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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Armitage: A hell on earth?

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‘You are crazy Baldeh’, some would tell me point blank. In Armitage juniors suffer; they have no rights’. It will be tough with you’, some would advise. ‘It’s a good school though Armitage before and now is different’, some teachers would say to me. Different? What made it different but I always believed that it will be fine. 

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When I got my admission, I did my preparation and then set off for Armitage with my Dad. At the principal’s office, a senior escorted me to Kaabu Kunda. He rolled my suitcase and started moving with me and my dad following suit. Students, especially the seniors, took time to have a look at me. Some would say ‘welcome’; others would call me ‘green leaf’ but I ignored them.  Soon we entered room 1 but all the beds had occupants; there was no vacant bed in room 2 as well. Then we moved to room 3 and luckily we found a bed waiting for a ‘green leaf’.  Some students greeted me; asked my name and where I came from.  As soon as I saw my dad off, his words of wisdom and warm hug were the end of happy moments for me in first term of the 2004/2005 academic year.

I headed to the Kunda (dormitory) feeling confident and proud of my achievement that I had fulfilled my childhood dream. No sooner had I entered the room than the Alkalo, nicknamed ‘Mosquito’ bellowed ‘Ndokeh’ come here. Stand up straight let me interview you. What is your funny African name”?” I don’t have a funny name”, I responded. “What”? He thundered. Just didn’t respond again. At this moment, many seniors jumped in. I got surrounded. Small boy you seem to be strong headed ha…? This is Armitage seniors don’t look in your eyes. They celebrate when a new grade ‘tenner’ or ‘Booku Tan-ngo’ arrives like wolves that found fresh meat.  After the celebrations, prison would be a better habitat for a green leaf than the perimeter of Armitage. They do not care if you are as skinny as a rake or big like Balla Gaye.  Seniors don’t care if you are a son of a peasant or a minister. “What funny African village did you come from? “Which funny African School did you attended? I had to reluctantly answer even though nothing was funny about those names. When I mentioned the school’s name, one senior arrived at the scene.  Ndokeh did you know Lamin Manka? Quickly I answered ‘yes’ I know him. ‘You mean you know Lamin Manka’? ‘I know him very well bro’, thinking that it will do me favour. ‘Ndokeh I will punish you’. ‘What’? I enquired.  ‘Yes I will’. ‘I will punish you for knowing Lamin Manka,’ he said. Lamin gave me though time here. He was so wicked. Numerous times I was punished by him. He turned with pretentious anger on his face. I was shocked! I went back sat on my bed. Unsure of what to do next, I held my hands together, sandwiched them between my legs and bent my head on my knees”. So this is Armitage. I said to myself. A hell on earth! Who will comfort me today, certainly not my mum? I was such a fool to come to Armitage. I knew my baptism of fire has come.

Later in the evening on that faithful day I met my distant cousin. It was about four years since I last saw him. A sigh of relief run through my body! His best friend who would later become ‘my senior’ was in grade 12. We went for dinner, the food tasted so badly. No enough ingredients! I had to settle for bread at Mr Cham’s Canteen. The kitchen committees and sergeant on duty were like army commanders. The hall was like a garrison. All talking nonsense! If you feel so energetic and pompous don’t just come or arrive here on time. Some will throw out insults.  Are these people teachers? I ask my cousin. No they are seniors. “What? Seniors!” I murmured. “How can the school authorities go home and left us with these people to do whatever they feel like doing. This is unacceptable. It’s not fair”. Fear gripped me. I was frozen literally and there was drumming in my ears. 

