All roads will lead to the island noto (Janjang Bureh) on July 7th for the grand celebrations marking ninety years since Armitage, the first-ever government boarding school was established. Barely two years ago, former president Yahya Jammeh made thinly veiled threats to change the course of history, at the same time change the name of Armitage.
The former president who had vigorously fought, tooth and nail to stultify any work done by the colonial authorities at that time, Armitage, in the eyes of Jammeh was an extension of the colonial relic. At the time, the former president wanted to change the name of the school, Royal Victoria Teaching Hospital in Banjul named after Her Majesty Queen Victoria of England was renamed after the nationalist, Edward Francis Small.
There is no doubt that ultra-nationalists will always savor a moment to valorize what is uniquely theirs, however, there are some exceptions that one must not attempt to touch or change at all. In the case of renaming Armitage high school, I totally reject any attempt to rename the school just because it was built and named after a colonialist in the person of Sir Cecil Armitage (1869-1933). Armitage was a British colonial officer who served as Governor of The Gambia from 1920-1927. He established the school and the Gambia Department of agriculture.
The celebration comes at a time Gambians are witnessing a new democratic dispensation where a new wave of creative enterprise in the form of art and freedom of expression seems to be gathering pace in mainstream newspapers. A WhatsApp page created by Armitage ex-students association is sending word out to members who are preparing for an elaborate and historic celebration in July.
The ex-students are preparing for double celebrations; a conference to be followed by the speech and prize giving ceremony. The whatsApp page has already galvanized the spirit of Armitagians who are sharing the useful time they spent in the school with others who were there before or after them.
Year in, year out, students graduate from the school, joining their peers and others in the race to pick up a job or pursue advanced education in or outside the Gambia. During one’s time in the school, the institution becomes so burdensome with various types of laborious work or assignments.
On my first day at school, it was on a hot Sunday afternoon in September 1993, the first time I was in Georgetown as it was then called; I was told by a student that Armitage had four kundas namely Kaabu, Saloum, Niani and Fulladu. Eager to venture into the razzmatazz of boarding life, I stormed into empty rooms full of mattresses and abandoned chairs, lying idly.
Suddenly, a feeling crept into my soul; I realized that I was indeed entering a small army camp. There and then, I saw a man, shouting, green leaf, green leaf, come here and arrange these chairs. My name was not green leaf, how dare, someone call me such names. I refused to heed to the call. Later in the evening, I heard the sound of the gong; ‘gong, gong,’ I asked someone what is that supposed to mean; it’s a sign that the evening meal is about to be served. In few minutes time, I saw various students walking toward the dining hall.
As soon as we entered the hall, I saw some boys clapping their hands. What happened that fateful night was horrendous; how on earth can a first-year student (green leaf) be asked to kneel down for eating his meal before the start of the mandatory prayer, which goes as thus: ‘In the name of Allah, we respectfully stand before you, to have this meal in dining, we pray you give us long lives and keep away from hungry’. It was the head boy, who wanted to settle old wounds with the student he had asked to kneel down. ‘Poor me, so this is the school, I will spend five years’ I murmured in my heart. The worst is yet to come, few minutes after we finished eating the meal, the senior students asked us to cut leaves of neem trees to sweep the floor of the dining hall.
As dawn was about to break, I could vividly hear the sounds of metallic objects clicking against each other, when I asked my bedmate what was going on, he rudely responded; ‘don’t you know, it’s time for dawn prayers. If you don’t go, you will be punished’.
On my first Saturday in Armitage, friends were talking to each other about the need to put on their best clothes and best shoes to impress other students. However, when you are a junior in Armitage, there is no way you can impress the girls, because that’s reserved for the senior boys. What was amazing to me is the speed at which news reaches the senior boys that some students are armed to the teeth with extra food provisions, and the some senior boys will stoop so low to conquer the students mischievously.
Woe betide a fresh green girl who will not reply yes (if one is being chased) to a senior boy who is either the gong man or a kitchen committee member, then you will have a terrible time in the school, because there is no way you can escape their wrath. As for the kitchen committee member, you can be assured of the juiciest part of the meal, once the junior girl is on the right side of the boy.
As for funny words and names such as ‘mug, rag, papitipa, are you fat? Etc, Armitage has its own stock of vocabulary, which is not only educative but entertaining at times. Once you are a boarding student, you learn to live with your colleagues and the dominant language spoken is usually the English language.
What about MSK? Meaning MaSuwanka Kunda; the place during our time was fertile ground for idle activities such as drinking of palm wine and escaping the wrath of the councilors who are always lurking around for someone to punish. The school principal was simply called Prince whilst the master on duty was widely known as MoD.
The author, Ebrima Baldeh, managing editor at GRTS-TV studied in Armitage high school from September 1993 to June 1999. He studied history at the University of the Gambia.