My arrival in Accra for the GCE O levels exam in June 1956 is etched permanently in my memory. For it was June 26, – the day the Communist empire showed signs of crumbling, as the people of Poland began to demonstrate against the Polish Communist Government in protest at their living conditions, and the army fired on crowds, killing a hundred or more people. The trouble occurred mainly in a Polish city called called Poznan.
I usually leave the radio on when I am doing serious study, and as I revised my English language lessons – the most important paper in the GCE, as one would fail the entire exam if one passed in all the other subjects but failed in English – all I could hear was the “General Overseas Service of the BBC” jabbering on and on endlessly about “Poznan, Poznan”, and the “merciless” shooting of demonstrators by soldiers. So fear-stricken was I about my poor preparation for the exam that I couldn't have cared, even if the city of Moscow itself had been moved to Poland!
On the day of the English language exam, I didn't sleep much, having been frightened by the importance of that paper into readding, reading and reading. When I woke up to the alarm clock, I realised that I had forgotten to prepare something to eat for breakfast before setting off for the examination hall! No matter --- I went outside and found a woman selling koko (porridge) and bought some and came back to wolf it down. Still reading, reading, reading.
I then “walked-ran” hurriedly almost all the way from Attukpai, in Adabraka, to the West African Examinations Council hall near Cinema Palace, in the Makola Market area.
I was happy to see a large crowd outside the hall. It meant I had got there intime for the exam. We were soon called in.
The examiner was an English woman with a very “posh” accent. She now told us to write, at the place indicated as “Examination Centre” on our answer papers, Accra O-Two!”
But in saying the “O”, she inflexed her voice to make it sound like “Or”(to my ears, anyway) .
So I agonised over whether I should write “Accra Zero-Two”, or “Accra Or 2!”I didn't need this confusion at the beginning of the most important paper I was writing. It shook my confidence. Why couldn't the exam authorities have picked someone for us whose accent would be familiar to Ghanaians? Of course, to them, she was the perfect persons: she spoke just like them!
We were soon given the word to start and I ignored my confusion and began to write. I had got to the middle of the most important part of the paper, the “Essay”,and written half of it when, without notice, my stomach suddenly disgorged about half of the koko I had eaten on to the sheets of paper on which I was writing!
I had spewed on the paper, and half the essay and most of the other answers I had written had become illegible!
In total distress, I put up my hand and to my pleasant surprise, I was escorted by one of the Ghanaian exam assistants to the toilet downstairs. There, I completed the act of vomiting, and washed my hands: all under the attentive gaze of the exam assistant, who never said a single word to me – not even “Sorry you've had this trouble!”
We then went back to the hall, and I began to rewrite all the stuff that I had vomited on.
As I pressed on, something happened that made me think Providence was coming to my assistance. For the posh English lady announced that we had 30 more minutes to finish writing.
Everybody in the hall heaved a sigh of relief. Mine was particularly pronounced, for it meant that I could take my time copying what I had lost through vomiting, without over-hurrying and making mistakes.
But how wrong I was! The posh lady next announced, without notice, “Ten Minutes” more!
But only 10 minutes of the “Thirty Minutes” she had earlier announced, had elapsed!
The entire examination hall erupted with THE HUGEST GROAN ever uttered by a crowd that was not inside a football stadium!
My own groan was so loud it must have carried all the way to the University of London!
What tricks was Providence playing with me, eh? First, I had thought that it had had pity on me and given me an extra 20 minutes or so. And now, not only had that been taken away, but because I hadn't hurried as much as I should have done, to make up for lost time, I was being made to lose that time twice over!
The posh English lady gave no sign whatsoever that she had made a mistake, or that she cared about what the effect would be on us. We could, of course, do nothing about it. In ten minutes dead, our papers were collected. Nothing on them to indicate that the examiner had confused us, midway, abut the duration of the exam.
I need hard;y tell you that in between the months of June and when the results came in September, I relived the entire episode in my mind again, and again, and again. The worst part of it was that I couldn't even tell my friends about it. For I feared that if I told them, they would think that I knew I would “pae” [flunk] the exam and was preparing an excuse to offer, when that happened.
Nevertheless, I applied to join “New Nation”, and told them that I was not in possession of a GCE certificate, but was expecting my exam results. My idea was that if I flunked, living in Accra would make it easier for me to obtain extra-mural studies, which though not targeted at specific exams, would help me to be studious enough to pass the exam at the next sitting.
One day, at the morning get-together, when the staff's correspondence was handed to them, I was given an official-looking letter. I knew at once what it was.
And I must have set a record for the time it takes a letter to reach a person's hands and the time it takes for him to open it. Plus, of course, another record for reading the contents. My eyes went first, straight to the “English Language” column! I nearly fell down in a faint when I saw the word “PASS” written against that subject.
I had passed in English! And all the four other subjects to boot!
When our Manager, Mr David Smithers, saw the results, he congratulated me but commented with a laugh, “I wouldn't trust you with anything to do with Latin!”
I told him with a laugh that I had just sat the Latin paper as a matter of form, because I needed to enter six subjects. The Pass mark was, I think, 45. I got 6!
But who cared? I had miraculously scraped through the formidable English paper, with all my troubles, having obtained 48 marks – 3 more than was needed to pass.
In truth, I was on top of the world.
From then on, I really enjoyed working for New Nation. For I was imbued with with the new confidence I had gained, which enabled me to feel that no-one was doing me a “favour” by giving me the job, and that I was fully qualified for it. Roll on, world! (i thought). Damn the English paper! Damn the posh English lady.
I had conquered the terrible circumstances created for me, which were meant to make me fail the GCE O Level exam!