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Was it 'Hall' or 'Hell'? (Under the Neem Tree).

"Hall"? it was "Hell", and only timidity prevented people from changing the "a" into an "e" and having done with it. Anyway, the Standard Seven pupils left us in no doubt what they thought of it...the reminiscences of a 1950s Ghanaian boy continues.

Although the Asiakwa Presbyterian Primary School was separated from the Senior School by Only a few hundred yards, we hardly knew what went on there. The Senior School boys were like a breed from another planet. They wouldn't bathe or swim in the same river with us, in case we looked at their endowed properties, which, we imagined, were more ample than ours. They called us mmofra (children) and did not just treat us with contempt but worse: they pretended we did not exist at all.

If they were talking in a group and one of us passed by, they would stop talking. But if they needed something to be bought for them, then they would call one of us.

'Hey, what's your name?"


"Go to the market and buy me three-pence worth of fried plantain and one penny-worth of groundnuts. Tell the woman to peel the groundnut-skin off before you bring it. Okay?"

"But... but I came to school early because my teacher said we should come early today to begin preparing for our exams?"

"Exams! Do you know what an exam is? when people are worrying about "Hall", then you dare to talk about exams. Run quickly and bring me the stuff before I open you foolish head and put some real exam stuff in it for you! Come on, run!"

One would look at the guy's big clenched fist and shoot off like a rabbit. Who could argue with such a fist?

But even as one ran, one's mind abused the chap. He was clearly talking rot. Our exams mattered to us. The results determined where one sat in the classroom. The top guys sat close to the door, whilst the dunderheads sat far back. So everyone who came into the classroom immediately knew who was bright and who was obi a ne tiri awuo (someone who had a "dead head").

Besides, every child whose results put him or her in a position lower than an arbitrary number set by the teacher -- say 20 out of a class of 45 -- would be whipped and whipped well. Yet this big bully thought only something called "Hall" was an exam that mattered.

Of course, I had heard a lot about "Hall". It was the examination we were expected to sit at the end of our senior school course: it was taken at Standard Seven. If you passed it, it would earn you a certificate, with which you could obtain employment as a clerk of some sort, or as a pupil teacher. It was the minimum requirement for entry into the ranks of the salaried "educated" people, and so every effort in the senior school was geared towards making people pass it.

As a result of the enormous fuss made about it by the teachers -- all of whom had, of course, passed "Hall" before being allowed to go into a training college, and therefore possessed stocks of wildly exaggerated stories to tell about its frightfulness - "Hall" struck sheer fear into the soul of every senior school pupil.

Standard Seven pupils discussed the incredible awe-someness of "Hall" endlessly, and this was passed down the school chain right from Standard Six to our junior school ranks. By the time it reached us, however -- at seventh hand, so to speak -- the fear it generated had been so blown up no one knew what questions would 'come' -- that is, would be set -- in any particular year, one had to know everything that was in the school syllabus. Questions could even come from the Standard Six or Standard Five books -- things one had "chewed, poured and forgotten"! So one had to read those books again, in addition to all of Standard Seven's own countless books. Ha!

The worst thing about "Hall", of course, was the stress it induced through the sheer logistics of it. All the Standard Seven kids in our district had to travel by lorry to Kyebi to sit the exam. That meant they had to go and spend the night at Kyebi, in order to be punctual at the examination hall at seven-thirty or eight o'clock sharp the next morning.

How did one find a place to sleep? How did one bath? What did one eat? How did one iron one's uniform -- as the teachers insisted one did, because, they claimed, "smartness in dress goes with sharpness of mind"? How did one carry out the one thousand other chores that came with travelling to a strange place -- and at the same time carry out "last-last-last minute" revision of what one had been taught? Had one had time to work thoroughly through the allegedly smuggled "past questions" that one had secretly purchased?

Even if one got through everything smoothly and got into the exam hall to the next morning, what would the sight of so many other Standard Seven pupils do to one's self-confidence?

"Oh I've heard rumours that this year, they will only allow 40 people to pass, Yet look at how many we are -- over 600! How can I be one of the 40? It's hopeless!"

Or: "Some of these chaps who come from Kyebi know the invigilators. But I don't know anyone. Suppose the invigilators pass answers in code to them, what will happen to the rest of us"?

Or: "Suppose my answer papers get lost, in the course of the papers being transported to Koforidua, the main examination centre for the Eastern Region, to be marked? Or, if we are not lucky, to Accra itself? Look at the distance between here and Accra! There could be an accident and the papers might end up in the bottom of a river? Eh? What chance do I, from Asiakwa, have against someone sitting the exam in Accra?"

Sometimes these fears actually took on the form of psychosomatic illnesses, and people fainted in the examination hall and were carried away, or they urinated into their uniforms.

Young ladies were known to enter their monthly cycle by force in the examination hall. Can you imagine having to deal with the consequences of such an eventuality whilst the clock is ticking towards the end of the paper one is writing? (Sanitary pads had not been invented in those days, you see.)

Ha! "Hall"? It was "Hell", and only timidity prevented people from changing the "a" into an "e" and having done with it. Anyway, the Standard Seven pupils left us in no doubt what they thought of it. And by instilling the fear of it into us at such an early age -- long before it should have concerned us -- they perpetuated the trauma of Hall all the way down the school ladder.

Everyone knew someone who failed "Hall". Such a person never walked with his or hear head held high any longer, no matter how successful he or she was in other walks of life. No wonder that when "Hall" was approaching, the whole senior school took on a funereal atmosphere.

No one dared to make noise on the verandas, for fear of disturbing the concentration of the Standard Seven chaps; no one dared to walk about aimlessly in the school compound in case it distracted a Standard Seven pupil into coming out to discipline him. The Standard Seven chaps were sometimes "camped" for weeks on end, whilst their teacher drilled knowledge into their heads. If you ask me, I think they overdid it and cancelled out with anxiety, all the sheer volume of information they imparted to their pupils.

The most unmistakable sign that signalled that "Hall" was approaching was the singing that went on in the Senior School. Now, most of the hymns of the Presbyterian Church were written by people who thought that the earth was a horrible place where they had to spend a short, unhappy time before being called to the joys of heaven. So almost every hymn in the book can also serve as a funeral dirge.

Well, as "Hall" got close, the most woe-inspiring tunes were chosen for morning assembly, noon closing, afternoon assembly, evening dismissal and also, during the sessions marked on the timetable for "Singing".

One of the songs has stuck in my mind all these years, though I have never been taught it. I think it was called "W'asem n'ennye me de". (Your will, but not mine). It encapsulates the pathos, stoicism, surrender, and blind faith that the advent of "Hall" engendered in the soul of the Standard Seven pupil.

And it was sung endlessly, and with spirit too. Morning, noon and night. Until that fateful day when the "Hall" results came. Then, of course, God was either thought to be good or well, not quite so good. I mean: if one failed "Hall", one might think God wasn't that good, wouldn't one, but then, one had to be careful what one actually allowed oneself to say, right? For all one knew, one might want to go back to Standard Seven to take "Hall" again the next year, right?

Hal Some people took "Hall" more than four times and never passed. Yeah. They left school without what -- if they were real dunderheads -- they would call a "cerfiticate"! Yeah, to such guys, "Hall" was "Hell" all right, no kidding.
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Author:Duodu, Cameron
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6GHAN
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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