Mr Jamah Stephen Usman spent his active years in service as a teacher and administrator in four states of the country. Even after retirement, he has continued in that line because for him, there is always something to impact on the younger generation. He spoke with JULIET KUYET BULUS on his life and time
When and where were you born?
I was born in Ogaminana, in Adavi Local Government Area of Kogi State. According to my mother, I was born on the day that the Ohinoyi, that is the leader of our people, killed an elephant. That was the major event around the time that I was born.
How was growing up like for you in your young days?
From when I was 10 years old, I left my parents and began living from one place to another with different masters. I was first taken to Akure, Ondo State with my first master, Francis Anaza, were I spent time before coming back home. When I came back, I remained with him so that it was he who sent me to St Joseph Catholic School, my first experience of education from 1956 to 1962. We spent 1963 moving from place to place. We began from Potiskum where he went for secretarial studies at the time. From Potiskum, we moved to Kano where we spent some months. It was when he returned home that same year that I struggled to go college. I was lucky because that year, the principal of St Malachy’s College Minna was in my home town, so I did the interview and that was how I got enrolled into college in 1964. I didn’t go to secondary school because at the time, the choice was either teachers college, secondary school or technical college. I was in college from 1964 to 1968. Then I went for my NCE from 1979 to 1981 at the then Advanced Teachers College Zaria now the Federal College of Education, Zaria.
How would you describe your days growing up?
I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy growing up even though I suffered in the hands of my master’s wife. I wouldn’t call it suffering as such because it is part of what formed me later in life.
When did you start working?
I started working in January of 1969 at the Catholic School in Ogori Magongo. I was there till October 1970 when I was transferred to Roman Catholic Mission (RCM) South, in Okene. At the time, as a teacher, I taught all the subjects to the pupils in the senior classes; primary 5, 6 and 7.
Did you choose your profession?
At the time, there wasn’t any form of counselling or guidance when it came to choosing careers. All I wanted was to improve on myself academically before I took up the responsibility of impacting knowledge in others. So when I finished primary school and I was asked to go and teach, I refused and insisted that I must go to college first. My ambition was to further my education and in the end, because the only choices we had were between secondary school, teachers college and technical college, I chose the second one and ended up a teacher. As time went on, I fell in love with the profession for a number of reasons. One reason being that I began to derive comfort from teaching children. This in turn built my interest so that I had to start taking the job seriously. In the end, what I found myself doing was not accidental as such because I followed my desire to go to college and ended up a teacher.
When did you get married?
I got married in 1973. And the lady I married was from the same place with me, we were both from Ogaminana. And at some point in both our lives, we were in the same house, that is our master’s house, late Mr Joseph Anda. That was where I saw her, talked to her and in the end, with all that tried to stop us, I won her.
What endeared you to her?
She was beautiful and highly intelligent. So I just felt that she was somebody I needed to help me with my home so I married her. After we were married, we had six births that produced seven children.
How was life in active service?
My life in service was good. I started working at the primary school in Magongo, moved to Roman Catholic Mission (RCM) Okene, then RCM Okaito. From Okaito I left home in 1974 to then Benue/Plateau State. I was posted to Langtang Local Government Education Area. I spent just about nine months there before I was transferred to a village I had never heard of before my letter of transfer came. The place is called Tukur, a very remote area in that local government area, as a headmaster. But because of how remote the place was, I protested especially because of the language barrier.
After I complained to the education officer and he didn’t act on it, I found my way out of the place after just a month. He actually asked me how I could be from the north and not be able to speak Hausa; that put me off. This was coming from someone who himself was from the same state as me and was from a minority tribe too. So when he said that, I put in my resignation. But during the one month notice, I made efforts to see that I register children in the school so that by the time I took my report to the same education officer and he saw the number of children I was able to admit, he begged me to stay. But I could not stay. I was given a grand welcome, even the district head at the time came out to welcome me and all the people were happy with the news of a new headmaster, I guess that’s why they registered their children. I had an Igbo man that acted as my interpreter but that was not enough so I just had to leave.
They thought I was going to stay because I didn’t tell them I had turned in my resignation but there was no going back. So I just played my way, did what I wanted to do and left. I left that place for Zaria. So in all, I worked in four states while in service; Kwara, Benue/Plateau, Kaduna and Niger.
What was the experience like being a teacher and bringing up children?
I began to enjoy teaching eventually, like I said because of the variety of children that I met. They were children that any right minded person would agree need help.
