I have been labouring under the illusion that, as the Twi proverb says, “A good thing sells itself”. In other words, once something is inherently self-elucidating or self-explanatory, one does not need to explain it any further. Alas, I may be wrong. For in the NA issue of May 2009, a reader, Kwasi Mreku, wrote a letter to the editor which shows clearly that he has not understood the purpose of this column.
He says I “bore” him with the stories I tell here about my schooldays. I don’t mind that, for there is no way one can please everyone who reads what one writes. What I want to say is that perhaps if Mr Mreku understood the idea behind story-telling, he would have been a little less inconsiderate – to say the least – in his letter. What is this idea, then? It is that whenever I tell a story dealing with the past, I intend to use it to take my readers back, in their own minds, to their own schooldays. What my teachers did or did not do are meant to trigger stories of the “Me too!” type.
You cannot sit under a neem tree and tell stories without provoking others to tell their own. That is the whole purpose of gathering under the tree. As soon as one storyteller shuts his mouth – or sometimes, even as he is in the middle of a story – someone else comes in with a story that might be as interesting as the one just told, or that is being told. A Nigerian contemporary of mine, Reuben Abati, put it beautifully when he wrote in the Nigerian Guardian that: “One of the most basic rules of writing and journalism is that human beings like to read about other human beings – their lives, successes, failures, pains and pleasures, doubts and anxieties, affairs, and occasions, and as they read about others, people see their reflections in a hall of mirrors; they re-live their own anxieties, and hopefully, they are entertained, or shocked beyond belief, or taught a lesson or two about life, society, being and nothingness.” So, Mr Mreku, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that I make no apologies for writing about things that happened during my schooldays, for a lot of people tell me they enjoy reading such stories. My school mates, in particular, are fond of saying: “How come you remember these things? I swear, if I hadn’t read what you wrote, I would never have remembered that it happened.”
Others take delight in contradicting me. “It wasn’t the Class Two teacher, but rather the Standard One teacher!”, they might say.
“Okay, what was his name?”
“No, it was Kissiedu.”
“It was Wiredu!”
“What did his head look like?”
“Like a mobile cinema van!”
“No, no, no! That was the headteacher! The one we called Ko-Tipor!”
“Okay let’s bet. We shall call Nana Amma (God bless her soul). If she corroborates your story, I shall give you a bottle of whisky!”
“You’re on – but make it a bottle of schnapps!”
And a merry evening is had by all. It is a pity that Mr Mreku finds such stories “boring”. He must be a lonely man, for if you have friends in the same age group as yourself, you are bound to harp constantly back to your schooldays, and your attempts to woo girls, both in and out of school. Schooldays are simply incomparable in terms of stimulation and enjoyment: you enjoy leaving home and going out to meet loads of strangers, some of whom become enemies and others new friends, often lifelong friends; you experience new things as you learn from your books, and become exposed to teachers who can exercise such absolute control over you as neither your father nor your mother ever had.
Hey, what is this life full of care, that we have no time to remember what our schooldays were like? No time to sit under the neem tree and recall football matches won and lost? Excursions to distant places, full of adventure and sometimes marred by ordinary danger experienced in rickety lorries, badly-serviced buses, or sometimes other vehicles in the hands of drunken drivers? Escapades involving hiding places, unsuccessful disguises or lies exploded unexpectedly by unforeseen circumstances? “Boring and irrelevant” is how Mr Mreku sees such stories. Pity.
Mr Mreku also said that I “wrote about a school pupil who had died after being caned by her teacher.” He continued: “I was interested to know more about the incident, but he suddenly returned to his village school life with references to his old teachers who are dead and gone, a complete waste of time.” If Mr Mreku knew anything about journalism, he might have gleaned from the report that the case of the girl’s death was still before a court in Ghana, and it is unlawful to comment on a case that is, as the lawyers put it, sub judice. Perhaps, next time he writes to criticise the work of an experienced writer, he might pause “small” and ponder why the writer did what he did. Certainly, what I did was not “a complete waste of time” but a way of bringing the case before my readers without infringing the sub judice law, which is one of the traps that often catch inexperienced journalists.
What I did – precisely in the manner described by Reuben Abati above – was to allow the report of the girl’s death to conduct me into my own “hall of mirrors”, where my encounters with the cane were waiting to be “screened”. I shared the screening with my readers, for it was safe to do so and still bypass the risk of incurring the wrath of the judicial authorities by infringing the sub judice rule. I am sure quite a few of my readers were also enabled, thereby, to put their mental videos on “play” and retrieve recordings of stories about their own teachers. Actually, I think I have a clue to Mr Mreku’s problem. He was camouflaging his annoyance at the fact that I had criticised teachers who ruthlessly cane their pupils, by claiming that he was “bored” with my stories. Unless he is very obtuse, he would realise that if you say something “bores” you, no one can dispute it, because you are expressing a subjective opinion to which you are fully entitled and which cannot be disputed. But if you say that “it is right for teachers to cane their pupils”, you can be legitimately criticised for harbouring a brutal or callous opinion.
Now, why would Mr Mreku find it distasteful if I criticise teachers who cane their pupils? He tells us in his letter that he was “properly educated at the Presbyterian Teachers Training College at Akropong” in the Eastern Region of Ghana. I have no doubt that he was indeed “properly educated” there. The only trouble is that although it was a good institution (the teachers there included the famous composer and musicologist, Ephraim Amu), Akropong was nevertheless notorious for inculcating the idea of caning and harsh punishment into the minds of the teachers being trained. Whether this was “proper education” or not, is a matter of opinion. However, most of the pupils who were on the receiving end of the policy – including myself – hold the view that caning can be stupid and sadistic. This is because, as I illustrated with the example of the dyslexic girl who was constantly caned by my Class Three teacher (who, incidentally, was trained at Akropong!), caning her was an exercise in futility.
Indeed, if any teacher caned a pupil in England today for being unable to produce work that was as good as her mates, because she suffered from dyslexia – which can be treated – not only would that teacher be considered woefully “uneducated”, but he or she would almost certainly be sent to jail. I realise that dyslexia may not have been discovered in those days, but what about the common sense of the teacher? He whipped her; but her work didn’t change; and yet he whipped her some more. Bloody stupid, I say. Shame on Akropong. Finally, Mr Mreku deigns to advise me, in his letter, not to use Akan proverbs “which have no bearing” on what I am writing about. This charge really puzzled me, for because I know that New African is read widely across the continent of Africa and indeed the world, I have consciously tried to explain any expressions I use that are of local origin, so that anyone reading will be able to understand them. Such proverbs strike a special chord with readers who understand the original language from which the expressions spring and this gives them extra insight into what I am saying.
I wonder why Mr Mreku failed to produce a single example of a proverb I had used that, in his opinion, I didn’t “understand”, or that “had no bearing” on what I had written? Did he deliberately omit to do this because he knew that if he had given a concrete example, I would have been able to examine it, counter his point and leave readers to be the judges? The wide, unsubstantiated accusation he made was out of order. He should either have put up or shut up.