Did you say culture shock? That feeling of disorientation when you are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes? Yes, I experienced one just within a few days of my arrival at the then prestigious, elitist and yet-to-be rivalled Cameroon College of Arts, Science and Technology (CCAST) in Bambili in northwestern Cameroon in 1970.
It was then the sole intellectual hub of West Cameroon where anyone worth the name had to have studied. Admission was not opened to just any Tom, Dick and Harry. No, those who gained a foothold in that institution could be counted on the tip of one’s fingers. So, it was understandable that when some of us dropped anchor in its intellectual harbour in 1970 (half a century ago already! – Good Lord, how time flies!), we were full of excitement. We all knew that at the end of a two-year stint, a chosen few among us – the legendary ‘Talented Tenth,’ so dear to that Pan-Africanist militant, WEB Dubois, born American in 1868 and died a Ghanaian in 1963 – would be crowned with that much-coveted General Certificate of Education, Advanced Level (GCE ‘A’ Level), bearing the signature of none other than a gentleman in London named Stevenson, if I remember the name correctly.
During my first few days, like many of the newcomers, I sought comfort in the presence of my own kind, the other few students who had just come in fresh from the Federal Bilingual Grammar School in Molyko, Buea. We bunched together, compared notes and discussed what we found odd about our new abode, and were especially fascinated by the presence of girls of various shapes and sizes. We came from an all-boys school and our fascination with the presence of members of the fairer sex was understandable. We watched the goings-on on campus, commenting on how elegantly or how shabbily this or that girl was dressed; how slender or how chubby another was, etc., etc. When one or two walked past by you, especially in the evening when a soft breeze was drifting down from the surrounding hills above, the fragrance from a head-turning perfume would waft through the air, often drawing expressions of audible admiration from the air sniffers.
The only contact some of us had with girls was during the long holidays, even then how many of us were bold enough to talk to them, talk less of making girlfriends of them? But listen to us back in school, rivalling one another with lengthy and audibly hollow boasts of great female conquests we had made in this or that town, knowing fully well that no one believed that baloney because none of it was true. Then we suddenly found ourselves in CCAST Bambili, the pinnacle of knowledge and academic excellence in West Cameroon, where girls of varying sizes and beauty tortured our budding dreams. There they were and it was only left for those armed with courage – which many of us lacked — to literally reach out and touch them. Instead of drawing imaginary pictures of female conquests, we were suddenly thrust face-to-face with the reality of matching such imagination with the facts on the ground – and many of us were tested and found woefully wanting.
Then, one evening I arrived in the refectory to find at one corner a table neatly dressed with a white table cloth on which stood expensive-looking china and cutlery glittering on it. Assorted drinks and a number of lit candles took the center of the table. Like everyone else in the dining room that evening, especially us, the newcomers, questions summersaulted in our minds and floated through the air, unasked and unanswered. What was going on? What did this mean? Before I could even sit down, a procession of neatly dressed, two-and-three-pieced-suited gentlemen, walked in and I wondered if they were bankers. They walked with measured steps, dignified gaits and well-choreographed gestures with neatly-ironed handkerchiefs popping out of their breast pockets. They occasionally whispered to each other as they sat down. You could have heard the legendary pin drop in that hall as all eyes were fixed on them.
A second-year student, who sat near me and had observed the unasked questions in my eyes, which were bulging with surprise, leaned towards me and in a whisper told me that those were the members of the Top Executive Club. He scanned my reaction keenly and then added that the club in question was one of the student clubs on campus. “Are those students?” I asked, disbelief waltzing in my voice. For an answer, he merely nodded his head with a smile on his face. CCAST Bambili was beginning to unveil some its wonders to me. I then asked him how many other clubs there were and I believe he mentioned one or two others – the Social Club and the Cultural Club, or something along those lines. But, from every indication, the members of those other clubs went into hiding when the Top Exco boys were on the move.
I searched the faces of the members of that table, hoping to pick out a face or two on which to pin a name. Yes, I could identify two former students of my alma mater, the Federal Bilingual Grammar School in Man O’War Bay, Victoria (since renamed Limbe). Almost immediately, their excessive display of opulence accompanied by what I saw as unbridled arrogance arising from that table began to give me a repulsive feeling.
I had heard stories of CCAST Bambili but I had always associated them with students who were already men and women of a certain class and age, many having served in the West Cameroon government, or in religious institutions, mainly as teachers, before gaining admission into that institution. But there before me sat young men, for the most part, around my age but who seemed too sumptuously flamboyant in their ways for my liking. This was a view many of the other newcomers seemed to share.
From that evening, and for many months thereafter, our discussions hovered around what we had all witnessed, and the general tone was largely negative. For some of us, especially the former students of the Federal Bilingual Grammar School, who were almost always dressed in worn-out khaki trousers and shirts, the idea that students could dress with such arrogant and shameless display of wealth was totally unimaginable. No doubt that many of us concluded that such a group was not for us.
