Oliver Goldsmith Comes to Nigeria
Pages from a Teacher's Journal
By Barbara Grant Nnoka
December 1958: Just exactly two months ago, I came back to Nigeria from a five-month holiday among friends in the U.S., and when I arrived at the boys' secondary school where I teach English, I was two days late for the first classes of the third and last term of the year. In addition to scrubbing and washing my own house, getting my children settled again, and doing some rapid readjustment myself (we had flown on a plane, which carried us from New York to Accra in exactly twenty-four hours), I found the school dramatic society ready with a cast to start rehearsals of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer. Lest the choice of an eighteenth-century English comedy featuring romantic schemes and mistaken identities seem a strange choice for a boys' school in twentieth-century Nigeria, I should explain that we use a somewhat adapted form of the British secondary school system, in which a countrywide exam is given annually. The three-hour literature exam covers only "set" books from a syllabus announced two years in advance. She Stoops To Conquer is a set book for our seniors this year and will be for the seniors next year. Having taught it twice and rehearsed it for a performance, I could, if anyone were to ask me, recite most of it verbatim.
Anyway, two months ago, I took down the names of the cast, who had been selected in my absence by the vice principal. What follows is a record of our progress through to the day set for the performance, together with some of the aftermath.
September 22. We have begun on a two-rehearsal-a-week schedule for the first reading. Everything went well on Tuesday afternoon, and we had a business meeting of the society Thursday during recess; but on Saturday, I sat in the classroom appointed for the rehearsal from 10 a.m. until 10:45 a.m. waiting for six boys to walk fifty yards from the dormitory to the rehearsal place. The day students showed up, and I sent two messages to the dormitory, but I was left to cool my heels.
It is sometimes hard to cool one's heels in the equatorial rain forest of Southern Nigeria, so I considered what had happened as carefully as I could over the weekend. I am a woman—and I know boys in some Nigerian schools have confessed they believe women M.A.'s must have been given special, easier exams; for they hold it to be an incontrovertible truth that women cannot do as well as men. I think my boys have been disabused of this particular misconception, but the more I thought about it, the more certain I was that they would not have done this to even the most junior of my African male colleagues. So this morning, I knocked on the principal's door and requested some help in discipline. He asked for the names of the offenders and sent a messenger to call them from class. I went about my teaching with the senior class.
Hardly ten minutes later, three of the six offenders burst into my class and pleaded with me to write notes to the principal, accepting their late but, they insisted, genuine excuses. But my ego was hurt, and I sent them away. After about half an hour, I was given a small scrap of paper by the school clerk, and I glanced at it only enough to note that the principal had seen the boys and expected I would have no further trouble. He thanked me for calling his attention to the matter, and I put the scrap in the back of a book. About three periods later, I went to the junior class from which most of the cast came. Eboh, who is Marlow, the tongue-tied young hero of the play (he had really chosen the part for himself by virtue of the seniority system which is deeply entrenched, and an appalling amount of self-confidence in one so young) rose and announced his resignation from the play. I was about to accept it and consider the matter closed, but Eboh had a speech to go with the resignation. "I cannot act," he said, "with six strokes hanging over my head."
I have just found the note from the principal and re-read it. He said, "I have impressed upon the actors the importance of attending rehearsals," meaning apparently that he has threatened the cast with the cane if they don't cooperate.
October 13. I have asked the president of the dramatic society to appoint a production committee, and they are to price—in the market—the following items:
- one kerosene tin to be cut in half by the tinker and made into two stage lights
- two light sockets and bulbs (as large as are sold) plus wire enough to reach the light socket dangling from the ceiling in the assembly room, which is the only source of electricity in the room
- fifteen-eighteen yards of material suitable for a curtain
- twenty-four feet of wire to hang it on
- rings to sew on the curtain
October 17. Another dramatic society adviser, a very conscientious Nigerian with excellent experience in teaching, went with me today to the principal. We set the date—November 14. We also asked the principal to write for help with the production to the heads of two schools associated with ours (by virtue of being owned by the same man): the commercial college, which is just finishing a new building and will, we hope, supply planks for the stage, and the elementary school, from which we want the "manual labor master" who knows how to build such things. The underpinnings of the stage will be, I gather, cement blocks and the benches from the dining hall. We tried a stage of similar construction one evening in 1956 for a one-act play, and the boards creaked and groaned. But I have been assured that this background noise is not necessary and can be eliminated. We shall see.
