Oct/Nov 2010  •   Fiction

You Never Learn

by Ernest Bazanye Sempebwa

I remember Mr. Bukenya's classroom in primary school being long and dark. The walls and floor were made of bare, dark grey concrete which turned just a bit darker up in front, halfway up the wall, between the two corners, where a rectangle of black paint had been spread. That was the blackboard, covered with Mr. Bukenya's handwriting. Geography notes.

For 15 minutes, he had been in front of the class scribbling across the board. This was primary school education in Kampala those days.

The teacher came in a short while after the bell rang and found us silent as lambs turned to stone. The grey room had been a riot of squeals and screams four seconds before. Then someone spotted the teacher striding up the stairs, one hand on the banister, the other on the cane, and his name rippled in a staccato whisper through the classroom: "Bukenya-Bukenya-Bukenya." With each repetition, the whisper would subdue more of the field of squealing voices, until, by the fourth sharp whisper of his name, the room would be silent, and we would be sitting at our desks, our shirt-tails hastily tucked back into our shorts, our knees clenched together, elbows on the desk, silent.

He walked in wearing his practiced stern look: chin angled slightly upwards, eyebrows stretched to a frown. He disapproved of us, found our very existence despicable. Or at least this was what his face said to us every time he entered the class swinging his cane in one hand.

"Good morning, class," he would say. His voice boomed across the room. He was a thin man, worn into his late thirties, wearing a sad, faded blue shirt and trousers with the bum stitched. He would be pathetic if I saw him now—I never keep trousers long enough for the seat to require patches—but back then, sitting knees together, elbows on wood, it came as no surprise this weedy cartoon could produce such a large sound as Bukenya's voice.

When the teacher came in and greeted, the rules were, we stood up and greeted back.

A shuffling of shoes on the dusty concrete floor followed as we rose to our feet like badly trained soldiers coming to attention. "Goood moooorning, Mr. Bukenya," we recited. Moses surreptitiously, hastily, pinched Daudi. Daudi looked down and noticed an edge of white cloth hanging out of his shorts. He quickly shoved the out-turned pocket back in, and clasped his hands together behind his back. And prayed the teacher had not seen it.

Bukenya glowered for a second at us, sucking in the fear, savouring the taste of it as it passed over his teeth. Then finally, "You may sit down." This is how every lesson started for seven years. With fear.

Bukenya was now holding the cane in both hands—one end in each hand. The cane was horizontal in front of him. We always knew where the cane was. He held it this way for a moment as he scanned the class. Then his gaze settled on Batso. "You," he said, pointing the stick at him.

Batso shot to his feet and swallowed, his hands flexed tightly straight at his side.

Bukenya said, "Go and get my book from 6.B. Hurry up!"

And so Batso ran out of the class and down the stairs to fetch the geography textbook Bukenya would not carry from his last lesson, not as long as there was some kid upstairs to play his porter.

While Batso scuttled down stairs and up corridors, while he was timidly knocking on the door of 6.B and straining every fibre to prevent himself from offending whoever it was teaching down there at the time, Bukenya stood in front of the class and continued to project terror at us. It was an art, I'm sure, based on an inner talent but honed with much dedication to a fine skill, the act of just standing that way. Bukenya stood, not moving, dead centre of the blackboard. His hands were together in front of him now, the cane dangling loosely from the right hand, over which the left was folded. The cane swung in a small, intense arc, the only part of the figure that moved. Bukenya stood before the class, feet apart, shoulders back, chin raised.

Before him we sat motionless and silent, hardly daring to think. But though he stood motionless, and we sat not moving a muscle, nothing in the room was still. He was a rotating machine gun spraying the room with iron bullets and we were being peppered, our small bodies convulsing with the multitude of tiny shocks.

Then breathless Batso came back. He had run the whole way. If he had met Mr. Semango in the corridors, he might have got a slap for running, but if Bukenya felt he had dawdled, he stood to suffer much more.

Batso stood at the door, trying not to pant too hard.

Bukenya turned to him. "Why are you standing there? You want me to come there and beg you for my book?"

