'But Sir, Christ Himself Never Went to University': "Young Man, Have You Studied Theology? Have You Studied Philology? Have You Studied Ethics? Have You Studied Philosophy?" Ayi Kwei Armah Relives His Days at Achimota School and a Particular Brutal Encounter with an American Religious Knowledge Teacher

By Armah, Ayi Kwei | New African, May 2006 | Go to article overview

'But Sir, Christ Himself Never Went to University': "Young Man, Have You Studied Theology? Have You Studied Philology? Have You Studied Ethics? Have You Studied Philosophy?" Ayi Kwei Armah Relives His Days at Achimota School and a Particular Brutal Encounter with an American Religious Knowledge Teacher


Armah, Ayi Kwei, New African


My father died in 1947, in a traffic accident at a railroad level crossing in Nsawam, a town some 40km north of Accra. I was eight. During funeral ceremonies organised at his family home in Accra, my mother startled me when, turning to me in front of the assembled relatives, tears streaming down her face, she announced that now that my father was gone, I was the only husband she had left, and that therefore it would be my duty to go, like my father, to Achimota School in Accra to get a secondary education. After that I would have to go abroad for further studies.

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At the time I had never actually been inside Achimota, though like many children in the colony I had heard it was our most famous school. On journeys between Accra and Cape Coast I had seen the high clock tower of the school up on its green hill, a distant symbol of learning. What went on inside the school I had no way of knowing then. That did not matter. What mattered was that my mother wanted me to go there. I would go.

My mother prepared me systematically to fulfil that ambition. In Sekondi where we lived, my mother enrolled her children immediately at the school where she herself taught. In those days, the primary school system was a 10-year course. Pupils could go on to secondary school if they passed the nationwide common entrance examination. It was open to tenth-, ninth- and eighth-year primary school pupils. Since I had been allowed to skip one year, by my seventh year of schooling I would be in the eighth class, and thus eligible to take the entrance exam.

For that transition too my mother made careful plans. The first year I became eligible, she arranged my transfer to Cape Coast, a town with a reputation, merited or not, for producing polite, hardworking, even charming students. There she found a place for me at the experimental Saint Augustine's College Practice School. I felt sad leaving Sekondi, an easy place to like.

Our teacher at the practice school prepared us lovingly for the impending common entrance examination. As if to mark the seriousness of the occasion, we were not allowed to take the exam at our own school. Each pupil had to walk to a special exam centre. Mine was to be at a secondary school, Mfantsipim, up on a hill a couple of kilometres from the edge of town. Pupils were asked to indicate three schools, in order of preference, to which they wanted to go if they passed. At the moment of writing down my choices, my mother's words were fresh in my mind. I wrote down my three choices: 1. Achimota; 2. Achimota; 3. Achimota.

And so, to Achimota I went after passing my common entrance examination and the subsequent interview, and even won a tuition scholarship that would ease the financial burden on my mother considerably.

In sending me off to Achimota School, my mother was doing what ambitious parents have done throughout history: she was positioning her child within a training system that would prepare him to play some significant role in the existing economic, political and social system when he became an adult. The problem was that the socio-political system colonial schools were designed to serve happened to be irredeemably peculiar.

European colonialism in Africa was based on the systematic dehumanisation of the African population. The process was instrumental. Since dehumanised Africans had no say in resource allocation, African resources--raw materials, labour, intellectual energy--were freed up for use in the construction of European humanity.

Initially, the enterprise of colonial rule had no need of intellectual justification. It had a powerful and sufficient basis in brute force. Once established, however, like any functioning social system, it acquired an accretion of philosophical rationalisations.

Colonialists borrowed their earliest rationalisations, like much else in the intellectual culture of Europe, from Greek philosophy. …

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'But Sir, Christ Himself Never Went to University': "Young Man, Have You Studied Theology? Have You Studied Philology? Have You Studied Ethics? Have You Studied Philosophy?" Ayi Kwei Armah Relives His Days at Achimota School and a Particular Brutal Encounter with an American Religious Knowledge Teacher
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