INCIDENT IN THE CLASSROOM
By TIKUM MBAH AZONGA
COUNTDOWN TO ZERO
By all accounts, turning back the clock can be a daunting experience. This is so for several reasons, one of which is the reluctance to voluntarily take a walk along memory lane and be confronted with some ugly and unwanted happening from the past. Another reason is obviously the pointlessness of the retrospection on the grounds that not much is remembered or ought to be remembered from such a “distant” past and that besides; one ought to let bygones be bygones.
Nonetheless, as far as yours faithfully is concerned, there is one incident in my past life that has stubbornly refused to go away. It keeps invading my privacy and disrupting my free moments to. That incident is indelibly engraved in my mind like the giant door knob of some Gothic church door tucked away in the now hidden bowels of Europe. That episode happened to me when I was in Class Three Primary at St. Michael’s Catholic School, Musongmabu, Bambili, today Government Primary School, Musongmabu.
THE TEACHER`S BAG AND I
My teacher in that year was Mr. Michael Chibikom, whom I remember was he only teacher of mine to have visited each and everyone of his pupils at home. The day he came to our compound in Baforkum, I spotted him from afar, ran to him and collected his bag as he entered the compound. After he had sat down with my parents, my mother offered him roasted cassava with ripe pears which he ate with gusto. Mr. Chibikom was also the only teacher whom I remember shared the money our school won during the march past that was part of celebrations marking the annual feast of St. Peter and Paul’s feast day. This took place down at the Bambui Parish compound and brought together all the Catholic schools in Bambui, Bambili, Kejom Keku (Big Babanki) and kejom Ketingoh (Babanki Tungoh). It was always great fun for me to travel down to St. Peter’s and Paul’s Primary School and join in the feast. I had the singular honor among all of us who went down from my school in the sense that the wives of my uncle, Pa Geh A.A. who brought food to sell to participating pupils, would feed me and my friends heavily and free of charge.
Back at school when the feast was over, Mr. Chibikom would use the money given our school to buy and cook food which we ate in the classroom with him, he helping himself at his table, after having asked one of us to clear the table of his books. While eating he would converse with us in a most accommodating manner. At some point he would start giving out the pieces of meat that were left in the bowl next to him. It was to the brightest girl, the brightest boy, the best behaved boy and the best behaved girl, the neatest boy and the neatest girl, the most punctual boy and the most punctual girl, etc. I got a piece for being the “quietest boy”, although to this day, I still do not know whet he meant by “quietest boy.”
SANDWICHED BETWEEN A FRIEND AND A FOE
So the sad incident I alluded to took place one day in Mr. Chibikom`s class. My seat was the fourth on the first row as one entered the classroom. I shared a desk with Lucia Mubatu who by far had the best handwriting in the class. Her handwriting was so good that I did everything to copy it during writing time. Unfortunately for me, while her graphics were purposeful, well conceived and well articulated so that they had an imposing symmetry and architecture, mine, on the other hand were rushed, uncoordinated, poorly thought out and poorly executed. Consequently, the result in my book was a heartrending rendition characterized by amateurism and disgust. Behind me sat Esther Nkwenti who was incidentally the daughter of my mother’s Goddaughter. I had always thought that blessed with such company, I was on safe ground until Esther did something to me that did not just annoy me but left me embittered and with the strong feeling that she had betrayed me. So, it was not just friendly fire or “l`ennemi dans la maison”. No, far from it!
A FLY IN MY SOUP
On that fateful day as the lesson was going on, I felt a hand reach out and touch the back of my neck. Turning round, I found it was Esther. Her right hand was held up at me and she screamed at the top of her voice: “My Mami, eh! Lice!” Heads turned and I heard sighs and gasps of sympathy, some for joy, from my peers, especially the girls. I noticed that what Esther was holding up was a live head louse still desperately moving its legs in all directions as it struggled to break free. I froze and regretted how such little unnerving animals could let one down so irretrievably in public. Just imagine the ungrateful idiots of creatures! They are just like mosquitoes. They come to you like humble visitors and once you give them shelter and they are comfortable ensconced sucking away your blood for free, they still stir up the world against you.
Bewildered, I looked at the teacher. He understood my predicament.
“What did you say, Esther?” he asked as he came nearer.
