Early Days at the Postcolonial School

John Otim


John Otim, author of Dream Campus, and of The Ups and Downs of an African Campus, Editor of Nile Journal




We lounged around in the Upper Chamber devouring international publications. Read British really. Boys Own (great teen stuff) Illustrated London Magazine, London Times, and the hilarious Punch magazine, piles of them, stacked on the shelves. Punch has since expired. There were also issues of Readers Digest (American), Drum Magazine (South African), and one or two others.

Time Magazine and Newsweek, were not on the list. But ever so often, a young American on the faculty brought in a few copies. From time to time he knowingly threw in copies of Sports Illustrated. In photo journalistic terms, Sports Illustrated gave the Illustrated London Magazine a run for its money. In the age of de-colonization the battle for world dominance had become a media war and despite the Beatles despite Elton John the Americans were winning.

He did not say so, but from the way he talked and from the way he behaved the lone Indian teacher at the school would have loved to tell us all about the amazing but little known civilization he represented. But he had only a poster of the Taj Mahal and a decaying copy of India Today to show for it. Indians despite their commercial success in the country were a diffident lot. But our teacher was different. He was from Kolkata and looked down on the Indian settler trader down town, and enjoyed nothing better than provoking the English on this white enclave that was our school.

But really as students we were on our own. There was not a black face on the faculty. When they tried to bring in one, they brought the wrong one and he soon left. Our school ranked among the best in all Africa. It still does. Further south in Malawi, President Kamuzu Banda was laying the foundations for his dream school. In no time the Kamuzu Academy rose to rival our school.

Banda staffed his school exclusively with holders of the Masters' degree from Oxford and Cambridge. You had to be English to qualify, at any rate White, others need not apply. People laughed at Banda but he did not hear their laughter. Today, in the face of the tragedy in the Great Lakes Region and in other parts of Africa, and with a leading African scholar calling for re-colonization, Banda's model has become the norm on the Continent and they cost a fortune to attend.

The British authorities at our school were a popular lot. If there were an election in the school they would have won. As a group contrary to expectations, they were gregarious, sports loving and fun. They enjoyed receiving white visitors who streamed to the school for sightseeing. Otherwise they distanced themselves from their kinsmen the former colonial rulers, many of who stayed back after independence. On campus the Headmaster and his team  lead by examples. They insisted on nothing, as for punishment you really had to look for it to get it. We are of the new Africa, they seem to say.

They lined up a group of young Africans from downtown, of whom they appeared so proud, who came to the school to talk to us, men and women of the new Africa, inheritors of the old colonial state. Many of them had studied abroad at the great Metropolitan Universities and they let you know. They talked no revolution. To us they said, you are the lucky ones, the future is yours, go for it. We longed to be like them.

One day as had become my custom, I was in the Upper Chamber, Named for the room in the Gospel of St Mark where the Last Supper took place. Christianity was a big thing in our school. Religion was big in Africa. The Upper Chamber was a large upstairs room, wooden floor, large mahogany tables, shelves full of books and magazines. The room made one feel good. Here we converged on Sunday afternoons to read, have fun and be together. You came washed and groomed. These were showcase moments for girls.

Here I was one Sunday afternoon. A cute young beauty makes her way. Followed by a crowd of students, boys and girls, I knew were members of the Christian Union. The Christian Union was a noisy much disliked group whose members proclaimed they were the inheritors of Christ. Now they created a stir. I considered my evening ruined. I stood up to leave. A girl grabbed my hand and bade me stay. I spent the evening receiving the message of Christ, streaming from the lips of the young queen.

She was a medical student at the local University, had graduated from our school a few years back. The local university was a big thing. The imposing dome of its main hall could be seen from most parts of the capital. Its undergraduates walked the city like royalty, monopolizing all the good things.

I believe I had not till then seen a woman that cute. Clearly someone had brought her here for a purpose. I found myself comparing her with the reigning queen at our school who was to be fair, quite in a class of her own. The organizers of the evening were winning and succeeding. Boys and girls stayed. This was unusual. As we waited for the evening to kick off word had gone round and more students streamed in till at last the room overflowed. Introductions over, the young lady began to speak. Barry White, if he existed, had not yet been discovered, but his sounds fits perfectly the bill. You are the First, my Last ...

"Young ones", a youth herself, she was that confident and agressive, "I salute you all in the name of the most holy the most High. You come from all corners of this our great country [the country was not great, it still is not great]. Out of the millions of kids in this country you made it here to this great school, where no so long ago, I myself was a student. It took luck, not just your brilliance alone to bring you here. Hold fast to your luck and you shall be rewarded tenfold. Mess with it and you shall be cast aside like an empty shell."

We rose and clapped and cheered and looked at the queen. She waved and smiled and hesitated as though she had no desire or wish to leave. Amidst the cheering and the good natured roar she left, escorted away by the luckiest of the lucky, the Christian Union. We thought, if this was the Christian Union, we are going to join. No, we did not mind the Readings from the Gospel According to St Mark.