Now that you are retired how is life?
I’m enjoying my retirement, the only hitch is that I’m alone. My children are supportive but I miss my late wife.
How would you assess life then and now?
Life for us, as far as I’m concerned, was far better than what young ones have to deal with these days. We had a far better environment right from schooling days to when we had to work. That is why when I see older people, especially those lecturing in the university, turn deaf ears to students who complain about hardship, it pains me.
We didn’t have to endure hunger in my school days. Even when we had to pay school fees, I would usually have left over provisions and toiletries to take back home. Then while in college, we had chicken at least every week. When I say chicken, I’m talking of a huge piece of chicken. That is why I quarrel with older people who do not look back on those days and realise that there is a difference with what was obtainable then and now. Because there were some of us in school at the time who didn’t pay anything as fees because they were from poor backgrounds. Others only had to pay very little for the same reason.
Where were you during the country’s independence?
I was in primary five in St Joseph’s Catholic School Ogaminana. I was part of the parade matching and cheering for a new Nigeria. Unfortunately, all my dreams for the country at the time as a child has not materialised. Like I said earlier, we had it good schooling and working even though at the time we thought we were suffering. But today, students struggle through school, graduate and still have to struggle before they get jobs that is if they ever get one. So it is fair to say that life then was much better even with the evident improvement on technology and other things.
When I finished teachers college, I was asked to stay back in Minna but I refused and went back home. When I got home, there was a job waiting for me. I had been posted to the Catholic School in Magongo, I didn’t have to struggle to get a job. If you look at all these, it is easy to conclude that our time was better especially as it concerns human development.
What is your favourite food?
I like to eat apapa, a local Ebira dish made from beans and pounded yam, those are still my favourite dishes. While growing up, beans and garri was my favourite especially while in school. What I did then was to fill my stomach with it in the morning on Sundays so that I don’t worry about lunch and dinner. I was not used to what they served at dinner at the time, amala, so beans and garri did the magic for me.
What did you do to unwind in those days?
I played football. I was an athlete. I even represented my school in the 400m competition at state or college level.
What kind of music did you listen to?
I was not very committed to listening to music but I was a partygoer if it was happening at home or in my school. We danced to the music of artistes of our time like Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obe, James Brown and the likes. Then there was Sam Cook, one of my schoolmates at the time, who is my neighbour now, was nicknamed Sam Cook.
What are your hobbies now?
These days in my spare time I watch movies and listen to news. Then I go on walks with my friends to stay fit. My dog has become too big to walk so I don’t venture walking it anymore. And to keep myself busy after retirement I still teach students of National Teachers Institute (NTI). I also coordinate and mark WAEC and NECO examinations.
What were your major challenges growing up?
I didn’t have challenges as such when I started teaching. But teaching all subjects and preparing notes for every single one was tasking. It was not easy to do that and so one had to be serious to be able to meet up every day. I never had to experience none payment of my salary or it being delayed except for one time when I was in Lagtan. What happened was that someone was asked to collect our salary on our behalf and when he did, he ran away with the money. In all the places and states that I worked, there was no problem. I also had good colleagues.
In retirement too, there are no challenges as such apart from having to spend it without my wife.
What are your regrets?
I have no regrets. I cannot regret my life. With God’s help and the kind of wife God blessed me with, I cannot have regrets.
Advice to younger generation.
The young ones of today should be more focused than we were those days because that is the only solution to the problems of this country. They need to be more creative in their ways too, committed and dedicated to whatever they choose to do.
Briefly assess your generation of parents.
Our generation of parents are the problem of this country. I say so because the way things are going only shows that our families, somehow, were not good in every ramification of the word. That is why our larger community which is the country, is the way it is. I feel that there are bad things that we have impacted in our children and that is what we are suffering today. I can’t imagine that our country is rated as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. So whether others accept it or not, I believe that our generation of parents are a number one contributor to the problems of our country.
In what way are you striving to make a difference?
Whatever I do I do with the fear of God and in compliance with the rule of law. Like where I teach now, the NTI, some students complain about lecturers syphoning money from them, I don’t do that. I didn’t just pick that virtue up, right from when I started working, I made it a principle not to exploit people or take advantage of them. When I get the opportunity to help, I help people at no cost, and my wife knew. So that once when I was in Zaria, someone took a tin of palm oil to my house in my absence. She refused to collect it until she heard from me. And since there was no phone at the time, it took long to get to me and she readily did everything to get me to approve before she collected it.