MY STATE of mind, whilst sitting the General Certificate of Education (GCE) examination in Accra in June 1956, was not the best.
Because I’d been dismissed as a pupil teacher, I found it hard to survive on a day-to-day basis. My routine in Accra was study; go to Atukpai taxi station to see whether I could do some “aplanke” work such as washing the cars of the taxi drivers I knew; then grabbing something to eat (with whatever “dash” was given to me) and back to Kwaku Dakwa’s room to revise and revise.
At the exam, some of the first papers I wrote went well and I was a bit relieved. But when it came to the time to write the most important paper, English Language, I panicked. Yet English was crucial: even if one passed in five out of the six subjects offered at the GCE Ordinary Level and one failed in English, one would fail the entire examination! Now, the trouble was that the English Language syllabus was extremely wide – there was essay-writing; grammar; vocabulary; spellings and so on! It was a maze of traps!
On the day before the English paper, my panic took on a physical form. I couldn’t sleep. Yet I wasn’t making any headway in my revision of lessons.
By early morning, I was in a state of confusion. I knew I must eat, and so went out to find something to buy for breakfast. But because I hadn’t been eating breakfast regularly, I didn’t know where to go. Luckily, whilst I was wondering what to do, a woman came by, carrying koko [porridge] on her head. I wasn’t a koko eater, but the fear of arriving late at the examination hall made me throw caution to the winds and I bought some.
Worse, when I got home, I wolfed the koko down extremely fast. I then bathed, put on my clothes, and set out on foot to walk from Adabraka to the West African Examinations Council examination hall near Makola Market, adjacent to Cinema Palace.
I was shaking with anxiety as I took my seat in the hall. Things didn’t go well at all for me to begin with, for the examination invigilator, a white woman, spoke in a posh accent, called “Received Pronunciation” that was almost unintelligible to me. First, asked us to write our name on the front of the paper, and in the space where it said “Examination Centre”, to write “Accra 02.” I heard her say Accra 02, but in her upper-class accent, the “0” sounded like “Or”!
I don’t now remember whether I wrote “Accra 02” or “Accra or 2”! Imagine starting to write such a crucial paper with unnecessary confusion to contend with. Why didn’t the examiners choose an invigilator whose English could be unmistakably understood by us? They trusted their own people, didn’t they? A Ghanaian invigilator might show sympathy towards the candidates but do what exactly? Help them? An English woman, on the other hand, [the examiners must have reasoned] could be trusted wholly. Tough if her accent made it difficult for the candidates to comprehend what she said, though they were paying to write the exam!
Well, the woman soon gave the order to “Start writing!” and I had to stop worrying about whether I had written the correct name of the centre. I started on the essay first, because I knew that was where the greatest amount of marks would come from.
I had almost finished it when a tragic disaster struck: the koko I had gulped down in the morning chose that moment to – erupt from my tummy! It splashed all over the essay I had been writing.
My God, what do I do?
Shaking, I put up my hand and when the lady realised that I was ill, she asked a Ghanaian assistant to escort me to the toilet. I went there, finished puking, washed my mouth and hands, and then came back to the examination hall.
Like a man possessed, I rewrote on a new sheet, everything that I had written before I threw up. I was doing quite well, but then, yet another disaster struck at me!
Without prompting, the English woman suddenly said: “You have thirty minutes left!” This was clearly wrong: forty-five minutes would add about twenty minutes to the stated duration of the exam!
But who cared? Everyone rationalised it as perhaps, a new instruction given to the invigilator, but not told to us, the candidates!
For me personally, it was like an “Act of God”. The Lord had had pity on me and made the woman extend the time, so that what time I had lost by going to the toilet, had been given back to me! Coming back to rewrite what my vomit had made indelible, had been an unexpected gift! So, happily, I relaxed and tackled the rest of the paper with normal speed.
However, about ten minutes to the time that the examination was originally scheduled to end, the woman made another announcement: “You have ten minutes left!”
What? This new announcement erased the one she had made only a few minutes ago, of course. She had, somehow, reinstated the original time!!
A yell of tremendous pain now emanated from the throat of every single one of the 300 or more candidates. It would have choked her dead, pumped into her throat!!
But apparently, she didn’t notice anything wrong. And at the end of the originally stated period, she did command us: “Stop Writing!”
People were still making noises of pain, but we stopped writing. And our answer papers were duly collected from us.
BY Cameron Duodu