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.