WHEN I started schooling at the Asiakwa Presbyterian Junior School in 1945, there was no day more important to the school than what we called “Empaah-day”.
Okay, the Church Harvest Day was also important. But all we did on that day was to obey our teachers' instructions to bring one finger of plantain or two, to school. We were also allowed, on that day, to wear our cloths to school, and we would, plantains in hand, sing a marching song and troop off to the church.
There, we would deposit our plantains (which were either auctioned to the congregation for money, or donated to the teachers for their private use, if left unsold!)
“Empaah-day” was completely different. That day was deemed so unusual that we were allowed to join the Senior School pupils in games and sports activities. (Normally, there is a strict system of segregation between junior and senior school.) So being allowed to go to the senior school and mix with our “betters” pupils) on their 'hallowed ground', on which, we could only set foot if we learnt hard and passed all our examinations, was like being given a foretaste of heaven. Yes, going to senior school was every child's ultimate ambition!
Our teachers, I must say, did their best to make Empire Day memorable for us. They turned up dressed quite smartly: our headteacher wore his khaki-coloured “pith-helmet”. This was an object of adornment, normally worn by the white men from Britain, who ruled us. Only a selected few among their senior African employees were allowed to wear it.
But it was our not-so-senior teachers who turned out in the most exciting outfits. Several of them were “scoutmasters” and they wore broad-brimmed green hats, bush shirts, green “puttees” and other semi-military accoutrements, dreamed up for Scouters by a soldier called General Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts Movement.
These scoutmasters moved about, on Empire Day, as if they were real soldiers, They carried out manoeuvres and drills whose objective we did not understand but which attracted those boys who liked to engage in esoteric pursuits.
Alas, nobody bothered to tell us in detail, what “Empire Day” was actually about. It was just as well they didn't, because the reason why they brought us out to celebrate the day would have failed to impress many of us! was completely banal. It was only to mark the day one of the longest rulers of Great Britain, Queen Victoria, was born. The birthday of a woman we had never seen? Yes!
This is how the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes the origins of the occasion:
QUOTE “Empire Day was a celebration of the British Empire that was held for many years in the United Kingdom and other countries. It took place every year on May 24, the date of Queen Victoria’s birthday. Queen Victoria ruled the United Kingdom for 63 years.
“By the end of Victoria’s reign, in 1901, the empire included some 21 percent of Earth’s lands. It contained some 400 million subjects, most of whom lived outside Britain. On Empire Day, students received a half-holiday from school. Boys were encouraged to wear military uniforms so that they could be ready to defend the British Empire, if needed.” UNQUOTE
After our highly anticipated joint parade with the senior school pupils came the most enjoyable part of the Empaa-h-day celebrations. Football matches (some of them between senior school boys and the juniors, something normally unheard of) were organised. The matches were keenly contested, for lifelong reputations could be earned during such matches. I mean, just imagine a 12-year-old “wonder boy” (say) scoring a goal against a team made up of boys between the ages of 17 and 20 (which many of the senior school boys were!)
Sometimes, schools nearby were challenged to come and play against our school. At such matches, the competition was so keen that all the unsavoury things we sometimes see in Ghana football, made their appearance. I speak of biased refereeing; refusal by fouling players to allow free-kicks to be taken until a lengthy argument has taken place; and, sometimes, a refusal to continue with the match!
I must admit that we enjoyed the controversial aspects of the matches, because we could allow our emotions free rein participating in the argumentation. Even some of the teachers took part in the excessive partisanship that marked the matches. They described the matches as “keenly contested!”
We also enjoyed athletics competitions. On one occasion, a guy everyone regarded as a shy “bush boy” (because he came not from Asiakwa itself, but one of the villages nearby – Saamang, Juaaso or Sagyimase – astonished everyone by excelling in an extraordinary number of events. He did the hurdles, one hundred yards, and 220 yards and won all of them.
He made such a great impression on my young mind with his athletic prowess that I still remember his name – Yaw Benoa.
Another so-called “bush boy” whose unusual name I recall– Abunnyuwa (literally, “breaker of limbs”)! was so strong that I think he took part in about seven events. He won most of them but at the end of his last event, he fainted!
Yo should have seen the panic that ensued! We were badly scared that he was going to die, but an intelligent scoutmaster managed to revive him by forcing a tin of evaporated milk down his throat. His heroic exploits were talked about for many days afterwards.
What drove me to pay so much attention to these Empaa-h-Day celebrations? It's this: when I first went to school, they didn't ask me my date of birth, but were only interested in how old I was. They wrote down my age and that was that.
Well, one day, my mother was looking for something in an old portmanteau of hers when a piece of paper fell out. It was part of a pile of her memorabilia.
I took the piece of paper and looked at it. Then l saw these words:
“ASIAKWA METHODIST CHURCH CERTIFICATE OF BAPTISM”
DATE OF BAPTISM....
DATE OF BIRTH! 24th May!
Yes--I was born on Empa-a-h-Day!
I'd been blessed to be given a holiday, filled with exciting events, and yet I didn't know that I'd all the while been celebrating my birthday? What had prompted me to enjoy the day so much, although I hadn't known that it was, in fact, my own birthday?
ThankGodThankGodThankGod! -- I said to myself.
For indeed, I really did thoroughly enjoy 'Empire Days' and doubt whether I could have done so any better, if I had known the truth! Retrospective appreciation? You bet!