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August 20, 2013
African Voice
Between Being a Teacher and a Jester
by Imo Eshiet

Aristotle had it going when he declared humans learn their earliest lessons from imitation.

As a kid I enjoyed some notoriety in roleplaying. Perhaps in a pre-mortal life I was a clown as folks thought. In our tradition life goes in cycles, so death isn’t terminal. One comes into this world from the world of the dead and on passing, returns there preparatory for rebirth. This idea of life as eternal round is often expressed in the way we dance in circles.

Through reincarnations, our people believed, one hones one’s talents. I was so adept at mimicking human and animal behavior folks concluded I lived by it in previous existences!

I could mew like a cat, bleat like a goat, hoot like an owl, howl like the wind, bark like a dog and flawlessly enact various quirks of character. A blind live-in uncle was livid because I aped the way he snored like croaking bullfrogs in the swamp after a rainstorm. I mimicked the tap, tap of his cane when he walked.

Tobacco and drinks made his voice hoarse like a broken bass drum. When he whispered, his voice was a growling rolling thunder. Like some late night comedian, I made a punchline out of these. Baleful uncle, who possibly participated in the evil trade in humans in his boyhood, had one regret. If the “wicked British” had not supplanted the Spaniards and Portuguese with whom he did “business,” he would have sold me outright, he often griped!

His threats never bothered me because given his age and blindness, I could outrun him any time. What irritated him most was when I started teaching goats the lessons I learned at school. Like some folks who live with dogs in their homes, we did same with our goats.

I scarcely waited for school to be out before dashing home to set up lessons for our goats. Whip in hand, I would scribble on our mud wall, some math or English words I learned at school. Before long the walls were covered with chalks I picked after my teachers were done teaching.

Exhausting these, I turned to charcoal which was abundant because mom cooked with wood. We lived in a mud-and wattle house without running water, sewage or electricity, so I hurried to complete my games with the goats before nightfall.

Mostly home drinking and taking tobacco, Uncle overheard when he was not dozing, much of the commotion I made with the goats. To him I was raving crazy and in between bouts of sleep, he would betray his anxieties and roared to stop my madness. I momentarily obliged but soon continued my “lessons” with the goats once he slipped into his sleeping routine. Neither the old man nor his report of the unnerving ruckus to my parents could stop me.

Someone once said, “If you want to touch the past, touch a rock; if you want to touch the present, touch a flower, but if you want to touch the future, touch a child.”

Teachers excited and set my imagination ablaze with love of learning, community and kinship. They helped me imagine life beyond our narrow rustic horizon. They took me off the uninviting bush I foraged and directed my feet away from forlorn, dirt-caked paths where indigence held sway.

They anticipated my walk on paved sidewalks while retaining an unbroken bond with the windy, stumpy paths where I started. They encouraged group work through instructive proverbs. “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together,” they would say. Their frame of reference, their narratives and dreams helped me build networks and bridges.

Because the state spent a pittance on them, our schools were decrepit. Teachers were owed several months of unpaid salaries then as indeed now. Folks teamed up to help the teachers.

Pupils worked on their farms on weekends. Villagers volunteered several hours of labor on these farms to augment their measly earnings and drew water from the stream for the teachers too.

They were appalled at the absurdity of a government that singes its teachers. They reasoned, “If a crocodile could eat its own offspring, what could it not do to the flesh of a frog.” So they offered teachers a lifeline in a wilderness where governance is such a crazy circus fat-cat that officials tirelessly squander on frills while hooking education on life support.

Notwithstanding, the teachers were irrepressible. They instinctively agreed with Michael J. Fox that, “One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”

Their immaculate, well starched, flawlessly ironed pants or shorts and shirts sharply contrasted with the dirt-matted rags of the villagers. Fancy pens stuck in their breast pockets or stockings if they wore shorts. Their swagger and earnestness struck a chord.

These were our celebrities. If one visited any home, it was news, for normally it was the villagers who visited teachers to seek counsel, to get letters or land sales agreement read or written.

Teachers were a vital resource. From them folks sought cures for scurvy-ridden children. Kids emaciated by malaria, dehydrated by dysentery or badly disfigured by malnutrition and maimed for life by polio and measles were taken to teachers for treatment.

One ingenious, charismatic principal doubled as surgeon. No one knew how he acquired his expertise, but he could take out appendicitis and drain abscesses. He had no lab, x-rays, scrubs or stethoscope. Disinfectants were scant, so offensive smells hung like an iron curtain in the atmosphere.

His meager resources included cotton wool, gauze, some rags to dab blood, suturing needles and thread, some painkillers and antibiotics of dubious quality. He improvised; for example, in the absence of anesthesia he compensated by whispering words of comfort.

Where these failed to persuade, powerful men firmly locked down patients on the cracked mud floor. Fear choked and punched a hole in the guts of some patients. Some though kite-high on alcohol, failed to suck up their pain and screamed ghoulishly with every cut.

If any died, it was not the fault of the weathered quack surgeon whose hands shook from age, alcohol and tobacco abuse. Folks put such deaths to nemesis! How could they be faulted when in our hard-bitten life, health care is such a malignant hoax that whatever offered hope is preferred no matter how bizarre?

In our bitter, hemorrhaging reality, fatalism was a given. Seeing our punishing lack of direction and people hurting from neglect and superstition, teachers sought to refocus priorities. What they did with what little amidst a raging helplessness inspired hope.

It didn’t matter the state treated them as doormats. What mattered was their dream, the work they did and the respect they earned from locals.

However, our nation continues to grind malignantly. Perhaps I was naïve in career choice. Given our poverty-swept cadence, I wonder if I leveraged much. It was like descending with a broken rope down a cliff and surviving the menace to live with such a long livid scar across one’s face that makes everyone ask, “What happened?”

If folk belief in reincarnation was right, I’d stick to our favorite national pastime of jesting and avoid the humiliation of teaching in a state that wantonly wastes its people and vast potentials!

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