By: I. K. Gyasi
In Wole Soyinka’s play entitled “Death and the King’s Horseman”, the King (the Oba) dies and, according to custom, his Chief Horseman (the Elesin Oba) has to commit ritual suicide so that his spirit can accompany that of his master the King.
Olunde, the Elesin Oba’s son, is studying medicine in Britain when he receives a cable announcing the death of the King.
Knowing and accepting that his father has to commit ritual suicide, he returns to Nigeria to take part in the burial ceremony for his father.
The British colonial District Officer named in the play is Mr. Simon Pilkings, with his wife known as Mrs. Pilkings. The two had been instrumental in getting Olunde to study medicine in Britain.
The conversation between Olunde and Mrs. Pilkings is naturally on the impending suicide of the Elesin Oba. Mrs. Pilkings is shocked at the matter-of-fact manner in which Olunde views the impending suicide of his father.
At a point, Mrs. Pilkings tells Olunde, “Perhaps, I can understand you now. The time we picked for you was not really one for seeing us at our best.”
Olunde replies “Don’t think it was just the war. Before that even started, I had plenty of time to study your people. I saw nothing finally that gave you the right to pass judgment on other peoples and their ways; nothing at all!”
I have been pondering over two protests by British university students over increases (not increments) in fees, and I have concluded that temperamentally and linguistically, British university students are incapable of telling other students elsewhere how to behave or write protest petitions.
Sometime before the end of last year, British university students staged a very violent demonstration, after Parliament voted to increase university tuition fees in England.
According to reports, demonstrating university students, with their eyes wide open, attacked the car carrying the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall to a function, namely, the annual Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium.
The unruly students, in the true tradition of English soccer hooligans, smashed a window of the royal car, and threw paint at the vehicle.
Naturally, the shameful, uncivilised event made the headlines. Mr. Shane Chowen, Vice President of the National Union of Students (NUS), reportedly said, “Not the headlines I wanted. I wanted to see the fact that the coalition government has just trebled tuition fees, sentencing a generation of students to record student debt.”
Of course, Chowen did not see the headline he wanted. Instead, the action of the students met with condemnation, with the Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, describing the action of the students as “shocking and regrettable.” The students also threw missiles at the police.
By a remarkable coincidence, the fees were increased under a government dominated by the Conservative Party, with a sprinkling of Liberal Democrats.
In 1998, the Conservative Party government at the time also proposed new measures to finance university education. British students of the University of Kent at Canterbury wrote a petition to protest against the measures.
The petition was so illiterate that one Mr. Silvester Mazzarella sent a copy to the journal, ENGLISH TODAY, published by the Cambridge University Press. The petition is reproduced below, with my corrections in brackets:
“The Goverment (Government’s) White Paper aims to bring in loans & (and) progressive reduction of grants. Our grants have been cut by 20% and we have lost at least E500 by being bared (barred) from several benefits such a(as) travel grants and on campus (on-campus) housing benefits. The introduction of loans will mean the stoping (stopping) of all benefits to students.
“Many American students end up owing 30,000 pounds due to loans. Could you afford that?
“A leaked Goverment (Government) paper shows that the Tories intend to bring in a system of fees tied to exam results. With the best results and a (an) average cost coarse (course), the cost will be at least E3,000 for every students (student). With money you wont (won’t) need good results but with out (without) money, you’ll (you will) get no education.
“The effect of these attacks will be most severe on those groups already disadvantaged; (:) working class, women, black, mature and disabled students.
‘’Courses will become tailored by necessaty (necessity) to those leading to very well-paid jobs. These attacks are unexceptable (unacceptable). The right to education to (for) all must be defended. Others won this right for us and we will defend it.”
A reader who saw the petition in the journal wrote as follows: “Your correspondent’s consternation is understandable. Writing to you from Canterbury, Sylvester Mazzarella includes a sample of the pathetic mess that passes for English among a ‘group of students’ at the University of Kent, and asks the question, ‘What should be done about it?’ It seems to me that, for starters, the parents of these alleged students, together with other taxpayers, should storm the offices of the local education authority, bang a few desk tops, and demand an immediate refund.”
Of course, it was not just the students of the University of Kent who wrote poor English. In another piece in another issue of ENGLISH TODAY, Dr. Bernard Lamb, then Reader in Genetics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, had found numerous mistakes in the spelling of First Years, Post “A” Level students of the College writing the examination in Genetics, Molecular Biology and Viruses.
Here are a few examples of the mistakes. The correct spelling is in brackets: geen (gene), premote (promote), reeding (reading), modle (model), fined (found), protine (protein), Bakk bone (back bone), nuclei (nuclei), bread (bred), indipendent (independent), sho (show).
If the violent demonstration that placed the lives of British royalty at risk had happened elsewhere, the British media, with their snootiness born of insular narrow-mindedness, would have come down on that country like a ton of bricks.
The country and the demonstrators would have been described in terms that would have presented them as savages who need to be bought into the Twenty-first Century. Abject apologies would have been demanded under threat of sanctions.
As for the poor English of these English students, we are reminded of what George Bernard Shaw once observed. He said that the English do not like their language, and will not teach their children to speak it.