night time study usually began at 8 p.m., after dinner and lasted until 10 p.m. The school regulator (usually a form three or four student) would ring the bell to signify the start of prep time. Any junior student found wandering about after that risked being punished. I had great difficulty sitting down in the classroom and concentrating on my studies for the prescribed two hours, unless I was reading a novel. There was also the likelihood that prefects and other senior students would be going round the classrooms to pick out offenders with outstanding punishments for further punishment, and I was often one of those. So as people headed to the classrooms for study at night, Isidore, Barry and I would gravitate to the tennis court, with Barry's pocket radio in hand. There we would sit around the umpire's stand listening to music and news from far and near radio stations. These included the local Anambra Broadcasting Service, if they played music, Radio Nigeria Kaduna on short wave, then BBC, Radio Moscow (which often played a Russian version of jazz). Then there was Radio Santa Isabella, from Fernando Po (which we called Veranda Po in those days) Equatorial Guinea, which played a lot of salsa and Congolese rumba by the likes of Franco and TP OK Jazz band and African Fiesta. It was like surfing around the world on electromagnetic waves. We would take turns tuning. My basic technique was to push the knob around until I came across a stromg signal. Then I would stop and retrace my steps slowly, halting once the signal was clear, and then inching slowly forward and backward on the knob until I got the best possible signals. But Isidore's skills on that knob were unmatched. He would find the faintest signals and tune, manipulating the antaena in turn, pointing in different directions for improved signals until they came alive.

Those were the days we tuned blindly. Over time we came to understand what radio stations meant when they said they were on a certain meter band kilo hertz or mega hertz in the medium or short wave band. Then we could tune with even more precision guided by those numbers. We would sit there listening to music or news while watchful for prefects or teachers going round on inspection to make sure all students were in the class and studying. We would melt away further into the darkness if we found anyone of them approaching. The bell would ring at 10 p.m. for night prayers and afterward the lights out bell would go off at 11 p.m. We carried on mostly in this fashion until we became senior students by late form four (when form five students became engrossed in their school certificate exams and ceded power), and we now became free to do as we liked, save for when we avoided the censure of teachers.

My first published article was titled: The Functions of a Sanitation Prefect. It was published in the school magazine, a stenciled collection of 16 pages of articles and cartoons by students and speeches by teachers circulated within the school community. It was prompted by the unhygenic state of the school kitchen that became apparent after a student found a cockroach's wing in his soup one day and another found the snuff box of the chief cook in his another day. It had been the tradition in the school that the Sanitation Prefect would oversee the picking of liter, the washing of the bathrooms and the toilets without bothering about the state of affairs in the kitchen. I was arguing in this article that the job should extend to ensuring that the food the students ate was prepared hygenically. While many who read it thought I made a valid point, some others were asking me why I was criticizing the Sanitation Prefect, Stephen Okpalugo. I was taken aback because I wasn't thinking specifically of the person occupying the post but strictly about expanding the job description. Fortunately, Okpalugo, though a year my senior, was also my friend and didn't see anything wrong with my piece.

In form four we chose the subjects we would offer in the school certificate exams, a maximum of nine and a minimum of six. I was inclined to the arts and social sciences but had to contend for a while  without a teacher in literature in English. Fortunately, by our second term we got a youth corper named Jacob Lanre Dada, who had majored in linguistics at the University of Ibadan.

Dada was young, had a charming diction and a booming, sonorous voice and inspired the 10 or so of us who offered literature. He also became the patron of our debating society, taking us to competitions at female schools where the occasions ended with dancing, dancing, dancing and the exchange of names and addresses with the girls.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Early Stirrings 2

At St. Peter's academic performance was highly rated and in those early years following the civil war a lot of it was due to plain industry on the part of the students because there weren't enough teachers then. Records set by students in the WASC exams were often discussed for many years after them. By the time I entered the school in 1973, one of the most discussed former students that set high academic standards was Aloy Ezechukwu, in later years better known as Uche Ezechukwu,  a journalist and writer. He made distinctions in English and Math among several subjects, including French, which he was said to have taught himself. Akam's performance was also talked about for many years. Abra broke all previous records and remained unsurpassed for many many years.
    By 1973 Mr C.I. Nweze was the second principal at St. Peter's following the end of the war. He had succeeded a Mr. Ezeobi, who had been the first with the end of the war. As soon as the war ended, the East Central State administrator Ukpabi Asika, with Offiah Nwali as his commissioner for education, took over all mission schools. Nwali had a reputation of something of a Marxist, non-conformist intellectual. And the reasoning at the time was that the government wasn't going to leave the job of educating and molding the young to the churches; so the government was taking over the responsibility of shaping the future generation. The story was often told, by those who were present, of Nwali's visit to St. Peter's in 1972 and how while he went to the ref and chose to leave through the window, instead of the door, in a moment of sheer radicalism, may be.

