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The passing away of Abdul Karim, an old school mate and friend

The passing away of Abdul Karim, an old school mate and friend

My mobile telephone rang on Tuesday morning; it was “my niece” Isatu, Abdul Karim’s daughter on the line and who said to me, “Uncle, your brother is dead.”  Only the day before I had heard an unconfirmed report that Abdul Karim, former Secretary to the President and head of the civil service under Siaka Stevens had passed away.  I could not get any of our mutual friends to confirm the news until Isatu’s phone call on Wednesday morning. After putting down the telephone I muttered silently to myself, “There goes another one of them.”   (Photo: Sama Banya, author)

About six months ago I showed a group photograph of former Old Bo Boys taken in the summer of 1954 in London, there were fourteen of us, (Abdul was not in the group) to Professor John Kamara former Principal of Njala Uninersity college.  After counting some names there I said to John, as I had said to Siaka Kawa former Chief Agriculturist on another occasion, “Look at this photograph; do you see that there are only seven of us left?” yes, Abdul Karim was not with us in the photograph but he was among our contemporaries in Form 1 in the Bo School in 1945.

I had met him much earlier when I first entered the school on March 15, 1940.  Abdul was in ‘Form’ 3 while I entered in Form 2. The nomenclature of Form was changed to ‘Standard’ when the school converted to secondary at the end of that year. He was in Manchester town under one of the most cruel big boys of his day, David Minah. But those were happy days all the same as we were all boarders; we enjoyed the outdoor life of a boys school, often wandering into the bush in search of wild fruits, sometimes as far as Towama village the site of the present Bo Teachers’ college which was some five miles from our school compound. We never missed the roll call at 4 pm which marked the end of the official ‘‘outing’ hours. We played football and cricket and participated in other character building exercises, like scouting, first with teacher M D Turay and later Olumbe Bassir as scout master.

We were from time to time the victims of physical bullying by older boys, some of them men in fact. Poor Abdul had seen one of those ‘men’ shaving one morning and he thought he was being respectful when he addressed the man as “Pa.” My friend didn’t know what hit him as he narrated the incident later. All he saw were hundreds of stars playing tricks before his eyes until he recovered from the paralysing effect of the slap from ‘Kotor’ Sineh Koroma. “Who told you that I am your pa?” he bellowed at my by now quite miserable friend.

The two major ethnic groups in the Bo School were Temne and Mende and we addressed older boys as ‘Ngor’ or ‘Kotor’, depending on whether the subject of our courtesy hailed from the south or the north respectively. Abdul was very active in athletics and played both football and cricket to a high degree. I succeeded him as junior head boy but as fate would have it he was only appointed a school prefect after I had left as senior prefect.  

Abdul was brought up by his famous Uncle Abdul Karim senior Chief Clerk in the former colonial administration.  He along with Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Dixon-Fyle were the first Sierra Leoneans to be appointed to the newly created position of Office Assistant which was a prelude to entering the senior service.  Mr. Karim senior spent almost all of his clerical years in the southern province. Thus Abdul grew up speaking fluent Mende, a situation that was enhanced by his years in the boarding home of Bo school, just as many of us spoke Temne perfectly.  

After completing my Higher School Certificate course in the Prince of Wales School in Freetown, I returned to teach in the Bo School. Abdul was by that time a graded clerk in the office of the chief commissioner Protectorate. His expatriate seniors were impressed with the high quality of his English and he told them with pride that in the school which he attended only English and the provincial vernaculars were allowed on the school compound.  In the two years that followed, we were both fortunate to be socially encouraged and accepted among the senior cadre of the African civil service.  Thus we mingled and danced freely among the highest group of Africans in Bo.

When I returned home from overseas Abdul was already in the Administrative service with the rank of an assistant secretary.  Our friendship was further cemented when we worked in our different professions in Kenema where he was Provincial Secretary.  His promotion in the administrative service was rapid and by 1977 he had succeeded the late G L V Williams as Secretary to the President, a position he held until he retired in 1983.

Abdul was efficient but at the same time a very controversial head of the civil service. The descriptions I heard of him from time to time were not flattering, but by jove they were only uttered behind his back.  

He was very loyal to his friends and he helped them in their progress in their respective fields. His detractors saw him as a hard and an uneven handed man who they allege contributed to the demise of the civil service from what it was under GLV.  It is true that he could be stubborn in an argument, a characteristic that made his detractors to conclude that he was arrogant.  There was one occasion when I asked him to apologise to a senior diplomat who he had wrongly accused of wrong doing. He said to me, Sama, I won’t, I have never apologized to anyone. In between he was very pleasant and could enjoy a good joke. Both his beautiful houses in Kambia were ransacked and eventually burnt down by the RUF rebels, he himself barely escaped with his life, an experience which he always narrated with humour.

Abdul was happily married to the former Helen Payne a charming young woman from Makeni and the marriage was blessed with many children including Isatu and Junior Abdul.  His devoted Helen had predeceased him.  He himself had a protracted illness which he bore with great fortitude.  

In spite of his faults we loved him.  He will be missed by his family, friends and contemporaries. MAY HIS SOUL REST IN PEACE AND MAY LIGHT PERPETUAL SHINE ON HIM.  

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