Friday, 11 April 2014
A Tribute To M. Nelkon By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
I was still studying Integrated Science when my Dad bought Nelkon for me. It was the beginning of something new, something very exciting. Just the smell of the new Nelkon was different from the smell of all other books I had held. And it was the biggest book I had ever held in my hands. Before then, it was "Eze Goes to School ", "Tales out of School", "Oliver Twist", "This is our Chance", and other lightweight books. But when the heavyweight book Nelkon came, I knew I had entered the big time. It was the first book I could not finish reading at a sitting.
Those days at Nnobi High School, the end of Class Two meant the end of Integrated Science. What followed at the beginning of a new school year was decision time. Those inclined to science would have made up their minds based on their perceptions of Integrated Science. Others whose comfort level with the sciences as introduced by Integrated Science study was low would ask senior students for their opinions. A lecture from the wrong student would mark the end of the adventure into science. For others who were undecided at the beginning of Class Three, the decision usually would be to try science out and have a feel of it themselves. Most often, it was physics that would give prospective science students chills. Class Two students who were scared of Chemistry or Biology knew they had no place in science. So, the stumbling stone had always been physics and almighty Nelkon.
The first day in most physics classes in Class Three then dealt with the first equation of motion: v = u + at. Just seeing it written on the black board by a physics teacher magnified the horrors that most students had been told of by their seniors. A student, who could not understand how speed added to acceleration multiplied by time would give the velocity, had his or her adventure into physics foreclosed. It did not help when the example Nelkon used to illustrate the concept talked about trains and other objects foreign to a typical Nnobi student who had never seen the overhead bridge at Onitsha let alone understand what a suspension bridge looks like. After the v = u + at lecture, the physics wagon would experience a huge dropout level. And dropping physics meant the end of an adventure into science.
Those days, I had friends who were the extra careful ones. They would carefully wrap the cover up and treat the book like a baby. I belonged to those who would flaunt the book anywhere I go. Just carrying it bestowed upon us the rare honor of being science students. We competed with each other on who had finished the chapters, the different sections and the questions that followed. The more lines there were in your book, the more proof that you had been on top of your game. Nelkon was a genius in presenting questions at the end of each chapter. It usually begun with easy questions but down the line, one would see "questions tara akpu" (hard nut questions). Some of those questions could take weeks to solve. And if you were the one who cracked it, your ranking in the physics class would go up. Our inability to solve some of Nelkon’s most difficult questions was often blamed on printer’s error- yeah, the printer recorded the wrong answer. You dare not say that Nelkon was wrong. It wasn't uncommon to see teachers who could not solve some of Nelkon's questions either. They would give excuses when students approached them for help.
For those of us who read Nelkon as literature, we were able to appreciate Alexander Pope’s observation about Isaac Newton that, “Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:/God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.” Including the subsequent addition by John Collins Squire that, “It did not last; the devil howling/"Ho! Let Einstein be!" restored the status quo.”
Nelkon, wasn't a feminine book. It was masculine. Its presence brought shame to those who were carrying Commerce books, Bible Knowledge books, Onwubiko's History of West Africa or Igbo poems called Utala Nti. Up until the early 90s, before Abbot came in, High School physics in most parts of Nigeria was synonymous with Nelkon. His book, The Principles of Physics was the bible of physics students. Those who succeeded in getting a grasp of it; those not intimidated by it became science majors. They later became Doctors, Engineers, Architects, Chemists, Pharmacists etc . Those who were overwhelmed fell off the ladder and crushed themselves trying to be Lawyers.
No doubt, Nelkon was more than a book author. He was an institution in his own right. His book was the nearest to the Igbo description of Science- Ogbalu Igbo ghari (The stuff that is beyond Igbo). Many people could not remember the title of the book he wrote. Others could not remember the abbreviation of his first name. All that most students who used his book could remember was Nelkon. But who is Nelkon? Where is he now? Any chance of paying a tribute to him? Ever thought of how much influence he had on the minds of many African children? Ever thought of how many African children he scared to death about science? Why was Nelkon so influential? Did he write the book for African science students? Or was his book just adopted by African teachers? Why didn't any African ever write a book that would replace Nelkon? If there was, why wasn't that replacement implemented? Did his publishers ever review the book with the goal of injecting illustrations that Africans could relate to?
I understand that PN Okeke and M.W. Anyakoha’s book, Senior Secondary Physics has replaced M. Nelkon’s in many parts of Nigeria. But Modern Biology by Rinehart, Wilson and Holt and New Certificate Chemistry by Holderness and Lambert still hold sway. In Modern Biology, I learned for instance that even the cockroach has economic importance. Right there I learned to attach value to every living thing.
Looking back I know that Michael Nelkon, Holderness and Lambert; Rinehart, Winston and Holt killed a lot of witches and wizards for me. Together they wiped away superstitious beliefs that formed a canopy over the tropical rain forest. Scientific thought through systematic observation of evidence-based claims that are open and reproducible is the only defense I had against magical and irrational beliefs that are unseen and non-replicable.
Being introduced to the laws of physical science did a lot to illuminate for me that fertile ground where delusion blooms. Science is a core requirement needed for one to develop the thirst for empirical proof. For me it came from reflecting on the wonders of these books. By immersing myself in the laws of Chemistry and a good understanding of the human body and how it works, it becomes difficult to convince me that a woman gave birth to a horse right inside a church and thereafter walked away.
The movement for the decolonization of African literature has been successful in a lot of ways. Probably, it is time to decolonize the African science. The apparent lack of indiginized science books is inhibiting in many ways the development and appreciation of science especially at the junior level. Abandoning science education constitutes a grave disadvantage for those who may never have the opportunity to explore the world of “established rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol.” In the interest of science and our children in the information age, Africa must fast forward the decolonization of science studies if only to save our children from the torture that Nelkon sometimes was.