My college days were fantastic. Make no mistakes, mine was not the best secondary school in this wide world. Not Kings College; not Hope Waddel; not Etinan Institute nor HOTRICO or HOFACO. Just a backyard school somewhere in the palm tree belt of Akwa Ibom called Apostolic Secondary School, APOSCO.
But what made a world of fantasy for me was going to school at all. I was not expected to. I came from one of the most impoverished backgrounds imaginable. At two, I was already an orphan. At eight I was adept on the farm. And before I could make my primary six exam fees of about N2.50, I had to weed expanse of cassava farms and construct a native fence for a palm produce trader in my village. So finding myself in college via a scholarship was magic.
Oh! I can’t forget the first day I arrived at the boarding house, sitting astride on the back of a bicycle, strapped between my locker, six-spring bed, grass mattress, and the cyclist. I thought the world was in my pocket.
The school was young, barely five years old, when I enrolled. The student population was probably below a thousand. Teachers were mostly school leavers. The principal, Mrs. Ayo Udo, a strict Yoruba woman, and the vice-principal, Mr. E. O. O. Akpabio were the only university graduates, WASC results were usually poor. Until my set, no student had passed in Division Two.
But we made waves in football, music, cultural dance, and drama. I was the college prefect and goalkeeper for two years. Some of APOSCO’s footballers like James Etokebe and Ini Udoidung wound up in Nigeria’s national team, the Green Eagles. I and a dozen others represented the Cross River State in several national cultural festivals, winning medals and trophies, not just for our school but for our State.
Some of our girls even toured America to dance (forgive us) bare-breasted. Thereafter a lot of them wound up at FESTAC ’77, to dance (again forgive us) half-nude. My classmate Oku Ikang Ita, is still a member of Nigeria’s national troupe, dancing around the world. So what we lost by flunking exams badly, we made up by entertaining the world.
But last weekend, I came face-to-face with a pathetic school and school children that seem to have lost the best of both worlds; flunking exams habitually and without the minimum comfort of a playground to compensate for school blues. I am talking about the Christian Secondary Commercial School, CSCS, right here in the heart of the capital city of Uyo.
For three weeks or so, this school had put pressure on me to preside over their inter-house sports competition. So last Saturday, I headed to the school to sit back and enjoy what I thought would be a keen sports competition. But my first shock came just before I drove into the school compound. I was diverted midway to another school in town. Why? We have no football field or playground of any type. A 27-year old government college in Nigeria without a football field? You must be joking! I am not, sir. Please don’t let Captain Adeusi, the governor, or Moses Essien, the commissioner of education, hear this story, I warned my guide.
Shock Number Two. This is the first inter-house sports competition in this school in six years, I was told. Adorned in green, yellow, blue, and white colours outside a borrowed football field, hundreds of excited students began the day with a march past, just as I was called to take the salute. But the crowd of parents, friends, and guests almost laughed their heads off as this array of confused legs scattered all over the field kicking everywhere, hobbling, dancing, and limping, right, left, right, left all in the name of marching.
The parade was executed with a flare of unintended comic and I would have loved to laugh if it were not such an unlaughable matter. They couldn’t just march better than that. They have no field of their own to do a rehearsal. For me, it was one emotional moment that depicted in a rather poignant manner the festering sore of our public schools. It was one scene that truly underlined the absentmindedness of our educational system. Here, I have borrowed some phrases from Ray Ekpu to me announcing one of my many awards,
CSCS has a population of more than 2,000 young Nigerians. It is one of the four schools in Akwa Ibom, I am told, that operate morning and afternoon shifts, with two different principals. The morning school alone has 1,011 students in 25 classes of 470 boys and 541 girls. They have never played football at school; never played basketball, volleyball, or any ball for that matter. They are cut off entirely from sporting life and recreation even, as we are busy seeing visions of the 21st century.
If the condition of these young Nigerians is not finding expression already in various forms of deviant behavior, then educational psychologists should dump their theories in the Mississippi.
Can you imagine a school without a playground of any sort, without a football team, and without heroes of track and field events? Is that a school? Well, one of the principals in his speech tried to console the students by saying the school has in stock some footballs, jerseys, javelins, shot-put, discus, etc. But I am sure I wasn’t the only guest who wondered whether these games are played on notice boards.
One of the primary reasons education changes people is that students admire colleagues who tower over them in prowess, charisma, talent, experience, and intelligence. Often the single greatest influence during college years does not come from the classroom but from the playground. These opportunities, the students of CSCS are denied and I hope that’s fair enough.
Where you choose your children to attend college is a decision that will affect you and your children for a lifetime. If you agree with me, let me go a step further to say that where a community or a country chooses to train their children is a decision that will affect the community or country for a lifetime. This is my country and this is my worry.
When I was confronted with this sad picture last Saturday, my immediate instinct was that the school is short of space and should be relocated. But the PTA chairman Prince Joseph Okpon was quick to correct me. This school that has no playing ground of any sort actually has a government-approved land mass of 4.420 hectares, enough for four football fields. But “powerful individuals” have encroached and snatched the land for their own houses.
I confess this matter touches my heart. And this column is an SOS not just to relevant government departments in charge of these serious issues, but to voluntary organizations, corporate citizens, and individuals with hearts for children and education. Send your love to those confused and tensed-up children. Let’s rescue this school. It is possible.