My boarding school experience was a bittersweet one, and also what I can consider my first real exposure to the world. I come from humble beginnings, I wouldn’t say poor. My parents raised me to be grounded and to show the same respect for all people regardless of their societal status and income level. By the time I was old enough to remember anything, my father had a decent job and by the time I was 6, we lived in a gated house and had more than one car at some points.
When I was going to secondary school, it was a rough period for our family financially. My dad had received an underserved demotion at his job and eventually quit. Also, I had grown up in a village for most of my childhood, an amazing experience which also came with me being disconnected from the world at large. I’m saying we had no cable TV, and I did not know what Nike or Adidas were or even the concept of brand names before I went to secondary school. I remember going to form one with my trunk split into three compartments – one for toiletries, the middle one for my clothes and the other side for my food and snacks. There were quite a few of us with that configuration and eating garri with a soapy taste was not something strange to us.
I found myself in a dorm room with people from Yaounde, Douala, and some from the United States who knew things like Mangas, Nike, Air-Force 1, PlayStation and Jiff. Up till that point, the handheld brick game and Arcade game houses were my only experience with digital gaming. For the first time, I had my shoe tested for it’s originality by applying pressure to its sole. I failed the first test of course and I still remember the disappointment. All the above could be summarized to the 2000F pocket allowance I received in contrast with other students who came in with 20,000 F and if our parents added to that during visiting Sundays, it was proportionate.
By the time I was in form three, I started thinking of schemes that will make me do my school shopping by myself instead of having my mom do it. That was so that the money could be redirected to making sure my sports shoe be na ‘porpo’ or ‘ôtang’. It didn’t help or helped that we wore assorted wears in school for most activities. Saturdays were a fashion show – every one of them and it is then that many of us started going through what our parents were going through back in the neighborhood in keeping up with the Fongods. My 2000F pocket allowance could not be sufficient even though my mom could do the math for me to see I just wanted to be extravagant. Whether I was extravagant or not, was not the point then, I needed more money and I had to find a way to make the money. That is how the entrepreneur in me was born.
First term in form 3, my classmate Alota came to school with a Camera which I convinced him to sell to me on credit. I was to pay him an advance after the first outing and complete the rest later. We negotiated and he agreed to sell the camera to me for 5000F. Once I had the Camera, I sent one of the guys who came to sell puff puff during breaks in school to get me a film. I gave him 1400F – 1200F for a 36shot roll of film and 200F for his transport. I had my Camera and for 150F, I bought batteries and started my photography business. Electronics were generally not allowed in school but other senior students had Cameras so I figured I could get away with it if I could hide it well. Besides even the senior students who were charged with enforcing the rules wanted to have pictures every now and then. It was something that wouldn’t generally get you in trouble unless someone wanted to just cause you some problems.
The standard market price for photographs was 300 F and it costs me 100F to develop every picture. So for a 36 roll film I could make a profit upwards of 4000 F. Sometimes I did two rolls in a month. I didn’t know a thing about photography then and the library was closed. Whenever a photo came out poorly, I would have to ask the person to take another one either for free or for half the regular price. I was still learning basic photography rules, mostly by try and error. Things like backing the sun and how the flash worked.
To save you more details, I basically had my first accounting and customer service lessons on my own. It is interesting that the major criticism of traditional schooling as we know it is that it teaches you everything except about money which ends up being the one thing that controls the lives of many people. I would go on to start other businesses in school including a fashion design business and even being a rep for different groups of students. I remember handling nightclub rentals for one party I wasn’t part of. I made money bringing in contraband for a small transport fee.
My Camera will end up being one of the things that started the wave that eventually saw me being expelled after requesting to withdraw from the institution – another interesting story for another day. It was two years after having my first Camera when my father who had since gotten an international job came back from Italy with a new Canon camera which was definitely better than the one I had been using. My mom and I, till date, disagree on who the Camera was bought for but I remember talking to my dad on the phone and asking him to buy me a Camera, it had to be it. I wouldn’t even ask my mother for permission to take the Camera to school nor tell her of the business I had been running to multiply my pocket allowance which at the time had risen to 5,000 F.
