In my B.A Thesis titled “The History of Okuku”, I took a look at Mary Knoll College, Okuku, Yala, and concluded that the school is the single most important contribution of the Christian missionaries to the development of Old Ogoja.
Founded in 1953 by Bishop Thomas McGettrick, the first Catholic Bishop of Ogoja, and located on a knoll in Woleche Ogbugu in Okuku, Mary Knoll was the citadel of hope and development that provided early education for the people of present-day Northern and Central Cross River; Abakaliki and Afikpo areas of present day Ebonyi State.
It’s therefore not surprising that most of the early elites and present leaders of these areas are products of this school. Mary Knoll will likely continue to dominate the political, social and economic spheres of Northern and Central Cross River for the next fifty years.
Sometime in 1995, I sat near my uncle, Paul Ajoma Oko, as he penned a short letter to Vincent Mogu, my lecturer then in the then Polytechnic, Calabar, who was his old classmate in Mary Knoll.
The short letter started thus; “Dear Vin, it’s been a long time. I’m sure the spirit of Marco is still high in you….”. Now, those who know Vincent Mogu would attest that he has a certain boisterousness and swag that could only have been incubated in Mary Knoll. This term “Marco Spirit” is usually invoked when ex-Mary Knollers interact. It’s pervasive; a verbalisation of an unconscious reality, and it merits a socio-philosophical explication.
Mary Knoll was conceived as a citadel of distinction; in learning, character and service. These visions were ingrained into the students. Being one of the earliest colleges built in the Old Ogoja, the earliest students imbibed and practicalized them as a set of norms which they transmitted, like a relay, from one generation of Mary Knollers to the other. These visions became enlarged through the infusions of the academic and sports feats of the school, courage of the students and sets of norms and conventions which became known as “Marco Traditions”.
Marco Spirit on the other hand is deeper. It’s the sentimental attachment; an unquantified affection we have for the school, including certain qualities we acquired from the school like: discipline, the quest for excellence, a certain street wisdom, ‘’ginger” and “swag’’.
Marco “Past Glories” are important components of “Marco Tradition” and “Marco Spirit”. Each generation of students sees themselves as carriers of a tradition that is bigger than themselves and which should not be diminished under their watch. This attachment to and preservation of Marco’s past glories are usually exhibited during academic and sports competitions. With these, Marco students acquired a social identity with all the trappings of an ingroup used mostly for self-identification. These are expressed in varieties of phenomena like slangs, songs, carriage, traditions, etc which the students imbibe and portray, and which differentiate them from other students.
The school promoted multi-culturism where students from diverse backgrounds interacted leading to a somewhat cosmopolitan carriage by Mary Knollers. This blended well with Okuku which was then emerging from a rural settlement to a micro-metropolis driven by her famed market, ideal location and comparatively large population made up of people of diverse ethnicities. Marco slangs are esoteric and are therefore mutually intelligible only to Mary Knollers. Mkpe, the Mbube name for beans was adopted name for beans. An absorber is one who can withstand flogging. An injuker is a student who did not enrol in Mary Knoll from class one. An illegal is an unserious and wayward student.
Marco had a chummy relationship with Mount Carmel, being the sole girls-only college that was similarly established by the missionaries. Marco boys laid a conjugal and propriety kinship with “Mount Carme babes” and went on to establish a coded system of Right of First Refusal. This was a significant phenomenon of inter-school relationship in those days. These relationships flourished. Countless hearts were broken. Countless love letters were exchanged. In the pre-GSM world, students perfected their love letter writing skills and the ability to “toast”, “psyche”, “razzle” or “approach” a babe became an essential attribute of a Mary Knoller. There were frequent movements between Mary Knoll and Mount Carmel on weekends and Valentine’s Days being the climax of it all. Tales of these relationships became legends that found their way into the Marco tradition. It is not certain how many of these relationships ended in marriages, but there served their purposes of adolescent companionships.
Marco Traditions and Marco Spirit are sometimes used interchangeably.
