Saturday, June 3, 2023

Blame it on history!

At school, the most interesting subject was history. It was exciting and evoked images of the glory and tribulations of days gone by. We loved history because it was simple and not abstract. Compared to science, it was far easier to remember the name of a marauding warlord and his conquests. We loved history because it was realistic and spoke about things we could relate to. If it said your tribe was defeated by the white man a century ago, it meant exactly that. No amount of protestation could change the fact that the reason you are where you are is because of that defeat all those years ago. In history, we also found our heroes. It was common practise for many boys to name themselves after characters in history. This served a twin purpose. At exam time it enabled them to remember the feats of the hero in whose honour they had named themselves. It also gave the boys a sense of being educated. Compared to their friends who had not stayed long in school, and therefore could not name themselves after any heroes, the name of a historical character was a mark of distinction. History was also comedy.

In the hands of a master teacher, the events of yesteryear could be brought to vivid life. We had favourite lessons. Like the story of a local chief who was one of the first to interact with white people. Apparently he took them in, gave them water and fed them. Very soon they had him drinking European whisky and signing off huge tracts of land. But the best part is where one day the chief called a huge meeting of his subjects. Word had gone around the villages that the chief would be wearing new clothes brought by the white man. And on the appointed day the chief indeed rocked up before multitudes of his subjects, resplendent and looking very pleased in his new petticoat. Tired of being pestered for some clothing, but also eager to get him to sign away more of his land, the white chaps had simply given the old geezer a petticoat which was part of their trading stock and told him it was the latest fashion craze overseas.

Not content with his petticoat, the same chief also took to summoning his subjects to the seat of government every morning. At the risk of a public flogging, everyone had to attend without fail. Instead of the chief making a major announcement, his subjects would sit and watch him take tea. Every single morning, the entire village would congregate at the chief’s place in order to watch him drink tea, from a china cup and saucer. How about the three famous local chiefs who set sail to England to seek protection for their people. They were apparently kitted out in football boots right up to their meeting with the queen. About three years ago, some statues were erected in their honour.

I went there for only one thing; to check out the football boots. However, in an act of historical fraud, the sculptor had made them wear proper shoes. It was heroes, and other comical anecdotes that made history so exciting. We flocked to the history classes. We were raucous and loud. We took pity on the boys who had chosen science and had to study the universe and improbable things like the Milky Way. We had no time for skinning mice and lizards in the laboratories. We had no time for Bunsen burners and mixing chemicals that gave off pungent smells. As far as we were concerned, the world was flat. Why didn’t we fall off if, as alleged, the world was indeed round and revolved around the sun?

Assuming that we had taught ourselves to maintain our balance, if the world was round, at least we should be feeling dizzy as we walked about. In our ignorance we did not realise that by being taught to skin little creatures all day long, the boring boys in white coats were actually being trained for the big time. They were being prepared to be doctors and engineers. Today, they are smiling all the way to the bank. They have nice jobs and are respected in society. Even the boys who were too timid and ugly to study history and hence name themselves after a hero have, with the benefit of nice food turned into men who make many a female swoon. Some of them got married to the white women they met in their countries of study. As for the history buffs, we have not achieved much. In our embarrassment when we meet, we resort to calling each other by our history names. As far as I can recall none of us has ever slept with a white woman.

That is what history did to us. I am reminded of this subject because it’s still early in the school year and many learners are not really sure if they have chosen the right subjects. But I am certain that those who have chosen history are already walking around the school compound like heroes. Very soon they will come across some historical character who takes their fancy, and promptly they will name themselves in his honour. They will be an integral part of the debating society, launching bombastic terms gleaned from history texts at the rival team. They will be a hit with the girls. And quietly plodding away amidst laboratory fumes and carcasses of rodents will be the unremarkable students. No flash or bravado about them. And in a few years time, the boys who called themselves Stalin, Mao, Nkrumah, Castro, Hitler and many other such names will be miserable and living on the bread line.

On the other hand, the boys who had no time for fancy nicknames will be back home after a stint overseas studying medicine, actuarial sciences and engineering, with white women draped over their arms. Now stuck here with my local woman I can only blame history. The reality was brought home on Thursday night when the missus and I joined other couples at Valentine’s Day festivities. There, I saw two chaps with white girls. And immediately I knew they had not wasted time studying history!


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