|Print | Back||October 30, 2012|
African VoiceMemories of My High School
by Imo Eshiet
I attended an all boys’ high school. Started in 1942 by Catholic missionaries, it was the first such educational institution within easy reach of my village some five miles away. My father and uncles had pioneered a tradition that set up the school as a model for their offspring. The Irish priests who ran the school encouraged sound liberal education to groom a knowledgeable leadership capable of effective decision-making.
However, intellectual rigor gave way to crude physical discipline following state takeover of the school. After that, everything seemed contrived toward molding our beliefs to serve the toxic, vicious and controlling larger society into which we graduated. In a world that rewards subservience, much is invested in deterrence to critical thinking and access to undistorted information.
School authorities were tough on rule-breakers. Students who sneaked out of school were stiffly punished. Teachers and school prefects used brutal whippings to maintain order. After a flogging, the victim could neither sit on his buttocks nor lie on his back without feeling the sting of the whip long after the punishment.
The regimen also included suspension from classes combined with physical labor such as clearing the soccer pitch with a machete. If a truant mowed the lawn with a scythe, it was usually under the intensely sweltering sun just so the lesson could be drilled into the defaulter. The erring students often came off with blisters, which made using the hands painfully difficult for quite a while.
We had just survived a civil war of gruesome violence. Most of the school prefects were former child soldiers who brought to the school the brute torture they lived by in the military. Convinced that our all boys’ school teemed with headstrong, recalcitrant students, school administrators allowed the abuses.
Because the rules were extremely repressive, only those with a disdain for authority dared break them. The frightening punishment dished out to those who violated the regulations mimicked the brutality that was used by the police state to subdue any opposition. It was normal to deprive citizens of their rights, liberties and dignity, or even take out punishment on friends or family members of an erring person.
I came across on Facebook an experience recalled and posted by Francis Johnson, an alumnus of my high school. The narrative speaks volumes of our high school as a preparatory ground for the draconian order into which we graduated after we passed out of school.
As I read the story, compelling memories flooded my mind and I felt strongly enough to share it. The story gives exclusive insights into some of the shaping influences on my life and helps explain why I have a deeply ingrained revulsion for states that trample on citizens’ rights.
I need to explain a few things here. HOFACO is the acronym for Holy Family College, the name of the high school we attended. Garri is a dough-like food made from cassava that is a staple across West Africa. Okro is referred to as “okra” in the United States.
Johnson titles his story “ONE WEEK OF TROUBLE: Memories of HOFACO.” With minor editing, the narrative goes thus:
It was a quiet afternoon as we prepared to go to the refectory. With all our minds set on the garri and okro soup we were looking forward to be served, none of us knew we would never enjoy the meal. Fear and intimidation were regular modes of control, but we did not reckon that these would be served up that afternoon.
Normally, during the annual addressing ceremonies, riot acts would be read about the do’s and don’ts of HOFACO, but there were occasional rules that we hardly knew the consequences until one had been violated. Administration of punishments to rule-breaking became occasions to teach both violators and onlookers that they either had to conform or be ruthlessly broken.
We had just finished saying the routine “Prayers before Meal,” and had barely settled down when we saw the School Prefect (SP) coming into the cafeteria.
Seeing the SP was such an unusual event that we comported ourselves accordingly. He wasn’t a guy that we saw often, except when something was very right or very wrong. As tradition demanded, we quickly sang the national anthem in salute to his arrival.
Looking unimpressed, he ordered: “All class two students mount the stage!” In ten seconds, hurrying to the stage from different tables, we were all forced to lie down flat on stage. There we were thoroughly beaten by prefects with canes, belts, electric cables and even with bare hands for about three minutes until the SP called a truce.
It was then that he announced that one of us, Ndede Ebitu, had insulted his cottage prefect. He then declared that Ndede should write a letter of apology to be read at same time the next week. While he was composing the letter, the members of Ndede’s class would take over all scheduled assignments, such as washing the toilets or carrying water from the stream to the kitchen.
Matters simply didn’t stop there. Punishments for offenses like lateness to the chapel, class or cafeteria were escalated for all who shared a class with the offender. We were singled out and punished as a group for one person’s violation.
I was so upset that I had to look for this colleague to personally face off with him for the calamities he had caused all of us, but when I realized who he was, he turned out to be a quiet and easygoing chap we all used to admire. I ended up rallying my colleagues to help him out in mowing the V-shaped lawn he had been assigned.
At the end of the horrible seven days, we all braced up for the main event — reading of the apology. Another surprise awaited us, because at our level we had not been exposed to the syntax of writing English language at school certificate level. There were critical components of English, such as organization, construction, mechanical accuracy and expression we had not yet learned.
To any of Ndede’s sentences that violated one of these four components, the prefects shouted, “Mechanical Accuracy… Zero!” or “Expression… Zero!” Each mistake earned him several strokes of the cane from the prefects who had surrounded him atop the dining table on which he was forced to stand and hold the senior’s apology letter with both hands as a mark of respect.
The SP ordered that the apology letter be rewritten, this time taking the grammar rules into consideration. That meant that the punishments to all of us remained constant for another week!
Finally, with the help of some sympathetic seniors, he was able to come up with something that was agreeable to the prefects’ prescriptive grammar.
For me, apart from the two weeks of punishment and show of hatred and disgust from every senior student, I learnt early (from Ndede’s experience) how to take my expression, organization, construction and mechanical accuracy seriously!
I will never forget HOFACO!
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