Sunday, September 5, 2021 12:00 pm
By Chinua Achebe
Government College, Umuahia, was built on a sprawling, parklike campus at the fringes of a tropical forest. … There were three dormitories at Umuahia — the Niger, Nile, and School houses.
I was assigned to Niger house and once there unpacked my few belongings in my dormitory locker. In my time the school had about two hundred students, and our lives were strictly regimented, with literally every hour slated for an activity.
One of the most thrilling peculiarities of the Umuahia experience was the culture of playing cricket. Not all secondary schools in the area played the game; soccer was far more commonplace. Cricket matches were often organized between: Government College, Umuahia; King’s College, Lagos; Government College, Ibadan; and a few other elite secondary schools.
Umuahia had a huge cricket field, which had a beautiful grass lawn and a clear sand pitch area with wooden wickets. It was cared for almost more carefully than grass anywhere else in the school. In the afternoons, cricket matches were packed, and the bleachers and grandstands had scarcely an empty spot.
Cricket was not a game that I knew anything about before coming to Umuahia. Over time I began to appreciate that this was a very important global sport, and that it was very popular in literally every part of the British Empire. The schoolmasters referred to the game as one for “gentlemen” and made sure Umuahia athletes played it “properly” — dressed in immaculate white shirts and trousers, gloves, knee-high pads, and helmets….
Christopher Okigbo was a very extraordinary person. He was two years below me, but Christopher was not one to allow two years to get in his way. He quickly became one of my closest friends.
He was born in Ojoto, in Anambra state, and came from a highly talented family, part of the so-called Okigbo trio of intellectual giants that included his older brother, the late legendary economist Dr. Pius Okigbo, and their cousin Professor Bede Okigbo, the renowned agronomist.
Christopher was just somebody you could not ignore or suppress. He struck people because he was so energetic, and so fearless. He was somebody who would walk into a room, sit down, and start learning to play the school piano without any prior exposure.
He had an innate understanding of what was required to play the instrument without the regimented, torturous, orthodox lessons. Christopher was a talented artist and a sports hero, and he had a keen mind that won him the admiration of many of the British schoolmasters. He quickly became very popular throughout Umuahia….
Ekpo Etien Inyang was another close friend. He was one of my most brilliant classmates — he became a physician — but unfortunately he later committed suicide. We had very different backgrounds, especially in terms of religion. When he arrived at Umuahia, the school officials discovered that he had not been baptized.
Most of us did not ask fellow pupils whether they were baptized or not; one just assumed that if you were a Christian you would have been. But Inyang’s father was not a particularly religious person.
So when he became an upperclassman Inyang decided to be baptized, and after subjecting himself to the religion classes and preparation that were required, he asked me to be his godfather.
So I had a godson who was the same age as me. That was quite an extraordinarily moving gesture on his part, to ask me to step in on his behalf in this capacity.
Six of us, including Inyang and me, were promoted to the second-year from the first-year class during our second term at Umuahia. Students with a record of excellent work and who were the best performers in their respective years were combined into a larger second-year class.
It was an honor, but it also meant that I began to see a large majority of my contemporaries from my first-year class less often, including my close friends Ben Uzochukwu and Chike Momah.
English was the language of instruction at Government College, Umuahia. It was at Umuahia that I first truly understood the power and importance of that unifying language.
The schoolmasters, well aware that Nigeria had over 250 ethnic groups, had very carefully enrolled students from every nook and cranny of the nation, where possible.
While African languages and writing should be developed, nurtured, and preserved, how else, I would wonder later, would I have been able to communicate with so many boys from different parts of the country and ethnic groups, speaking different languages, had we not been taught one language?
*Source: There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe (2012)
* Chinua Achebe (1930-2013), Nigerian novelist, poet and critic. New York City, New York. March 6, 1988. (Michel Delsol/Getty Images)