Recently my classmates – the class of September 1973 of Government College, Ughelli – had our inaugural reunion in Lagos. Classmates, some of whom had not seen each other since we left school in 1978, gathered from across the world in a hilarious weekend full of laughter and recollections. This column pays tribute to that class as a metaphor to school time and power of memory.
“I am a fag, (a bush man) a dirty, stinking fag. I am to be seen and not to be heard. As from this moment, I promise to discard all my rustic and outlandish ideas to become a true member of Oleh House, Government College, Ughelli.”
I still recall that evening of odd foreboding in the common room of Oleh House. Usually, the common room was prim with tables and benches and designed more for lucubration than celebration. But that eerie evening for me in Class One etched in memory my first consciousness of life as ritual.
It was one of those rituals I recall with fondness today, a ritual of belonging to a school where I formed some of my enduring manners and habits, and of course some of my endearing friends.
After that solemn declaration, every senior boy in the common room watched with contemptuous glee. The room was now clear of all tables, leaving mainly benches lined along the four walls. The seniors sat as spectators, cheering and jeering. A class five senior presided, a bowl of salt water in his hand.
After the declaration of the class one student, he would answer some questions. Then the presiding senior would shout, “Brine or no brine?” That is, salt water or no salt water? And depending on how the class one student performed in questions propounded to him, they shouted “Brine!” or “No brine!” or a babel of loud “brine,” loud “no brine,” low “brine,” or low “no brine.”
Because of a certain childish bloodthirstiness of the night, the seniors were more inclined to shout “brine.” That meant the class one initiate, his face smothered in powder and a wrapper dangling like a tail from his buttocks, would be plied with a concentration of saltwater, which he was obliged to drink, the cup sometimes “garnished” with powder flaking down from his face.
The class one student was a bush man, like an animal, hence he tied a cloth that dangled down like a tail from his buttocks. A senior, stick in hand, would swing down with fury as though cutting off the tail. With mischief, the “civilising” stick landed often on the lower back and missed the tail.
Yet after that night, we danced and sang and eventually took part in the tasty delicacies of the night. That was the beginning, in a rite that brought us in five years from class to class, to play hockey, sometimes hookie, tackle bullying seniors, play cricket and yowl “Howzat sir,” admiring those who marched as Man O War Trojans, playing soccer, preparing for general inspection, evening debates, doing “awoko” or lucubration for exams, salivating for “cuum” (beans and dodo) “A.G.G.S”, (Rice and dodo) double decker,” (beans and rice) and “obroshun,” (bread, egg, tea, butter and fish stew) and the inter-house sports, including soccer, and also looking the other way when you became a beneficiary of a mashed ration; that is, a prefect slamming a latecomer’s meal into another student’s plate.
We all were doing all these because we wanted to become high school graduates and pass an exam to qualify us as undergraduates. Few of us thought beyond that.
But we knew we wanted to be lawyers, doctors, engineers, pilots, journalists, teachers, etc., but we lived one day at a time.
When we sat for the school certificate exam, we knew that our epic sojourn was at an end. We all parted ways. Some of us were never to see again. I have always wondered in my quiet moments at the whereabouts of some of my friends. Some remained in the Delta part of the then Midwest. Others moved away to the Edo part. Some, like me, hardly returned as I became a Lagos habitue. But my heart always throbbed with Ughelli, the plays, the fights, the pranks, the episodes of bravado and diffidence, the hungry moments when I and Victor Agbro and Bright Atiyota and Anslem Uduehi and Ebifegha Akangbou and Matthew Uponi hunted endlessly for fruits. I recall our staple of bread and groundnut, when it was three point two, meaning the bread was three kobo and groundnut two kobo; or six point four. Inflation damaged the equation and it was around nine point one when we graduated.
Today we all have gone our different ways. Some have become bold who were shy at school, some have become great at science who looked locked in the arts. Some have become wealthy who did not seem to know how to make a kobo. Some became soldiers, others professors, others writers, others not so successful.
Some have become household names, others have taken humble paths. Some have decided to win souls for the Almighty, while some have gone to the Almighty.
Yet, we know who we are. If any of us is a mighty man today, a great CEO or a military general, or a great doctor or a tycoon with boat loads of cash, when we see each other, we see not the new man with great beard or wrinkled brow, or the fancy car or fat bank account, or the skewed accent, or the big government bureaucrat or the famous writer or the music maestro or topflight diplomat, it is the small boy running with smudged uniform we still remember. The boy who, in class one, answered “yes please,” to the bully who called him, “Class one…rotten dodo… ewa gutter…”
You remember the struggles and triumphs in class, the rush to avoid the hooting of Principal Demas Akpore’s advancing SUV, the late-night reading to pass the next day’s test, the collective devouring of a bowl of eba and Geisha and the cheering on of the school in a match against Edo College.
So, when we meet, it is not a reunion of superior with an inferior, but a reigniting of boyhood, of old times, of the brash innocence of a time when ambition was all about going through the routine glory of a day in school, of eating the eba and okro soup, avoiding detention from a sully senior, or going to bed as a way of counting the days when the term ended and we returned to our parents.
We reunite as fellows and as brothers. The rich is not rich, the famous not famous, the heady not heady, but all of us in hugs and recollections of our times of innocence. That’s the value of this. It is a celebration of memory, of a time of sweet vigour and inestimable playfulness, and the beginning of a mighty dream.