Wednesday, March 30, 2016
I am a product of the Nigerian Boarding school system.
I do not have a daughter. Yet.
When I do have a daughter (or a son), and s/he comes of age, I do not see myself sending her/him to a boarding school. Far less one in Nigeria.
We can sit in our “Old Girls Association” and regale ourselves with tales of our ‘war stories’ from our boarding secondary schools.
We can meet in our alumni gatherings, and ‘laugh’ over the excessive beatings we endured, and even brandish our war wounds as evidence that we successfully survived.
I am not sure which is more pathetic… the fact that as children, we were subjected to such levels of physical, emotional, mental, and (in some cases) sexual abuse, or the fact that we have not come to terms yet with the unfortunate reality that we were victims of various manner of abuse. Abuse that is still being perpetuated, handed from one generation to the next.
The abuse often meted on students of Nigerian boarding schools is at various levels.
First, there is the “hazing” that new intakes go through.
You are at the bottom of the vicious food-chain. The dregs of the school community.
All other classes of ‘seniors’ take delight in sending you on never-ending errands, barely giving you enough time to remember what you were actually sent to school to do: study.
While some may argue that hazing is almost a universal rite of acceptance into any closed community, the abuse meted on fresh students is such that may negatively affect the student all through her/his time there, and even beyond the school years.
(This explains why some of your peers who were top of the class in primary school struggle all through the secondary school years, and, in some cases, end up repeating classes).
Asides this hierarchical abuse, there is the abuse from peers.
Survival of the fittest is the order of the day. Bullying is at its highest. You either turn ‘street’ in order to survive, or you cower in to the bully’s demands.
Give up your provisions, give up your class notes. You have to devise ingenious means of surviving, such as developing fighting skills, or (like some of us had to), discover our “mouthing” skills to get you out of every trouble.
The Prefects contribute their quota of abuse to the system. They are in charge of the general ‘good-behaviour’ of everyone else. Having experienced abuse for five-six years, this is the life they know.
Frog-jump. Pick-pin. Kneel. Roll. Suspend in the air. Buy me N100 food with N45, and bring me N120 change.
If you went to a military school like I did, crawling in the gutter, through the drainage, rolling in the mud and kneeling in the messy toilets for hours was just the beginning of the nightmares you faced.
Can you really blame the Prefects? Who are but children, put in charge to take care of children, without proper guidance on what it means to take care of other children.
Then, there is the high-level abuse from the teachers, house-masters, house-mistresses in the name of ‘discipline’.
I remember my friend getting her hair/head fried with relaxer. Literally.
The house-mistress had come upon her applying some relaxer (which was regarded as “contraband”) on her hair. Rather than ask her to wash it off, and subsequently punish her for using contraband (which a civilized person in a civilized community would do), the house-mistress made her kneel and leave the relaxer on her head, in her hair, for more than three hours, amidst pleas and cries from her and other students.
We spent the next few months taking out the burnt scalp. Till date, her hair has never grown back to its full length.
(Tiger-House girls reading this, you remember… right??)
Above all these is the sexual abuse students are often exposed to, and suffer in silence.
For those of us who budded late and were not gifted early on with the physical “merchandise”, we were generally ‘safe’ (within the limits of how much ‘safety’ was possible), and were more or less regarded as ‘one of the boys’.
For our not so ‘lucky’ contemporaries however, I now understand with adult eyes and mind, why they always got into so much trouble with the male teachers.
They were always ‘rude’. They were always ‘late’. They were always ‘failing’. Thus, they would always be punished for ‘bad behaviour’.
I now understand, as is the usual pattern in sexual abuse, that the teachers would often harass the poor girls into submitting to their attention.
Or punish them for refusing or neglecting to submit.
Or punish them (having submitted) in order to create unshakeable doubts in the minds of any persons who may suspect any dalliance with such student.
In those days, we would hear these stories, but would not really ‘hear’ these stories. The tale-bearer was quickly hushed in their own interest, in order to avoid expulsion or victimization.
Thank God for the internet.
Thank God for Social Media.
Thank Mark Zuckerberg for Facebook.
Thank Jack Dorsey (et al) for Twitter.
It is easier now to blow off Pandora’s lid, to screech the whistle. Even if the school will not hear the victim, the world will hear the victim. The world will protect the victim.
