By Juliet Rogers
That morning when Vamson passed by the slums, Shemgbe sat by a log fire, set there to keep himself and his friends warm. Shemgbe has left school about nine months. It has taken one academic year since he decided not to continue his attendance at Achievers Elementary School (AES). Just few yards from where Shemgbe lived, was a well known ghetto. Boys in their teens and even some visionless adults spent their entire time at that ghetto – drinking alcohol, smoking “kush” and cigarettes as well as enjoying gambling.
“You mean at primary school, you’ve begun doing all these social evils, instead of going to school to prepare for a better future, you’re here preparing to join these ghetto youths.” Vamson queried Shemgbe with a resounding slap. “That’s how you will lose the golden future. Foolish boy,” Keke Torma who met them made this remark. Keke Torma was a regular customer to the local carpenter, Vamson. “Come, let me accompany you to your school,” Vamson said to Shemgbe.
At this moment, Shemgbe started shedding gentle tears across his face, which finally erupted a high-pitched wailing. Shemgbe fixed his gaze on the carpenter, Vamson and said: “But I can’t go to school any longer, I can’t go anymore. I have no fees to pay. My friends mock and provoke me everyday and everytime I’m asked out of school for school fees – I cannot afford to pay my school fees. No clothes to wear, my uniform is torn on every side, card boards with no exercise books. No! I’ll never go to that school, I’m tired of being shamed and disgraced.”
Shemgbe was such a destitute that he sometimes copied his notes on any object. Mabudu and Steven were his friends. They were a bit well off and could easily meet the financial challenges of the school. Going through a grassy field, heading for the common play ground one afternoon, Shemgbe picked up an empty box that had been thrown away after removing the content in it; it contained two newspapers. “What are you doing with that empty carton?” Mabudu asked Shemgbe. “For a purpose,” he quickly replied. “And the old newspapers?” “The same,” he answered again. “Besides, what purpose?” Steven inquired. “You’ll not easily understand, they are my notebooks,” he said quietly. Mabudu and Steven laughed so long that Shemgbe was offended. He had no choice, but to courageously accept the taunt.
As he entered the class after launch, the entire class shouted: “Popolipo.” This was the tagged name given to him by his school and they called him that name everyday. To avoid such attention, he devised the method of going to class very early; he is always there in his class, few minutes before lunch ends. This was repeated daily. But it did not help him evade the provocations. Coupled with the challenge of teasing, Shemgbe was constantly embarrassed by his headmaster and classmaster for school fees.
“If education is expensive, try ignorance,” the headmaster had always said at anytime he asked for school fees. It became a slogan to him which reminded Shemgbe of packing his carton cards to go home. There were times when he would escape. Instead of going to devotion, Shemgbe hid in the toilet and would sneak into his classroom as devotion ended. Little did he realise that throwing pupils out of school as a result of school fees was always across the board.
“No education for the poor,” the classmaster would say as a way of reminding those who had not paid fees should be ready to go home. If Shemgbe escaped the morning assembly for fear of driving him for school fee, he never escaped this one. Since the names of pupils were called according to how much they own, Shemgbe’s name was always the first that was called. Some pupils always joined to call Shemgbe, knowing when it comes to calling names for payment of school fees that were overdue, Shemgbe’s name is always the first name to call. So, just when the teacher would say: “If you hear your name, you leave the class,” fellow pupils will chorus: “Shemgbe!” He himself knowing his name was always the first, he had often stood and begun leaving the class even before his name was pronounced. He alone knew how shameful it was, how disgraceful it was to be always asked out of class for school fees. The fees was not anything huge, but the parents of Shemgbe could not afford it.
That day Shemgbe left and never went back, not only because he could not afford the fees, but the shame of always being picked out among the lots. There were times the teachers gave him concession and would ask him to stay.
With nothing to eat because parents cannot afford anything, Shemgbe started spending hours in the local carpentry workshop and shortly afterwards, he became a strong apprentice to Vamson, the local carpenter. Vamson was popularly called “Captain Wood” because of the display of his expertise. Gradually and patiently, Shemgbe learned the best skill in wood work of various sorts. Fast forward, with permission obtained from his master, Shemgbe established his own work centre. He quickly controlled the minds of many customers. Huge money started rolling in. Next, his shop attracted the attentions of boys who were like him during those days of great need.
Then he thought of sparing time for literacy and numeracy lessons. He could leave his apprentices at work to attend lessons that upgraded his level to high school leavers. Shemgbe applied at a community polytechnic to do diploma in Automechanics and Engineering. It was a two year programme. Upon his graduation, Shemgbe used his newly acquired diploma to gain admission into the University of Sierra Leone, where he pursued a degree in Engineering. He graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in Engineering. Yet, he was not satisfied. Shemgbe further pursued Law. Owing to his academic status, a first class degree holder, he did only three years. He went to Law School and was licensed to practise as a barrister and solicitor at Law.
With his two sons who were at high school, and the only daughter attending upper primary school, he summoned them at his chamber one afternoon, “My own parents lived in abject poverty when I was born, up to the time they joined our ancestors. I suffered. At primary school, they gave me names, derogatory names and embarrassed me because I could not pay my school fees. There were times when I even went for days without food and…” He put his head down as he said these words. While the two boys were in deep contemplation on the fact that their father has succeeded in life, with houses, huge bank accounts at several commercial banks, cash crop plantations, fleet of cars, their little sister shed tears for the humble, difficult, disgraceful life origin of their father. “Let us all accept the past and forget about it. What is important is the current success and perhaps the lessons of how I escaped dying in poverty like my own parents, and came into prosperity and will eventually die in affluence. I had always aimed at better days and worked towards the notion which suggests that ‘the end result will be worth the sacrifice’.”