By Rohey Samba
Cadetship made me to understand that rules have to be followed in a particular way and orders must be carried out, whether it is a personal order by a troublesome senior to clear his path of garbage trash or to carry his 25 liter water can to his own dormitory. One had to make dogged efforts to shield oneself from the wrath of a naughty superior and the dire consequences of subordination to the ‘Obey Before You Complain’ pact. It was an existential expediency.
There was just no standard for an alibi in a disobedience charge as it would be conduct that could be taken up in the cadetship training as a serious violation of the sacred command chain. In a seagoing vessel, the Captain of the vessel by virtue of his/her titular authority enshrined in the Rules of The Road and various Conventions and Codes, including the International Safety Management Code could use his personal discretion in what could only amount to a possible abuse of power in our circles, in exercising his command.
No order is too flimsy to carry, when it is issued by the captain of a ship as he holds the ultimate authority and responsibility for the vessel and all those on board. Prepping cadets to this role and priming them to serve as obedient servants under the Master, i.e. the Captain, is what the cadetship training was all about. Thus, one risked running into existential peril by failing to obey an order from a senior cadet, however whimsical…
Now, I will recount to you the females I encountered during my cadetship training and how they survived in my memory more than fifteen years on through the understanding of our shared experiences as women and the accumulated depth of feeling that led to my remaining a resilient survivor of such a rigorous training.
By the second week of cadetship training, all the female cadets had arrived to begin the new semester. The chatter in the female cadets’ room was mainly banal but it was also warm and welcoming. We were not fully acquainted with each other yet and covered our hearts with our sleeves before we grew to appreciate each other – moods, attitudes and habits in all.
I noticed that some of the female cadets were very reserved. Others were not so reserved, whilst others still were not reserved at all. I knew that the not reserved ones were the ones to watch out for. From experience, I knew they hurt the easiest and forgave the least. The senior cadets, two in the Nautical block and the remaining in the Electrical and Electronics block were a genre of their own. The first two were Ghanaian and the remaining one Cameroonian. At first, all of them were a bit contrite around us the junior cadets.
Eager to make friends and drop the lines of seniority, I was always overtly chatty and arouse a lot of curiosity initially because I was already married yet very young and totally fun to be with as they would claim later on. Was marriage supposed to make me dull or reserved? I DONNU. What I knew for sure was that I was not going to recoil and wallow in misery due to nostalgia or love sickness. I was adult enough to assume my choices in life. And Nautical College was one big choice I had made. I was going to stick it out for the next four years…
Later on I’d get to know what they really meant when they wondered at how different I was. It had more to do with my religion than my civic status. They were not used to seeing young Muslim women loosen up and share their joy, their fears and if I may add, do so well in academics. Most of the Muslim girls they knew were married off early to older men in polygamous relationships and had very little education to boot. Out of mere habit, I prayed regularly and enlightened them a good deal about Islam, which was no mean feat…
Christianity formed the backdrop to all the girls’ lives. I was neither judgemental nor critical in any way about the religion they subscribed to. Instead, I was willing to listen and declined to pass any form of opinion whatsoever. Honestly, the themes that form the fabric of both our religions are universal. Somewhere, the river of our beliefs meandered into different directions. I declined to criticize the core of their belief, i.e. the trinity, for instance, because I knew not where the current of such inconsiderate act would lead.
My ultimate fear was that if I actually did, they would react and do the same about my own religion, and I would not be pleased with myself. My enlightened knowledge about the Bible, borne from interaction with my own mother’s Aku roots, reconciled my mind to accept their teachings in the confluence of thoughts that only morality could buy into. Morality above law or even religion is my guiding mantra. When we put the human being before religion, compassion before judgement, empathy before criticism…then way to go! Could there be a better model for being human?
In exercise of my new freedoms of being on my own in a foreign land therefore, I resigned myself to my new environment. I learned to censor myself without outside help. My customarily blunt speech, the-I-speak-my-mind-bit, became more guarded. My opinionated self was honed down to consider the inconvenience I may cause others. And that annoying habit of mine, to give advice where I was not asked, was muted. No unsolicited advice unless required! Ya Fatou Samba would not believe me!