However, as one month drifted into another and academic concerns took the upper hand, we all came to accept the Top Exco boys as part of the tapestry of eccentricities that made CCAST Bambili what it was. We found the other clubs, much more subdue and crowned with an imbued humility that attracted us. Many of the Top Exco members, and by no means all, and not them exclusively, also gained notoriety for parading the campus with elegantly dressed girls clinging onto their arms. For someone like me, who was scared of even talking to girls I was in class with, the idea of being seen walking around with one in my arm was definitely out of the question. To me, and many kindred other souls, girls were to be observed and admired from afar. What if you happen to ask one out for a date and she said ‘yes’ and then you didn’t know what else to talk to her about? That thought was worse than suicide and some of us avoided it like a plague. It was so much better and easier to play the role of a sideline observer and animate conversations in the grapevine where ‘kongossa’ could be paraded and polished and coated with a semblance of truth.
But how did it happen that I became a member of the Top Executive Club of CCAST Bambili less than a year after finding the said club so appallingly distasteful? That was the one-million-franc CFA question. It happened this way. One day, and to my greatest surprise, one of the members of that club, who had been a year ahead of me in the Federal Bilingual Grammar School in Man O’War Bay, came with a friend of his, another club member, to tell me that their club had observed me quite attentively over the year and that all members were unanimous that I was good material for membership. Even though we had spent four years of our young lives together in that dense forest four miles inland from the port city of Victoria, he and I had really never had much to say to each other apart from the usual civilities of ‘Hi, how are you? Good to see you’, etc. There he was, in the presence of his friend, telling me I had been selected to join the Top Executive Club, of all clubs?
“You must be kidding me!” I remember shouting back. “Is this your own idea of a sick joke?” For an answer, they calmly told me that they would like me to join them and that they would give me time to consider their proposal. I stood there stunned for a minute or two and, as they were walking away, I asked who else they had invited and, to my surprise, one name popped up which I could never have associated with that group either. I asked what his response had been and they said it was positive. I then asked for time to consider their offer; enough time to find out from the friend in question if it was true that he had accepted to join the club.
I went out in search of him and, to my surprise, he confirmed that he had indeed accepted their invitation and that he would feel much better if I came in as well so we could support each other as we were not really sure what the general reaction on campus would be. I told him I would sleep over it and let him know in the morning. I must admit that his ‘yes’ to the group played a significant part in my own positive response. I told him, “You at least have a suit to wear when events come up, I don’t have any.” But just then I recalled that I did have a suit which one of my brothers had given me but which I had never worn, not thinking of myself as a suit-wearing type. It was in our house in Mankon town. My friend later accompanied me to collect it. To my relief, it still looked fairly good although some touch of dry cleaning and ironing could have rendered it much better-looking.
When I later met my sponsor and told him I was willing to join the club, he was overwhelmed with joy. He told me the new club members had not yet been officially revealed to the public because they had been waiting to hear from me.
One day, we were all asked to dress up in our suits in the evening and to assemble outside the dining hall just when it was full. A table similar to the one that had so infuriated and repelled me earlier in the year, had been set aside for us and we were coached on how to walk, how to carry ourselves with grace, dignity and elegance. Those were the attributes, we were told, that put Top Excos towering tall and proud above everyone else, and which the girls found so irresistibly attractive.
I still had to pinch myself to believe that I was being really inducted (for lack of a better word) into the Top Executive Club of CCAST Bambili – and I was not alone. Just about all my classmates, and those who had known me in one way or another, also wondered why I, of all people, had joined it. This feeling was so strong that for some months thereafter, I thought I was going to drop out of it, worried as I was about what people were saying behind my back.
But then, for one reason or another, I began to notice a change in my approach to it all. For the first time, I began to feel some confidence sipping into me and into all that I was doing. All the coaching and mentoring we received from the senior Top Excos were beginning to kick in and, as my self-confidence was bulging, and I began to walk with my head held high instead of crouching at corners of the campus and fleeing when no one was watching, as it had been the case in the past. I began to wonder why, on God’s good earth, I had been so concerned with what others thought of my decision. What did it matter whether anyone approved or disapproved of my membership of that overtly exclusive club?
It’s true that I still occasionally wondered what my friends, especially the few who had come with me from Buea, were thinking; but I did not have long to wait, though, for some of them began drifting away from my radar of their own volition. That was their own choice over which I had no control and I was happy I was able to overcome the accompanying guilt feeling I had initially felt on losing their friendship.
Several decades later, and with the privilege of hindsight, I came to realize and appreciate how much my decision to join the Top Executive Club of CCAST Bambili had been of great benefit to me. Out in the beckoning wide world as I frantically searched for that legendary ‘Golden Fleece’ in numerous foreign institutions of higher learning across continents, I saw how much my membership of that club, which had seemed a curse at the outset, had contributed in boosting my self-confidence in many ways.
While still in CCAST, I began to enjoy the feeling – not so much of superiority as of self-reassurance which I later developed and that was to serve me so well as I struggled to ward off ‘the slings and buffets’ of life, especially that indescribable and intense feeling of loneliness of life in foreign lands, even when you are surrounded by friends of all races.
Even though I never ever overcame my extreme shyness, especially around the opposite sex — which still largely persists to this day — I do credit my membership of the Top Executive Club in those early years of my life for helping to boost my feeling of worth in many ways. On the academic front, I stood firm and held my head high, towering head and shoulders above many of those who were quick to write me off as a lost case, some members of my family included. To them, I had resolutely chosen a sure path to perdition. That is why, staring down the not-always-too-smooth path so far covered in life, I give thanks to the Top Executive Club of CCAST Bambili for helping me stand for what I believed, a clear disproval of the prophecies of doom churned out by many apostles of righteousness. Shame on them!