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In memory of my great teacher - A. K. Savage

Aug 31, 2015, 10:50 AM | Article By: Ebrima G. Sankareh

In hypothesizing what really exemplifies the consummate educator, the revered Twentieth Century American inspirational writer, poet and educator, William Arthur Ward (1921-1994), postulates: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

On learning of the sad and devastating death of my former high school English Literature teacher, Mr. Abdou Karim Savage (affectionately called A.K.Savage), who later trained as a lawyer, rising to the pinnacle of the Gambian judiciary as Honorable Chief Justice A.K.Savage, I see resonances of William Ward’s proposition about the consummate educator seamlessly choreographed in this phenomenal Gambian educator—never tired, always courageous! As a teacher, the late A.K.Savage diligently exudes these rare virtues—“good, superior (and) great” teaching qualities with a beaming face that endeared him to both students and colleagues alike.

It was during my formative years at the Nusrat High School, three decades ago, that I fortunately encountered this phenomenon of an unusual educator, a teacher by all standards an exceptionally mellow gentleman, by every standard a genius, and by most standards an excellent social mixer who mastered the intricate nuances of teacher education with a penchant for high academic discourse and an unflinching commitment to scholarly excellence. An orator per excellence, this rara avis educator (rare breed), brought to bear all of the traits in Ward’s hypothesis—ably explaining complex literary terminologies, skilfully demonstrating and ultimately inspiring almost all his knowledge-thirsty students with his radiating face that almost always kept us spellbound, creating a feeling of “mutuality and general camaraderie” to borrow his own words. 

During Nusrat’s daily assemblies, after we stood to attention, recited Quranic verses and sang The Gambia National Anthem, he would begin his speech with his Latin mantra: “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a sound mind in a sound body) and often reminded us students, “we as your teachers are supposed to stand towards our students in-loco-parentis” and he was truly a teacher-cum-parent in every sense of the phrase. Having spent most of his life in education, he had criss-crossed the entire length and breadth of The Gambia and could therefore, identify with most of his students’ situations. He would spend a great deal of time telling us gripping stories about his provincial experiences and encounters particularly in Bansang where for years, he served as Principal of the Bansang Secondary Technical School, leaving behind as customary, a trail of impressive scholarly success stories.

A voracious reader of every facet of human knowledge and a great lover of jaw-breaking words, a passionate speaker of flawless Latin and an Anglo-maniac whose love for everything English made him a specialist and proud practitioner; in fact, an impressive and competent teacher of the English Language and its literature with a fertile mind that memorized all context passages in Shakespeare, Dickens, Shaw, Yeats, Chaucer and Tennyson to name only a few of the English literati, for the list is long and the man’s curiosity defies limitations or narrow academic speciality; far from today’s lazy scholars or specialists often bogged down in minutia. Meet him anywhere; either along the academic corridors of Nusrat or under the shades of its sweet smelling bougainvillea flowers or even on the streets and just begin quoting a passage from any Shakespeare text, he quickly completes the quote and tells you the page and character uttering the message. Witness the scene in class when discussing, for example: Act 1, Scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet when an irritated Tybalt notices Romeo’s appearance at his family feast and asks his Page (servant) to hand him a sword so he could kill the intruder calling him a “Montague” (i.e. enemy) and how Teacher Savage dramatically and nimbly captivates his attentive students, impressively demonstrating Capulet’s moving admonition thus:

Content thee, gentle coz. Let him alone.

He bears him like a portly gentleman,

And, to say truth, Verona brags of him

To be a virtuous and well-governed youth.

I would not for the wealth of all the town

Here in my house do him disparagement.

Therefore be patient. Take no note of him.

It is my will, the which if thou respect,

Show a fair presence and put off these frowns,

An ill-beseeming semblance for a feast.

That was characteristically A.K.Savage, pure and simple! And three decades hence, my classmates, schoolmates and I, among them my beloved Nusratarian wife, Binta G. Sankareh, who is equally distraught at The Gambia’s great loss, still retain indelible memories of a great teacher, a phenomenal inspiration, a kind and humble servant who like all mortals, was love and hated, yet admired by all those who encountered him. That was the Savage magic—full of life and wisdom, humour and charisma, love and appreciation for all mankind.

A memorable encounter with Teacher Savage!