Around the time I got my first Camera, many changes also came to the school system. We were no longer allowed to have assorted clothing in school. Uniforms were introduced for all school activities. This move was supposed to reduce the ‘unhealthy’ competition for best dressed student. I don’t have empirical data to show that the competition reduced as it just switched to electronic gadgets and shoes.
The other change that is the reason for this article was the cancelling of clubs. When we first arrived at the school, the tradition was, on Wednesdays during normal prep hours, we had something called ‘clubs’ which usually extended into the sports period that came after. We had a computer club ,music club, drawing club, tennis club, acting club, dance club etc. I rotated between the computer club and the drawing club. Clubs got cancelled and that time was converted to more prep time. What also went with clubs was library hours. Each class had a day during the week when they went to the library instead of class for prep. It is in the library that I developed my love for books and for studying random things. It is in those library hours that I read Enid Blighton’s series of books ‘The Famous Five’ and ‘The Secret Seven’ – books that I believe influenced much of the person I am now.
The time then came when library hours were gone and club hours were gone, all replaced with more time for us to prepare for the GCE. Today I see many schools without a single playground. The only metric used to advertise schools these days is how many students passed the GCE out of the number that sat. Our only measurement of a good school is the GCE results. We have created a system where we crank out people who have crammed hundred of pages of facts without context ready to spew them out on an exam paper with a subtle plan of never remembering any of that bs after the final exams.
I took the liberty to explore my other interest -tucking novels in my textbooks and notebooks during class and preps. But committing crimes gets tiring and my interest in the things that have proved to have been the most important to me now waned. I enjoyed more hours of exploring my other interests only because I was stubborn. I wish I could do those in freedom. I remember I always wanted to join the music club but people for that club were handpicked based on their first term math and physics scores. Not one of them has gone on to try a career in music today. I might have had an early start in music and probably be somewhere else right now.
So one day, months after I had ‘taken’ ‘my’ camera to school, I think my mom wanted to use it and discovered it was no longer where she had kept it. I don’t think she had to think twice to know exactly where it was. I had been a smooth criminal all through but my mom was about to expose me. One day sitting in class during preps, the discipline master came to my class and called me to his office. When I got there, he gave me the box of the Camera and asked me to go and put it back inside and bring it to him. I figured he had already asked the usual snitches who confirmed I had a camera. From the look on his face, he was not asking me if I am the one who took it. That is how the Camera went back home with an incomplete film and some financial losses to me – losses I was not ready to incur. Days later, I broke bounds, went home, found the key to the cupboard where my mom was hiding the Camera and took it back to school to finish my jobs. We went back and forth for a while and my mom helped clear the discipline master’s doubts when it comes to my criminal activities. Until then, I had never been caught red handed, even after. The only crime I committed and was caught is the one my mom reported.
It is amazing that after trying my hands at so many things, I picked up the Camera again In 2018 and from the first picture I took, it dawned on me just how much I missed it. When I look back at all the things school made me stop, that after years of officially schooling and lots of money spent on my education, what is putting food on my table and a smile on my face today are those things that they never wanted me to do. Things that I ended up dropping to to finally find that they are what I was really born to do. I remember writing stories and movies back then, playing chess, attempting to design a video game, and organizing events.
Not to say my university degree is a total waste but I can only say that because we’ll never know what I would have become if I was let to explore those things I wanted to explore even deeper. I did well in school but I loved other things too, why couldn’t I do both? In my case, that I have circled and come back to where I started, one can safely conclude with a different education system, I would have been a photographer, designer, and entrepreneur before I reached 18. I remember applying to study interior design in the U.K and my dad laughing at me when I told him about it. Today, I have three solid ID jobs in my name.
- Norbert Foy