Do you remember your alma mater? I do. Mine, was Government College (GCU) Umuahia, Abia State, Nigeria. I was there 1967-1973. The college is located in the Eastern part of Nigeria, in sub-saharan Africa.
My college was one among such colleges with similar names, funded by government and run by missionaries. GCU was unique in many ways. Academic excellence, especially in science subjects was its trademark, and discipline was its watchword.
Founded in 1929, (old boys of the school just celebrated its 80th anniversary), this college has produced many giants in arts and science who are making waves in many parts of the world.
One of them is the celebrated Nigerian writer and literary icon, Chinua Achebe, author of the evergreen bestselling novel, Things Fall Apart.
Any student that passed through Government College Umuahia was disciplined, morally upright, of sound character, tough and resilient. You either bend with the school regulations at this college or you break. If you came into the collage a weakling, you will leave it rugged with strong muscles and a developed mind.
The main instrument for achieving these and instilling discipline among students was running about half a mile distance. It was branded Runs. It was the weapon of school prefects at Government College, those days. The runs were done on a familiar track that begins at the school’s parade ground which by-passes the school quadrangle and the Principal’s house.
The track meanders through some staff houses and farmlands used for the study of Agricultural Science, and terminate at the parade ground. Every pupil knew the track. And whenever you breach any school regulation, the prefects are there to mete out punishment that is commensurate with the degree of the offence. The prefects at Government College will hardly make you to cut grass or any other form of punishment. The instrument of reforms was the school runs.
The offending student has to run the specified distance, coming back sweating and panting, to mitigate the offence. The school runs translated into running. Runs was the punishment and discharging it was running the distance, barefooted, shirts removed. The student doing the runs only wore his brown khaki shorts. And you are timed. I cannot remember the time limit now. But I do remember that if you fail to do the runs within the specified time frame, no work was done. You have to repeat the runs. This form of discipline was unique to Government College Umuahia. Whether it is still done today, I do not know.
We had two categories of prefects; the School and House prefects. The former was the higher category. There was the house offence, and the school offence. Each offence attracted runs as punishment. And the prefects were always on hand to give runs.
I remember vividly how they did it. For school prefects, it was usually after the early morning school assembly that is concluded at 8.00 am. After the school principal and tutors must have departed to the staffroom to prepare for the business of the day, prefects mount the stage of the school assembly to make announcements, thereafter, dole out school runs. It goes like this; using my name as an example. At my college, you are identified by your surname and the initial of your first name.
So for me Eric Okeke, I was known as Okeke E, all through my five years at Government College Umuahia. And the runs are cumulative, each offence attracting a specified number of runs. Now let’s take a sample outburst of a school prefect bellowing out runs:
Okeke E! Failure to tuck in your shirt….1 Run.
Okeke E! Loitering in the school compound during time for siesta, 2 Runs.
Okeke E! Avariciously, avaricious (meaning gluttony)…2 Runs.
That makes a total haul of 5 Runs. And Okeke E is expected to do the runs during break time, mid-way through the school’s tuition time for the day. The process was same for House Runs in the evenings. During break time, students with runs file out to the parade ground to do their runs, monitored by the prefects. Each student returns, panting and sweating.
As I look back over the years, I wonder why the school authorities at Government College Umuahia decided to use running as a form of punishment for students who breached school regulations; maybe to keep the students fit, or to develop their muscles and sporting prowess. And the runs achieved great results because students of this college emerged tops in sporting competitions those days. Besides, it helped to build character, develop persistence to overcome challenges. I still remember the day I fainted (due to fatigue) on the school parade ground during the usual Saturday parade. Fellow students taunted me saying I was a weakling that I had not developed resilience through the school runs. I swore not to faint again, runs or no runs, and I did not. Such was the determination to excel in my college which the school authorities built into students.
Even after graduating, ex-students of Government College Umuahia still mention runs , when throwing banters and jokes, or relieving their experiences at this great college. Just last December 2008, I met an old school prefect at a wedding after more than 30 years of leaving the college. I did not recognize him, but he recognized me. He introduced himself; I shouted in disbelief and apologized. But I did not go free. He punished me with 2 runs, even drawing the attention of his wife to the punishment. We all laughed. I asked if his wife knew about our college runs, he said, “Sure she knows.” Such was the everlasting impression our college runs made on all students who passed through that college. If there is one thing I still remember vividly about my alma mater since leaving Government College Umuahia, in 1973, it is the school runs.
Eric Okeke is a storyteller, editor, business writer, motivational speaker and author of the best selling book: I Want a Husband. He is one of Nigeria’s most experienced financial journalists. He has published several articles in local and foreign publications and in websites such as http://www.ezinearticles.com, www.ezinearticles.com and www.writingcareer.com. He is currently running Infomedia Company, a media consulting and information marketing company. Visit his blog at http://sallywantsahusband.blogspot.com