A Ghanaian pupil died recently after she was caned at school, which reminds me of my school days. Excessive caning by teachers is sadism, period.
There are certain things that happen to other human beings that send a shudder through one’s system. Although one may not have been there when the event occurred, one’s mind transports one to the scene, to feel the emotions felt by those who were present, and to empathise totally with the victims of the event. In that vein, this newspaper report brought tears to my eyes: “Pupil Dies After Caning” was the headline. The body of the story said: “A packed Magistrate’s Court [in Ghana] was filled with shocked silence, when the prosecution read a charge of provisional murder against a teacher who allegedly administered two strokes of the cane on a 14-year-old pupil, who died. The teacher was said to have punished the pupil and others, for lateness to school. Some of the teachers and relatives began to weep and had to be helped out of the courtroom… The teacher was remanded in police custody for felony…
“The trial judge said the adjournment was to allow the police to complete investigations into the circumstances that led to the death of the pupil. The body had been deposited at the mortuary, awaiting autopsy.
“The court heard that the teacher [was] on duty on 3 March. In that capacity he punished some of the pupils who came to school late. The prosecutor told the court that the teacher gave each of the pupils two lashes on their buttocks [my emphasis] and thereafter instructed them to pick up leaves littered around the school compound. Later, the girl became unconscious and fell down while getting up from her desk in the classroom. She was rushed to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.”
This story sent me right back to Class Three, which I reached when I was nearly nine years old. You may remember that my Class One teacher had attempted to “jump” me to Class Two from Class One but that when I got to Class Two, the teacher there showed very little interest in me, and behaved as if he expected me to pick up what I had not yet been taught, by magic. Not only that – he hardly did any teaching, leaving most of the “work” to a bully of a prefect, who just distributed work books and chose the pages on which we were to work on, meanwhile abusing us as much as he could. I failed miserably under these conditions and was sent back to Class One. It was humiliating to me, but what hurt me most was that by sabotaging my “jump” to his class, the Class Two teacher had made it appear as if the judgement of my Class One teacher was faulty. Thus I went back to Class One with my head down. Had my Class One teacher not been a particularly perceptive individual who understood instinctively that something was wrong in the kingdom of Class Two, I could have lost my self-confidence for ever. As it was, Mr Akwaban (that was his name) completely ignored my debacle and went on as if nothing had happened. And at the end of the year, I did so well that he got the headteacher to promote me to Class Three, to join the Class Two chaps whom I was supposed to have been unable to match when I had been given the opportunity to join them.
Well, we were now in Class Three. With a new teacher! He taught us all new things at the same time. And, thank God, I was able to cope with the material he taught us. I studied so hard – because of my previous year’s history with my classmates – that when he set us an examination after the first four weeks, I came first. The former Class Two pupils were shocked out of their minds. But worse was to come for them. Although I was only getting to nine whilst most of them were over 10, I was appointed class prefect. Over them! It was sweet revenge for my humiliation in Class Two, and engineered by a new teacher who could not be accused of bias, at that.
My classmates envied my position, but I hated it. It meant I had to go and sweep the teacher’s rented room each morning, before going back to prepare myself for school. I lost about an hour of sleep each morning doing that. Then, on my way to school, I had to pass by the teacher’s house – again – to collect his books and carry them to school. That did not, however, save me from getting punished if I was late for school. After school, I had to carry his books home, and was unable to stay behind and play with my friends. Terrible. But the worst of it was that our teacher loved caning children who were not bright. From arithmetic tables to recitation of hymns and passages, from the church catechism to reading (which meant reading aloud), countless opportunities arose for him to cane children. “Five times 7?” “T…t…wenty-nine!” PAH!… PAH! The cane descended on the back of the pupil who had answered wrongly.
“Six times eight?” “F…f…forty-two”. PAH! PAH! PAH! “Eight times nine? Don’t count your fingers!” “S…s…s…sixty-four”. PAH! PAH! PAH!
It went on all day and all afternoon. The classroom sounded like a funeral hall in which people competed to cry loudly. Our teacher had very big eyes and when he got excited during the caning, I figured the devil himself could be seen reflected in them. There was one particular girl, the daughter of our chief, who was, I have no doubt, quite dyslexic. She wrote all her sums and sentences as one word, and she couldn’t answer if you asked her what one plus one was. It was so clear to me that she had a pathological inability to master sums and words but our teacher paid no heed. He beat her mercilessly like all the rest. And because she was the chief’s daughter, she couldn’t go home and complain. Otherwise, it would be misconstrued as seeking favours because she expected the teacher to fear her father, the chief. I have never seen a more miserable creature in my life. Whenever I saw her brothers – big tough guys, who were my friends – I had to restrain myself from inciting them to go and beat up the bastard who was torturing their poor sister.
I said I never knew a creature who was more miserable in school than this girl. But that’s not true. There was one who was more miserable than her and that was – me! Yes – I took the trouble to master all my tables and answered every question I was asked correctly. I also managed to “chew” huge chunks of hymns and catechism by heart so that I could have recited them in my sleep. Well, some have stuck and even today, I can recite hymns like the one that goes: “Manyan yi meto dwom pa. Ama Nyame M’agyenkwa. Ono na oye me yefo. Me gyefo ne me hwefo!” (The hymn says, in so many words, “Now that I have woken up, I shall sing a good song to God my Saviour; it’s He who is my maker and my saviour and who takes care of me.”)
I never cease to laugh at a joke connected with this hymn: it is very instructive, in that it illustrates what a silly thing it is to regiment children to chew things by heart and recite them by rote without making sure that what they are learning makes sense to them. One of our classmates didn’t have Twi as his first language, and passages like the one I have quoted above, with their formal expressions in Akuapem Twi (not the Akyem Twi he heard regularly) and their quaint imitation of poetry, (can you see that the words rhyme?) were an artificial language that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the everyday vocabulary he was struggling to acquire. So when he was asked to recite this hymn, he came up with this: “Manyan yi meto dompe. Mama Nyame magye nkwan, Ono na oye….”
No-one heard the rest of what the boy had to say. We broke into hysterical laughter because what he had said was this: “Now that I have woken up, I shall buy a bone, and ask God to give me soup to go with it!” That sacred words from our hymn book could be rendered to apply to such mundane issues associated with the stomach as bones and soup, was, to us, a major scream. And we laughed and laughed and laughed. But our stupid teacher learnt nothing from the episode. I don’t remember him making any special effort to accommodate the shortcomings of the foreigner in our midst, when it came to questions relating to language.
So I knew my tables. And I could understand and recite the hymns and catechism passages without a fault. Yet I felt miserable in the fellow’s class. Why? Because no matter how exemplary I tried to be, I got beaten all the same. It came about like this: as the class prefect, it was my duty to bring our teacher a new cane from a collection of raffia canes kept in the school store, to replace those that got broken as a result of excessive use by the teacher. And, by a queer method of deduction, our teacher deemed it necessary to try the new cane on me first, before applying it to its intended victims! Can you imagine what it felt like? I spent all those hours learning what I was required to learn, and yet I could not escape the fearsome cane of the teacher. I have never hated anyone in my life as much as I hated that man.