October 20. It has been decided not to tax the students for the expenses of the production, but rather to charge admission to the performance. The principal does not feel he can make attendance compulsory, but neither does he quite dare to open the performance to the public. So I am not sure we will recover the money that is being given us as an advance. But anything is better than having to collect from the boys directly, and it seems to be customary for students to support financially their own extra-curricular activities.
I must now arrange for a committee to sit at the door, usher, etc., and, frankly, I can't think of a single boy I trust not to let in his friends for free.
November 7. We are only one week from the performance. The condition of the cast is deplorable. The prospects for a stage and curtain are uncertain, and my dreams of a semi-finished production are vanishing.
I thought we had a "natural" to play Hastings, Marlow's friend. Emanuel is tall and debonair, with a flashing smile and a dashing taste in clothes. For the past week he has been dressing up his tropical white school uniform with a paisley scarf tucked inside the open-necked shirt. He has also changed his signature from Emanuel to Louis A. (for Louis Armstrong, he says) Okegbe, and this may be a symptom of some deeper change in character. At any rate, he fails to appear at rehearsals, drags his feet when he comes, and looks, in an African way, positively pale and wan.
When we started planning for the play almost a year ago, Adebayo, who plays Tony Lumpkin, the play's prankster, was missing one large front tooth; but early in this school year the government dental office at Benin, thirty miles away, put in a false one. Adebayo's spirits were much restored, and he seemed to be enjoying Tony Lumpkin's antics. Then, one day he vanished. His seat in class was empty; a messenger to the dormitory found no trace—and finally, in a low voice, his best friends confessed, "He's lost his tooth." We are now skipping the Tony scenes until Adebayo gets back from Benin with a new tooth.
I drove David Uvieghara to the hospital today. He was in a state of semi-hysteria. I hope the medical officer has some sedatives in the pharmacy so David can get some rest. When I first got back from my American holiday, David announced at the weekly meeting of the dramatic society that the part assigned to him was too small. Remembering a nervous collapse at the end of last year when he faced a challenge similar to performing in a play, I suggested that I give the part to someone else and he could spend his time on his studies. About a month later, I announced at the weekly meeting that we needed a few servants, especially a maid with whom Kate Hardcastle, one of the heroines, discusses her plans to masquerade as a barmaid. David rose to his feet and announced he was ready. I tried to look un-astonished and said, "Thank you." He reported promptly for each rehearsal of his scene and had the speeches memorized the first week. But yesterday, he was trembling and weak, and today he was quite beside himself. I guess we should not be doing a production along with final exams.
November 11. I was kindly let off from invigilating (the British term used here for proctoring) the seniors' external examination, the Cambridge School Certificate Exam; and I have spent two days, more or less, on costumes.
Constance Neville, the play's second heroine, will wear an old lawn nightgown, dressed up with two crepe paper flowers around the bottom, a bow sash, and a rolled scarf collar. Vincent, who plays Miss Neville, doesn't know it's a nightie, and that helps. Mrs. Hardcastle, Tony Lumpkin's mother, will wear some heavy gray cotton drapes I had in 1954—three in the skirt and one for a shawl. Kate will use a cotton evening skirt of mine with a couple of different "overskirts" and, eventually, an apron. Her bonnet—a brown paper brim covered with yellow crepe paper and fastened to a roundish back piece—is safely stashed away on top of the wardrobe. Its tie is a once-white grosgrain ribbon that I inherited from a girl with whom I shared an apartment in Washington, D.C., in 1948.