"No sir," Batso stuttered—he ran in, sticking the book out in front of him. He was looking down to avoid Bukenya's gaze. Bukenya took a moment to enjoy the sight of the boy with the down-turned head, proffering the book before him, before he took it, finally, and said, "Sit down."

Now education began. Bukenya turned to the blackboard, opened the textbook, and started to copy what was in the book onto the board.

And we, who always had our notebooks open by the time he came into class, began to copy the notes from the board.

Bukenya would write on one half of the blackboard, then the other half. Once the second half was filled, he would, without skipping a beat, grab the duster that cleaned the chalk off the blackboard and clean the first half, then continue to write. If your pen run out of ink (we used fountain pens only. Ballpoint was not allowed) or if it just stopped working (It was usually one of those cheap things made in China. Cheap means inexpensive, but also means liable to croak at any minute) then you had to pretend to write on and hope he didn't notice you were writing air. Believe me, you didn't want to explain to Bukenya you started his lesson without a working pen full of ink.

This was to go on for one hour and was to be our geography lesson for the day. At the end of the term we would be told to revise our notes (Cram. Memorise key dates, terms, and figures) and fill them into the dashes on the question papers during the exams.

The cane was leaning against the wall now, patiently waiting. It knew its thirst for blood would never go unquenched.

That was when Mr. Semango appeared at the door. Semango, a man with a permanent sneer, hardly forty but who already had liberal sprinklings of grey hair, waved Bukenya over.

They spoke for a few seconds outside the door, then they both turned and walked away.

As soon as they were down the stairs, the childness exploded. You can't keep that shit locked in. "Batso! Go and get my book!" mimicked Moses.

Batso got up immediately, grabbed a book and ran to Moses. He dropped to one knee, eyes down, and stuck the book out. "Here is your fucking book sir, you rat-fucking bitch!"

And the room stopped being dark and grey and silent. The red of our uniforms flashed up and down the place as we ran around, climbing over desks, running in the aisles, and the screeches would have torn off the tin roof.

I untucked my shirt, flicked up my collar, loosened my top button and then swaggered over to Terry. I was sitting one leg on her desk, one leg hanging off it, thinking I was the smoothest Casanova ever, when the enormous noise inside, which we thought would not succumb to anything but the staccato whispering of a teacher's name, was pierced. By a shrill and ugly screaming.

Not thinking, we rushed to the large windows to look out. We needed large windows so we could have enough light when there was no electricity. It was murder when it rained, though, because there was no glass in them.

We clustered at the windows to see a woman in a leso and a headscarf shrieking as she was shoved out of the staff room by Bukenya.

"Ndeka! Ndeka!" she was screaming. "Kati nze omusajja nawasa waaki? Asula mu mabaala! Buli kiro asula mu mabaala. Eka tetumulaba nako. Kati nawasa waaki?!"

The more Bukenya tried to quiet her down, the louder and sharper she screamed. As he fought to bundle her into the arms of the security guard at the gate he looked up.

And saw the crowd of our faces looking down at him.

You can't blame his wife. She was a desperate woman at her wit's end. She just wanted an answer, she didn't mean to embarrass Bukenya like this, by letting his students hear her yelling about the nights he spent away from home, having passed out in a bar.

The instincts they spent all those years beating into me rise and make me consider, even if it is just momentarily, that it was probably our fault, for standing there staring, just giving the man an excuse, just giving him a reason.

After the security guard had taken her away, Bukenya marched up the stairs, stomped into the class and he whipped us all like a mad thing. Any excuse was enough. An "i" undotted, a "t" uncrossed, one sock hanging lower than the other—anything. He picked up the cane, walked through the class and swung everywhere. "Is this how they spell highlands, eh? Is this how they spell highlands? Get down!"

"You, why is your belt crooked, eh?"

"You! You call this handwriting? It looks like a chicken ran across the page!"

You! How could you look at my shame? How could you look at my shame? How dare you have a future while my life is in ruins, how dare you! You will pay!

And again the roof strained from the pressure of squealing voices rising.