The days of yore of Cameroon’s single university evoke nostalgic sweet-bitter memories
By Douglas A. Achingale*
It was exciting how young GCE Advanced Level holders of yesteryears craved to go to Ngoa Ekele, Cameroon’s lone university at the time. Those who were there before them fuelled their desire either silently through their alluring appearances or by word of mouth. You just could not stop many young people from going to live the Ngoa Ekele experience, even if fleetingly. Then when they got there and lived the sweet-bitter experience, everyone had their own tale to tell of how the institution “received” them.
Science Faculty, a no-go area for Anglos
Academically, Ngoa was not friends with everybody; it did not smile at everyone, so to speak. The vast majority of English-speaking students who did the sciences went there only to avail themselves of the bursaries (“bourse” or “epsi”) offered students at the end of each month. This was because their French-speaking lecturers mystified their lessons for them. Some lecturers of the Physics-Chemistry Department had the effrontery to tell them that Physics and Chemistry were not meant for Anglophones.
However, there were a few Anglos who mustered the courage to study either in the above-mentioned Department, in the Natural Science Department or in the Department of “Mathe Info” (whose translation eludes me to this day); the three Departments having made up the Faculty of Science at the time. And instead of the normal three years, those English-speaking students each spent not less than six years to take a first degree. Some spent as many as nine!
Others, after spending a fruitless year in the Faculty of Science, switched to the Faculty of Law and Economics or Letters and Social Sciences. Many of whom succeeded in those Faculties. In 1988 when some of such students were about to switch, they were told that “epsi” would cease to flow for those who had not scored a minimum average of 5 on 20 the previous year. Since most Anglophones doing the sciences did not bother to attend classes, they scored far less than the average required for them to maintain their “epsi”. And because they considered it suicidal to study at Ngoa without “epsi”, they were forced to drop out.
History-Geography dep’t – where students went to die!
Another department which was nightmarish for students, Anglophones and Francophones alike, was the History-Geography Department of the then Faculty of Letters and Social Science. Here too, lecturers complicated matters for students ad nauseam.
Succeeding in this department was so difficult that it was nicknamed “Faya Largeau”, the Chadian town where most soldiers were killed during the infamous Chadian war of the 1980s. Otherwise put, “surviving” in the History-Geography Department was as difficult for students as it was for soldiers to leave Faya Largeau unscathed. It was therefore not uncommon to find students here who spent up to five, six or even seven years to obtain a “licence.”
“Mandat burning” – a bitter experience
The system at the time made matters even more complex for repeating students who failed their promotion exams for the second time. When this happened, the students were considered unfit to study in that Faculty, and so were obliged to withdraw from it. This was applicable to first and second year students only. If they wished to continue their studies in the university, they were required to move to another Faculty.
This phenomenon was known in French as “griller le mandat”, literally translated to mean “to rupture one’s stay” (in a faculty). Anglophone students preferred a funky word-for-word translation: “to burn the mandat.”
“Mandat burning” was common in all Faculties and Departments. It was quite a doleful experience for those who lived it and who had taken their studies seriously. You needed to witness how bitterly some of them (especially girls) wept when they saw their results. Such yowls and wails around the campus often announced cases of “mandat burning.”
Even though some students were sufficiently courageous to put this failure behind them and register anew in other Faculties where they did well, others simply dropped out of the university and were haunted by the failure for long years. There were yet others whose courage only led them into more misery. For, after “burning their mandat” in one Faculty, they moved to another and suffered the same fate!
The “cartouche” syndrome
The scare of “burning their mandat” or of simply failing an exam actuated many a student to indulge in unconventional practices such as the use of “cartouches”. “Cartouche” is the French word for cartridge. At Ngoa, it was used to mean something that the students used to kill (and overcome) the examination monster; that is, pieces of paper on which students copied sections of their notes and took secretly into exam halls. If what they copied were answers to the questions that came in the exams, they would cheat using the “cartouches”.
Many slothful students could really not do without “cartouches”. It was common to see some of them enter exam halls with wads of paper containing all the year’s notes in different subjects. In this way, they would not be baffled by whatever questions that came in the exams.
Most of the time, they cheated and went scot-free. But at other times, they were caught red-handed and punished accordingly. Some even forgot their “cartouches” in their answer sheets. However, to avoid being caught, a good number of these dishonest students, particularly girls, came up with new tricks. On examination days, they would copy the notes not on pieces of paper, but rather on their laps and on the lining of their skirts and dresses from which they stealthily read and answered the questions.
Sexually transmitted marks
If SOME female students did not employ “cartouches” to succeed in exams, they used their bodies to do so. In the English Department where I was, this phenomenon was rampant. True it is that there were upright lecturers in that department such as Kitts Mbeboh (RIP), Jot Tambi (RIP), Siga Asanga (RIP), Pa Atabong (RIP), Tala Kashim, Agbaw Ekema, Paul Mbangwana, etc. who would resist the temptation of pouring their treasure into foreign laps. But SOME of their colleagues were ready at all times to trade marks for sex.
