By Patrick Dele Cole
AT 15, I broke my left arm playing football. It was a horrendous accident, as the left elbow joint was broken and another bone was also broken. It was called a compound fracture, which my mother believed had been the deliberate work of a classmate whose name was Ojukwu (Who can forget such a name?). My mother came to Port Harcourt from Onitsha and was ready to tear Ojukwu to pieces. He disappeared temporarily while my problem had to be solved. Before she could arrive, I had been taken to a local Osteopath who must have worsened the injury because he attempted to set the bones without seeing any X-ray.
When eventually an X-ray was taken, I was told that the only place I could get treatment was at the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital, Igbobi. My mother took me to Igbobi where the prognosis was not particularly good. There were two specialist orthopaedic surgeons who treated me. I ended up in a three-hour operation where some muscles and bone were taken from my leg and patched to the elbow.
I stayed in Igbobi for 3-4 months. Meanwhile, I wrote to some of my classmates to make extra copies of class notes because I was coming back soon. When they did not see me for a few weeks, the note copying stopped. We had 3 semesters in those days in school. My accident had happened in the first semester and I was out of school for the rest of that semester and the whole of the second term. The Igbobi treatment was not successful. So till today, I have a left arm while I cannot bend at the elbow and which is not fully functional. I do not know where Ojukwu is.
I returned to school halfway through the third term with my stiff left arm. I had to learn how to use one hand for practically everything I did.
My prefect at school in the dormitory was Henry Ikechi Wigwe, whose family we knew when his father worked in Onitsha. Senior Wigwe took me in hand and decided that all the lessons I had missed, he would coach me with the help of some of the notes my classmates had kept for me for a short period. My classmates thought that if I had been away that long, I would have to repeat form III. But with the coaching and teaching of Henry, although I did not need to do the final examination, I did and I passed to form IV.
Some of my classmates were very colourful and ingenious. Boarding House food was generally bad. There were no beans that some weevils or other insects had not found a home. The soup was a miracle nobody could consciously perform. We called it, “separate me Paul and Barnabas,” because the water in the soup was on one side, the egusi, or vegetable or okra or gravy took battle positions on the other side: water, egusi, vegetable, gravy – all looked at themselves as mortal enemies, each determined to hold their ground within the soup bowl. As for the rice, there were as many stones as grains of rice!
Every class usually had one popular student – either the class bully or the student who had everything and can turn the inedible food into something else by adding all sorts of condiments. In our class, his name was Ewe. At mealtimes, he came to the dining hall with yeast, marmite, curry powder and a host of other things which when mixed with “Separate me Paul and Barnabas soup,” became something else. As the dining hall bell rang, Ewe would have a small coterie of followers hoping to get something to magically transform the soup. Ewe kept a rough register in his head – you may enjoy his munificence once a day: and for a price.
Apart from Ewe’s culinary improvisation, he also had the almighty letter writing book. At 15, the hormones have started surging through your body. You want to write a letter to some girl or walk past her house several times in the hope she would notice you. Ewe has this book full of letters for all occasions. First, you have to find out the name of the girl, the school she went to, etc, usually by befriending her brother or nephew or neighbour. You then went to Ewe, the guru, who would bring out his closely guarded book of letters. He will first listen to your story, usually how you have passed in front of the girl’s house a million times but have only seen her a couple of times or you had smiled at her but she gave you not the slightest notice, etc. The more ignored you are the greater the efforts to impress. You may have used your pocket money to buy one handkerchief you hope to give to her as a present. I need not detail here, the total disregard or failure of all these overtures because the object has no idea who you are or what you are trying to do – a classical case of unrequited love.
Anyway, Guru Ewe has the correct answer for all these tribulations. His handwriting is perfect, assured and manly. He would copy a letter from his book, address it to the girl and you would sign.
At lunchtime every school day, the senior prefect rings a bell and many students gather and surround him because he was about to release letters written to students in the school. He calls the name of each recipient who jumps up as if he is going to receive the holy sacrament. It’s usually a letter from your parents or your male friend from another school. Expectant and envious eyes follow you. “Is it from her?” They want to know. Well, if not today, there is tomorrow. Some boys receive more than one letter and they walk as if in high heavens.
Some of us from form III to V would go on visiting days of the girls’ schools all around Port Harcourt, Aba, Uyo, etc., usually without knowing a soul, in the hope that we might get lucky and be introduced to someone. We were so unbelievably shy it was painful. Luckily a few of our schoolmates had sisters who gave us a good introduction for these visits.
In form V, we were a little bolder. Then it happened. Three of us were friends, Ferdinand, Clarkson and myself. In form V, you no longer needed permission from the senior prefect to go out on exeat from the boarding house on Saturdays. On this particular Saturday at 5 am, we saw Clifford, the senior prefect, and actually told him we were going to town. We had our shower and took off to the Railway station. Ewe had moved his magic and Ferdinand had a pen pal, Ngo, who was at Queens School, Enugu. On this fateful Saturday, she was going back to school by train with her schoolmates from Port Harcourt to Enugu. We decided to go and say farewell to her at the Railway station. By 6 am we bought our flat form tickets and started looking for Ngo whom we soon found. We were feeling like giants, beaming from ear to ear as we continued some inconsequential conversation. Suddenly, some deep voice called out “Cole, Fiofori, and Whyte what are you doing here? Why are you not in the school?” Ferdinand, who was the pen pal of Ngo, explained that we had permission from the senior prefect. Meanwhile, our knees had become jelly and we were speaking gibberish. Our interrogator was Ngo’s father who was also the Senior Master or Deputy Principal of our school!!
We rushed back to school fearful of what would happen to us even though technically, we had permission to go to town. But the teacher’s question of what we were doing at that time in the Port Harcourt Railway station, we could not really answer. All weekend, we were on tender hooks waiting for Monday which duly arrived. We were hauled into the principal’s office to answer what we were doing at the railway station so early on Saturday. We explained that we had permission and that we did not know that the Railway Station was out of bounds.
By this time, other teachers have come into the principal’s room to witness the incandescent rage of Ngo’s father who was insisting that we be expelled from the school.
One teacher argued that this was all unnecessary. We had about one month to the West African School Certificate Examinations, WAEC; the examination numbers had been sent to the school and he did not know if the school had the power to stop us from taking the examination, and that even if it did, what would they say to Examination Council). Ngo’s father threatened to resign, but was only mollified when the Principal decided to rusticate us as boarders from the school. We were to take the examinations as day students.
This is not the place to go into the apoplexy of our parents. Luckily by then, I had a place at Ibadan Grammar School for the Higher School Certification, Ferdinand had a French scholarship to France, and Clarkson had a place at the Emergency School of Science at Onikan, preparatory to his studying medicine.