“Lice, Sir. Lice. I caught it on his neck.”
“Then drop it on the floor and crush it with your foot. There is no use holding it up there as you are doing.”
Turning to me, the teacher said, “When you go home, make sure you have a hair cut.”
“Yes, Sir.” I replied with the confusion and shame of a boy who had been caught doing something awfully wrong.
“What was I saying? Oh yes, I remember. It was how to work out the Lowest Common Multiple. Let’s come back to the lesson”
CAUSE FOR CONSOLATION
When I think of that incident of so many years ago and the grief it caused me, I draw comfort from a similar one I witnessed in a post office in Britain some years ago. The victim this time was a British man of West Indian origin. The man was wearing dreadlocks. We were inside the post office and had, as usual, queued up waiting for our turns to approach the service counters. Suddenly, a White woman who was behind the man reached out and quickly extracted something from the back of his neck. Then holding it up triumphantly, she cried out as if she had shot an elephant,
“Take this! It’s from your body”
The Rasta man turned round with pride and dignity. The rest of us held our breath, not knowing what would be his next move. But we suspected he would rain insults on her. But no, he proved us wrong. Instead he rebuked the woman roundly and loudly,
“Put it back! I say, put it back where you took it! It’s mine, not yours! That’s how you White people are. When you see a nice thing with a Black man, you take it. You always take and take but never give!”
Overwhelmed, devastated and crushed, the woman placed the louse back on the man’s neck and as if cognizant of what game was going on, the beast crawled slowly but steadily back into the man’s long hair.
THE WORSE YET TO COME
Having read this account so far, you may be full of sympathy for us victims. But hold your horses, because the tale is far from over. And I should know about lice because I grew up in a large compound where several of us children slept on the same bed and thereby facilitated the transfer of head lice from one person to the other. This usually happened at night while were asleep and our heads touched each and probably stayed in touch for hours while we snored unaware of the fact that were facilitators of cross pollination. As if enough was not enough, it was not only head lice that harassed us. We also caught body lice specialized in invading and inhabiting our clothes, especially pants, so that while head lice fed on the blood in our head, they fed on the blood on the other parts of our bodies and had as their natural habitat, our clothes.
Body lice were incredibly resistant to treatment and could hang on to one’s clothes for fairly long periods despite the stringent measures that were taken to flush them out. In fact, in extreme cases of resistance, owners of infested clothes had no choice than to throw the clothes away. The best treatment our parents found for body lice consisted of boiling the infected clothes in water stood in a “head pan” on the fire, and stirred with long wooden sticks so that the heat should reach every part of the garment. But even when the lice were dead, it was difficult to extract them from the clothes and discard them.
REMEDY OF A DIFFERENT KIND
Treatment for head lice was different in approach. It was also more expensive, more painful to the body and lasted longer than for body lice. Parents made sure they administered the therapy after children had finished all other chores such as house work and homework. Then the mother would get a number of camphor balls and crush them, mix the powder with kerosene and rub it vigorously throughout the head of the “patient”. After that, a loin was tied tightly around the treated head so that no part of it was exposed and so served as an escape route for the lice. The idea was to quarantine the them, get them poisoned with the improvised concoction and allow them to then suffocate and die.
Such was a very uncomfortable position for the infected person because whenever the hair product came into contact with any head sores that might have been caused by scratching since lice bite and leave a lot of itching on the body, this hurt.
The following morning, the loin would be removed and the head washed thoroughly with water and soap. Even so, the danger of re-infection still loomed if the treated child again slept on the same bed with untreated children. The best treatment was really to shave off all the hair in order to deprive lice of their natural habitat.
This story is part of current research I am carrying out on a relatively new branch of journalism called LITERARY JOURNALISM. This is in a nutshell, a combination of journalistic expertise with literary techniques (my definition). Lan J.To (2005) cited in Hester (2005:112)puts it this way: "The literary journalist is the writer who is sufficiently journalistic to sense the swiftly changing aspects of the dynamic era of our times, and sufficiently literary to gather and shape his material with the eye and hand of the artist"
Lan J. To (2005), `Beyond Reporting`, in Handbook for Third World Journalists, The Centre for International Mass Communication Training and Research, Georgia, pp 112.