Thoughts on October 1st, 1960
What I am trying to do here and now is to re-enter my childhood or an aspect of my childhood and thence move on subtly and quietly without noise to an aspect or a slice of my boyhood. It is not intended to be an elaborate re-entering of those long, long years of gone times. Today is October 1st, 2019. Fifty-nine years earlier we got or had what we have since welcomed as our independence, political, economic and cultural independence from the masters of slavery called colonialists and imperialists who are Caucasians of Caucasians called Britons belonging to the Caucasoid group consisting of the French, Germans, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Belgians, the Dutch and other sundry Europeans. In 1960, how many members of my generation had a perfect or near-perfect image of our Caucasic master our fathers were happy to redeem us from? When I say our fathers, I don’t mean our biological fathers. I gladly and simply mean our fathers in politics who through political skirmishes and rhetorical combats brought our idiotic cycle of anguish to a close but is this really true knowing what we have known, and experiencing what we have experienced these past fifty-nine years of Independence that is not really Independence?
IremembervividlyOctober1st1960. It was a propitious Saturday. How old and young was I at that time? How old and young was I, now almost worn with age or use, at that time? How old and young was I, rigorous combatant and modest accomplisher of this and that, was I at that time? None of these questions should really matter here now. But they must matter and they do matter. Not in the way you might expect it and by the smallest token of expectation that should enchant you.
January 1960 was when I formally entered the four walls of school. Before then, that is, before 1960, in fact, three or so years before 1960, I saw the four walls of a “formal” school in a night school. My teacher then who taught us – about ten or so kids – was an Ibo butcher. Then members of this ethnic group were not known by us as “Igbos” but “Ibos” as any Sapele person of that time will attest to. Of course, one of the significantly popular roads then was called Ibo Road – not “Igbo Road.” During or after our dreadful and meaningless civil war of 1967 to 1970 the road had a change of name. As a Safarian through and through, the change appalls me substantially. The feelings of oneness and belonging shared by all Safarians regardless of their ethnic places and leanings were enormously affected by such re-labelling. I am painting a picture of rosy Safa of the splendid pre-1960 and of 1960 that saw me in a night school where we had constant electricity for twenty-four hours and beyond stretching to months and months of sunlight in our young hearts and impressionable minds. Electricity flowed, so to say, in our homes uninterrupted in our homes, in our houses. There were candlesticks to light in emergency situations, but I can’t remember now how often we use or lit candles. A stick of candle then could last a century, if not more. Our matches were also remarkably durable ones. Nothing was fake or false then as a product in our households. As young as we were, we were truly free to roam and roam everywhere in our neighbourhoods and beyond. There was no apprehension or fear that we would be abducted for rituals or that we would be molested as we witness every now and then today. Who dared to steal or rob anybody at gun-point or at knife-point?
Now what stands out in my pictures of childhood and boyhood is my marching with my mates to the shore of River Ethiope in the pontoon area (near Ferry Inn, a day- and night-club that is no more) when vehicles laboured into Sapele that had no bridge to connect it to Benin City except the one at Ologbo. But after Ologbo you needed to enter Sapele en route to Sapele and beyond via the almighty pontoon. It was October 1st 1960. Independence Day! We, little urchins, were celebrating our day of liberation and perpetual freedom from oppressive and exploitative beings called white men.
We marched to the River Ethiope shore to wave our Independence flags of green- white-green to a big political personage, whose labours helped to bring us salvation. After welcoming him as his vehicle throttled out of the pontoon we marched him and his vehicle to the Sapele Township stadium nearby. Who was the personage? Festus Okotie-Eboh? Awo? Zik? Marierie? Oba Akenzua? Olu Erejuwa? I can’t remember. Our teachers did not really tell us who the personage was. If they did, the name has since disappeared from my rendering memory. The point that needs remembering is this: We were marking gladly a historic event and celebrating at the same time political gods who uprooted us from the grim grips of our condemned fate. How truly happy we were! Itsekiri, Urhobo, Ibo Benin, Yoruba, Hausa, Kukuruku, Ishan – how truly happy we were! How but one obsession we shared, which was to see each and every one of us as one! On that wonderfully propitious day, what acrobatic displays and dances by masquerades and gorgeous dancers by different ethnic groups mingling and displaying in unison in the glittering sunshine of amazing freedom did we not see and enjoy to our brim and fill!
Our teachers from everywhere also possessed the persistent and insatiable desire to inculcate in us this obsession which could only be appeased with joyful labours for one another. Our Ijaw Headmaster, great HM, led the teachers in our school, Council Primary School (formerly Government School) to plant this unity consciousness in us in any activity we partook in. School was really the school that it was. It was meaningful and not as meaningless as our schools now are. Our life was meaningful and had nothing of the meaninglessness of now. The ugly worm-existence of our today’s kids, several of whom suffer one form of molestation or the other, is irrationally strange.
All the schools Awo established and built have crumbled. The sage’s beatific vision is now a myth. Show me one good public primary school where we can find a pupil who can write simple and correct English that befits the ideals Awo (and his ilk) gave us, and I will tell you that our fifty-nine years of Independence are not years of labours in vain.
Not long ago I revisited my primary school. I wept. The almond trees that heralded us into the once lavish compound are all gone. The palm trees and pineapple farm and garden that gave us rejoicing hearts are gone. The plants, vegetation and fruits which we relished, and which also enhanced the school and helped to give it an ever-growing comfort, beauty, and warmth, while we were there, are no more. Some meaningless buildings called classrooms dot the compound and parts of the field where we played some of our greatest football match- es and partook in other sports and games. Now plant and wood sellers and sawn timber marketers and lumberers are neighbours of the once serene school. How much learning is there now?
The 1960s’ picture of my primary school may be – in fact, must be that of yours as well. The educational ideals and philosophies that should portray some permanent and lasting good at which all Nigerians may aim, as contrived by our founding fathers, seemingly cannot be conjured up again. Believe it or not, my teachers were teachers that were teachers. The credit must go to our founding fathers, who created them and the ideals they contrived for our seemingly endless pilgrimage and pursuit that ushered many members of my generation into the beautiful temple that became our abode. But you may rightly ask:
”What for if Nigeria is what it is now fifty- nine-years after?”
As I look back I see, very dejectedly, that the men and women, the wonderful individuals, known and unknown, who moulded us and our institutions, buildings, and wrenched our country from the colonialists left us in a state they should not have left us in. Fifty-nine years after we are still prisoners engaged in digging and digging amazingly and prodigiously without end old and new holes that lead to nowhere. The capricious hole-digging has assumed the format of a relay that is in the cloak of abiku that oscillates – back and forth – in a way that obtunds our imagination and every sense of purposeful decency.
However, this is not our fate. The true spirit of October 1st, 1960 will rise again. Our great ones known or unknown will be reborn and be the re-builders of a mightily great and flourishing country, our country, and civilization. People will be made to cry out in full from Sapele to Sokoto and beyond at the appointed time. The sound of silent voices shall explode to progressive chaos of men and women who want to live and live well. Descend, Messiah, descend!
Afejuku is a professor of English at the University of Benin, Benin City
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