I have frills in the making for the men's neckwear—the one completed thus far was made from lace off the bottom of an old slip. I am experimenting with wig No. 1 which, at this point, consists of pencil-sized curls of cotton batting sewed onto a strip of white cloth. I have four wigs to do.
Tony's costume will be an odd mixture of some blue jeans and a green and brown gingham plaid jerkin over a long-sleeved shirt. The jerkin was part of a maternity outfit I had.
November 12. I went with our school's other white "madam," a Scottish wife of a Scottish engineer who works at the plywood factory in Sapele. We bought fifteen yards of a red cotton damask-like material for a curtain. (Red was the color suggested by the principal.) We have to thank the manager of the local Kingsway (the retail department of the United Africa Company, all part of the UNILEVER conglomerate) who gave us a special price of 70 cents (U.S.) a yard. This leaves me only $3.00 for all the other bits and pieces as well as the job of finding a sewing machine on which to stitch the seams and hems.
This curtain appears to have some significance, which escapes me. It must be hung so that it can be drawn open and closed again from the sides. We absolutely cannot have two boys, one on each side, pull the curtain by hand and body across the stage. I have not had time yet to figure out the mechanics of this, or to calculate the amount of cord we will need. But I am very busy probing for the source of this curious notion, which has risen to torment me. I have the peculiar feeling it came from a white man!
Tony has returned but failed to report for rehearsal and Mrs. Hardcastle asked me to "check" on this.
November 13. We have now begun what I am sure is a self-defeating process. We have postponed the production for two weeks. Emanuel Okegbe, who plays Hastings, says he cannot learn Act V until after the exams. I know him well enough to be certain that he is no more likely to learn lines after exams than before. But although he is never present at rehearsal unless dragged in, he is something of a leader among the cast, and it is quite impossible for me alone to raise morale high enough to get the show on the road.
I, too, can use a little relief from the stress of extracurricular activity.
David Uvieghara returned to school today. His family took him from the government hospital the day after I got him admitted, and he has since been receiving African medicine in his own village, thirty-five miles away. He is calm although he still appears somewhat distracted, and I have not discussed the play with him.
November 21. Exams ended at noon today, and there has thus far been only dead silence from the cast.
November 24. Rehearsals have been resumed, this time at the insistence of the cast. Tony was nowhere in the compound today, but the others seem to be rising quite adequately to the occasion, now set for December 3.
December 1 (Monday). My optimism was unwarranted. With classes suspended while masters read exams, students go to the post office, the clinic at the hospital, the ‘store,' and the town. Only once during three days did we find enough of the cast in the school compound to get through one whole act.
On Friday we had finally mustered about two-thirds of the cast, and it was agreed to have a full rehearsal at 3:30 on Saturday. On Saturday, I got into school clothes and was in the Class VI room by 3:40. One or two others drifted in. By about 4:15, we had Tony, Kate, Neville, Marlow, and Hastings—but no Sir Charles Marlow (indeed we had not seen him all week), and Mrs. Hardcastle was reported to have ‘traveled.' Kate vanished after the first ten minutes, strolling off the compound with the Landlord, right under my very nose. The only reason I could offer for this was that when Richard (Kate) arrived, he asked me if it was true that he had failed English. I said yes and then he disappeared. Father Hardcastle made his Act V appearance, but by the time we got back to Act I, he also had beat a hasty retreat. Hastings, who has been on his good behavior lately, fetched Hardcastle from his room in a nearby rooming house.
At the end of this, I said our only hope for a performance on Wednesday was a long rehearsal on Sunday—but everyone shook his head. Mrs. Hardcastle would not be back; how could they tell the other absent ones? Monday would be time enough. I said I doubted it, and by this morning, Monday, I had decided I had to report to the principal that we had not yet been through the play from beginning to end and could not perform on Wednesday.
He asked why and I explained. My colleague, who has been trying unsuccessfully to get the stage built, supported me—and the principal asked for the names of the cast. I scribbled them all on the back of an envelope—yea, even unto the very least servant with four lines. They were all rounded up, lined up in the principal's office, and told they were suspended not just for the rest of this year, but for the whole first term next year, too.
