We were about two months into Form One at Sacred Heart College Mankon when the incident I am about to recount happened.
WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE
Sacred Heart College was – and still is today – a boarding school and I must say my admission into the institution marked a major change in my life. It was a significant turning point. This was so for several reasons. This was the first time I was ever having a bed to myself, not just complete with a mattress and different sets of pillow cases, bed sheets and a blanket – but more so, the fact that they were all new; brand new, having been bought for me and just for me.
I remember that I had spent the last two months in Bamenda town, away from Baforkum-Bambui where I was born and bred, during which time I went around with utter excitement as I accompanied my Uncle (mother`s junior brother Pa Peter Ndah Geh Tamo) who was the one who took me round the town to buy this or that item or to measure this or that piece of garment at the workshop of Pa Kwende, another uncle and the family tailor. My father, Pa Francis Mbah Tayong sponsored me right up to the end of Form Two when he retired from the civil service and Pa Peter assumed the role of guardian fully thereafter.
THE DIFFERENCE IT MADE
Boarding school gave me the opportunity to permanently sleep in a house that had electricity. Prior to that, our source of light at home was the kerosene-lit bush lamp. The only other occasion when I slept in an electrified house was when I was hospitalized at the Bamenda General Hospital or the Presbyterian Mission Hospital in Acha Tugi (Momo Division). But these were times of dampened pleasure because I had to cope with the inhibiting factor of illness.
However, for about two years before I went to primary school, I used to spend nights sporadically but frequently in the electrified official residence of Mr. Joseph Mbandi who was at the time an official at the Agric Farm in Bambui. Although my father was Baforchu and Mr. Mbandi was Metta (Momo Division), my father adopted him as a son. Mr. Mbandi`s junior sister, Ma Rose Afor Mbandi who lived with him attended school with my elder sister, Ma Martina. What happened was that often when Ma Rose returned from school with Ma Martina, she would stop over at our compound and on continuing to her brother`s place, she would take me along. I then spent the night there. Early in the morning she would get up and prepare breakfast of fried Irish potatoes and fried eggs which she served to Mr. Mbandi to eat before going to work. When he finished eating, Ma Rose and I would eat the remainder. I loved the meal and always looked forward to it. After that, Ma Rose would take me to the compound and leave me there before going to school with Ma Martina. Mr. Mbandi and Ma Rose had a brother (younger that him and older than she) who also worked at the Agric Farm. He was Mr. Michael Mbandi. He worked in the engineering section. He became friends with another worker in the same section, Mr. Elias Sikod. Later Mr. Sikod got married to Ma Rose and when I was ready for baptism, he became my godfather.
Once I came very close to living in another electrified house but that prospect quickly evaporated. This was when I was in Class Six of Primary School. What happened was that my uncle, Pa Peter who became my guardian had been working with the Agric Department in Kumbo-Nso was transferred to the Agric Department in Bambui. He was assigned one of the Government houses at the Clerk`s Quarters which was, of course, electrified. Much was my joy when he made it known that I would be living with him in the house in order to help him with the household chores, since he could not transport the rest of the family that was in Kumbo to Bambui. So it was with baited breath that I set about cleaning up the house for the transfer. Unfortunately, barely two weeks after the cleaning up was completed, the government reversed its decision and decided that he would stay in Kumbo and not be transferred any longer. We learned that the Fon of Nso had written to the government petitioning the transfer on the grounds that Pa was a very good worker whom he would like to stay in Kumbo. My dreams were dashed beyond measure.
It was against such a background that I packed my things into St. Andrew`s Dormitory at Sacred Heart College, on that September late afternoon that had been designated as the reopening date for old students of the college as well as the new ones like us. Bit by bit, I was getting used to my new environment and liking it more and more. It was a new and exciting world altogether.
