The dictator in the African classroom

John Otim

"Forget the Vice Chancellor! I can crush you on this campus. Once I step in through that door, I am his Excellency the President. My powers are absolute"

In the early nineteen nineties a young artist came to the house where I lived in northern Nigeria on the Ahmadu Bello University campus. He grabbed a drawing pen and paper and within minutes had reproduced the exact replica of the Mona Lisa that adorned my wall. I taught creative writing and used the Mona Lisa as a kind of good luck charm to inspire me. The artist was five years old and the son of a colleague on campus.

Three years later I encountered the artist again now in grade three at a nearby school for the children of the elite. This time he came accompanied by his mother who was then working on a television documentary for Nigerian Television. The Mona Lisa was still in place. I quickly produced a plain piece of paper so that the boy could display again his remarkable skills. But this time the boy would not or could not. His mother looked at me mournfully. I asked what the matter was.

At the drawing lessons at school, the mother narrated, his teacher would ask the class to reproduce drawings of certain common animals from the lesson text by tracing the images. Each boy and girl had a copy of the book. My young friend saw no point in such exercise. He could reproduce the same image simply by looking at it and drawing it. This was something he enjoyed doing.

As other students busied themselves tracing from the text book the teacher noticed that the boy was freewheeling and drawing without reference to the text at all. He sat there like a young Picasso, unhurried and with a smile on his face. The teacher approached and was amazed at what she saw. The boy’s drawing was just as good if not better than those of the other kids who traced the images exactly the way she had instructed and he had completed the task in a quarter of the time it took the other kids.

But the teacher was far from amused and moved quickly and tore up the boy’s drawing and asked him to do it again, this time by tracing the image. The boy refused and was quickly sent out of class. At home he did not talk about it. After being sent out a couple more times he quietly submitted and did exactly as he was told. He traced the objects but felt no fun in what he did.

Sometime later, said the mother, “I noticed that my son had lost the interests he once had and the fun he once enjoyed in drawing. But by then I guess it was too late.” Use it or lose it.

Last year I encountered in Kampala a young Ugandan teacher who had suffered a similar fate at school. Fred loved telling stories. When he talks you can see it in his face. His stories began to appear in the school essays that he wrote first in his native Luganda before translating them into English, the lingua franca of education in Uganda. The teacher (a native speaker of Luganda) noticed that the boy’s texts were too close to Luganda. Fred’s essays which were hilarious were English in words only but otherwise they were pure Luganda in style and meaning. When the teacher discovered how the boy went about composing his works he forbade it. I am not a teacher of Luganda, the teacher announced with finality.

The boy conformed but soon he lost interests in telling stories altogether. He had dreamed of becoming a writer. Instead he became a teacher of religious studies and had no fun in what he did for a living. After nine years in the classroom and many times going for months without salary he threw in the towel. Today Fred makes a living as a small time farmer and condemns what he calls learning the Uganda way. Learning by rote.

We ran into Fred near Boroboro in Northern Uganda on his farm where we found that the art of the story teller he once had was returning to him again. But now Fred had a new problem, he does not speak the language of the people amongst whom he now lives. In his happy go manner he laughs this off and dismisses it as a small and temporary problem which he will soon overcome. Then, says he, “I will be able to tell everybody the story of why there is so much theft in Uganda, especially in government.” Fred Tell us now, we demanded.

“Eee, it is a long story, but Uganda education is producing people who can neither create nor produce! Eee, now if you cannot produce you must steal!” Fred laughed.

Yes if you cannot produce you must steal! We chorus and we laughed along with him. Meanwhile in the papers and in the news there were reports of massive thefts in the office of the Prime Minister in Kampala, of European Union donor funds that were meant for war victims in Northern Uganda.