I remember everything about that day except her actual name. Bepɔ so han was what we used to call her. Bepɔ so han (BSH) was the motto of her alma mater. She was a teacher and I, a student at Mfantsiman Girls’ Secondary. Ours is Ɔbra nye woara abɔ.
And a Syterian is a ‘girl’ who attends or attended Mfantsiman Girls’.
(Picture not mine.)
It was not the first time my classmates were begging BSH to spare me. The choruses were copious:
‘We beg, madam, we beg.’
‘Oh madam, she is not hardcore’,
‘Please madam, pl-e-e-e-a-a-se.’,
‘O-o-o, madam she is not ATL’,
‘Madam, forgive and forget.’
And the like.
Besides Pɔjwɜ , an Ekons student like me, and Priscilla M, a Gavment student, the other Ekons and Gavment students were just begging blindly. By chipping in statements which painted me saint, they were diluting the chances of BSH accepting the pleas made on my behalf. I could not blame them: they knew and loved me, like classmates would. It was my other mates, the History students, who surprised me. With full, brazen knowledge of how I had earned a punishment from BSH and how they had laughed at BSH, these begged with not only words, but with hands and half(-hearted) kneeling.
It was the second time in only two days that these History students were begging BSH for me.
Knowing the gravity of open humiliation I had caused BSH, I could not have joined in the begging, even though it was all on my behalf. Neither could I begrudge BSH not believing that I had been at her bungalow for my punishment, nor her insisting to finally, properly lash me. All over again. I could only explain, all over again, to BSH that I did arrive at her bungalow the day before, to start with my punishment, but she was not there. I was to fetch fifty good buckets of lati , obviously to fill the fresh, jagged gullies which several nights’ rain had cut and dug in front of her corridor.
Such a cliché, impersonal and postponed punishment for all too awkward and accidental a crime! Mine. The deed, it all happened the day before.
Ama-Go-Slow did not finish early enough with the Core Maths lesson. Bepɔ so han was already wedging on the veranda, ready to enter the 3 General Arts ‘A’ class. The History students were to remain in the class whilst the rest of us – Gavment and Ekons students – left for our lessons elsewhere. It had become quite the norm and BSH’s special right to beat all Ekons and Gavment students who would not have left the class by the time she entered for her History lesson. While we the migrating students frantically fished our notebooks and other learning materials from fat sack bags under tables and from crammed desks and odd other places, the resident History students started confusing and taunting us:
‘Comfort, don’t forget your Gavment 8 notebook o-o-o-h’, Naa Momo started that day’s teasing.
There was no such thing as Gavment 8, not to even think of a notebook for it. We all teased the Gavment students. Geography, another elective subject, was understandably divided into Physical Jog, Human Jog and Map Work. Theirs however, were just Gavment 1, Gavment 2 and Gavment 3. And each of these three had a separate notebook, each, a full encyclopaedia in the making.
In the rush to pull my Ekons notebook out of my sack bag, my head hit the desk while raising it up, together with the notebook, from under the desk.
Then a voice, like Lynn’s, continued the teasing. This time, me:
‘E-e-e-e-i-i-i Sheilla, your Ekons notebook gbɔɔ like that! Why? You don’t have Purchasing Power to Demand for a new one?’
I did not have time to mind Lynn. I was busily rubbing my aching head with the ball of my hand. By the time I thought I had rubbed enough pain away to be on my way out, BSH had stepped in. And many of us Ekons and Gavment students were still too late in leaving the class.
In this picture, taken in the 3 General Arts A class, are some of my classmates, including Comfort and Priscilla M. All but the one holding the blue fan are in our various house prints. I am the one wearing the big, silly smile behind a pen and a pencil, at the far back.
Soon, the cane lashes littered the book-and-ink dry air of the classroom. One can never be safe, for BSH was all over the class, on and across tables, over and past chairs, turning and stretching and gliding and almost jumping. Everywhere. Some of the lashes fell on the compact hardness of wood, furniture. A few fell on the tamed hardness of wood, piles of books. More lashes were fruitful, having landed with sizzling hisses on the bare flesh of human mauves. Those who unknowingly and regretfully caught their taste of BSH’s wondrous wand were free from further harm. They had both peace and permission to leave the class, to wherever their Ekons and Gavment classes were to take place.
