(Note: You’re at the beginning of this three-part account, each part published on a separate September date, and archived in reverse chronological order. Parts II and III are above.)
Late summer in the early 60‘s, I was excited about the approaching school year. Not off to college, which I had just finished, but to Northern Nigeria, in the Peace Corps, to teach in a boys’ secondary school.
Along with scores of other volunteers, I had just landed in Lagos, been briefed, then, along with the Northern contingent, bundled off to the airport, where we climbed a long ladder into the back door of our plane to Kaduna.
In Kaduna, I met my teaching partner and, after a group audience with the Premier of Northern Nigeria, who warned us to avoid politics, we picked up a few immediate necessities and the keys to a Volkswagen Microbus (the beginning of a vital, if occasionally rocky, relationship). I was designated driver, reminded that Nigerians drive on the left, and told to follow the accompanying Peace Corps van to Kano, about 125 miles away.
This would have been a good plan if: (1) I had ever driven on the left; (2) dodging goats, donkeys, cows, people, and other drivers, I had been able to keep up with the van, and; (3) the van driver had understood that accompany does not mean abandon in the gathering dusk in the middle of nowhere.
Kano, by the time we got there, was that darker-than-the-darkest dark you get, late at night, in a deep cave when your torch (flashlight) fails. We did, at least, have the address of the Peace Corps Rest House and, finally, with some multi-lingual help and a lot of frantic gesturing, found the right street, but were stymied by its random address numbering and, once that riddle was solved, by a locked door.
In the end, we found the proper authority, with key, and, after an abbreviated night, drove the ninety miles to our new school, which, at the end of a dirt road, was sitting unlocked, sunlit, welcoming, in the midst of the vast West African savanna, bordered by peanut, millet, and guinea-corn fields, and two small hills with monkeys.
Students and teachers greeted us warmly. Classes had already begun, and we added about 33% to a beleaguered force. There was also a large extra-curricular load our Peace Corps predecessors had carried, which staff were as eager to pass on to us as they had been, two years before, to them.
We — young, Kennedy-inspired, eager to please — were gratified to be so needed, and the track, basketball, soccer, and field-hockey teams, the school newspaper (hand-cranked mimeo), debate society, hoped-for library, and distantly-dreamt-of science lab they piled into our sack didn’t seem too daunting.
Perhaps we should have been more measured, but it kept us busy. What else was there to do after classes? The small town, just a mile away on the main road, with a market, a mosque, a petrol station, the District-Head’s compound, and a jail, didn’t seem to offer many diversions.
The school, too, was modest, just three years old, with seven small, one-story structures: headmaster’s office/staff room, three classroom buildings, two dormitories, and a mosque. No electricity or piped water. The no-electricity thing was just as well since our dim kerosene lamps attracted only hundreds of insects, not the thousands that electric lights would have enticed through the school’s glassless, screenless windows.
We operated in the British boarding school tradition, with student prefects meting out their brand of discipline in the dormitories, and the headmaster and teachers, theirs in the office or classroom.
I had read my share of British boarding-school novels, and was convinced that sweet reason, which had been effective on me in my Little Lord Fauntleroy days, was a better answer than sadism.
WRONG! One class, in particular, saw my guileless friendliness as an open invitation to mischief. As I tried, on my own, to stiffen discipline and regain control, their puzzlement at this sudden change of weather turned to indignation, then outright rebellion.
I took my problem to the headmaster, a thoughtful, even-handed Brit.
Simple, he said, they’ll all have to be beaten.
Beaten? But that’s so … and anyway, they’re not all ringleaders!
Perhaps, but anyone we exempt will get worse from their classmates, and then the prefects will reimpose order in their own way. Need I spell it out?
He did not. Dahiru, our end-of-class-period bell-ringer and administrator of corporal punishment, did the job with his bulala (a three-foot long hide whip) and, for the rest of my two years, the former rebels were respectful and cooperative, even friendly, insofar (I now understood) as teachers and students can be friendly.
There’s more, but this is enough for now …