Wednesday, April 5, 2017 10:02 am
By Adebayo Lamikanra
In a world in which there is a great deal of talk about hard or soft Brexit, in which xenophobic presidential orders are flying out of the Oval office at the rate of knots and Islamist hardliners have made beheadings a form of spectator sport, it is multiply refreshing to find a man with impeccable credentials revelling in his identity as a man of multiple nationalities and ethnic persuasions. Such a man is Chief Guy Gargiulo, an Italian by birth, Swiss and British by upbringing and unmistakably Nigerian by strong conviction.
My first contact with Guy Gargiulo (GG) was when I was admitted into Igbobi College in 1962, at a time when he taught Mathematics and Physics throughout the school and was the Aggrey Housemaster. My classmates and I were making our first contact with science subjects and looking back, I think that we were most fortunate that one of the high priests in this rite of passage was Guy Gargiulo. His introduction of science to us was as unique as it was unforgettable or perhaps it was unforgettable because of its uniqueness. There we were, mostly very small, perched on high stools which left our feet dangling in the air and our little bodies encased in Igbobi College khaki which still smelt of the school store from where they had just been issued and wondering what Physics was all about. On the table in front of us, there were small, white crucibles with a greenish fluid in them. But, we paid little attention to them as we stared at the white teacher, dressed in a white shirt and white shorts stood in front of us and bade us welcome to the Physics laboratory where we were to take lessons in the subject for the next five years and more for some of us.
After a hiatus of fifty-five years, I can be forgiven for not remembering that lesson in detail but what it was meant to achieve has stayed with me all those many years. After a few words of welcome, GG as he was known and called throughout the school, asked us to watch him very closely after which we were to repeat whatever we had seen him do. He then took up the crucible on his own table, stirred the contents vigorously with his forefinger which he then popped into his mouth and proceeded to suck on, all the time maintaining a rather bewitching smile on his face. What could be simpler, I thought as I stirred the contents of my crucible as vigorously as he did and without any hint of hesitation, proceeded to put the wet finger into my mouth. But, there was no way I could suck on that finger because I had just dipped it into a very bitter fluid, one that could not bring a smile to my face.
The scrunched up features of all my classmates within my visual range confirmed that my experience was universal. What was the point of this gratuitous wickedness I thought but did not have to wait long for an explanation. With a twinkle in his eyes, our teacher explained that although he stirred the liquid with his forefinger, it was his middle finger that he popped into his mouth. He had devised this simple experiment to teach us the importance of keen observation which he stressed, was the first desirable attribute in a scientist. It is therefore deeply ironic that the only boy in the class who had been observant enough to see through the deception and at that point in time, the most astute scientist of us all is today a lawyer and showed little aptitude for science.
Guy Gargiulo remained in Igbobi College until the end of 1962 before going off to become the fourth principal of Ajuwa Grammar School in Okeagbe, Akoko. This is a bald statement of fact but behind it is the fact that within the short, three years of its existence, the school had used up no less than three principals. Even today, getting to Okeagbe from practically everywhere is by no means, a walk in the park. My recent journey from Ilesa took a shade under four hours of hard driving on roads fairly begging for urgent repairs. Just getting to Okeagbe all those fifty and more years ago is likely to have been ample discouragement for anyone not as adventurous as GG and this is not to talk of the absence of amenities such as potable water and electricity which were taken for granted in Lagos and other urban centres at the time must have been, or at least, should have been a major discouragement to the young Gargiulo, used as he no doubt was to all the creature comforts of those times. Not to talk of these obvious difficulties, just getting to Okeagbe in those days when not many roads could boast of the thinnest coat of tar must have been terminal discouragement for anyone not as adventurous as GG. Taking all these together, the young Gargiulo must have thought that he had fallen into a time warp when he finally arrived at Okeagbe, the newly confirmed principal of Ajuwa Grammar School.
If I were to answer for Gargiulo, I would say without any hint of equivocation that his success is of monumental proportions but if you ask him, he is likely to confess that the abiding feeling that dogs him is one of frustration. The visible and even vibrant secondary school system which he met on his arrival in Nigeria has been eviscerated by repeated failures caused by myopic government intervention, puerile political grandstanding, failure of genuine investment, poor teacher training, growing apathy, lack of real economic growth, growing religiousity, massive youth unemployment leading to the stunting of ambitions among the youths among a plethora of other factors
According to GG, the immediate and most daunting challenge confronting him was the problem of finding water for any purpose and both staff and students wasted close to four hours every day just looking for and fetching water of dubious quality from a discouragingly distant source. Fed up to the teeth by this nuisance, GG decided that the only way to solve this problem was to bring water to the school by constructing a dam on the school premises. Land for the dam was immediately conceded to the school by their host communities but this was the limit of their concession as the school was left to her own limited devices in the thorny issue of developing the site. After a frustratingly long waiting period, GG became fed up with the situation in which he found himself and decided to take matters well in hand even if his intervention was of an extreme nature.