I still vividly remember my first term in his Literature class, with his peculiar use of long words and the old English texts from Shakespeare. I was curious about my exam grade and so I decided to pass by the teachers’ staffroom. About 10 meters from his post, he yelled my last name. I ran helter-skelter towards him and even before I could say a word, he shook my hand and said: “Sankareh, I am flabbergasted!” and melted away. Confused and nervous, totally clueless what the strange word meant, I ran to the Nusrat economist who completed a London law degree while still a classroom teacher, Eliman Njie, and told him to check with Mr. Savage about what went wrong with my Literature exams. When Eliman Njie (R.I.P) enquired, Mr. Savage followed him to the corridor and repeated the same word at least thrice –“flabbergasted!, flabbergasted!, flabbergasted!” with all the energy he could. He then paused, looked at me with his signature smile and added, “young man, my name is A.K. Savage, 1st. Class Hons., and I like to use hifalutin words, don’t worry, you have an impressive pass.” Eliman who we all revered as a radical teacher, admonished me not to be intimidated, that Mr. Savage enjoys complex words and could use them anyhow. He told me it was always a fun to have him around and I will enjoy him as a great teacher. After that unnerving encounter, I became so consumed in his class that I never wanted it to end and luckily, once he realized my insatiable passion, he arranged for me to go to his Perseverance St. residence in Banjul every Friday (Nusrat had no Friday classes) where I would ritualistically speaking, follow my master to study and appreciate English Literature. In a sense therefore, he stood towards me in in-loco-parentis for which I remain eternally gracious and the rest as is often said, is history.       

A graduate of Banjul’s prestigious St. Augustine’s High School, A.K.Savage trained as a teacher at Yundum Teachers’ College in the 1960s and taught for several years at Armitage High School as a Qualified Teacher. He would later leave for the “Athens of West Africa”, as Sierra Leone was called, due to its reputable educational system, matriculating at its noted Milton Margai Teachers’ College, University of Sierra Leone, where he graduated with Distinction in English. His contemporaries were the late, famous Geography lecturer, Lamin Ceesay (a.k.a Ceesay Geography) and the famed Sierra Leonean BBC broadcaster, Hilton Fyle. Returning to The Gambia, A.K. resumed teaching, later becoming senior teacher and Headmaster but was still determined to acquire the “Golden Fleece” to borrow his grandiose metaphor. He returned to the University of Sierra Leone this time at Fourah Bay College, graduating with a First Class Hons degree in English that launched him both literarily and figuratively as a serious scholar. For many years, he was an English Language and Literature examiner for the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) and taught in both secondary and high schools in both The Gambia and Sierra Leone later rising to the coveted position of Head of the Department of Languages and Literature at Nusrat High School where he really blossomed into the phenomenon I now remember with great nostalgia and admiration as I join the many Gambians and non-Gambians alike who pay tribute to a true icon, a patriot and a crusader for quality education in Gambian schools.

Predictably, when he announced his retirement from Nusrat High School to return to Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone for a Law degree, most of his students were devastated just as they were on learning of his passing away Thursday. However, as if by divine intervention, as he was poised to leave Nusrat, his former Armitage High school student, Badara Alieu Joof had just completed a Master’s degree in English Literature from London University to take the baton from his master. While studying law at his Alma Mater, he also taught English and Literature in the English Department. After completing his law studies he proceeded to Nigeria where he was called to the Bar and finally returned home, called to the Gambian Bar in 1991 rising to the pinnacle as Hon. Chief Justice; a legal luminary in every sense of the word.

As a teacher, A.K.Savage taught many a student- both boys and girls, men and women, mothers and fathers and touched many lives. His students are vast, his accomplishments plenty and his admirers, legion. There is a famous Chinese proverb that: “If you are planning for a year, sow rice; if you are planning for a decade, plant trees; if you are planning for a lifetime, educate people” and conscious of all the students whose lives Mr. Savage touched, it will not be an exaggeration to say that he had definitely planned for a life time because he has educated many Gambian citizens who are playing prominent roles across the spectrum, the world over. Among his legion of students at Nusrat High were former Gambian Army Chief, General Lang Tombong Tamba, Cambridge trained economist, Lamin Leigh, Gambian barrister, Borry S. Touray, Lawyer Lamin S. Camara, East Carolina University sociologist, Dr. Mamadi Corra and many, many more.

Ergo, in appreciation of Mr. A.K. Savage’s great accomplishments and invaluable contributions to Gambian education as well as his role in the Gambian judiciary which I am not qualified to dwell on, I pray that God grant his soul eternal mercy and ask that institutions like Nusrat High School keep his legacy alive for he deserves nothing less. Teacher Savage was simply a teacher, not attracted to riches or flamboyance. He had the chances to be rich but chose the high road, to fulfil a lifelong dream. His mission was primarily to educate Gambians and touch the future, and there is evidence aplenty to corroborate that. Therefore, as a passionate speaker of Latin, and a man whose entire life was dedicated to improving the lot of his people, it constitutes a fitting tribute to A.K. Savage to paraphrase the Florentines who carved on Niccolo Machiavelli’s plaque these immortal lines: “Tanto Nomini Nullum par Elogium”(for so great a name no praise is sufficient). Finally, to my humble teacher, I say adieu until we see again in the gates of heaven! - Amen! And to his distraught family, we ask for your calm and thank you for sharing this rare treasure with the world-many, many thanks.      

Ebrima G. Sankareh is Editor-in-Chief of the USA-based online journal, The Gambia Echo Newspaper and a Ph.D. Candidate at The College of Arts & Law, The University of Birmingham, UK.