For the purpose of this discourse, I shall highlight five major ways in which they are expressed;
1. The Zeal to Defend Marco at All Times.
By nature, Marco students are heady, active and assertive with a high dose of the aluta spirit. Therefore, they are easily roused when issues affecting Mary Knoll or their fellow student arise. For instance, in the 1970s or early 80s, an expatriate staff of Mary Knoll was accused of making racist pictorial depictions of black students. Marco students promptly demonstrated. The said expatriate staff was investigated, found guilty and repatriated immediately. In the “Okon Must Go” protest of May 1977, Marco student protested against the dilapidated state of their school. They locked up their Principal and Vice Principal and marched to the Nigerian Police Area Command in Igoli, where they demanded for the sack of Mr. F.E Okon, the Principal, Special Class.
Marco students made a similar protest in 1988 tagged “Ogar Agi Must Go”. Where they made serious cases of impropriety against the Principal, Mr. Malachi Ogar Agi. They trekked from Okuku to the Zonal School Board in Igoli, where they were addressed by Chief Patrick Odey Odo, who was in charge of the Zone. Mr. M.O Agi was subsequently relieved of his appointment.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, Part of Mary Knoll College premises was ceded to the School of Basic Studies and her students lived freely side by side with Marco students. However, sometimes in November or December 1980, students of the SBS were watching an Idi Amin movie “90 Minutes in Entebbe”. Some Marco students tried to enter the hall to watch the movie, but were denied entry by the SBS students who demanded gate fees from them. The Marco students were offended. They told the SBS students that they, Mary Knollers, are the owners of the school, while the SBS students are only tenants or squatters. The SBS students didn’t budge. Marco boys mobilized their fellow students to the film hall and a serious fight broke out. It degenerated to a conflagration in which some students were wounded, part of Mary Knoll was burnt and the school was ransacked and looted. Despite facing opponents who were bigger than them, the Marco Boys stood their ground in a heroic fight. They retaliated by burning part of the SBS building too. This incidence and some other political considerations resulted in the relocation of the School of Basic Studies to Akamkpa, where it was later upgraded to a College of Education and now a Campus of Crutech. Similarly, in the 1980s, the western wing of Mary Knoll premises was ceded to the University of Cross River State, Unicross, then owned by the Old Cross River State. A fence was built to demarcate the two schools. This did not stop Marco boys from frequenting the Unicross Campus for leisure, shopping at Ebalekor Supermarket, and the two big Cafeterias which the Marco Boys quickly termed Federal and State Cafe’s .In 1991/2 a clash erupted between students of the two schools. The Unicross students accused Marco Boys of toasting their babes and therefore banned them from entering their campus. Marco boys told them in plain English that it won’t work. Marco boys insisted that as landlords, they are the owners of both MKC and Unicross, and therefore, no one can restrict their movement. The arrowheads of the Unicross students were: a huge muscular guy, appropriately called One-men; a guy called Billy and a very tall girl of about 6.3ft, called tallest. The Marco boys were spearheaded by my classmates; Enene Eyo, Etim Raymond and the late Victor Odukpo. On the day of the expected attack, Marco students were roused from their sleep and laid in ambush, across the entire length of the wall separating the two schools, with sticks, stones and cutlasses. Somehow, common sense prevailed. There was no attack. Our set maintained a Cold-War posture with the Unicross students until we passed out. Shortly after this, the Okuku Campus of Unicross was relocated to its parent campus in Uyo where it became University of Uyo.
2. Strict Enforcement of Discipline.
It would be assumed that Mary Knoll College, ab initio, set a certain standard for herself and discipline was adopted as the means through which these objectives can be met. Students were expected to be punctual, neat, obedient, studious, and God-fearing. This entails conformity to rules which can only be achieved through discipline.
