Sierra Leone Methodist Boys High School Drama: Reminiscences
It was the late 80s and the buildings were not as imposing as I had thought they should be. But their faded blue walls were in contrast to the grey walls I had etched in my imagination. That Monday morning, mum and I had rode almost silently in the cramped poda poda as I headed east of Freetown for the first time. She would remind me in between the long, strange ride into a part of town I’d never been, how I was her chief headache, the tormentor of her life. A quiet woman, my mum didn’t like being the centre of attention (good or bad) but I was the rebel in the home who brought her unsolicited attention.
Did I care, as we made our way into the unknown? I didn’t care at all except that I cared without excitement but certainly with trepidation to discover where on earth was my new school called the Methodist Boy’s High School in a place rumoured to be Kissy Mess Mess. That could be a messy place.
My grandmother, of blessed memory, had made Kissy mean to me a place where they locked up mad people and prevented them from behaving madly. And somehow I picked up in conversations here and there that the other people who lived there were poor and uncivilized. That’s all.
C’mon, I was a proud central born and west end bred boy– the admired brats from so-called middle class families. The types whose bruises came from playing in fenced concrete compounds in stark contrast to the painful kaktoe wounds of peers running around in buss trosis.
And my first realization of my differentness in that strange part of the world was the many students in my new school who commented about and complimented my beautiful English accent. And add that to the fact that I as a Jengo by surname – a pa Shaki’s grandson – I must have come from England and I must be wealthy. I loved the fantasy. I was happy neither to deny nor confirm anything. I was at best vague in my answers to those who wanted to know me. I had established by design or default that I was a high breed. But at fourteen-plus, and for most of my years in that school, I had lent myself to the unenviable task of reconciling my peers’ expectations of me with my reality.
I wasn’t chauffeured-driven to school. We all fought in the morning at East-end Police to head to Kissy Mess Mess. And when the transport situation was bad, as it always was, we all piled the 5km or so to school and walked in reverse back home. We were the sufferers.
My first classroom was at the extreme end of the top floor of a two-storey building just across from the Taylor-Cummings Resource Centre. The majority of my classmates were from Kissy. Patrick Koroma, David Farma, Arthur Williams, Israel King (late), Mohamed Alghali and so many others. Many more came from Fourah Bay and Mountain Cut. I was coming from Brookfields.
My first class attention came with a good flogging. That afternoon, I was meeting our class 3A teacher and I was to introduce myself to the class. Mr. Williams, fair complexioned and with bushy beard, looked like a disciplined father to me.. He taught Agricultural Science and had a poultry farm in the school. He asked this new kid in the block what was his admission number! Poor boy. He never really cared about such trivialities. Until that moment!
I looked to the Lord, but the Lord wasn’t looking at me. By God, I would have done anything to avoid the cane. They did not beat us at home. No way. It was a strange feeling being caned. I must have looked nervous instantly, stammering things I would never know but I want to believe I was denying not to have forgotten my admission number.
I was denying what could not be denied. The class laughed, seemingly happy to see me baptized.
Dignity isn’t something you suddenly wear on as an adult. I think you grow up with it in adversity. And so, boy-oh-boy, I was given a dozen lashes while pinning my hands to a desk – paopa-ly (if you would allow the new diction). Each stroke came with the clatter of dried canes hitting target through the thin school uniform material. My face was tight; my resistance tested; but my tears never came. I could not, should not be seen crying by these guys. I would be mercilessly taunted. That was not how I wanted to be remembered.
And yet that was how – like Mr. Williams assured me – I always remember 10-4-82. The proud admission number of one Cyril Jengo who became part of the great and rich tradition of the Methodist Boy’s High School, anchored on the pedestal of labour and expect.
By the time Mr. Williams left and the class was laughing at me, I re-introduced myself. I stood up and addressed them. I got them quiet. It was a speech that poured out of spontaneity, fed by my anger and the need to say I wasn’t a coward like any of them. When I was done, I was applauded and accepted. It was a miraculous case of killing two birds with one stone!
The next time it happened was like this. Mr. Raymond Pratt, the feared Physics teacher and son of the dreaded Principal, Willie O. Pratt, would normally pay ‘unwanted’ visits to classrooms with his canes. He would pick up the list of trouble makers from powerful class prefects and sure like hell, you’ll be mounted by one of the dedicated pupils for the task to be lashed. These hulks would grip your arms tight so your back and buttocks were at the mercy of Mr. Pratt Jnr. Fearful.
Unfortunately for me, I was on one such list. Mr. Raymond Pratt had administered his potent medicine on a few poor souls and it was my turn. I was a rebellious lot. I thought about rebelling in my second term in my new school and I tried it. I told him I wasn’t going to be backed by anyone, that I could take the strikes standing. He could not believe it. He let loose the cane on me and I grabbed it. The class was in shock. I ended up being suspended by the dreaded Willie Pratt.
How was I to tell mum and face my dad. I knew of the black sheep story and by then, as I walked home sadly, thinking of having let down my mum again and the reinforced thought of being a bad example to my younger brothers, I came to terms with what it meant to me. I didn’t want to be a black sheep. I preferred white sheep. But how?
Days later, on an afternoon, my cousin managed to convince Willie Pratt to forgive me. The laughter and chatter in the principal’s room greeted me outside and that was why it was a shock to me when Principal Pratt emerged from the meeting promising me a dozen lashes the next day in front of the morning’s devotion.
