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.

No comments:

Post a Comment