    So, to reflect the new mood, the government ordered that the schools taken over from the churches had to change their names to reflect the new ownership. Therefore, St Peter's firstbecame Achina High School, and later changed (because the school didn't belong to Achina, it was said at the time) to Boys' High School, Achina. But by the time I was in form five, by which time two military regimes had come to power, the name returned to St. Peter's Secondary School,Achina.
    In those early years after the civil war, St. Peter's was in dire straits. Under the management of the Catholic missionaries, large cement water tanks were built at the back of buildings, into which rain water from the corrugated iron roofs were channeled. These were fitted with hand pumps operated by pushing the lever from side to side, sucking up water that then ran out of a tap. Most of them were damaged during the war and hadn't been fixed, making the school now reliant on the Lower Stream that was supposed to be a supplementary source.
    In the dormitories there were no beds for students. Parents who could afford, and they were few, bought the recommended six spring bed and foam matrass for their children. Others either brought beds with straw matrass or just put two layers of mats on the springs, softening them up with their blankets. The high rafters had no ceilings and the rooms were very hot in the afternoon in the dry season, though the generous breeze that flowed unfettered across that valley outside the window all through the year compensated for that. Occasionally scorpions fell from the roofs on the students on their beds, making it imperative to have mosquito nets over one's bed, as a catch all.
    But the nets proved no restraint to bed bugs and lice, which ran rampant. The straw matrasses and mats provided excellent homes for bed bugs, where they could wage the war of attritioneternally against their host and victim without losing. It must've been while ensconced in such an environment that the bed bug made the famous declaration to its children to be patient, that what is hot does eventually grow cold. The typical response of a person under attack was to take the afflicted mat or matrass out into the hot sun, in the hope that the heat would drive them out of their hiding places to be crushed if unable to escape. With the straw mats or matrasses they're always able to contrive shelters where they could ride out the heat offensive osafely lay more eggs for their offspring to continue the struggle if they failed to survive.
    It took the military coup of July 1975, which overthrew General Yakubu Gowon and brought General Murtala Mohammed to power, to finally get rid of the bed bugs at St. Peter's. Gowon it was who declared at the first gush of petrodollars that flowed into the national coffers that Nigeria was so rich it didn't know what to do with the money. In our experience at St. Peter's, it was Murtala who actually found what to do with the money. Within the six months or so he was in power, we suddenly felt the presence of the government. New double-bunk beds and foam matrasses were supplied for the dormitories and new desks and chairs brought for the classrooms. The school also got a movie projector and a television set which equipped where we now called the Audio-Visual or AV room, in the same block as the principal's office. To make it all work, the school was sent a giant generator capable of powering the whole school and the staff quarters as well.
    On the day the generator was delivered by a truck in front of the principal's office, the excitement in the school was palpable. A major problem was that the designated power house, behind the toilets to the back of Heerey House, had no access road for the truck and there was no equipment to take the generator there. The students gathered, cut down tree logs to use as wheels and then rolled the giant machine with a black-granite appearance, all the way down a 100 meters of pathway and bush, into the plant house.
    With the arrival of the new beds and foams for everyone, every student was now obliged to take home or destroy his own sleeping materials, the six spring beds, the few foam matrasses andthe dominant straw mats and matrasses. Thus relieved, the dormitories suddenly became free of bed bugs, and what was previously unimaginable in the school, a life without bugs, ensued. So it was with great sadness that the death of Mohammed in an abortive coup on February 13, 1976, was received in the school. Students gathered in clusters, discussing the coup and its likely aftermath, and in the process the name, Bukar Suka Dimka, the man alleged to have pulled the trigger against Mohammed, became a very unpopular name in the school.
    One day, around this period, a prefect had punished Maxim over some alleged infraction to wash the entire general plates used for dishing out food to students in the dining hall. It was an unjust punishment and even though the mantra was "Obey before complaint," Maxim refused to do the punishment. The result was that food couldn't be dished out for lunch the next day. As students gathered in the ref without food, waiting for some alternative arrangement to wash the plates, the Refectorian ordered Maxim to lie down flat on the floor. He rang the bell for attention.
    "Look at this Dimka lying down here!"
    An uproar of laughter went up in the dining hall. Afterwards, Maxim's peers tried to make the name stick, calling him Dimka to taunt him. He didn't show any displeasure with the name and it kind of petered out.