THE SCHOOL ASSEMBLY THAT STARTED THE DAY
Every morning, the entire student body lined up Form by Form in front of the Main Building of the school. It was from Form 1A which stood at the side that was near the auditorium and the refectory, right up to Form 5B that was last on the other side, nearest to the Biology laboratory. That made it a total of ten classes, from Form one to Five. There was a Form 5 Prefect controlling each of the ten classes. The prefects stood two steps up from the gathering and towards the top of the stairs which led to the main door of the main building, the principal`s office, the office of the school secretary (at the time, Mr. E.K. Kusia) and the staffroom. I was in Form I A and my prefect was Gabriel Ngiliwi. The next thing that happened was that the principal would emerge from his office, pick up the hand bell by his door and ring it in order to call us to attention. Then there was silence. If some students were still making noise, it was now for their prefect to call them to order or threaten them with sanctions.
The principal, The Rev. Brother John Philips used these assemblies to make announcements to us of any information he had for us. At the end of it he prayed and dismissed us. We would then go to class or to our manual labour work places if it was a Saturday morning.
Brother John Philips looked back at those days many years later when long after departing from Sacred Heart College and from Cameroon, he was approached by the Sacred Heart College Ex-Students` Association (SHESA) to be interviewed for a publication that was produced to commemorate the institution`s golden jubilee in 2011.The former principal said: “As I took morning assembly on the front steps of the college main building with row after row of usually cheerful faces below me, I never ceased to marvel at the beauty of the Mendakwe hills looking down on us in silent majesty. It is a scene that I will carry with me to my grave.”
A PLEASANT SURPRISE
One morning when I arrived for assembly, I found that my classmate, George Keka Atanga frantically looking for me. “Where were you!” he asked excitedly, adding with even more excitement “You have a letter all the way from Canada!” It was true. In my absence, the principal had read out a letter that came to me through the post box of the school, P.O. Box 48. Since I was not present to take it, my Class Prefect, Gabriel Ngiliwi took it for me. So he handed it to me. But afterwards, he punished me for “being late for morning assembly”.
THE LONG-AWAITED LETTER
True indeed, it was a letter from Canada. But it was also news that quickly went round the school. Not many students received letters through the post and fewer still ever received letters that came through the post from overseas. Mine was from an elder brother who had a lot of love for me. A month prior to sending me that letter, he had just left Cameroon for further studies in Canada, at the University of Toronto in Montreal, to be more precise. He was Ni Tah Asongwed who traveled there to study Linguistics and Translation. He too happened to be an ex-student of Sacred Heart College.
The day before he left Bamenda en route for Canada, I saw him for the last time at the home of our elder sister, Ma Magdalene, at Ghana Street. He opened his wallet but regretted that there was not much money in it for him to give me. However, he gave me the little he had and assured me: “I will write to you at school once I arrive in Canada. And by the way, I have asked Ma Magdalene to give you the entire trunk of all the books I used at Sacred Heart College and in the Cameroon College of Arts, Science and Technology (CCAST) in Bambili.” What a glorious treat, I said to myself. However, I used those books for many years to come.
TRAVELING WITHOUT TRAVELING
The letter from my brother was very uplifting. When I read it, I felt as if I was also traveling. He gave me a graphic description of his travel experience. He told me how they “flew over the Sahara” and when he looked down from the window of the airplane he found that objects that were normally large on the ground such as buildings now looked like tiny dots. He described the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea and how they changed planes in Paris and finally landed in Ottawa (Canada). He told me how before he arrived in Canada, accommodation had already been sorted out for him. He said he had started his studies already and told me the names of some of the lecturers who were teaching him. He said lecturers surprised him because they insisted by being called by their first names instead of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Dr.” I closed my eyes and imagined that I was there with him and by him. But that was nothing more than wishful thinking.
However, I was not able to read the letter as soon as it was handed to be because it was assembly time, neither could I read it after that because it was lesson time. I took it out during break and read it in the yard with friends crowding all around me to see what a letter from overseas looked like and what it might be saying. George was one of them. Even students as high up as in Form Five were asking me to tell them who it was that had written to me all the way from overseas. That letter turned me into a star overnight.