Not a native son
Not a native son
In the summer of 1953, aged 7, I arrived with my father at the port of Southampton from the colony of Nigeria. We were making for Ledsham Court School, a boarding school in St Leonards-on-Sea, Sussex. It was a stately building sitting among many green acres. After about an hour with the headmistress, Mrs Redfarn, my father said goodbye, turned and returned to Nigeria. I did not know then that I would not see or hear from him for 10 years, by which time I had forgotten what he looked like. Ledsham’s only black pupil began his academic life speaking no English. I was duly placed in the kindergarten with daily lessons in the native tongue. After catching up with my age group, in addition to the core subjects I was thereafter given instruction in Latin, ancient Greek, poetry, and nature study. To eradicate ‘that funny African accent’ I was solely accorded a daily class of elocution for a year—one hour a day with a speech therapist, held in a long, oak-panelled gallery with a book on my head to improve my deportment. Although in receipt of the beginnings of a good classical education, I was also given what I came to understand was a prototypical quantity of punishment for a ‘darkie’—for most of that first year I was caned daily and frequently ‘sent to Coventry’ for the slightest indiscretion, usually for not understanding the customs and traditions of an alien white culture. Thus, for refusing to eat salad on my first day, I received ‘three of the best’. The staff were undoubtedly ignorant of the eggs that parasites can lay on raw vegetables in a tropical climate like Nigeria, where all vegetables were cooked and salad was unheard of. Perhaps, I thought with a child’s naivety, that with all the mosquitoes and eating of salad, no wonder West Africa was called the white man’s grave in my books and comics. I woke up—for I had clearly landed in the mother country in the wrong skin colour. It hurt. I had arrived knowing myself to be Yoruba. Suddenly, I was called ‘coloured’ and ‘darkie’.
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