Before I got into secondary school back in the days in Jos, I was terrified by the legend of Mr Wahidi. My older brothers and their friends talked about him often, about how good he was at what he did. You see, Mr Wahidi, apart from being the Intro-Tech teacher, was most famous for being the ‘Discipline Master’ of Government Secondary School Gangare. So large was his reputation that even those who had never attended the school knew of him and were terrified of him.
I would discover when I got into the school, that Mr Wahidi was a small man. Small, dark and rather disappointingly short that even the bigger boys in JS One were taller than he was. In their midst, he would have been lost if not for his moustache, which roofed his upper lip like a small thatch. He was often seen wandering the school compound with his koboko, a cane, or sometimes just the sheer menace of his being. He had mastered the art of flogging students that few remember how good he was as a teacher. I remember him teaching us in the Intro-Tech lab, but I do not have any recollection of those lessons. I do, however, remember the time he flogged me.
That day, I thought I had forgotten my Home Economics notebook at home and the subject teacher, a slim, lovely whimsical woman, hadn’t been pleased about that. But then again, she had arrived at school in a foul mood from a provocation that none of us students had caused. She was further enraged to discover that quite several students, about 17 of us in fact, didn’t have their notebooks.
“Mr Wahidi will flog all of you today,” she said with a damning finality.
The terror raced through our bodies and made our little knees knock against each other. And some amongst us (obviously not me) fell to their knees and started grovelling for mercy. She would not hear anything of it. So, she marched us to the Home Economics lab and sent for Mr Wahidi.
But between the class and the lab, I pulled out my trump card—to make her see reason with me. But my attempt to explain that I had my timetable mixed up, that I had picked out the book and then somehow forgot to put it in my school bag irked her.
When Mr Wahidi came with a mean-looking strip cut out from an old car tyre dangling from his hand, we were petrified. We were condemned to 10 lashes of that vicious cane each and Mr Wahidi chose to start with the biggest boy in the group. Surajo was big but not very brave, at least at the time. The thwack of the rubber on his skin was accompanied by his tremendous howl that shook the fittings in the lab, reached into our livers and squeezed them. This happened the 10 times he was flogged.
One after the other, the boys howled, rolled on the floor, ran around the room like headless chickens as Mr Wahidi caned them. I admit, to my eternal shame, that when he came to me, I followed suit. I did my fair deal of wailing and rolling on the floor as I took the beating. After 10 agonizing lashes, I thought I was done. But the Home Economics Teacher said, “Give him five more. He was busy arguing with me.”
Whether he miscounted or was just plain mean, Mr Wahidi gave me seven more lashes. And as I knelt down nursing my welts, my bruises and my battered ego, the first of the girls stood up for her cane. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! This girl, Nuratu, only twitched. She did not cry or wail or scream. She took her 10 quietly and went back to kneel down. The other girls followed suit, took the beating with grace and very little noise.
“Shameless boys,” our teacher hissed. “See how you were opening your mouths and crying but see how the girls are quiet.”
When we were freed, the boys all turned on Surajo for setting a bad precedence and wailing like a pig.
“Did you know the kind of pain I felt?” he shot back.
All in all, it was a bitter experience for me, especially, after returning to class and discovering my Home Economics notebook resting in my school bag among my other books. Eventually, my relationship with our teacher would improve after she discovered that I wasn’t one of those “unserious students.”
Why am I talking about beatings in school, you wonder? Well, this week, a video of some four students, all armed with canes, gang-flogging a female student in an Ilorin school has been causing an uproar. They were assigned the task by the school authority and executed it with a fair amount of savagery in the presence of the student’s parents, who apparently consented to the act. The girl’s offence? Attending a birthday party, or so it has been reported.
It was serious enough to warrant a government team to visit the school. Officials have been suspended and an investigation has commenced.
What the incident in Ilorin and the reactions that have trailed it have demonstrated are the changing nature of things. In the past, this beating would be considered normal. But this is not the past. For one, there are cellphones now and beating students as one is not expected to beat an animal is no longer fashionable. Over time the world has come to realise that dehumanising children is not the best way to teach them or correct their mistakes.
This is why I think it is important to have a national policy on disciplining students in formal schools, especially in religious institutions, both Islamic and Christian, where the construct of discipline and morals are subject to the interpretations of the faith leaders at the head of these schools, where some parents accept that the best way for God to find the heart of their children is through the length of a cane. Some parents in the past often chose the schools they sent their children to based on the level of “discipline.”
But the kind of beating the girl in Ilorin, and her fellow students, received apart from dehumanising the students are dangerous. Chances are that it could all go wrong and the student might suffer some catastrophic health disaster—a seizure, an injury or some permanent bodily or emotional damage.
We are not raising our children the same way we or our parents were raised. For instance, the days of raising free-range children who played football on the streets until sunset and walked themselves to school are over. Just as the physical abuse of children in the name of discipline should be.
Parents and teachers will learn more about their children or students and impact them more by talking to them and finding more appropriate ways to sanction them when they err. And they will err because that is how we all grow.
Even Mr Wahidi, figured this out all those years ago. His transformation was sly. He first slacked off on his discipline master alter ego and only dished out punishment when asked by the principal. Instead of commanding students to lie on the floor and receive koboko, he would rather ask them to pose so he could capture their image for a fee. In time, he gave up his bulala for a camera that bobbed off his chest as he walked. He started conversations with students who were at first caught between fleeing and staying out of his reach. Over time, these students watched Mr Wahidi disrobe the cloak of fear he had been draped in all along. He became ‘The Photographer.’
He gave me a memory of terror with those 17 lashes but he also captured some of my most memorable moments in that school with his camera. Those later memories are the ones I cherish the most.