The experience of a young African teacher in 20th century British classroom

John Otim

A final year student of Bristol University stands before a class of teenage boys and girls at Cheltenham Demonstration Secondary School, the year 1965. He is young, good looking, well dressed in tie and suit. Beside him stands the school’s headmaster similarly attired.

“This is Mr. Paul Ekwang from Bristol University”, the headmaster began in his rich baritone. A tall commanding figure he served with distinction in World War II and still looked every bit the soldier he once was.

“Mr. Ekwang will be with us for the next four weeks. During this time he will be your English teacher.  I want you to give him your cooperation and to make him welcome in our great school.” The headmaster paused expecting applause. There was none.

“I know that many of you are keen footballers.” He continued. “We have in Mr. Ekwang a talented footballer. He plays for the famous Bristol Eleven. During his stay with us Mr. Ekwang will be coaching our own First Eleven.”

The school was justly proud of its football team but not a murmur escaped the class. It was beginning to feel funny in the room. There were Africans in the town. But the only African these students were aware of was the half naked Masai from their history text. In the text were pictures of European settlers with their powerful guns out hunting elephants and lions. In the heyday of Empire Africa was the killing field.

“In what way Sir can this man teach us English?” One boy shot up. He wore his sandy hair long. It was the age of the Beatles.  His eyes were blue and they looked intelligent. “Sir, is this not a man of Africa?” The boy pursued. “What does he know about our language?” The rest of the class turned to him and cheered. “It will not happen” the boy announced, “he will not teach us!”.

The headmaster was not a man used to being opposed so brazenly. He was proud of the record of his firm and steady hand in the school. Now here was a new situation he neither understood nor cherished. To be sure he shared these misgivings about the African. Who in this country would not?

He beckoned and in low tones spoke to Paul Ekwang. “Is there something else perhaps you could teach?” Ekwang was surprised and perplexed but he did not let it show. Africans are courteous.

“For sure there is a whole lot I could teach.” Ekwang was smiling. His voice was gentle and even. “But I am here to teach English on teaching practice, perhaps I should return and seek a new posting.”

Ekwang knew that there was no way he could graduate without passing the mandatory teaching practice. He knew that there was no way he could teach students who were unwilling to be taught. The headmaster knew that if he allowed students to chase the African away, his name and his school will be covered in shame. He will be a subject for the media and it won’t be nice.

There are many people who are convinced that Britain was saved by its newsmen and newswomen who toiled and watched over her like a guardian angel. Britain, they say, would have gone the way of apartheid South Africa.

Now there lived in retirement in Cheltenham not far from the school, an old fellow by the name Savage. A more cultured fellow there never was. For years Savage had worked and lived among the Lango people of Uganda. He learned their language and grew to admire their simple ways. The beleaguered Paul Ekwang, a Lango man, now sought him out.

On his first day of teaching when he would have faced on his own a class full of reluctant and possibly hostile students, Ekwang entered the room accompanied by Savage. The class was startled. They had no prior knowledge. They planned a shocker for the man they called dismissively as the Native.

And now Ekwang was saying “I wish to introduce to you my good friend, Mr. Savage. When I was your age Mr Savage was a frequent visitor to our school and he taught me many things I did not know about own language and culture”.

There was no applause. Mr. Savage did not waste time. He plunged straight into the core of what he had to say. He spoke not a word in English. He spoke in the language of the Lango. Ekwang translated. The effect was mesmerizing.

Savage talked about the great open air classrooms of the Lango, he painted a picture, when groups of children would gather around camp fires in the chill of the night to hear stories of the beginning under a burning canopy that made you believe every word that was said.

Savage talked excitedly about the great hero of Lango children’s story, the Hare. As Savage spoke and Ekwang translated, there came a point when the class burst into a roar of hilarity so riotous it brought the headmaster running down the corridor.

The next morning Ekwang conducted the first of his lessons without a hitch. The class studied George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The story in which animals fed up of being ruled by people chase humans away from Animal Farm and seize power for themselves under the leadership of none but the pig, hardly the best of them, but who promises them imminent utopia.

The moment arrives when all animals rise to sing the new national anthem the pig had composed. As he stood before the class, Ekwang bursts into song. The class was amazed, not just that Ekwang could sing, but at the he could sing so well. The class was silent for a while, but soon caught the action. In the joyful atmosphere, freezing winter winds disperse. Everybody:

Beast of England beast of Ireland beast of every land and clime
beast of England beast of Ireland beast of every land and clime
hearken to my joyful tidings of the joyful future time

Weeks pass, the day arrives. It was Paul Ekwang’s last at the school. Scores of students from other classes join Ekwang’s class. It was packed.

Ekwang speaks his last words. In a voice calm and steady he asks: “What lessons do we learn from Animal Farm, about human affairs, about tyranny, about the exercise of power, about make believe and promises of utopia? “

The multitude bursts into song. Everybody: Beast of England beast of Ireland beast of every land and clime.  By now people were shouting. They were saying: Mr. Ekwang , Man of Africa, please don’t go. Don’t go away. And now suddenly there was the headmaster standing by a flushed and overwhelmed Paul Ekwang.