Undated. We have had two days of ‘begging'—individually and collectively. Delegations have been at my house, have met me at school, have been to Emma Ibeneme, my friend and neighbor who teaches at another school, to beg her to beg me. I have thus far managed to maintain a pose of severity, but I wish I had a stage director to help me with the timing of this little drama. I have a feeling it is my cue, but I don't know my lines very well.
December 3. We had the last staff meeting of the year today—to discuss promotions and other items. The other items included a rather self-righteous announcement by the principal about the punishment handed to the players. I thought this was a cue if I'd ever heard one, so I rose to say what seemed to me "logical" in view of some other circumstances, which had developed concurrently with the inglorious finale of the play.
I had proctored our internal final exams with great energy and had unearthed four obvious cases of cheating. Boys brought prepared answers to the exam room where, because each student supplies his own paper, he could insert the pre-written sheets in his sheaf of answer papers—if he had been lucky enough to have guessed one or more of the questions.
The first culprit was taken to the principal who gave him zero for that exam. The next day we caught four more students cheating, including the original violator, who had returned for his next exam. On his second offense, he was sent from school, but the other three were simply given failing grades for the course. The contrast between the severity of the punishment meted out to my actors and what was given to the cheaters stung my moral sense and perplexed me. I suggested to the staff at the meeting that one value in punishment of any sort was consistency, and I asked the principal to review both cases, in neither of which I concurred with his decision.
Sparks flew. It may have been an African man who feels he should never be challenged anywhere by a woman (not that the women don't do it!) or it may have been a black man who resented the European in his midst or it may have been a principal a little uncertain of himself and not wanting to let it appear to his staff. Whatever the cause, the principal first brushed off my complaint by explaining that the cheating was just "copying," which really infuriated me. Then he pounded the table, flashed his eyes (Ibos pride themselves on their ability to look fierce), and asked me what right I had to question his motives.
Since his motives were the farthest thing from my mind, I was stumped. I tried to protest that he was missing the point, but he had to finish his speech, and in the end I decided it was easier for me to say I was sorry if I had offended than it was for him even to see that he had offended me. So I said it—and he snapped, "Thank you for saying you're sorry."
After a pause I said I was quite prepared to accept an apology from the boys concerned for time wasted, money spent, and responsibility shirked, and I hoped he would be willing to accept such an apology. I further hoped that upon application, he would reconsider the suspensions for next year. This seemed to go down better and we parted.
I went directly to Emma Ibeneme, who had been recruited by me as a mediator, so she could ask the boys to come and suggest proper apologies as a way out.
December 4. Today I received my apology. It reads:
The Penitent Offenders
Academy Secondary School
4th Dec. 1958
Madam B. J. Nnoka
Academy Secondary School
We are the entire pupils concerned with this recalcitrant exhibition due to our failures to attend the play rehearsals of the play, She Stoops To Conquer, lamently beg the honor of the Madam to understand that we have really offended her.
It has not only aroused the anger of Madam because her expensive time have been uselessly spent, but we have caused the Madam to hear false incompetent name which some people might have called her. We are indeed sorry for this and we pledge from the inmost care of our minds never to be so insorbourdinate any longer.
We humbly wish to pluck a mercy of Madam on us and with broken spirits of punishments wish Madam to forgive us our misdeeds if this our humble piece of apology meet her with a sympathetic consideration.
We are Yours
I have sent a note to the principal recommending clemency. School closes tomorrow.
Barbara Grant Nnoka went to Nigeria in 1954 as an Adult Education Officer appointed by the British Colonial Government in East Nigeria. Her assignment was to promote community development by training village women in literacy, arithmetic, housewifery, needlework, and baby care. When she married in 1955, that contract was terminated. She then taught English in secondary schools for boys for six years, and subsequently served for four years as principal of a girls' secondary school. Her Nigerian career extended from 1954, six years before Nigerian independence, to 1966, six years after. This article is taken from the unpublished manuscript of a journal she kept.