“Like, seriously?” I can’t tell if this phrase is supposed to be punctuated like this but when I hear it from a group of youngsters, I’m always amused. You’ve heard them in conversation. One youngster asks: “Did you like meet him?” And another responds: “When I met him, I was like is he the same person?” These and similar utterances I’ve heard many times but I never get used to them. They remind me of my English grammar teacher in secondary school. He is lucky that he is no longer here; he’d commit suicide.
Personally, though, such utterances only amuse and afford me a chuckle, nothing else. They are not alien to me as I met even worse in my primary school. When I joined secondary school, of course, I never let on to my strict grammar teacher about my past experience, or else he’d have packed me off back to what he called “bush schools”. I made sure he did not detect it on me by avoiding grammatical mistakes.
You see, in primary school we were taught by our fellow Rwandan refugees who only knew some French and were “learning English on duty”; apprentices of themselves, as it were. I say they knew “some” French because they’d not exactly gone far in their education in Rwanda, in the first place. They were not entirely fluent in French.
And I say they were “learning English on duty” because they depended solely on their French-English dictionaries to check out new English words as they taught them. That’s how that whole complex process produced a language that sounded like gibberish! Matters were not helped by the fact that they always forced us, and therefore themselves also, to speak English all the time we were at school. Thus when we were in conversation, it was a comedy of errors!
“Like” (!) this time my teacher called me: “Ingina!” I quickly shouted “Sir!” and ran to him and stood at attention. He looked me over to see that I was clean and everything about me was in order and then sternly counted my mistakes off his fingers: “Term one, one. Term two, two. Why term three four?”
I hesitated a while, not so much because I did not immediately get the meaning as the fact that I was cooking up a plausible excuse. Then I lifted my head and answered: “Sir, term one no sick, no fetch. Term two, no sick arik……sorry!……but fetch. Term three, sick and fetch.” He considered me and then dismissed me with “Go!” and I heaved a sigh of relief and ran off to join others where they were playing; it was break time. I’d licked him – I’d convinced him!
If you were not with me in Kyandera or Kajaho primary schools, Uganda, the whole gibberish meant: “Your position in term one was first. In term two, you were second. Why did you fall so low to become fourth in term three?” And my answer meant: “In first term, I did not fall sick and I did not go to fetch water before school. Second term, I did not fall sick but fetched water. Third term, I fell sick and fetched water many times.” Tell me, wouldn’t I have licked you?
But if we had problems communicating in English, our teachers were many times worse off. This was especially so in Kajaho Primary School more than anywhere else, as there was an English lady who could not communicate in any other language. Imagine once, then, what a pity it was when Ms Carlisle asked one of our elderly teachers – no names: “By the way, sir, what’s your Christian name?”
Our elderly teacher considered the question, repeating to himself the question: “Bayi do weh……..Chrishan…..” Apparently, the question could not sink and he turned to me where I was playing and shouted: “Niko sha, come! What ‘bayi do weh’, what ‘Chrishan’?” In cases like these, of course, you did away with the protocol requiring you to always speak English. So, ignoring the school rules, I explained in Kinyarwanda: “Sir, ngo niko, witwa nde izina ry’Igikiristu?”
Being Catholic in a Protestant school, I’d broken two cardinal rules of the school: speaking my vernacular language and saying the Catholic “Igikiristu” instead of the Protestant “Igikirisito.” However, special cases allowed for special privileges and gave you the carte blanche to do away with strict rules. Now our elderly teacher could converse freely with the English lady. After giving his name, he went on to make small talk. “Karayi….,” (for Carlisle!) called he, “my son, Mun.., vunika leg. Red Cross no; Mabona no. Mbarara yes.”
It was now Ms Carlisle’s turn to call on my services. I explained that Elderly’s son, Mun…, had broken his leg. At the Red Cross, they could not treat him nor could they, at Mabona Clinic. He would have to go to Mbarara Hospital. I had my own handicap, of course, and did not articulate the words exactly that way. Still, the message passed, as Ms Carlisle expressed her sympathy and tried to comfort him.