When we were ‘empty skulls’, not students!

Up to our 7th year of primary school, we took English to be strictly a tool for instruction.

Up to our 7th year of primary school, we took English to be strictly a tool for instruction. It could only be used in teaching different subjects to students – sorry, we were called ‘pupils’. Whenever we called ourselves ‘students’, which was rare, since we never spoke English except where an answer had to be given in the language or a teacher was in earshot, we’d lie down and await our due punishment – caning. We lay face down for our backsides to be ready and waiting, to absorb the pain.

The ban on our use of ‘student’ was because, often, English was taught to us by secondary school students. They alone were students and, true, only they could teach us proper English. Our teachers had been trained in Francophone Rwanda and were as new to the language as we. And so the students taught us English during their holidays, with our teachers in attendance. When our teachers taught us before being taught by students, they depended on their dictionaries.

On the school compound, use of vernacular language was prohibited but it was a rule that our teachers broke by the minute. Still, it did not stop them from caning us if we broke it. But since hardly any of us could communicate consistently in English, it meant that we never used to hold conversations until after lessons. As for exchanges between teachers and pupils, they used to be something akin to animal grunts. An exchange between a teacher and a pupil used to run something like the following.

Teacher: “Niko sha, Ingina!” Ingina: “Sir, please.” Teacher: “Why late?” Ingina: “Sir, late because water fetch, please.” Teacher: “Why water fetch, when early wake impossible?” Ingina: “Sir, early wake possible, please, but water pot one break.” Teacher: “Bad, no care pupil, cane ten!” In case you don’t get our sound-bite language, I’d be explaining that I was late because I had to go fetch water first.

But the teacher wouldn’t hear of it and asked why I fetched water first, if waking up early was impossible. When I said my first water pot broke, he understood because he knew we used pots for fetching water. It was no good reason, anyway, and he declared me careless. And a careless pupil’s backside had to be taught what pain felt like.

You can imagine the ecstasy of some of us, then, when we passed exams at the end of the year. We’d already heard that there was no corporal punishment in secondary school, which made our happiness twofold: becoming ‘Abasiniya’ and leaving behind corporal punishment.

So, when we went to say bye to our teachers, it was more in mockery than in saying a courteous farewell. Good souls, though, they were equally ecstatic to see us go to secondary school and were too dignified to notice mockery or care about it.

But at secondary school, all our enthusiasm died. We were going to be taught by White teachers! When we could barely make ourselves understood by fellow refugees in secondary school, ‘Abasiniya’, how were we going to communicate with Whites? I remember that the first teacher to come to our class of 40 new students was a lady. The moment she entered, we stood up and chorused: “Good morning, Sir!” I was puzzled when the class burst out laughing.

 But, on looking around, I realised why: only the four of us from refugee camps were standing up. Then one of us muttered: “....Madam!” and I realised the other mistake: saying “Sir” instead of “Madam”. She ignored us, anyway, as we shame-facedly sat down like the rest of the class.  Then, looking at me curiously, she barked: “Small buahy, ge-op!” A student next to me nudged me and indicated for me to stand up. Then the teacher said something like: “Arr yu shor yurr odd  inof?”

Tell me, what was I supposed to make of that? I looked around for the helpful boy and, at his sign, I blurted out: “Yes, Sir – Madam!” She said something like “Rabesh!” and I responded: “No, Madam, simbeshya!” The whole class burst out laughing and she raised her arms in exasperation and stormed out of the classroom.

A year or so later, when I could now understand, the helpful Indian boy explained our female teacher’s first comments to me. The question was “Are you sure you’re old enough. And “Rabesh!” was not “Urabeshya!”; it was “Rubbish!” Even I could not help laughing!

It was much later that the full import of what the White teachers took us for hit us – and it was no laughing matter.

Our White teachers did not think twice about calling us “empty skull”, “numbskull”, “mango-head”, “monkey” and even worse. That’s when you, as Rwandans, begin to understand.

When insulting or attributing any wrong to our government, Western governments and their proxy organisations do not need to observe morality, courtesy, accountability, transparency, gentleman’s-agreement, justice, truth. To them, we are brutes and must be treated as such.

But, times not long past, atomic bombs used to be thrown on humans as if on flies. Tables will surely turn! As they keep turning, ever so slowly. But ever so surely. Oh, China!

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