Even if I could have planned it, the terror that BSH had become – not to even mention the taunting of her History students – would not have permitted my planning and executing a neat exit out of the crowded and labyrinthine room that my 3 General Arts A class was. All I now know is that, while the lashes freely flew in the air, I wriggled my way to the closest desk by our ever-opened classroom door. Soon, it just happened that before Aponkye–Kay knew what went past her legs under her desk, which was the first and closest to the door, I was already on the veranda.
There were about three of us who escaped, unscathed by BSH’s magic wand.
BSH came out of the class. After us. And towards the end of the veranda.
As much as we three feared to take the lashes, I did not think any of us was ready to jump off the dead-end of the veranda, to the ground floor, just in case if maybe things become too desperate and something unthinkable happens. Luckily enough, the science students had left their classrooms – for lab practicals, I guess. Happily and hastily, we three escaped human mauves slipped into the first vacant one. Our happiness was short-lived, and our haste, ill-advised, for we quickly realised that the class had no door with which to shut BSH out.
With a crude mixture of gladness and vengeance, BSH’s breezed into the class, wielding her weapon of dire destruction, having left her History students waiting for their beloved class to start. As for we three poor human mauves we were trapped and trapped good.
At first BSH filled the doorway. BSH was average in height and all. But for once, she loomed inside the empty science class like some sinister hawk-shaped cloud threatening rain and hell on fresh yellow cotton balls of chicks – or maybe I should say cotton ball, since I was probably the only one who felt so.
I watched BSH brandish her lithe wand, her breathing and demeanour spilling with mad intent. I did not know what to think. I felt something hard and bitter and lumpy climb up my now taut throat. Another slowly sank into what should be my stomach.
That BSH and her wand were fast closing in on us, towards a doubly dead-end; that I have a grave, bowel-turning history with cane lashes – whatever the reason, whichever teacher happened to dish them – made me dizzy and all but dead with fear and new-found stubbornness. Suddenly, everything was wrong with me. I must have started counting what everything consisted of, when…
She beckoned us to come for our taste of it. Her weapon of a wand.
Priscilla M was the first to go. The lashes sounded good. They began with a smooth wh-e-e-e-w-w and ended with a rich thud on her very bountiful shankus. But the clenched teeth and tear-barricaded eyes, in fat, the many contortions that formed and fast faded on Priscilla M’s face told a different story. I knew the lashes could NOT taste good. And I could not imagine going through what was fast becoming a blood-bath.
The school’s assembly hall, years after I’ve completed.
(Picture not mine.)
Throughout my life in school, I had always been careful not to stray (far) from the boundaries of school rules just because of my intense hatred – no, fear. Or is it rather phobia – for canes and cane lashes in particular. Once, my own mother told me that my fear is unfounded, since any teacher who cared to spank me will only be caning a walking cane with a cane. I know that I am painfully thin and tall, but if what they say about the proverbial monkey and its child is true, and my mother CAN call me a walking cane, one that caused untold harm to an actual cane, then…
At that moment, and with havoc BSH around, I would rather not smile at the thought, I could not pursue, could not afford to complete it.
Pɔjwɜ was next. Reluctantly, she wheeled her smallish frame towards BSH. Unmerciful BSH raised her wand to give Pɔjwɜ too a share of its taste. That was when – or so I thought – I saw my chance. I narrowly slid past Pɔjwɜ and her predator Bepɔ so han, on my way out of the trap of a classroom, to my ongoing Ekons class, and into a world without cares and canes. In the fluid process, the back of my mauve uniform smudged the A Well Labelled Diagram of Something Plankton on the blackboard.
Then suddenly, BSH made one swift sweeping turn. I thought I heard something break. The sound was too quick and crisp to be the crack of a cane. And I was barely out of the doorway when one whack from BSH’s wand landed. It was a fatal whack and it was unfortunate it landed on a wrong, non-human target. The whack, it rather added to the splinters on the already frayed doorpost.
Still, BSH was all eager to pursue. This time, me pɜ. I felt so alone and in sour distress. Priscilla M must have long gone for her Gavment class. I thought I saw Pɔjwɜ – or someone like her – still hanging around the battle grounds. I was so busy saving my skin, my life, to be sure of anything. I was neither in the science class nor on the veranda proper. BSH was right there with me. And this deepened my loneliness and distress.
A group of human mauves, Jog students, and our teacher, Mr. Otoo, on a trip at the Elmina Castle. In this picture are my mates Pɔjwɜ, Lynn and again, Comfort.