However, the enforcement of discipline mutated to forms of bullying in the Marco ecosystem which was accepted as a “Marco Tradition”. This normalisation of bullying became so entrenched in students’ relation that it was impossible to separate it from the initial strategy of using discipline to enforce order. Washing of Dam, Warm ups during Manual Labour, late night floggings in the dormitories, etc. all became normalized as means of enforcing discipline. Bullying in the Marco context is subsumed in the Marco system of socialization. Marco, in this sense, was assumed to be a pristine enclave that’s free of “wildlings”. To ensure the purity of this enclave, new entrants into the school (both Class One & Injukers) must first be purged of their wild nature before being integrated into the fold. New entrants were seen as “foxes with long tails” who were roaming in the wild. The tail is seen as the evidence of the wildness of the fox. The socialization process therefore involves the “cutting of the fox’s tail” in order to be tamed into Mary Knoll. However, despite being integrated, some junior students are still “accused” of “growing tails”. It is therefore the need for these tails not to grow back that the flogging becomes a routine. This weaning process is so important in the Marco Tradition that 11/11 every year is set aside as “Foxes’ Birthday” to commemorate their prior state before integration into Marco. As part of the celebration of this special day, the junior students and Injukers are given some doses of flogging, to flush out any residues of wildness that may be lurking in them. The 1986/87 Labour Prefect popularly called Shonkpo, AKA, Shonkpokpoye was the most feared student during our days in Marco; no thanks to his avarice for flogging. The floggings were most time excessive and unwarranted. You have to endure it and prove that you are worthy to be a Mary Knoller. A senior student may just look at you and starts screaming ‘’I feel like dying each time I see you. Kneel down’’. And a dose of flogging is handed to you. Sometimes, you may be lucky, a senior who is higher in class than the bully may pass by and free you from the punishment. The intriguing thing is that the animosity between the bully and the victim rarely go beyond the walls of the school. Both of them would later meet in life and laugh over it as a none-issue. In this environment of conformity, some students dared to be different. They were the deviants who try at all times to break the rules. They were called illegal students. They exhibited all manners of truancy and always hanging around Akpariku Village and other Appian ways. They don’t tuck-in their shirts, they wear slippers to school, they don’t participate in school activities like devotions, manual labour, games, prep, etc. They were usually lively, daring, charismatic and fun-loving students. By daring to break the school rules, some of these illegal students were usually very popular and cut the profiles of Marco folk heroes
3. Deference To Seniority.
Respect for seniors is a core tradition of Marco. The school was like a military barrack where a hierarchical form of relationship subsisted. Seniority was based not in age, but on the level of class. It was a taboo to call the name of a senior student, without attaching the title “Senior”. For e.g, “Senior Patrick” (Ishabor), or “Senior Victor” (Idiege). This system is so ingrained in the minds of most Marco boys that long after they leave Mary Knoll, even when social situations have changed several dynamics, they still retain that “title” when referring to their former seniors in school. I receive this curtesy frequently and I still accord that respect to some of my former “seniors”. In the pecking order, the Seniors are at the top of the food chain. Each higher class takes pre-eminence over the succeeding class, with Class 1 or JSS1 being the lowest class and the everybody’s bait.
In the Marco milieu, the prefects were demi-gods in the Pantheon, with the powerful Senior Prefect presiding like Zeus in Mount Olympus. The “class in Government” had residual powers and privileges which exempted them from most of the school’s tasks. There were several levels of authority within the students’ body. This was due to the several multi-collegiate programmes Mary Knoll was offering. There was the Higher School Certificate, HSC Programme that was composed of HSC 1 and 11; which was popularly called Upper 6 and Lower 6. This programme was open to female enrolment.
With this structure therefore, there was the General Prefect, GP; and Assistant General Prefect, AGP; appointed from the HSC Programme. In our JSS1, we met a GP, a specs-wearing, light-skinned Obudu guy called Major. He was succeeded by Mohan Odey, who was unfortunately consumed in the “Ogar Agi Must Go Scandal”.
There was also Class 5 and Traditional 5. The latter being students who may not be originally Marco students, but enrolled in the school to prepare for WASC.
Our set which was admitted into Mary Knoll in 1986 was the first set of the secondary component of the 6-3-3-4 Programme. We were therefore the first JSS1 students. We were made to undergo 4 terms, instead of 3 terms, due to the re-alignment of the school calendar.
