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School Days

Essau

When I went to primary school (now called lower basic school); at some point I had to carry my own table and chair to sit on in the classroom. So was the case for the other pupils because there were no desks provided at certain levels.

We did have school feeding though; warm milk and biscuits/cookies in the morning; and lunch in the mid-morning/afternoon period. It cost 15 bututs and inflation saw it rise to 25 bututs; cheap right? Not entirely; we had a school vegetable garden and we were assigned into various classes (kundas) with each Kunda assigned ‘beds’ to tend to. One had to rise at the crack of dawn to go water those beds, and yes when GUC/MSG (NAWEC’s predecessors) shut the water off, we had to go fetch water from wells in nearby homes. Various makeshift concrete tanks would later be built in the school garden as reservoirs for when the taps were shut off; mainly because the benevolent neighbors got tired of us losing their draw buckets in the well and muddying their whole compound through spillages. So they barred us. Those vegetables were used in cooking the school meals.

After that early morning routine we were then expected to go home and clean up then make it back to school on time. If you were late you get flogged; no excuses.

We had to fetch firewood to be used in cooking our meals also; moms would not waste that chance too. So we would not just go to the bush/swamps to fetch firewood for the school, it had to be a bigger bundle from which mom could take her share too and a smaller bundle than you fetched from the bush made it to school. If too small you get flogged.

In primary four two separate classes shared the same classroom; one wall for one class and the opposite wall for another class; so we faced opposite directions. Two for the price of one anyone? Oh, and try paying attention to your teacher when the other teacher is being lively behind you.  There was another class  that had an “unsafe” mud building on the verge of collapse so they relocated to the shade of a “tabbo” tree. We mockingly called them “Banta Class”; as if we were any better off in our congested and noisy makeshift corrugated shed.

The fruit trees we planted in the school are still there; we built the staff hut that still stands. And guess what, we had to go to the nearby quarry to haul the stones (on our heads, girls too) that built the hut. Some went much further on tractors to harvest the straw used for the thatched roofing. There was a corrugated roof, but the thatched roof had to go over the metal sheets to give it a more traditional look and keep the inside cool. The headmaster at the time had a reform agenda, so we served as laborers to the qualified masons to build two 4 classroom block sponsored by UNICEF , and we helped in the fencing of the school (the masons did not even accommodate us in their attaya because we were “too young to drink attaya” I think it was because there was too many of us to serve).

Looking back now, I feel like Mandela breaking rocks on Robben Island; you know why? See how our cement/concrete blocks in The Gambia have holes on one end by design; normally that side faces down during construction. Not in the case of the building of the staff hut and the two blocks, the holes were face up and we had to fill them up with pebbles from the quarry. Talk about coming home from school covered in red dust from head to toe. At least we were outdoors and less chance of getting the cane; Ah the good old days!

We used to be supplied note/exercise books and also with a full set of uniforms, albeit not regularly. When we celebrated The Gambia’s Silver Jubilee (25 years of independence – if you count from February 18 instead of April 24th), we had leather sandals added to the supply. They were to be worn with white socks for the march pass. Come see us “boogie” in our calf-high white socks and brown sandals, some of them shined with vegetable old that would collect dust 10 minutes after being worn.

When the tabbo and cashew fruits were ripe, the senior pupils accompanied by teachers will go from class to class and hand us all a few fruits (they kept the nuts). Uniforms stained with streaks of ‘edible fat’ and cashew juices were not too out of place either; just don’t wear them on a Monday or a Friday (‘assembly’ days). They get noticed more if your hair is unkempt (pupils have had their heads shaven in school); or if you were too “mboyo”. So if someone smelled like left over vegetable cooking oil (palm oil even) just move on along and say nothing. Unless you want them to “prey” you to an after school duel in the shades of the mango groves right behind the school. I never showed up!

We had a ‘sick book’ that teachers will write your names in and a prefect will carry the book with the names of the sick children, accompanied by the sick children on a walk to the local health center for treatment. They were given priority to see the Nurse Practitioner/doctor for a shot of chloro-quine or a dose of paracetamol. If you had capsules (usually antibiotics) that meant you were really sick; as in scary sick! You know, some people used to open those capsules and poor the content on open wounds? It must’ve worked I guess.

Anyway; back in those days, despite all the seeming extra curricula activities, we competed in who will get the best grades or the most correct answers on tests and homework, it was fierce. You never wanted to read a “see me” written in red at the bottom of your paper. That usually means the cane will pay you a visit.

If you were caught speaking vernacular (other than English – no matter how broken) you wore the “symbol” around your neck which was some dead animal’s smelly skull (usually a goat or ram from some previous tobaski) and a tin filled with pebbles that jingle when you move. Maybe a jaw bone from a different sheep with few teeth missing. if you want to, you can worry about child abuse, we had no time for such worries. “Gambia No Problem” was lived!

My best friend and I had a physical fight when the end of year results came and we opened our envelopes (our report cards were sealed in ‘airmail’ envelopes to be delivered to our parents. They couldn’t read so…) I had first position in our primary three class of that year and he had third position. He said three was greater than one so that meant he did better than me. I was having none of that BS, plus my parent’s would not be happy with me; so I punched him in the face. By the end of the fight though he won, and tore my uniform. But it was the last day of school before summer so we made up and his older brothers confirmed I had better results, so yay. Best friends happily ever after.

So we continued on to primary 6 where I sold books and pens for a teacher who had a shop and would bring his wares to school for those last minute buyers; and no, we did not get any commissions or preferential treatment. We simply could not say no. One of our other teachers (senior master) used to walk the streets after dark on school nights to see if he will bump into any wandering/loitering students who needed to be at home studying. He’d sneak into homes to make sure students were not just idle at home either but actually studying and he would help if you had any issues doing homework. Parents knew not to send us on errands after dark on school nights. That’s how dedicated he was, he now serves as representative of our constituency

All these factors played towards our formative years, we did not turn out too bad after all. In light of the recent deplorable performance of our students, the possible contributing factors are multi-faceted as are any potential solutions.

The pupils, the teachers, the parent(s), the resources and the environment are all factors. Each with particular specifics that need detailed evaluation and proper assessment and we can all help; some will carry a greater chunk of that help (like the relevant government ministry) than others; but we can all help. So let’s get to it starting with our own nephews and nieces, brothers, sisters, and children.

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