And the girls knew them. And they did everything to seek their notice and entice them. Since cell phones were not available at the time, their first points of contact were the lecturers’ offices which the latter shared with one another.
One of such lecturers was so infatuated with sex that he found it difficult to hide his feelings each time he was before one or more pulchritudinous female students. In such circumstances, he would wear a permanent lascivious smile and become unnecessarily antsy nay frivolous. His strange antics at such moments always spoke of someone who was burning with an inner salacious desire.
Hot-panted as he was, the lecturer in question once transformed his office into his bedroom and forgot to key the door. That was at dusk when everyone had left the academic section of the campus. Little did he know that a colleague of his would call around to collect a document from his neighbouring office. Seeing light in the office-cum-bedroom through the window louvres, the newcomer understood that one of his colleagues was there and so pushed the door to greet him. Behold! He saw him in full action, a damsel groaning under his weight!
The following morning, the lecturer who had caught his colleague in action broke the news to us when he came for a lecture. But he said it so offhandedly that he failed to reveal the identity of the student – probably because he might not have seen her visage. He said, however, that she was fair-complexioned. Thereafter, we became suspicious of all our light-skinned second-year female course mates.
The joy of receiving “epsi”
Discussing Ngoa-Ekele in its legendary halcyon days without shedding effulgent light on “epsi” is like cooking ekwang without putting palm oil. For, above anything else, “epsi” brought meaning and sunshine into the lives of the majority of students. I really do not know the origin of that word. But I remember that it was the word used by every student to refer to the bursaries that were given to us every month.
The sole criterion that was used to offer “epsi” to students was age. Students who were above 21 when they entered Ngoa did not have it. But once such students made it to the second year, they were entitled to it until they left the university.
When I came in 1987, first and second year students earned 30000FCFA each, third year students 40000FCFA, “Maîtrise” students 50000FCFA and “Doctorat” students 60000FCFA. But the following year, a new text came up which modified the rates and conditions for receiving “epsi”. Freshmen were paid 25000FCFA while repeating first and second year students who scored an average of at least 5 on 20 received 15000FCFA. For their part, repeating third year students earned 20000 FCFA. When the former category of students progressed to the next level, they were entitled to 25000FCFA and 30000FCFA respectively.
Students normally began classes in October, but they started receiving “epsi” in December at which time they were given three months’ arrears popularly known as “gros lot” (lump sum). Thereafter, they were paid their normal monthly dues at the end of each month.
It was amazing to see how freshmen, many of whom had never before had many tens of thousands of their own, enjoyed themselves when they received their “gros lot”. In my days, “Carrefour” Obili was the spot of call; the place where we did justice to the bottles, and the rest…Those who were not very careful got easily derailed by this sudden contact with money and failed their first year exams.
Around the student hostel where “epsi’ was paid, there was often unusual effervescence at the time of payment. You could see a smile on every face and a smidgen of verve in every gait. Some lectures that were held at the period of payment, however important they might have been, had to wait. Feisty creditors stayed glued to their debtors and only liberated them when their debts were settled.
Students used their “epsi” in different ways. I happened to have been in the midst of friends who had so much love for sartorial elegance that they used more than 2/3 of their “epsi” every month to buy good, snazzy outfits for themselves. The rest of it was for their restaurant tickets, beer and a few handouts from their lecturers. House rent was not a problem for my friends and me because we lived in the hostel where we paid a paltry 2000FCFA a month.
“Epsi pitié” causing pity
While the majority of students benefited these grants from government, first year students who were not privileged to be entitled to it watched them with a heavy heart. They felt utterly discriminated against and would curse the system, the powers that be and fate for not being sensitive to their plight.
This category of students waited impatiently for their own special grant of 100 000 FCFA each which was paid once, towards the end of the academic year, and which was nicknamed “epsi pitié”, meaning something like “pitiful epsi”. It was a welcome relief for them after all, as those who had not been able to procure a single new outfit for themselves throughout the year were able to buy one or two items in a desperate attempt to prove to their chums that they too could dress well.
Freshmen’s experience with “restau” food
The story of the two university restaurants at the time can constitute a whole write-up on its own. But for want of space, I will dwell only on the experience freshmen had when, for the first time, they consumed a particular kind of food prepared in them.
The food in question was spaghetti and tomato(?) sauce. Since it was often served with overly sizeable chunks of pork or chicken – quantities of meat which the freshmen had hardly ever eaten in one sitting – the latter tended to eat everything that was served them. Then minutes or hours later, they would run helter-skelter in search of toilets to empty their bowels! If you were in the amphitheatre when the watery stool came calling, then you were in for real trouble!
It was only after having had this experience that freshmen understood that they had to go slow on the sauce which was more or less a laxative.
*The author is a Yaounde-based critic, social worker and free thinker