BSH and I must have whipped up such a mighty stir for human mauves to have poured into the veranda from the classes on the first floor of the Form 3 Block. The History students who BSH should have been teaching were among the human mauves. I was soon sandwiched between BSH and the host of mauves, who seemed to have gathered, eagerly waiting for the grande finale of what they thought was a big show.
The show, as it later turned out, was big, but not as sweet as it was brief: there was BSH, deftly raising and bringing down her wand to accurately land on its target, my precious skin. And there was me, timidly and even more accurately, dodging the impact of the first of cane lashes that were never to be.
When she realised I was too expert – oh how I surprised myself! – at the dodging for her, BSH decided to get closer, to take what could be no more than two short steps, to me. It was not until BSH had lifted one leg from behind the other, and again; it was not until she had planted one foot on the threshold and she had brought the other foot for another planting, for a full sure-footing, when BSH realised that one of her legs was suddenly, strangely, shorter or longer than the other. And she did not know why – not yet, at least.
‘E-e-e-e-i, Ghana is longer than Africa’, someone from among the human mauves shouted.
As if that was not tell-tale enough, the broken pencil heel of BSH’s sandals came clattering from the entrance of the science class, down the threshold, and onto the floor’s corridor.
Another human mauve pitied BSH, ‘O-o-o-h-h madam, s-o-o-r-r-y oka-a-y?’
But the glaring taint of mockery in that sympathy sent everyone giggling, a giggling which was the beginnings of massive, explosive laughter. It was Pɔjwɜ, who broke the contagious laughter bottle. One could even see her uvula dangling in front of the dark tunnel sharply descending behind it. The fresh tears on her face, tears from her recent taste of BSH’s wand, these tears made the laughing feast merrier. Everyone laughed. Everyone laughed about what was stark obvious to us students and hopelessly sad and unknown to BSH. Everyone laughed large and laughed long. Everyone but BSH and I.
Then in one defiant attempt, she raised the cane up and towards me. Again. In a second or less, the feast died, easily. With fear splashed all over my horse-long face, I clutched my fragile Ekons notebook – and perhaps, the frozen frenzy moment – against my scanty bust. My whole world was reeling, out of every sanity and safety, on a pin point.
The History students pleaded with BSH not to lash me. Not (to even try) again. BSH looked at me and her raised cane in turns. All courage to beat me left her. And I was too tired from the (di)stress and shock of it all (to even try) to run or resist. Not again.
Finally, BSH had to limp away, with the warning that I should come to her bungalow, after supper for that cliché, impersonal and postponed punishment. Mine.
The accident. Missing her ultimate aim, me. The laughing feast. Her now-one-and-three-quarter gait. That the History lesson did not, could not happen that day. That at first, I would not let myself get lashed, and later, I could not care about tasting her wand. The thought of all these. Everything went BSH well well, from flesh and fat, past blood and bone, and well into marrow and soul.
It certainly must have been beyond skin pain. For Bepɔ so han.
*An earlier version of this memoir, titled Byond Skin Pain, was first published sometime in 2009, in the then Citi 97. 3 FM‘s The Globe Newspaper, a weekend lifestyle magazine.
Ama-Go-Slow – nickname for one rather soft-spoken female teacher, whose lessons were so boring for Core Math, and especially for an Art Class
Aponkye-Kay – a classmate’s nickname
ATL – (Above The Law) – decidedly rebellious
Bepɔ so han – Twi for ‘light on top of the hill / mountain’
Ekons – Economics, the elective subject
Gavment – Government, the elective subject
Gbɔɔ – to be too worn and decrepit with age or long use
Ghana is longer than Africa – a situation where a part of one’s shirt, shoe etc. is longer than the other, creating an awkward imbalance in the overall outlook; may be caused by (unintentional) improper buttoning or similar hitches.
Hardcore – very naughty, popular for being notorious
Human mauves – students, usually in the official, mauve school uniform, rather than the variously coloured house prints: red for Scotton House; yellow for Butler House; green for Chinery House; blue for Engmann House and violet for Croffie House.
In fat – In fact
Jog – short for Geography, the elective subject
Just in case if maybe – colloquial; redundancy is deliberate, for effect, for emphasis
Lati – reddish laterite, the sand and coarse gravels
Ɔbra nye woara abɔ – Fante for ‘life is how you (yourself) lead it’.
Pɜ – only, alone
Pɔjwɜ – one classmate’s nickname
Shankus – buttocks
Wedge – to wait, strategically
Well well – very well; repetition for emphasis
Went (from the verb ‘to go‘) – to deeply feel pain, physical or intangible
Picture by Esaaba Photography.