 On day two, coming from the dining hall, holding spoon on my right hand, I met two seniors coming from my room. They stopped me and looked at me from toe to head. “What’s your name small boy”? Edrissa” I responded. ‘Ndo’ are you fit to be here?” Of course I am. “Hey Suma-raka kneel down”. Quickly I obeyed. “Hands up. Close your eyes and open your big mouth. Sonn are you fit to be here” one of them asked?” Reluctantly I said no. Hahha haaai they laughed and ask me to get up. I murmured some insults and continued my way. After studies I was hurrying for my bed when an announcer came in shouting, ‘meeting time.’ The meeting lasted not more than three hours. Every grade twelve wanted to speak although most of their speeches were incomprehensible. You dare not fall asleep too. The punishment can be unbearable. The junior student must endure the bullying. For the seniors it was fun, big fun. For the junior, it was excruciating pain.  After midnight, we headed for the infamous ‘toilet to night’ (TTN). We took turns to fetch the buckets and clean the toilets. Before I entered the toilet I wept but I did not want people to know I was crying. I could not hold it anymore. I had suffered enough in the past two days. I had no peace of mind, no rest. Talk less of good sleep. I was such a fool to come to Janjanbureh. All the while some of the grade eleven students were chatting and laughing, as if inured to this kind of punishment. “Chaii these guys have no sense of feeling” I said to myself.  How can they express happiness when they are treated inhumane? I have forgotten the Fulbe (Fula) adage, mbaba wowti sawru (the donkey is used to the whipping stick).

At the classroom, as early as 8:00 am, students will be sleeping. No wonder TTN consumed most of the sleeping hours aided by early dawn prayers. At class I thought of my friends who opted for schools like Nusrat. “They have no problem. They are blessed” I thought to myself. I am in a prison, maybe a bunker. That even is better than here.  I am just in a perfect hell called school. I think of the days and nights ahead. For holidays is far, I may end up going home after all.

As days went by, Mr Haffner began a crackdown on the notorious seniors bent on punishing unnecessarily.  Whenever a senior is suspended for unlawful punishing a grade ten student, we celebrated and thank the principal silently. During an assembly just before the end of first term, Haffner make a pronouncement, “come second term, black and white across the board”.  Huge celebrations rupture among the juniors. A sign of ending brutal seniority!  For black and white uniform was meant only for ‘candidates’. One needs to work hard in other to qualify for that uniform.  No more Kaki, we discuss among ourselves. They would not call us names for wearing khaki.  Well what is the use of your black when you still scrub and sweep the floor some reminded us during meetings.

When I went for my first school holiday I told my family that I needed a transfer. “I cannot continue to live like a donkey”, I told my parents. Their reply was a blatant ‘No’. “Those students there are just your age mates, if they can bear the situation why not you”. With no other choice, I picked my bag with a heavy heart and headed to Janjanbureh.  After a while I became fully integrated and adapted well to my new home. I developed strong relationship with students and teachers. In the early beginning of grade ten first term, the grade eleven students constantly reminded us how hard they will make life for us when they takeover in third term. They did not know that Mr Haffner had change the dynamics of student council in Armitage. 

Saturdays nights are always unique in Armitage. These nights are characterised by musical dance, video show, debates, quiz or camp fires. My first weekend programme in Janjanbureh was a musical dance. After the programme and on my small-sized bed, my mood had completely changed. It was like I was a prisoner who had been granted bail. I vividly remember how I was dancing with the few friends I made. I completely agree that all work no play makes jack a dull boy. Another weekend it was a camp fire, the scouts’ song nice songs. The band was just remarkable. The love of the band motivated me to register as a scout. The school choir too was just amazing. They were well trained by the school ‘mother,’ Matron’ of blessed memory and had on many occasions made visitors to shed tears with their melodious songs including myself.

Meanwhile I later enjoyed my time at mother Armitage. I began to realise after three years that I was no fool for choosing Armitage. I neither hated the people who punished me unnecessarily nor do I sought revenge. I had a good time and earned quality education. I represented and won debates for Kaabu Kunda, played volleyball for mighty Kaabu, A flutist for the scout band, senior international news reporter on currents affairs and a losing head boy (Seyfo) candidate in 2006 Seyfo elections. I realised that Armitage cannot operate without seniority. Reasonable punishments must also apply to offenders. Such is the rule of life. Since I bid farewell in 2007, Armitage remains close to my heart. 

You are no hell mother Armitage but a breeding ground for students. You make students to be in charge of their future, withstand difficulty, and above all grow up to be responsible citizens.

 

Edrissa Baldeh is a graduate of the University of The Gambia. He now works with the Food Safety and Quality Authority.

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