"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
January 8, 2013
Knowledge is Power
by Imo Eshiet

I should have been a philosopher if I weren’t so dumb. I guess some things are not just meant to be. I have read as many books as I can and thought just as deeply, yet I just don’t get it.

On getting here, I luckily met someone who easily saw my interest in books. From the angle I held books as if I were playing trombone, he knew my eyesight was bad. Through him I met a doctor and obtained two pairs of eye glasses, the most precious material gift anyone ever offered me. Eye doctors, like dentists, are very few even though we need them a lot in my country.

I never had checkups unless my eyes hurt from the abuse of reading with candle light. Back home the electricity company generates more darkness than light. I was much relieved when the doctor told me I wouldn’t have any problem with my eyes for the next fifty years. I thanked him profusely knowing I wouldn’t live that long since longevity is not one of my family’s weaknesses!

In my early years I was surrounded by people and institutions that saw knowledge as power. My primary school’s motto was “Knowledge is Power”. Then most schools and hospitals were owned by Christian Missions. The only school in my village, for instance, was owned by The African Church which sprung up during the nationalist heyday. As a protest against colonial prejudices, many Africans broke off from European churches to establish ones sympathetic to our sensibilities.

Our traditions dated back in time to when the continent cradled the human family. Europeans found these customs disagreeable and sought to stop it by fiat. Polygamy was a particularly sore issue. My grandfather, for example, had thirty-six wives and Africans like him, unwilling to allow the new religion to sunder their families, set up their own churches.

The only secondary school close by my village was five miles away. The school, Holy Family College, was owned by the Catholics. That church assimilated many African folkways and many converts embraced the syncretism. But the main appeal of these churches was the social services, such as schools and hospitals, they established.

They saw a void and exploited it. At the time of independence, the indigenous Nigerian government had set a pattern of unresponsiveness to the people’s needs and churches endeared themselves to converts by stepping into the gap between the governed and the government.

The churches, which also trained the teachers, knew exactly what to do. Though my school was mud and wattle and the instructors evidently underpaid, yet the teachers clearly read the needs of the emerging nation and taught us with a passion. Our headmaster, as the principals of primary schools are locally known, was one such man.

He knew there were lies on both sides of the colonial divide. The British told barefaced lies to justify the colonial atrocities they perpetrated against our culture and people. It denigrated everything African as savagery and thus dismissed us as a benighted race. It was a stratagem to exploit our timber, goad us to fight its wars and milk our abundant other resources. But we, too, were in bondage of our own making.

We were damagingly implicated in the slave trade. Even the entire colonial structure could not stand without the active collaboration of our own leaders who were as self- serving then as they still are now. These blots on our integrity were like rape with the victim’s consent.

A man of uncommon wit, my principal knew both sides of the coin. He knew we were both wrong and wronged and, with strict discipline, sought to open our eyes to the dualities of our history rather than the one-sided state fostered propaganda. At 7:30 a.m. every school day, he turned our soccer pitch into a parade ground.

He barked orders for us to “stand in twos”. He inspected our finger and toe nails to make sure they were well-trimmed and that no dirt was lurking under. If anything did not meet his standard he would hit the knuckles of the offending pupil with a batten he held for that purpose. He ascertained our white shirt and brown khaki shorts were spotless.

He would check our hair for good grooming. I had no problems there. Even as a child my hair was scanty and Mother made a duty of scraping it to keep ringworms in check!

When he was satisfied his young scholars were clean enough to do business at the altar of knowledge, he signaled for the school band to start a tune and, with that, marched us into our assembly hall. All the while he would be shouting “left, right, left, right” and checking to see if our tiny legs were in lockstep with the rhythm beaten with gusto by the drummers.

I don’t know now if he had any previous military training, but he drilled us with unfailing martial disciple. His mission was to free us from bondage both foreign and self-imposed and devotedly set about his task of restoring our dignity and confidence.

Our day began with prayers, a biblical reading -- often some exhortatory verses from Psalms or Proverbs -- and singing of Christian hymns. In those days God was not yet shown the door in our schools. After these came announcements and punishment, often whippings for truants, late comers and other deviants.

While we stood at attention, the principal, his eyes bulging, would look at us until those eyes burned into us and then he would thunder, “Knowledge issssssssssssss!” and, in response to his call, we would storm back, “POWER!” Our response was so spirited that even the stone deaf could hear us miles away, for failure to answer back with a throaty response often attracted punishment.

If we got the decibel the right, our principal nodded vigorously. That was a sign that we were now free to step forward orderly to our respective classes while singing: “We are going now to our classes/ With clean and sweet faces/ To pay great attention/To what we are taught/ For learning is better than silver and gold….”

Later in the day the man would walk into our classes and bid us recite Pope’s “A little learning is a dangerous thing”.

The man had very high hopes for us though, in an absurd society like ours, his expectations were definitely misplaced. At graduation most of us embraced get-rich-quick schemes, the most notorious being politics. The reason, as Gwynne Dyer puts it, is that in Nigeria, “there is a lot of oil money around to steal, and politics is the best way to steal it”. Thus we became fraudsters, robbers and looters of the state treasury. The more daring joined the military and, in and out of uniform, kidnapped the entire country for hefty ransom, unmindful that two-thirds of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

Society cheered vociferously and rewarded thieves with national honors. Voices calling for direction and renovation were ridiculed and persecuted. If our principal was alive he would have had cardiac arrest seeing that fraud was the only knowledge and language of power in the nation.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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