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Raffia cane victims (part 1): "if there are 10 birds on a tree and a hunter shoots at them, how many would he bring down?" Discuss.

When I started schooling just after the Second World War, the educational system run by the Presbyterian Church in Akyem Abuakwa, my state in Ghana, was, for some reason, trying to be a replica of the British army.


It enforced "discipline" in a very harsh manner. It did this with the help of a wicked cane, cut out of a raffia stick that had been dried to enormous hardness, but which, somehow, managed to stay pliant and elastic. Every teacher had one. There was a "store" in the school where they were kept, and each teacher could go and take one, when his old one became "weak" and rotten.

In its best condition, when this mfea whip lashed at your bottom hard, it behaved as if it hadn't done anything at all. It didn't give the least impression that it might break under pressure. In fact, it didn't even appear "tired"! It told the teacher who wielded it: "Hey, man, I am ready to go back to work on kids' bottoms if you are!"

We were only six and seven-year-olds, but we accepted whipping as a fact of life. For if you went and complained to your parents, the first question they would ask you was, "What did you do to get whipped?". If you said something like, "a classmate asked me a question and when I answered it, the teacher branded me a 'talkative' and whipped me", you might get punished a second time--this time, by your own parents, for wasting the money they spent in paying your school fees. "Did we send you to school to go and talk? You say you will be a loudmouth and yet when you are beaten you come and complain!"

Whipping made education, for most of us, a very miserable undertaking. You were whipped if you turned up for school late--no matter what the reason for your lateness was. You were whipped if you didn't manage to recite your multiplication tables correctly. And you were whipped if you couldn't divide one sum by another.

It didn't matter whether it was the mental work we dreaded so much, or work written on our slates (early Class One) or (later) in our exercise books. If you got answers marked with an "X", you were beaten.

We also got walloped if we couldn't spell words, or read words, correctly. Even ordinary general knowledge questions, like "How many miles is it from Asiakwa to Kyebi?" could, if answered wrongly, bring a beating. In fact, to us, these teachers behaved like creatures from outer space. To know the answer to a question like the distance between Kyebi and Asiakwa, you needed to have travelled from the one town to the other. Why were our teachers so lacking in common sense that it did not occur to them that we would not, necessarily, have done that journey before? If we hadn't done the journey, why would we know the answer offhand? What would an Asiakwa boy be going to do at Kyebi? Unless he was very sick, and needed to go to the Kyebi hospital (a frightful notion in itself) or he needed to go there with his parents on a social occasion, such as a funeral, he would not go to Kyebi. People were supposed to lose their heads there, weren't they? What did these teachers use for ears, huh?

Okay, let us even grant that a boy had travelled to Kyebi before. Even so, why would he need to know the mileage? Would he be collecting a mileage allowance afterwards? It's just crazy, the sort of things they beat us for not knowing.

Indeed, how unrelated to real life the "knowledge" which these teachers pushed down our throats was, is illustrated by a question a teacher once asked us. "If there are 10 birds on a tree," he said, "and a hunter shoots at them, how many would he bring down?"

I told myself: "There are scores of pellets in a gun, which spread out when the gun is fired. So if the hunter is lucky, he can bag three birds out of the 10. An even luckier hunter might bag five out of 10. Anyway, I'll say 'three' to be on the safe side."

I put up my hand and answered: "Three, Sir!". The teacher said I was wrong. The hunter could only kill one bird, he told me. He didn't ask me why I thought the hunter could kill three.

But I realised immediately that he didn't know anything about guns. My father had a gun. My uncle had a gun. Some of my elder cousins also had guns. So I knew all about aboba (small pieces of pellets cut out of sheets of lead), kabit (caps), gunpowder and tosa (the roughage placed between the pellets and the gunpowder to isolate the pellets from the gunpowder).

When the gun was fired, the pellets spread out in all directions. So if you flayed, say, an antelope that had been shot, you would find some of the pellets on its leg, on its head and in its stomach. If an antelope, which presented a fairly straight-forward target, could be killed with a spray of pellets, how much more birds on a tree? Wouldn't the height of the tree force the pellets to spread in an even wider arc? And if the pellets spread, who could tell how many birds they would strike down? One bird indeed! Complete nonsense.

I took my whipping and decided, from that day on, that "book knowledge" was not entirely to be trusted. The questions asked in books were often stupid, and, of course, if the books asked stupid questions, they provided stupid answers to them.

I have come to realise that the one who framed the question about the gun and the birds perhaps only knew about European shotguns and rifles which could shoot only one bullet at a time. Those were not, however, the guns used by my relatives. These were guns crafted out of iron scraps forged by our local blacksmiths. What did Europeans know about such guns? Yet our teacher took a question about guns written by a European and assumed it would apply to our type of gun!


In fact, one could truthfully answer that as far as our guns were concerned, (1) the hunter would not be able to bag any birds at all because the gun would refuse to go off! (which used to happen a lot if the gunpowder had been exposed to water!); (2) the gun barrel would "burst" upon the gun being fired, and either kill or injure the hunter (this would happen if the blacksmith who forged the gun barrel was incompetent); or (3) the birds would fly away because one of them would have spotted the hunter and alerted the others. With all these brilliant answers filling my young mind, I felt superior to the teacher. But I dared not say anything.

But getting beaten over knowledge questions wasn't so bad. It was the Presbyterian Church hymns and catechism we had to "chew by heart" that killed us. The trouble with these was that they were written in Akuapem Twi, whereas we spoke Akyem Twi. Akuapem Twi, especially the version used to write the Bible and the Presbyterian Hymn Book, is full of very formal and literal expressions which no one ever uses at home. Because the Akuapem orthography was invented by Basel Missionaries from Germany and Switzerland, they took the liberty of joining words to coin other words and expressions not "native" to Akuapem speakers. I mean, words like "Lord", "Saviour" or "Kingdom" wouldn't be in ordinary Akuapem speech, would they? Many of us heard such words for the first time when we went to school. Indeed, this Bible-type language constituted a lingo of its own, and woe unto you if you couldn't "chew and pour" it. You'd be whipped properly.

No wonder so many of the religious nuts who populate Ghana today are hypocrites who would be best described as "Sunday Christians"--people who make a great to-do about going to church on Sundays, but who, in their normal dealings with their fellow men, do not exhibit any Christian charity whatsoever. I mean, look at the teachers and the priests who brought them up (it was teachers who, after some years' experience, were recruited into seminaries where they came out as priests).

Many of the teachers were sadists who used us, little children under their care, to satisfy an innate desire probably hidden in them, to unleash punishment on other people. If a psychiatrist told them that they were repressed sado-masochists, they would surely protest. But when one comes to examine the pleasure they seemed to take in whipping little children like us, the inevitable conclusion must be that they exhibited all the symptoms of pure, unadulterated sado-masochism. How, for instance, does one explain the merciless beating administered to a "foreign" (non-Akan) boy, who didn't even understand the "normal" Akyem Twi spoken around him--let alone Akuapem Twi--because he couldn't recite the following verse and translate it properly:
 Manyan yi meto dwom pa,
 Mama Nyame m'Agyenkwa?

Even if you are a Twi speaker, can you translate this passage properly? We shall see how our 'foreigner' friend dealt with it, next month.
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Title Annotation:Under the Neem Tree
Author:Duodu, Cameron
Publication:New African
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:6GHAN
Date:Apr 1, 2005
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