The usual Sunday service in the local church was coming to its usual unceremonious close when GG stormed into the church and brought proceedings to an abrupt stop. He then proceeded to harangue the startled congregation with a denouncement of their failure to help themselves, content as they were to wait for divine intervention in their affairs even when such intervention was well within human purview. Whipping himself into incandescent rage, the principal, clearly fit, or perhaps even deserving to be tied, stormed out of the church in the same manner as his unorthodox entry but not before he hurled into the congregation, a Yoruba proverb in the manner of a terrorist tossing a primed grenade into a crowded market place. ‘Agbaki I walojak’oriomotuntun wo, reminding them that it was responsibility of the old to protect the young, in this case, his students, from harm.
The last of him that was seen was he, exiting the church and disappearing rapidly into goodness knew where. It is not clear if anybody bothered to receive the traditional end of service benediction as they all left the church to catch a glimpse of this wraith that appeared to have been taken into heaven right before their shocked eyes. One minute, this wild irate oyinbo man was in their midst and in the next, he had disappeared, vanished into thin air as it were. The frantic search parties that were despatched to find him were on the verge of desperation when hours later, he was discovered in the middle of the bush still trying to cool himself down sufficiently to prepare himself for any civilised intercourse with any human being. The relief at finding him was as immense as it was palpable as they had begun to fear that this man who was obviously laying a strong foundation for their school had, in the manner of his predecessors, abandoned them to their sorry fate.Their immediate response went beyond bringing him home as early the next morning virtually all the town turned out to clear the bush which stood between the students and the fresh water which became available with the construction of the long awaited dam on the cleared site.
The dam when it was completed, opened a new vista to the students. GG who by his own admission cannot swim a stroke to save his own life- he can float but cannot swim- added swimming to the school curriculum and insisted that all the students learnt to swim. A few students over the years tried to duck out of this exercise but they all failed to get an exemption, even those of them who conjured up the presence of malevolent spirits waiting to devour unwary swimmers in the depths of the dam. All the students got excellent swimming lessons and for the records, no student has come to grief in the dam, proving if any proof was needed that no evil spirits have managed to colonise the dam and unleashed their malevolence on anyone.
For GG himself, this opened the way for his involvement in the administration of swimming in Ondo State as he served as Chairman, Ondo State Amateur Swimming Association for no less than seventeen years. In this capacity, he helped to raise the standard of swimming within the state and using his connections in Britain facilitated the training of Ondo State swimmers at the famous Crystal Palace in London where they were exposed to the highest standards of training in their sport. It is still his pride and joy that one of his charges, who is still very much involved in swimming as a coach won nine gold medals at the 1981 edition of the National Sports Festival, propelling the State to one of the powerhouses of swimming in the country.
Fifty-five years after leaving Igbobi College, GG still speaks with respect bordering on awe, of the academic standard he found at Igbobi College which shows that he is a staunch believer in the pursuit of academic excellence in all institutions devoted to learning. Over the years however, he has come to the realisation that schools cannot live or be judged on the strength of academic excellence, to the exclusion of other criteria if only because there are so many other fields of excellence that are required within a functional society. He tried his utmost to promote the spirit of academic excellence at Ajuwa Grammar School and he succeeded admirably, given the rich harvest of professors, lawyers, doctors, engineers and numerous others he has been able to put together. But perhaps more than these, there are numerous significant others who are masters of various trades because their innate abilities in various fields were identified and carefully nurtured at Ajuwa Grammar School so that today, GG is as proud of his master printers, farmers, plumbers and others as he is of his professors, lawyers and high ranking military and police officers.
If one was to distil GG’s philosophy of education into a few words, it will be that schools must exist to challenge students to show what they are capable of and then, help to develop whatever talents they are harbouring in their little frames. This philosophy is so downright sensible that there should be no arguing with it but of course, the system by which education is run in this country is in sad denial of this which is why whatever money is spent on education, it is in the end wasted since the wretched system is only geared towards producing professors. The vast majority of students who do not quite fit into this restricted mould are simply treated with benign neglect with tragic consequences all round.
Guy Gargiulo was the games master at Igbobi College when I was admitted in 1962, the last of his three years there. He was not a nominal games master as he was also one of the athletics coaches as attested to by Sir Segun George, a formidable middle distance runner in what was a powerful Igbobi College athletics team which ran King’s College close all the way at the zonal Grier cup competition, losing in the end by a solitary point. Again, GG has freely confessed to his lack of athletic talent but has overcome this deficiency, if it can be described as such and over the years has helped to nurture athletic skill in those who have even a modicum of talent. In the same way, he has been a successful stage director because as housemaster of Aggrey House, he adapted Moliere’s famous play, Doctor in spite of himself, translating and adapting the play from the original French. Editorial work was by necessity, very extensive as the play had to be condensed to fit into the thirty minute time slot to qualify for presentation at the annual interhouse play acting competition in Igbobi College in those days before the old Assembly hall burnt down and the competition abandoned. The play, translated, edited and directed by GG himself won the competition by a country mile, blowing away the competition, such as there was almost contemptuously, showing another side to this man of myriad competences.