Which is why the (not so) recent case of a Queen’s College student by a teacher - Mr. Osifala – could not be so easily swept under the carpet and hushed. Notwithstanding the school’s (shameful) attempt to brush it aside as a “campaign of calumny“ against him. (See the statement of the school here)
As a lawyer, I recognize one of the cardinal rules of fairness and justice, which is innocence till proven guilty. I do not intend to ‘prosecute’ Mr. Osifala and/or sentence him here.
(Even though I am angered that this is not the first time he has been accused of molesting students, yet, the school deemed it fit to allow him continue to wield authority over the students. Unchecked.)
But I am happy that the young girl's cries did not just end up as a gust of wind.
I am particularly happy, because I believe this is a push to make other victims of sexual abuse in Boarding Schools come forward. Sexual Predators will begin to take caution, will begin to hesitate, before preying on their students.
I can almost hear arguments that “but these forms of abuse enumerated above also occur in day-schools”.
The difference however is that in day-schools, it is easier for the victim to speak to someone else outside the school. It is easier for the victim’s guardian to notice the changes in the student, and raise the alarm.
Rather than boarding schools where a guardian may not speak to her/his ward in about three months, thus giving time for accumulated abuse, the guardian of students in day-schools have the advantage to notice certain changes faster, before the abuse becomes so entrenched in the student as to cause them long-term damage.
The opportunity for abuse in day schools is also greatly limited by the fact that the bulk of the time the students are in school, they are in general classes. As against Boarding Schools where (like in the Queen’s College case) the abuse may be initiated under the cover of darkness, when the student is isolated from her/his classmates.
It is also argued that boarding-schools enable the students to be more ‘independent’, more equipped to handle life, than students who attended day schools.
I have peers who attended day schools who are more independent than I profess to be.
And then, what is the essence of the ‘independence’ of the child, if her/his mental growth is stunted due to the abuse received in the school?
I do not believe that any house-mistress/prefect/teacher could inculcate the morals a parent would want in their child, better than the parent.
It is akin to owning a business, and leaving it totally for someone else to infuse the vision, the mission, and strategy. Yet, believing the business would grow with your own desired vision.
While our individual jobs and careers may not allow us all to be in charge of the formal education of our kids, we as parents are best equipped to imbibe them with the values and morals we desire.
This is not to say that there is no advantage at all in the Boarding school system. Don’t get me wrong.
Boarding schools are particularly better for guardians who perhaps, have very busy schedules, and would not even have the time to watch their wards.
This is saying that notwithstanding the inherent advantage to the parents in shipping the children off to a Nigerian Boarding school, something has to be done to curb the abuse of students in Boarding schools.
This is saying that just like work places have developed/are beginning to develop anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies, Nigerian Boarding Schools – especially government owned/funded/run schools – should draw up anti-abuse policies.
During the Parents-Teachers conferences, there should be a special time cut out to review the applicability or otherwise of the policy, and deliberate over cases of abuse.
Anti-abuse Committees should be set up across the schools, which should include both students and school teachers/house mistresses/masters alike.
Students should be well-informed on identifying and speaking out against abuse of all forms, especially sexual abuse.
Students who mention any form of abuse should not be shut-down or victimized, in order to encourage others.
Schools should exhibit a zero-tolerance for abuse…
I could go on and on and on and on about suggested reforms to curb abuse in Nigerian Boarding schools.
Alas, I fear, as is the case with many other fundamental issues affecting us as a nation, these words will be received with nods of wisdom… and abandoned to stew in a corner.
I fear that although we are slowly coming of age, we have not yet come of age.
I fear that the fate of our children in the Boarding schools is purely at the mercy of the persons in whose charge they are placed. Persons whom we cannot beat our chest, and swear that they have the best interests of our children at heart.
So we as citizens must continue to encourage our wards to speak up in the face of abuse, just like in the case of Queen’s College student and Mr. Osifala. Where schools fail to take action, we must apply pressure to ensure that the predators are made to face the consequences of their action. This is the least we can do.
Until then, until this national evil of abuse entrenched in the Nigerian Boarding school system is acknowledged for the evil it is and dealt with, I shall keep my offsprings far, far away from the horrors of the Nigerian Boarding School system.