(Note: The archives are arranged in reverse chronological order. The story begins at Part I, below.)
I was one of two, sometimes three, English teachers at our school. All classes, except the students’ own language (Hausa) and religion (Islam), were in English, or more precisely, in the variations of English that British, Irish, American, Pakistani, Yoruba, and Hausa teachers fired at them.
The quality of the students’ English varied. In the top form (grade) that had been the school’s first intake three years before, some were headed for mastery, but too many were not, and getting them all to an acceptable standard by the time they were to finish, in a couple years, was daunting.
Some of the problem lay, not with them, but with a rigid English curriculum, a holdover from the British colonial era only three years past, that made little accommodation to their background. As You Like It might as well have been in a foreign language (come to think of it …) but it was required preparation for the impending School Certificate exam, the gateway to sixth form (British A-Levels), then university.
The younger students were more malleable, and their curriculum more flexible. Many of them, and the adventurous among the older boys, went at English with delightful gusto. In a debate, one student concluded by calling his opponent malicious, capricious, and avaricious, a brilliant, if totally irrelevant, salvo that had fellow students cheering Shege! Shege! (literally, Bastard! but more like, Awesome, Dude!).
Students’ puzzlement at the oddities and inconsistencies of English — Sir, if we say, ‘I have never seen him,’ why can we not also say, ‘I have ever seen him’?; Sir, if we say ‘pronounce,’ why do we not also say ‘pronounciation’? — had no rational answer. New angles on old words — I spent all summer break in my village, homesick in bed — were charming, though duty demanded they be corrected.
To improve their skills, students were required to use English, in and outside class, during the school day.
Once, as I was grading papers, two boys were arguing, in English (fortunately for them), just outside the classroom. Well, fucking you! one concluded. Hmmm. What to do? but, faced with such a glaring misuse of the gerund, I had to act. I stepped outside, explained the error, helped them get it right and, since correct English is also a matter of context, advised them especially where not to use it.
Language learning wasn’t just a one-way street. As we became more comfortable with each other, the kids started tossing Hausa words and expressions at me. I tried my best. After all, if I expected them to use my language properly, they had a right to expect the same of me, in theirs.
One day, a group of students took me on a walk to see the historic rock-paintings near the school. By the time we got back, they had taught me how to count to ten, and got me started on a tongue-twister, one I can still recite, fifty years later, that uses two of Hausa’s tricky implosives. The rock paintings, too, were fascinating.
My Hausa-speaking fellow staffers were also eager to teach me. Sitting outside the stifling teachers’ room, firing Hausa words at me, beat grading quizzes. Even the bulala-wielding Dahiru loved to drill me (without threat, I should add; he was actually a gentle soul). But it was Lawan who was my major professor.
Lawan was the school’s jack-of-all-trades — part laborer, part fixer (things, not deals), part go-fer, and, most important, when we finally got electricity, Keeper of the Generator. He had been buddies with our Peace Corps predecessors, and assumed the same of us. I was lucky. He loved to talk as much as I did, could often find a break in his flexible duties, and was a patient, natural teacher.
The fact that he stabled my horse in his family compound gave us even more time together, not all of it horse talk. (Owning a horse may sound very un-Peace-Corps-like, but it was part of local life and culture, and was very cheap). I paid Lawan for his horse duties, and, I admit, occasionally helped him with beer money, but probably the most important repayment for his teaching and his friendship came when he ran afoul of the law.
Lawan’s fondness for beer and the occasional game of chance clashed with the mores of a small, conservative Muslim town, and, finally, landed him in the local jail, a small, one-room, mud-walled annex to the District Head’s compound.
I got permission from the District Head to visit him. He came to the jail’s weathered door, looking forlornly through its single-barred window. Well, what we do now? he said in English. I said I’d see if the District Head would let him go, which he did after I paid a small fine. When we were alone, I suggested to Lawan that, for his family, my horse, and the school’s precious new Generator, he might go easy for a while.
(That’s enough for now. The end — Part III — is near.)