Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Nigeria Revisited – Sample

Part One Chapter 2 Nigeria Revisited: One Car, Two Schools

Guten Morgen,” I said as I stared out at the sea of black faces on my first morning as German teacher at the Federal Emergency Science School. It was September 1962, and I was part of the 4th group of Peace Corps volunteers to arrive in Nigeria.

The room was hushed, and the students looked at me curiously. “Ich heisse Fraulein Zastrow, my name is Miss Zastrow.” I continued, “Repeat after me: Guten Morgen.”

To my surprise, every seat was full, and more students were standing at the back of the large classroom. Were all two hundred Science School students in the room? I had planned a conversational beginning. But that would clearly not work. I had the whole group repeat greetings.

When class was over, I retreated to the staff room with a frown. “You look a little flustered,” said Fred, the American botany teacher whom I’d met during the hour before entering my classroom. He was five feet ten, seven years older than my twenty-one, with dark hair, a thin face, and glasses.

“I didn’t expect so many students. Surely they can’t all want to learn German.”

“They don’t. They just want to get a look at you. They’ve never had a female American teacher, and one who speaks German! Word will get around, and anyone who wasn’t there today will probably show up for your next class. But the numbers will drop.”

By the end of the second week, about twenty students remained. When I returned to the staff room after class that day, I said to Fred, “Will the students keep dropping out ’til they’re all gone?”

“No, you’ll probably have those twenty for the term or even the whole year. You’re no longer a tourist attraction!” he said. I laughed and mimicked the Statue of Liberty.

I’d been puzzling over the name of the school. Now I asked, “Why the name Emergency Science School?”

“We had to prepare for the day the British would depart,” Dapo said, with a nod toward Keith, the one British teacher on the staff, “and we would need our own engineers, scientists, and mathematicians. Too few students were reading A-level science and maths, so the government created this school.”

“But you kept the strange British phrases,” Fred said. “Why not just say math instead of ‘maths,’ and how can ‘reading’ mean studying?” Dapo and Fred engaged in conversational jousting often, sometimes about language and other times about the relative importance of botany, Fred’s subject, and math, Dapo’s. I loved these lively conversations in the staff room and soon joined in.

Fred had been at the Science School for three years. He became my mentor on school issues and Nigerian life. He took me to the German Cultural Institute in downtown Lagos, which provided me with a couple of texts so I could photocopy exercises for my students. We started dating in October.

My twenty students were bright, eager, and fun to teach. German was a third or even fourth language for them—they spoke their own native language and excellent English, and some had studied French in secondary school. They taught me how to pronounce their names, while I taught them how to pronounce German words, conjugate verbs, and construct sentences.

I moved into my flat at Twenty-five Glover Road in mid-October. Peace Corps had told us to live as our Nigerian counterparts did, and no self-respecting Nigerian teacher would live without help, so I hired a steward named Aloysius. He didn’t have a lot of work. I ate lunch at school and was often out for dinner. But he washed clothes by hand—no washing machine—ironed everything, dusted, and swept regularly—no vacuum cleaner—and shopped and cooked. He lived in the boys’ quarters, and I paid him eight pounds a month, less than a fifth of my monthly stipend from Peace Corps.

In early November, Peace Corps added teaching in Ojo village to my assignment. Although Ojo was only eighteen miles from Lagos, it was light-years away in development. There had only been a paved road for a few years. There was no regular transportation, so Peace Corps gave me a white Fiat 500 with an engine that sounded like a glorified lawnmower and a canvas top that opened. Months later, that car led me to meeting my husband.

The principal, Mr. Cardoso, welcomed me with a warm handshake on my first day. I was surprised to learn that he’d graduated with a degree in agriculture from Cornell in 1927. He’d trained in the United States at the same time as Nnamdi Azikiwe, who was now Nigeria’s president. But unlike Zik, he’d met only frustration in his career. He took out his disappointment on the children, with frequent punishment and chastisement.

Twenty-two boys and ten girls made up the whole Awori-Ajeromi Secondary Grammar School. They were as different from the students at the Science School as the village was from Lagos. Emergency Science School students were sixth form—they had already completed secondary school, and some were my age or older—while those at the new Grammar School were in Form I, around twelve or thirteen years old. Nor were they well-prepared. Instruction was in English, but it was difficult for some of the children to understand and be understood.

The single classroom was in an abandoned cement-block church on the one road in town. It no longer had doors or windows. There were desks and a blackboard but nothing else. The occasional chicken wandered in.

Mr. Inyang, the only other teacher, lived in a rented room near the school. A soft-spoken man, he was near my height of five seven, with a wiry build. And like me, he was a novice Yoruba speaker. He taught math and science, while I taught English language, literature, and history. Though he and I spoke often, it was nothing like the camaraderie of the busy and cheerful staff room at the Science School in Lagos.

The men of Ojo were fishermen, plying their wooden craft along the coastline, or boatbuilders. A few were traders. I sometimes passed them on their way to Lagos markets, their bicycles loaded with baskets of the early morning’s catch. Across the road from the school, women wove traditional multicolored raffia mats.

The village chief, the Olojo of Ojo, welcomed me when I visited him to pay my respects and thanked me for teaching his son. Rasaki was a pleasant but not very studious pupil. Like the other children, he barely spoke for the first few weeks. As I learned the children’s names, they became less shy and responded to my casual manner, so different from Mr. Inyang’s formal instruction and Mr. Cardoso’s angry tirades.

My days were full, and my nights became ever more exciting. Fred introduced me to Kakadu, a lively nightclub where the trumpeter Victor Olaiya led his band in highlife. This music, popular all over West Africa, could be fast or slow. But it always had a strong beat that made me want to dance all night. I learned to copy the swaying hips of the Nigerian women. When other volunteers came to Lagos, I took them to Kakadu, where we danced with abandon to the sensual music.

By Thanksgiving, I had begun spending occasional nights with Fred at his flat. I didn’t let on that he was my first sexual partner. I had the impression he didn’t want to know, so I played along, staying lighthearted about our relationship. His attitude, I realized, was another one of the Nigerian customs he had adopted, and it suited me.

I spent my first Nigerian Christmas in Fred’s apartment, sick with malaria. His steward prepared a lovely Christmas lunch, but it was all I could do to sit at the table for a few minutes before heading back to bed. Fred dosed me with Nivaquine, and I slept for most of Christmas afternoon.

He urged me to phone my parents. I called late in the afternoon, around noon in the United States, and assured them all was fine. I didn’t mention the malaria or that I was sleeping with the man whose phone I was using.

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