I still shudder when I feel that I’ve made a mistake in spoken or written English – I fear the cane descending upon my head any time. In our seventh year of primary school, you did not utter an English sentence unless you were confident that you’d silently practiced it to yourself and were cocksure. Unfortunately, most often you found you had to respond to a teacher’s question without prior practice.
As I’ve said, that seventh year was in Kajaho Primary School, in the sprawling refugee camp of Nshungerezi, south-western Uganda, in 1968. The problem of acquiring that knowledge was compounded by the fact that our regular teachers were fellow Rwandan refugees who had just left Francophone Rwanda. This meant that they were learning English along with us, their pupils. Brave sorts that they were, however, they could not let that handicap get in the way of turning us into speakers of Queen’s English.
And their concern was not just to turn us into speakers of the language but to make us excel in all subjects. English and Mathematics were their priority, of course, as the only two subjects that were tested in the national primary-leaving examination. Their concern as teachers, as for parents and other Rwandans, was to make us excel. To the Rwandan community, one excelling pupil meant raising the name of the whole community. As the community’s honour rested on the success of each pupil, so was each pupil the concern of every community member. And so, to excel was the zeal, the passion, the obsession of every single Rwandan.
Why a disproportionate emphasis on English? Being Francophone, Rwandan teachers could not teach the language at the beginning and had to rely on Rwandan students in secondary schools. However, these could only volunteer during the holidays, which meant that regular teachers had to make maximum use of them. This also meant that regular teachers attended these lessons with us. Which raised the unfairness, of course, that while the student-teachers were required to punish us when we made mistakes, they were not supposed to punish our teachers!
Even then, though, we understood the noble intention of every one, since their concern was for our future. Just as we understood that the reason they were not bothered much about Mathematics was because they were confident in the superiority of their knowledge of the subject, which had made some kind of crooning history in the short time they had been in Uganda. So, whatever punishment was meted to us, we took it in our stride and worked hard to perform as well in English as we were expected to, in Mathematics.
And thus, the necessity of the cane. Our teachers knew that you could only acquire a thorough knowledge of a language if you used it in your everyday life. And, indeed, we also acknowledged the truth of that, but acknowledging that truth and applying it were two very different things. Many times we were caught on the wrong foot, for the simple reason that our vocabulary was severely limited, considering what we needed to express.
Like when I was playing with Charles and then he swore at me in Kinyarwanda: “Kavune umuheto!” I rushed to our young teacher, a student from Ntare School, and breathed out: “Sir, Charles has told me to break an arrow in Kinyarwanda!” PM (our young teacher) called Charles nearer and— Wallop! (Cane on his head). Then he turned to me and asked me why Charles had to swear at me and shyly I muttered: “Sir, we were playing and then I touched his foot with my foot”— Wallop! (Cane on my head). I looked up, askance, and he hissed: “You stepped on his foot, ok?”
Our teacher didn’t even think twice about exposing our mistakes to the rest of the class. We’d be reading a passage in a book so as to answer comprehension questions after, while the teacher was correcting our essays, and then he calls out: “John!” John would quickly walk to the front and stiffly stand in front of him and— Clobber! “How does your friend tura your ka-pot from your head?” We’d all suppress our laughter, knowing it’d soon be our turn. Even today I myself wouldn’t say it correctly: “My friend helped me lower my pot of water from my head”? Search me!
Examples were countless. Suffice it to say that slowly we caught on and even started to enjoy a beautiful expression that was devoid of any mistake. Which is why my generation is mourning the death of Queen’s English. Those mistakes for which we suffered untold miseries are the order of the day, today. ‘Each other’ has swallowed ‘one another’ and applies to two or many people or objects. ‘In regard’, ‘as regards’; ‘forward’, ‘forwards’; ‘its’, ‘it’s’ all mixed up. ‘Brand new’ has become ‘brandy new’, etc. Oh, cane, whither art thou, seeing as American English has killed Queen’s English?
Happily, though, the return of that passion for collective excellence in the Rwandan community is reason for celebration. Else, it’d’ve been the noose for my generation!