With the bed bugs gone, the lice lingered, obviously because they had different habitats. The lice lived in the hair and with the Afro hair style in vogue at the time, there was no shortage of shelter. With the mice so adept at hiding beneath the hair roots, the only way of telling when a student had a head full of the parasites was usually when we lined up at the morning assembly. Very often some stray one would crawl out of hiding, onto the collar of the host, and usually those standing behind him would spot it. Even when no lice decides to crawl about, you could still tell a lice-infested head with the tiny, silver eggs they left on the hair tips. Apart from these signs, when the lice starts boring into the head of a host, there would be no doubt as you would see the victim scratch and attempt to catch them between the thumb and the forefinger, failing which he would scratch the bite desperately.
    Some people would immediately choose to shave off all hair and deny the lice cover, which was a sure cure. Others too shy to do this because it immediately signified the ailment, would suffer in silence, and when there was no one looking, would place a white sheet of paper on a table in front of them and then use a comb to try and comb them out. A few would normally drop on the paper to be crushed with the nail, but most would dig in and hold on tight to the root hair, where the comb wouldn't reach them. And the rapidly hatching eggs ensured that those eliminated were immediately replaced. To get rid of them, a few people sprayed their hair with insecticide, with unpleasant consequences. Eventually, people discovered a hair cream calledSulphur 8, which was very effective in killing them and then taking care of the newly hatched ones too. And as more and more students began to use such remedies, it was only a question of time before the incidence declined.
    Teachers were also sorely lacked in those days and to supplement the few with qualifications, the authorities allowed the use of ``auxiliary teachers" - WASC-holders who had made either Grade 1 or Grade 2 and were willing to go to the classroom. Apart from the principal, who didn't teach any subject, the qualified teachers were Mr Ezekannaya, the vice principal whom we called Snowball or Napoleon, Mr Umeh (Acquired!), Mr Enenchukwu, the agric master and MrAgunwa, the geography master. The rest were auxiliary teachers, and often some subjects had no teachers at all, such as French, Add Maths, Fine Art, Literature in English, Government andCommerce. Students who wanted to read any of those had to read them up on their own, and some did and passed very well.
    Ezekannaya's specialty was History, but he also taught Literature to the junior classes and Economics to form four students. He taught us History in form two and had told us about Axum, Meroe, Nubia and Ethiopia and was a very demonstrative and funny teacher. If it required a dance to illustrate a point, as often seemed the case in his classes, he would deliberately get off his seat, set his cane on the table, adjust his belt and then step into the front of the class to do a couple of jiggles. By this time the class would be a din of laughter, his face would remain serious, unmoved, while he concluded his dance before returning with the same seriousness to his seat, without a twitch on his face, and continue teaching. Even when he wanted to cane a student, it was usually with some humor. He would act dumb and would merely point at the culprit and point to the floor without saying a word, and then deliver his maximum two strokes with a flourish, drawing laughter from the class. Once he asked the form four Economics class to write an essay and when he marked the scripts he singled out Maxim for praise, saying he wrote above his level and rewarded him with a shilling coin.
    Mr Umeh, nicknamed Acquired because of the peculiar emphasis he used in pronouncing the word, left after my first year and had taught the senior classes Economics. Mr Enenchukwu, a big gentle fellow, was a successful agriculture teacher and practitioner. His students always did well in the exams and his farm usually had the richest, healthiest yield of all the crops. Students never bothered to steal from his farm despite the attractiveness of his crop, but stole heavily from the farms of other teachers who they viewed rather unfavourably.
    Not too long after Acquired left St. Peter's, another teacher was posted to the school whose name I only remember now as Mr Akimbo. He was nicknamed Akimbo because he was always asking students if he saw them with arms on their waist: "Why are you standing at akimbo? Take down your hands!" And he would invariably punish the fellow. It wasn't quite clear what his qualifications were, but he taught Geography and later Government. It was said he schooled in the U.S., and of this there was no doubt because the first thing he taught us was how to draw the map of God's Own Country, including all the 50 states. Through the exercise a number of my classmates took nicknames, with one answering Chicago, another Texas and yet another Las Vegas. One even went across the U.S. border and took Saskatchewan.
    One day Akimbo told us himself in class that he had actually gone to the U.S. to study in the university but had to flee before he could complete his studies. He said his roommate at the university in the U.S. had been  the first son of the King of Western Samoa, an island in the Pacific Ocean. He said at the time the U.S. was trying to acquire the island as a protectorate and was putting pressure on the king to accept the deal. The king sought the advice of his son studying in the U.S. and the son sought the advice of his roommate, Akimbo.
    "I told him that they should not accept the deal, that it was the same experience we had in Africa,'' Akimbo told us. "That once you accept that agreement, they'll slowly take over your land and you'll become subject people."