The school prides itself on this hierarchy of students’ relationship as is perpetuated the system of discipline. However, it does not follow this seamless vertical characterization as they are exceptions to the rule.
On the social scale, the year of enrolment takes precedent over the class a student is in. For e.g, a student who’s still in JSS3 because he was not promoted with his classmates to SS1 is still considered the mate of his former classmates in SS1 and would enjoy most of the privileges granted to the SS1 students. By this convention therefore, he is deemed a senior to an Injuker, newly admitted into SS1.
4. Upholding the Beauty of Marco Tradition.
The beauty of Marco Traditions is seen through its exhibition. It releases the latent bonds that hold Mary Knollers together. It invokes that deep sentimental feeling of love for Marco and a nostalgia for the “good old days of Marco” by the ex-Mary Knollers. A breach of these traditions erodes this feeling. For example, after the 001 fiasco, the then Principal, Fr. Idiku replaced Ogbaji Oko, the Senior Prefect with Elvis Udey. Elvis was a mild-mannered, easy-going “Church Boy”. He completed his tenure without any hitch. The success of this experience made Fr. Idiku to follow this “Elvis Udey Template” in subsequent appointments of Senior Prefects. But he breached Marco Tradition in effecting this. In 1990/91, he appointed David Alex, a gentle, soft-spoken and likeable student as the Senior Prefect. In the 1991/92 govt, Fr. Idiku also appointed our classmate, Johnny Ijioma, a handsome, extra-gentle, church-going and generally likeable student as the Senior Prefect.
The snag in these was that David Alex and Johnny Ijioma were Injukers. David enrolled in Mary Knoll in his JSS3 or so, while Johnny joined our class while we were in SS1. The enthronement of Injukers over earlier students were considered fundamental breaches of Marco Traditions and were met with serious grumblings. There were considered unconventional. These had nothing to do with the characters and competences of David and Johnny. In fact, both of them discharged their responsibilities admirably.
5. Mary Knoll as “The Model College”
This mindset is a subset of the Marco Spirit. This entails a general attitude of seeing Mary Knoll as being better, in all ramifications, than all other schools, especially in the whole of the now Northern and Central Cross River. A concomitant of this is that Mary Knoll was expected to win all Inter-School Competitions. These conduces to what I would call “Marco Exceptionalism”.
Mr James Okongor, the then Games Master and Rev. Fr. Idiku were the two major exponents of this philosophy in the later days. Both were ex-Mary Knollers. They were revivalists who sought the restoration of the what was called “the Lost Glory of Mary Knoll”.
Mr. Okongor sought the restoration of the “Golden Days” of Mary Knoll through sports and disciplined. He was a famed footballer and the Games Prefect in his days in Mary Knoll. As the Geography teacher and Games Master, he abhorred mediocrity. He always insisted on the best performances from the students in sports, march past and other social engagements of the school. He always drew a parallel between Mary Knoll and other schools which he called “Community and Comprehensive Schools”. He usually mentioned those schools to include Igbeku, Ugboro and Agiga. He was of the view that Mary Knoll, as a college, was not in the same league with those schools. To him, therefore, it was unthinkable for any of these schools to defeat Mary Knoll in any sports or social competition.
Fr. Idiku brought a melodramatic verve to the administration of the school. He tried to inspire a new spirit in Mary Knoll. He preached, pleaded, threatened in both English and Latin. When these didn’t work, he adopted the James Bond strategy of chasing students with his car in the neighbourhoods of Akpariku, Okuku and Igoli.
In conclusion, Marco is a culture. You have to imbibe it to fit in. ‘’fitting-in’’ is very important. That’s why students flood in despite the bullying. By passing through the school, the school leaves some residues of herself in us and we are all proud carriers of these. Marco is more than a school. Individually, it is more of a lived experienced. It is this shared experience that bonds Marco Boys of all generations.
Julius Oluohu Ogar, is a Historian, Strategist and an Entrepreneur based in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. He is an ex-Mary Knoller who studied History and Diplomatic Studies at University of Port Harcourt, and Mass Communication at The Polytechnic, Calabar (Now Crutech).