I did not sleep all that night. Fear and shame and anticipated pain spoilt my night. Alas, the morning came and Pa Willie was nowhere near at the devotion. For days, every devotion turned nightmare moments for me until they ended. I would be looking for Pa Willie. I was the one who was wishing him ill-health every morning so that he wouldn’t make it to school (I feel ashamed confessing… haha).
But that was how I got to love morning devotion exercises. They were special events led by a remarkable woman, the one who steadied my wayward teenage life with her calm and stern demeanor. That was one of the benefits I enjoyed from the school – passing through the hands of now Rev. Dr. Olivia Wesley. I was ahead in my report cards and exams. But I never ever passed Mrs. Wesley’s English or Bible Knowledge above 5/10. I only passed them with better marks at GCE ‘O’ level. But I passed effortlessly to form four, then five and all the way to upper sixth form. I had a damn neat friend called Patrick Koroma and I tried to match his neatness thereafter.
The endless wait for Pa Willie not to appear at morning devotions (I’m giggling as I write this) paid dividend. I started getting engaged with the High School conducted devotion dramas. After we would have made several false starts with the morning’s hymn (with Mrs. Olivia Wesley and Pa Willie sometimes prepared to keep us under the morning’s sun for hours), Wesley would lead us in beautiful, soul-searching prayers and already she had the voice of a reverend even before she eventually became ordained.
But the event I looked forward to most was the reading of The Journal. It was when our seniors in forms five and six would read the minutes of the previous day’s devotion. If it was Mrs. Wesley conducting the session or Pa Willie himself, they would expect nothing but a perfect read. Woe betide that senior pupil to mess up. And the mess up seemed fairly regular.
I later learnt the legendary Journal was written and rewritten many times before the teacher responsible for the morning’s assembly would approve. Seniors used to spend hours after school crafting the Journal and the back and forth with perfectionists Mrs. Vincent and Mrs. Wesley should be enough to ruffle pupils. I had to put a stop to it – not by design but by fate.
One Monday morning, at a jam-packed devotion, the sixth form pupil labored to read The Journal. Nearly everybody was there. In class, with the guidance of Mrs. Wesley, I was quite impressive in my marks and class participation. That morning, the pupil was berated by teachers and laughed at by the rest of us. After it all, Mrs. Wesley called me from the back of the assembly. She had promised that this boy, Cyril Jengo, fourth form, would do a better job.
All eyes turned to my direction. My heart pounded as I made my way to the front of the huge crowd. I was to read The Journal I had not prepared. And I was already declared a better reader. Well, it is history. I read it with flourish, pausing for impact and smoothly sailing for effect. That was the day all of High School got to know me. And to this day, that was how many old mates come to remember me. In fact, I later became a journalist during the heat of the war.
My friends were many. We played truant, eat at their neighboring houses and competed during tests and exams. My main competitor during forms three and four was Patrick. He has a beautiful hand writing I wished to have. He was always beating me just a little. So he became one of my best friends. Between forms five and six I met other matches like Gibrilla Kargbo, Mohamed Aminu and Denis Jones.
During those days, there were NGO scholarship programs and the school through Mrs. Wesley and Mrs. Vincent got many boys into one.
I went through many hands. There was the grumpy Mr. Neville. There was Katawong – Mr. Lewis. He was the music teacher and he really would display karate moves when he was pelting your back with the cane. He would say, “I’ll build ridges on your back. You wait for me.” His music classes were dreaded and every minute of them seemed like bad luck.
There were Mr. Attefuah (yes—a Ghanaian teacher dregging in Salone) , Mrs. Moigueh, Pa Mackay, Mr. Maddi, Mrs. Emma Dupigny (of blessed memory). It was Emma who introduced us to the disease called HIV/AIDS in 1988/89 and she left lasting impression on many of us with her style of teaching. We were always into group work and less individualism.
There was the eminent scholar (at least to me), Pa Bode! He was actually a maths teacher but the pa had the gift of the garb and his cadence and intonation were stupendous. He would not teach maths without delving into Latin or forage into other mysterious subjects—so it appeared to me. It was from him I heard the Latin word Sedeo— meaning, sedentary. It has remained forever in my mind. Pa Bode told us it was that time when man transitioned from a hunter-gatherer to a settled life to cultivate the land.
MBHS was notorious for leading riots and committing the most damage during secondary school and college strikes and the police feared us. All secondary schools looked up to us to start something when there was something to start. We suffered the first Go Slow strikes when teachers downed their tools at midday and we were left to our own devices. We were about to take the mighty ‘O’ Level exams that year. The skeletal remains of traffic lights remind me of the hazards of such protests and demonstrations. I didn’t like spoiling public property but in school pupils would recount their heroics along those lines. It showed bravado. It showed you belonged in the gang.
It was the High School that in 1991 I became Senior Prefect and Vice President of the Literary and Debating Society. I had become serious and an example to many others. The influence of the teachers like Mrs. Wesley brought order and a sense of direction to my life. I loved the isolated location of the school back then; a citadel of learning patched up majestically on the hill. But nowadays it looks more like below the hill as encroachment has taken place beyond campus. I loved the small library. I read many a book there and learnt a lot about the world from the prism of its available knowledge. I and Prince Kenny even went on to manage the library as student teachers. I taught English Language and Literature while he taught French.
My abiding faith in the MBHS continues to this day and is captured in the School’s melodious rallying song that imbibes in us the attributes of sages:
Let us follow ever what the sages say,
Pass the motto round us and to it be true,
By Cyril Jengo Snr
Editor’s note: Cyril Jengo Snr is an Administrator, salesman and marketer and has worked for leading telecoms brands in Sierra Leone. He holds an M. Phil, Political Science, University of Sierra Leone
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