    ``What I didn't know at the time is that our room was bugged,'' he continued. "They heard all I had told him and I was held responsible when Western Samoa rejected the U.S. offer. I barely managed to escape with my life, and that was how I ended up not completing my studies."
    All the 42 of us in the class watched him agape, incredulous. It was like something out of a movie, like some Hardley Chase novel or James Bond. A few days later, after we had digested his story, we added Western Samoa to his names. So if a student said either Akimbo or Western Samoa, everyone knew who was being referred to.
    At the end of our form two, Mr Nweze, the principal, was transferred to another school and his replacement was Osondu Odionu. We quickly nicknamed him Walloper because at the least infraction by a student he would shout at him: "I will wallop you!" Where Nweze  combineddiscipline and gentility, Odionu, who wore a rough goatee he often scratched at, was haphazard, inattentive and scatterbrained, and the school was soon the worse for it. It was largely the influence of Ezeakannaya that held the school together after Nweze left.

I get a nickname: Stone Face


In my late primary school days when we lived in Enugu, Coal City, my parents at a point resided at a face-me-I-face you accommodation on Fox Lane, Uwani. In the neighborhood, on the next street, was Tourist Hotel with its dance hall by the fence of Fox Lane near our compound, such that when the band played, we heard the music loud and clear on our street. We kids went further. We found that by crouching on the floor and peeping through the holes made in the block work we saw the band in action. We spent long hours there watching the band rehearse on Wednesdays and on Sundays when they played the Afternoon Jump.

    The name of the resident band at Tourist was Stone Face and Life Everlasting. It was led by the drummer, Stone Face Iwuagwu. I used to watch him pounding on the drums, with all his limbs, and marvel at how he could be doing very intricate patterns while singing at the same time. He didn't sing very often though, he left most of that to the lead singer, Kingsley Anyanwu. But Stone Face would always sing his own compositions, especially Agawalam Mba, sung in Igbo, which later became a big hit, his one and only eventually. Playing the lead guitar as Jackie Moore, who was a rockstar performer. There was a conga player, who had a slight limp, I don't remember what he was called and a rythm guitarist I also fail to remember clearly. Jackie and Kingsley later became foundation members of the band called Sweet Breeze, which made two very successful albums in the Afro Rock modein the mid-1970s.

    They were our stars then. We should to marvel at them when we saw them walking down the street in those days. They introduced me to rock discography because they played covers of Beetles (Here Comes the Sun featured frequently in their repertoire), Grand Funk, Rolling Stones (I can't get no...), Rare Earth (Get ready for here I come). From time to time Stone Face would intervene with Agawala Mba, which was really Afrobeat, looking back now.

   So when I got to St Peter's I was often telling my friends the story of Stone Face. I didn't realize how often I had done it until one day Joachim in response to a mischief I had made called me "Stone Face!" He drew laughter from all around, which meant he struck a chord. Then I made the costly mistake of protesting the name, and it stuck, try as hard as I did. I learnt the lesson finally: never contest a label or it would stick.

    So did this one stick. In subsequent years when we went for quizz competitions or school debates and I was called to the floor (I was a regular school rep in these things), the name would ring out from our contingent: "Stone Face! Stone Face! Stone Face!" Often during dancing time the girls I danced with from the competing schools would be asking me why they called me Stone Face when I didn't look that way at all. What could I say. The name stuck. There were later variations. Some began calling me Stone Faculty and in due time further shortened it to Faculty. So till today some of my school mates still call me Faculty. One hearing it could never have imagined its origin.

Friday, February 15, 2013

About this blog

In the coming weeks and months, these pages will feature contents from the notebook of a retired Nigerian journalist who wants to remain anonymous. He chooses not to be named because he considers the message more important than the messenger and he wants to focus attention on those things that never quite made the news. Or even when they made the news, the writer throws a new light on things, giving the reader what approximates to a backstage view of the social and political history of Nigeria in the past five decades.