Notwithstanding my childhood preponderance to impact upon others, in all the years of being together as cadets, I never exchanged a cross word with any of the other cadets in the female dormitory. That was a big achievement on all our parts. Really. Females are very hard to get along with on my part. It is a fact. I can’t stand the clipped tones, the unnecessary jealousy, the backbiting, you name it, by my fellow females. It repudiates and angers me beyond pale.
We are all driving on multiple lanes along the highway of life. We all drive in what we can afford and what have been preordained for us. If one’s got a Bentley and the other an L-Cart, so be it. It should not escape either one’s attention that there are others still without and others still with better. Some will drive the highway on bikes and others will trudge on their mere feet. While others still will choose to fly over because they can afford it. So why the jealousy or ill-will? It is a total waste of time!
But those ladies were aspiring professionals, highly motivated to make a name in the male dominated maritime field. They had neither the time nor the resources to be consumed by petite female quibbles. It was my choice to let my guard down when I decided to loosen up after taking myself too seriously over the years. And I did not regret this.
I found out that the more I opened up to let people into my life, the more relaxed I became and the more open they were to me. My natural affinity to be compassionate and insightful caught on. Without meaning to, I became the confidante for all, snaking through the grass of oblivion to learn about the lives of my colleagues. In all, the new experience was thrilling and lovable. It survived in my memory through all these years and along with the cadetship training made me experience life at its truest pitch.
The senior female cadets were both respectful and encouraging, thank God. Delphina was motherly, Priscilla was sisterly and Laurice, from Cameroon, the most guarded amongst them all, was very protective. In all, I had buddies, not superiors. The guys were not so lucky. To tow the line of seniority was the order of the day in the male cadets’ rooms. Watching through the gauzed windows of our dorms, I observed the senior cadets laze around as the juniors did all their work for them in order to stay in their good books. I cringed to be in their own shoes. I hated to be coerced and controlled. I am allergic to any form of control, passive or active.
Due to the widespread shortage of water around the Nungua area, fetching water for the seniors was normal routine. For those of us who were unfortunate to stay many flights of steps upstairs, carrying 20 litres and sometimes 25 litres jerrycans upstairs was among our most strenuous exercises. I learned earlier on to carry two jerry cans at once rather than one, to balance out their weight in my arms and thereby complete my task with expediency. Son, those cans were heavy. It took getting used to before I could stomach that essential routine. But it was a necessary evil.
In the excitement of my brand new life, for I was really excited to be in Ghana and to study among my own African people; I noticed some fundamental differences among us. Notably that the girls did not mind divesting in the midst of the other girls and that they were not used to greeting each other in the morning when they awoke.
Being prodigies of boarding schools, the first one was understandable; what with common bathrooms and expansive dormitories shared by numerous boarders/students at a time. At least we were only six in number in our dorm. The Coast is renowned for its girls’ only and boys’ only boarding schools. With routine comes custom. Thus I chose not to reproach anyone. Still, my sense of modesty would not allow me to bare out completely in front of others, even though I saluted their lack of body image issues. I covered with a towel – religiously!
The greeting part took longer to digest. I found it very rude to be addressed in the morning without greeting first. What I did for the most part when addressed thus was to throw in a suggestive good morning in all smiles ‘Oh, hi Priscilla. Good morning to you. What were you just saying?’ They took the cue and greeted back before repeating themselves. Priscilla particularly would smile wryly, and sigh. ‘Oh, Samba. I’m sorry. Good morning,’ in her loving voice. And she would proceed, still with a smile in her voice. Ghanaians are just so polite, let’s face it!
Later on in my second year when the contingent from Liberia, Congo and Cameroon came along, I ceased to bother to insist on being greeted. I was a senior cadet, who did not mind not being acknowledged simply because I did not care anymore. I realised that it was not for me to teach grown up girls courtesy or manners. When I was greeted, I greeted back. When I wasn’t, I looked back like “Lookey”, and we were all essentially very happy. That did not deter from the fact that I would order them to do my bidding and take advantage of my facility as the senior cadet in the dorm.
I also found it totally gross to eat in front of other people without addressing them the courtesy of an invitation, whether intended or as a formality. At the very beginning, I would call on any one who was around to partake of my babarooza, that prohibited food. Then I realized I was the only one doing the calling. After noting the trend for a while, I swallowed the bitter pill and started imitating their actions. I became free from the consuming ailment in my heart that bespoke my discomfort and peeve. After all, I was not Father Christmas to dole out free gifts to adult females…