Impossibilican’t when trouble asked me
Ọrẹ mi mo ti gboyinbo kan
Ko sẹni to le tumọ rẹ
Tiṣa nikan lo le tumọ rẹ
(Sung to the same tune:)
My friend I just heard an English word
None can turn it into Yoruba
Only our teacher can perform such a feat
The first of them was not a teacher, just a senior and the Library Prefect for that year. I was in form one while he was in the final year form five. He was later to become a professor of Geography at the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University as Professor Omolade Adejuyigbe.
I had been put in the library because the doctor at the General Hospital had written to the school that I could not cope with grass cutting morning duty.
In the library, one of the best school libraries in the country with thousands of titles, Senior Adejuyigbe gave me the assignment to read a novel a week and write a report on it for him.
The first teacher to call my attention to the grandiose nature of the English language was Mr. Ogbue. From form one to form four he took us through Grieve books one to form. Passages were followed by grammar points, context questions, essay topics. He knew his work.
That was the period of telegrams. Anybody remember what telegrams were about? Anybody remember what telegram forms looked like? Short, sharp messages like the one at the beginning of The Outsider by Albert Camus. “Today mother died. I received a telegram: ‘Mother Dead. Burial Tomorrow.’” English teachers taught what was called Précis Writing. Today, it is called Summary pronounced Summry! And nothing like précis writing. The idea was to reduce any passage to one third of its length. Writing a telegram after learning to write précis was a cake walk.
By form four I was confident of my English language and I began to write stories. The same doctor who had recommended no physical work also taught essay writing when I stayed with him and his family during the holidays. His wife provided weeklies and monthly magazines like Everybody’s and Geographical Magazine.
Thanks to the second journal my interest in geography increased buoyed also by stamp-collecting hobby. But the writing was helped by having pen friends in different parts of the world and exchanging letters regularly.
In form four Mr. Olú Falae, now Chief Olu Falae, came to teach us English. Years later, I would learn that he was an Economist! Did he teach literature? I don’t remember but my first writing venture I link to him as our English teacher. For our final year West African Examination Council set book we had The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.
During the December holidays I read the book, summarised each chapter and added questions and answers at the end with notes on the author and why she used a man’s name instead a woman’s as she was. When school opened in January of our final year I offered my effort, like those Questions and Answers booklets that our seniors were using written by Krishna Menon and other Indians. A classmate bought my ‘book’ and paid me for it.
A few days later he came back asking for his money! I gave him his money and got my ‘book’ back. But I wanted to know why he was returning the ‘book’ that would assured him a good mark in literature. He was frank. Some of our classmates abused him and told him he could read the book by himself and not depend on me.
From Oyemekun Grammar School Akure, with the record of the first student with A in English I went to King’s College, Lagos for my Higher School Certificate (H.S.C.) Programme. We had two teachers for English Literature Mr. Williams and Mr. Olafimihan. They drilled the love of English Literature into us to the extent that we walked around the school compound and Lagos Island looking at the Lakes District of England and taking hibiscus flowers for Daffodils!
Mr. Olafimihan in his spare time read Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope and one of those wield English mawkish plays famous in the Middle Ages. Two of my classmates Bashorun J K Randle and Dr. Okali did try their hands successfully at writing fiction and non-fiction.
By the time I arrived at University College, Ibadan, later University of Ibadan, I had had my fill of English Literature.
Yet, my admission was to do a degree in English! I visited the English Department, looked at the programme. They had a year for the English novel and another for Shakespeare and somewhere in the three year degree programme space for literary criticism.
Anyway, I had decided that I wanted to be a writer, which is different from the fact that I wanted to write in English. I had decided that to write in English it would be a handicap to do a degree in English.
Yet, all the writers whose novels I had read in the toilet at King’s College after lights out, with exception of Amos Tutuola and Cyprian Ekwensi had read for English degrees. What to read?
There were three lecturers who were of interest to me personally. There was O.R. Dathorne from British Guyana who had published two novels before coming to Ibadan. I had found his Dumplings in the Soup in the British Council library in Yaba, Lagos. He advised me not to be a writer like Ekwensi. I wondered why. He wouldn’t touch Tutuola whom I loved!
There was Zeke Mphlele of Down Second Avenue. He was not in the English Department but in Extra Mural Studies with the German Yoruba man of Culture Ulli Beier.
The third lecturer in the English Department of particular interest to me was Professor S.B. Bushrui, a Lebanese National with research interest in Khalil Gibran. He was working on his dual language English and Arabic book on Gibran in my first year in the university.
Soon after I met Professor John Hunwick, English man, married to a Nigerian artiste, and spoke Arabic, both classical and colloquial, like a native. He was the acting head of the department of Arabic and Islamic Studies. I registered to do a degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies.
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