A columnist in our beleaguered nation is a frustrated citizen. She tries in vain to oblige the government’s spokesmen and not “heat up the polity” with yet another lament of our unending woes. How pleasantly surprised I was, then, to find a cheerful subject for a change! No, it is not as my good friend, Maero Ozako, playfully teased — that I had “hammered,” being the guest of my state government which had organised a literary matinee at which I was the featured writer; an event I hope signals a tradition-in-the-making. It was, instead, the concrete evidence that I saw in Asaba of an awareness of the crying need to rebuild our schools from the rubble of their total collapse.

To greet Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan before my poetry reading the next day, the only option permitted by his schedule was to meet him at St Patrick’s College where he was inspecting a new block of thirty classrooms. The inspection train had just completed its rounds of the classrooms and was heading for the nearby model primary school when I arrived in the company of Oma Djebah, senior adviser on foreign relations to Uduaghan and co-ordinator of the event that brought me to my state’s capital. I stayed behind to inspect every room before joining the party at the primary school. What I saw, the details of which come at the end, inspired the following reflections.

Knowledge is power, says the old aphorism and motto of countless schools across the country. In the heraldry of such schools, the words occupy the base of badges stitched onto or pinned to the breast pockets of the boys’ shirts and the girls’ pinafores or blouses. Every variation on the adage — Knowledge is Light, Knowledge for Service, Knowledge and Truth — retains the emphasis on knowledge.  Its truth and power is apparent to the illiterate and the sophisticate, philosopher and philistine, alike. Which is why not too long ago, parents would starve, sell or mortgage land and any valuable, just to send the promising son (invariably) to school. It helped, of course, that after independence power, literally speaking, became the exclusive preserve of the educated.

Then, our schools reflected the seriousness with which we viewed education. They never lacked in any substantive sense. If they could not boast of impressive buildings laid out on well-tended grounds, they could point to well-trained, dedicated and resourceful teachers. The elite schools — King’s College and Queen’s College in Lagos, the government colleges at Umuahia, Ibadan, Ughelli and the “Unity” schools — were the equal of any secondary school in the world. The many outstanding intellects they produced, some still among us, testify as much.

By the time I entered Federal Government College, Warri, in 1978, the cry of “the good old days” was already in the air. Yet, for all the teeth-gnashing, FGCW proved to be a fabulous place of learning. Admittedly, there were, even then, incipient signs of the decay that would later devastate every public school in the land; more noticeably in the already decrepit language lab and hostels straining to accommodate a student population far larger than was originally intended. Yet, compared to what came after, I attended an aristocratic prep school!

This is the backdrop of my delight as I saw in turns the chemistry, physics and biology labs, the home economics kitchen, regular classrooms, the library, sick bay and the administrative offices. There was even an information technology room, complete with whiteboard and a large television monitor. The only thing missing, and which I hope will be installed, was an overhead projector together with a retractable screen. All the books for the library and most of the laboratory equipment and reagents were still in boxes, but there was no mistaking the intent.
At the model primary school, I was elated to see a functional building designed with the comfort and security of the pupils in mind. Why, there was also an ICT room and a hall! The toilets, I was sad to note, lacked proper counter-tops, soap for washing hands, electric hand-dryers or paper towels. The absence of a play-scape, of any sporting facility other than a football field, does not show sufficient appreciation of the value of physical education.

I would have loved a more robust commitment to the greening of the premises beyond the formulaic hedges — trees along the perimeter of the school and more shrubbery within the grounds, for instance. And the finishing, as indeed the aesthetics of our public buildings generally, could be better. There, and at St Patricks, I wished that more durable materials, such as fired bricks or granite, had been used for walls and exteriors, especially as they age well and fare better than sand-and-cement blocks and paint, more so in a harsh climate. But given the state of our public schools, these are mere quibbles and the big question is whether five to ten years hence, the classrooms that I praise today will have succumbed to the great Nigerian disease and been reduced to empty tool sheds.

Still, across the country, there appears to be a growing commitment to the rebuilding of our schools brick by brick, book by book, microscope by math set. This must go on side by side with the retraining of old teachers and the training of new ones for the knowledge demands of the 21st Century. Really, it is the only option if we wish to contend with countries that take themselves seriously.

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