Garguilo came to Nigeria in 1960, months before Nigeria’s independence, propelled to these shores by Reverend Payne who had been his teacher in the secondary School. Reverend Payne had come out to Nigeria thirteen years before to teach at Igbobi College. Before he left for Nigeria, Reverend Payne had told his students to get in touch with him at Igbobi if anyone felt the urge to follow in his footsteps at any time in the future. At the time this invitation was extended to Gargiulo and his colleagues, practically none of them could find Nigeria on the map. Gargiulo certainly had no idea where Nigeria was other than that it was a country somewhere in Africa.
He probably did not know much more about Nigeria before, propelled by a sense of adventure or self-imposed mission before he packed his bags and followed his mentor to Nigeria and Igbobi college where he bedded in and thrived for three glorious years before once again succumbing to his craving for sailed into the interior of Nigeria as Okeagbe undoubtedly was at that time probably in a self-imposed task of searching for the soul of this perplexing country and losing himself in it. His vast spectrum of experiences in Okeagbe, Ilaje Ese Odo, Akure, Ondo to mention only the towns in which Gargiulo has worked suggests that even without finding it, he has certainly sold his soul to the spirit of Nigeria, particularly Ondo State which he has served diligently for more than fifty years.
Ajuwa Grammar School developed the capacity to feed herself by growing a variety of crops using modern labour saving devices and practised animal husbandry using the latest techniques. Even now, you will find tractors on the premises which is flanked on one side by an impressive palm tree plantation laid out by Gargiulo on one side and the dam which caused Gargiulo to lose his top on one famous occasion, on the other. It can be argued that this is a model which should have been adopted by schools all over Nigeria but the wisdom of this method has been lost and is never likely to be regained.
The Nigeria that Gargiulo arrived in 1960 was a nation in transition in very many respects. At that time, perhaps the majority of masters in the school were white missionaries who like Gargiulo, had a strong sense of mission even as they felt the icy wind of change caressing their collective neck ever so gently. Three years before Gargiulo’s arrival, the first Nigerian and the first person who had not taken holy orders was installed as the principal of Igbobi College. To the old white hands in the school, this must have come as a shock and a dark portend of things to come. To young Gargiulo however, this must have been of little consideration given the fact that he had little experience of the good old days when all positions of authority were reserved for gentlemen and sometimes, ladies of genuine British extraction. In addition, GG, in spite of carrying a British passport was himself something of an outsider on the strength of the unmistakeable DNA he inherited from his Italian father. In reality also, GG with his eclectic, if not electric parentage and upbringing can be described as international or at the very least, transnational which has made his assimilation of the Yoruba variant of Nigeria so easy as to be natural.
Gargiulo was born of an Italian father and a British mother in the period leading up to the Second World War in which Italy and Britain were on opposite sides of the conflict. By the time the war broke when he was only seven years old, he had, with his sister who was two years younger, he spent some time in a Swiss boarding school where the language of instruction was French and so, quite early in life he had had the facility for traversing the world in three European languages at will showing his multiculturalism, a trait which has prepared him for his Nigerian adventure. GG spent some of those torrid war years in London and still remembers the fears and dangers to which he was exposed as bombs fell around him. As well as the bombs however, GG remembers the feeling of otherness which assailed him because of his Italian connection. He survived the taunts directed at him and again this is a way of preparing him for a life of otherness in Nigeria where he has stood out of the crowd if only for the colour of his skin which some of his neighbours have found rather strange.
Gargiulo has been a teacher practically all his life and he has continuously rubbed minds with adolescents with all the strengths, weaknesses, uncertainties and optimism which this group of persons carry around with them. A few minutes with him betrays the fact that given his relationship with the young, he has cultivated a mind which is forever young and vigorous, which has made it possible for him to continue to develop new interests well into his eighties. This is why in his fifties, at an age when his contemporaries were already looking forward to retirement, he bought a computer, at a time when those wonderful machines were still an oddity and not only learnt how to use one but took courses in computer languages to such good effect that he was afterwards able to serve as the Director of the Computer Centre at the Adeyemi College of Education, Ondo. In effect he has been able to learn, develop and utilise new skills to good effect as he approached the age of sixty. His background in linguistics and the mathematical sciences would have prepared him for this adventure but it was the youthfulness of his mind that which made it possible for him to actually take the plunge into the exciting world of computers so late in life.