Pleasant memories: My French Connections

28 August 2009 at 05:18 | 952 views

By Abayomi Charles Roberts, PV General Editor, Edmonton, Canada.

July 14 means various things to different people. To the people of France this year’s, July 14, 2009, is the 220nd anniversary of the start of the French Revolution. It was on this day in 1789 that the last monarch King Louis XVI was overthrown and later beheaded. It marks the ’Storming of the the Bastille,’ ostensibly the birth of the French republic.

Sierra Leone may be Anglophone, a former British colony; but there are a few threads of strong links with France at the cultural/pedagogical and diplomatic levels. Such links have left indelible impressions on so many people in the country, directly or otherwise.

Directly: anybody who attended secondary school around the turn of the century/millenium is not completely blank when it comes to comprehension of the French language. French was compulsory for the first three years. The teachers were mostly trained in France or French-speaking African countries.

Indirectly: the war forced many Sierra Leoneans to seek refuge in neighbouring Guinea (Conakry) which is Francophone, being a former colony of France. As refugees many adjusted their tongues to adapt and cope.

On a personal note, I have a number of people and agencies to recognize, even thank, on behalf of schoolmates and/or compatriots. This is because knowing a modern language other than English calls for appreciation, if not celebration. Someone once observed that being able to communicate in a language other than one’s own is "a foot in the door of that culture." It eases acceptance, even mutual understanding.

There was Monsieur Vacher who ran the pedagogical centre from Kulanda Town in Bo. At the time I was a pupil of Christ the King College in that city in the late 1970s to early 1980s. He would often play French movies/documentaries (subtitled in English) for those of us in the boarding department. We watched classics like ’Les Miserables’ and ’Cartouche;’ and flics like ’Le Cercle Rouge’ and L’Heritier.’

There were about 70 boarders and most of us were familiar with the likes of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo, well before they had stints playing lead roles in Hollywood films. Delon, for instance starred in ’The Sicilian Clan.’ I tell my younger Canadian friends that if they are younger than 30, I probably saw ice hockey, albeit on screen, well before they did. That was by courtesy of M. Vacher and his projector.

In the classroom, there was Monsieur Massaquoi at Holy Trinity School in Kenema where I did Form One. When I moved to Bo, there were Messrs Kanu, Sylvester Sonny Wiliams, Lappia (who also aided M. Vacher at the centre) and Ms Alice Kamara. Ms. Kamara was principal of the Government Secondary School for Girls (Mathora) in Magburaka. She later became a senior civil servant in the education ministry, based at New England in Freetown and until recently, Chief Immigration Officer. Monsieur Wiiliams taught our class for the WAEC GCE ’O’ Level exam in 1980/81 while Ms. Kamara conducted our Oral French exam at CKC that same year.

Ten fingers and ten toes are not enough for me to count all the schoolmates that excelled in French at one time or the other. However, one who stood out to me was Andrew Kalon. He was so eloquent in the language, as a CKC pupil, that he was nicknamed ’Garcon.’ He later graduated from FBC, majoring in Geography and French. There is the lighter side too: one schoolmate was nicknamed ’Cha Mama, Cha Papa.’ He was reading a letter in class, aloud. When he came to the salutation, it should have sounded ’Sherr Mama, Sherr Papa....’ exactly as the name of the pop singer ’Cher’ sounds. The teacher could not help joining us in the chorus of laughter.

The last time I wrote about ’le quartoze juillet’ was in 1994. I was working at Liberty Voice Newspaper in Freetown and had to cover commerative events at the Milton Margai Teachers College (now MMCE) at Goderich, on the outskirts of Freetown. My contact/host was Dr. Dennis Bright, an academic and expert in French. I had arrived early so Dr. Bright took me to one of the staff quarters on campus, where we were received by several French nationals. They were so laid back and the atmosphere so relaxed as they interacted with Dr. Bright that one could hardly tell whose home it was. The French just flowed and that galvanised me as I prepared for the coverage.

The programme was held on campus and it featured drama, singing, jokes and the like. The key players were MMTC students and their lecturers while several government officials and foreign diplomats graced the occasion as dignitaries. It was quite an occasion.

As a journalist, I can also recall a positive side of the ’French Connection.’ First was as part of the editorial corps at Expo Times newspaper in Freetown in the mid-to-late 1990s. Gibril Gbanabome Koroma, publisher/editor of this web site (PV) was General editor. His academic background in English and French gave the paper an edge when it came to publishing the latest international news. We simply waited until the very last edition of African news from Radio France International (RFI). They aired theirs much later than the more familiar BBC.. This was where Gbanabome would come in very handy: he would monitor (RFI in French), transcribe and let us do the rest in English. The news vendors just loved the paper for that because headlines went a long way in boosting sales. Gbanabome helped Expo Times make it easier for these newspaper sellers.

No doubt, my most personal interaction with France or its agencies was at a professional level as a journalist. While I was in exile in Conakry, I needed medical help seriously as I suffered from hemmorhoids. Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) sent one of their Paris-based officials to visit me personally. "So you are Punchy," Vincent Brossel said when we met. Apparently Gibril (who was for many years RSF correspondent in Freetown) and Seaga Shaw had briefed him about me. He had come just to meet and help me out. Vincent was gracious enough to assist even other journalists. By then we had organised into the Association of Sierra Leonean Journalists in exile (ASALJIE).

Considering all this and much more, I say "Bon anniversaire, Vivre La France!"