She looked worried. Her hair uncombed. The hassle and bustle of the day took the neatness away. Her breasts dangled and peeped at regular intervals as her brassiere gave way. But she did not give a damn. She held a lantern in the one hand and food and water in the other. She wrestled with her lappa and the lappets of her head tie which she later wrapped around her waist. Intermittently she used it to wipe her sweat and tears, her frustration and indignation; inflicted upon her through her daughter. All thanks to the West African Examinations Council, WAEC.
Kumba had woken up at 05:00 on 2 May and readied her 9-year-old daughter, Sia, for a trek from Bumpeh to Yengema in Kono district to sit to the school-leaving National Primary School Examinations, NPSE. The anxiety characteristic of a mother and a daughter in such situations for such an examination became the least of the worries as the day wore on.
Clad in her well-ironed yellow-and-black uniform and well-polished pair of black shoes, Sia clutched her pencils and geometry set. Needless to say they are all brand new. Her hair sparkled as the scent oozed out of her white handkerchief. Her mum looked at her precious child and smiled. The girl also smiled. The mum looked excited and contented. The daughter looked upbeat. Then the dad joined them looking drowsy and offered prayers for Sia’s success in the exams.
She and her mum joined their respective school and parent colleagues and travelled the 4-mile-long journey to the Yengema Secondary School, where I also sat to my primary school-leaving exams. Selective Entrance as it was called then. Many, many years ago, needless to say. By the way fathers in this part of the world called Salone hardly have this much concern for their children. Even in Freetown on that NPSE exams day, while mothers besieged exams centres praying and waiting for the kids, fathers busied themselves apparently at bars and elsewhere.
But back to Kono: While Kumba and the other parents waited under the trees that beautify the Yengema Secondary School, the teachers and examiners looked uncertain, and the candidates sat in their classrooms with wracked nerves. Minutes turned into hours, morning turned into afternoon, and afternoon into evening. No question papers. No answer sheets. No exams. As Kumba started eating what’s supposed be her daughter’s food, Sia started nodding in the exams hall. So did the other dozens of her classmates and thousands of others in most other parts of the provinces. From the north to the south and elsewhere in the east, the kids suffered. All because WAEC blundered.
Information is that the examination materials arrived in the country very late. In fact they landed at the airport on the eve of the exams, I understand. So the distribution of the question papers, answer sheets and other materials throughout the country started literally hours before the exams. In fact in some cases the examination materials were being transported across hundreds of miles of rugged road distances literally just as the pupils were leaving home for the exams centre. This is unfair. This is insensitive to the children. This is unjustifiable.
How on earth could WAEC not have put off the exams by a day or two? How come the ministries of education and children’s affairs did not intervene to spare these fragile boys and girls from the nervousness, pain, hunger and anguish such an exam brings? Such was the chaos that characterised the entire conduct of the exams that candidates at the District Educational Council School at Bankolia in Kabala, had to write their exams on unofficial blank sheets of paper in place of answer booklets that were taken to only-God-and-WAEC-know where.
All of this is happening as the number of subjects at the NPSE exams has increased from four to six. All sat to in one day by candidates whose average age is 9 or 10 years. WAEC and the Ministry of Education should think out a way to lessen the trouble these exams beget these children year-in year-out. I know spreading out the exams to take place in two days also poses a problem of its own not least because a good number of the candidates in remote parts of the country have to travel miles to make it to their exams centres. But surely a solution must be found before the already high number of failures gets even higher.
But back to Kumba and Sia and their colleagues. Like many others in many other parts of the country, Sia and her classmates had to use lanterns to take their exams. Some of them were half asleep nodding on and off; obviously because they had been up very early and for too long to preserve the same energy and composure, and mental preparedness. The atmosphere was dull and their spirit downbeat. All this as their colleagues in well-off Freetown schools were more relaxed and being supplied juices and dishes at regular intervals as they wrote theirs. Hence widening the gap between the city kids and the provincial ones. This is unacceptable.
Sia and her classmates returned to Bumpeh with the excitement they had left with far dissipated. They looked haggard and exhausted. Bad as it was for Sia who was so tired she fell asleep immediately she got back home, not so lucky for many other pupils especially in Koinadugu district who had to spend the night in those towns hosting the examination centres. Kumba and her husband have started counting down to when the results will be out, as Sia prepares to resume street-hawking to help provide the needs of the home. Meanwhile her vulnerability increases as her father thinks of suggesting to her that her mates are getting ready to get married and so she must. And her Kumba, uneducated and susceptible to her husband, may just concur with what she has experienced with the NPSE exams this year.
Such is the calamity that visits our children especially the girls almost from birth. And WAEC seems to have added to their woes this year by neglecting common sense and leading some of the kids into thinking that the more they advance in school the bitterer their experiences. It is a trend that has to be reversed if the next generation of professionals is not to be lost or confined to only those in big towns and cities.
By Umaru Fofana