The UWI is celebrating its anniversary this year under the theme, 70 years of service, 70 years of Leadership. During this period, UWIMONA Now will share accounts from alumni and faculty as they reflect on the ?good old days?.
My good old days at Mona
I spent three of the best years of my life on The University campus at Mona. I arrived as an awkward, intellectually insecure adolescent and left with enough self-confidence to take on the wider world. The Mona experience not only awarded me a hard copy academic certificate but provided the continuous opportunities for that broader, invaluable ongoing education that can only be accomplished in solitude and on one’s own. At Mona I discovered the intrinsic difference between genuine education which is done on one’s own and pro forma certification approved by institutions.
During the three years I served as the secretary to Chancellor Hall. I was director of the undergraduate guild press and editor of The Pelican. I dined with the Vice Chancellor, Sir Arthur Lewis, as well as with the Hall Warden, the inimitable Dr Francis Bowen, known to all in hall as the fearsome “Bobo”. During that time I was also selected and trained to be a protocol officer for the Jamaica independence celebrations in 1962. Altogether, I had some really fun times.
The late, distinguished Norman Girvan once described that indelible Mona experience inimitably: He wrote, “I entered The University at Mona as a Jamaican Nationalist and I left as a Caribbean Internationalist.” Some of the most valuable lessons of life were garnered in those truly wonderful years on campus. But at the time we never knew how valuable that experience would be in our later life.
The campus was physically quite different from today. There were far fewer buildings. There were many more trees. There were fruit trees and ornamental trees and vigorous specimens of ancient hardwood that gave the island its original name: Land of wood and water. Peacocks strolled proudly around the chapel gardens. And best of all, students could stroll – or in the local idiom of the time, “chop” around the campus unmolested. We loved and were loved with the fleetness and intensity of tropical hurricanes – despite the many unions that endured for years. Mona in the 1960s was not merely a physical location; it was also a state of mind.
I arrived at Chancellor Hall, Mona on a very hot Sunday afternoon in early October 1961, having spent the equivalent of a “gap year” teaching in a rural secondary school in the south-central highlands of Jamaica after leaving high school in lower Saint Andrew. The hall chairman was the amiable Carlyle Dunkley. We would meet several times after our Mona days both in his trade union capacity and his appointment as the Jamaican Ambassador to Cuba. I recall the heat on arrival because it resulted in my naively imbibing prodigious quantities of the delicious rum punch they served as a welcome drink. In focusing on the refreshing coolness of the drinks I completely underestimated the deliciously subtle alcoholic potency. When the pulsations in my head receded some three days later I had learned a lot about rum that I would never forget. Indeed, an appreciation of rum became part of my informal education that served me well in the future.
In those days all new students were patronisingly called “freshmen” , and “freshettes” by the senior students. Male students were assigned to Taylor, Chancellor or Irvine halls. Females were mostly assigned to Mary Seacole Hall, with the overflow in Irvine Hall. During the first week each residence hall promoted an exaggerated hall spirit by hazing its newcomers who were never allowed, at least in Chancellor Hall, a full night’s rest. The forms of hazing varied in terms of unpleasantness and lasted for the complete week. It ended with an elaborate public ceremony in which the newly arrived were “inducted” into their respective hall of residence as equals to the older residents. After that induction ceremony students were called by their given names.
In Chancellor Hall the mildest form of hazing was the irregular congregation of the newly arrived at odd hours of the day or night to recite a ridiculously weird refrain:
“We are freshmen therefore we are dirt. But because we are in Chancellor Hall, We are better dirt than the dirt from Taylor and Irvine.”
Of course, it was considered important by the puerile torturers not to describe Taylor and Irvine as “halls” or some additional form of punishment would follow. I began hall life on the second floor of block B. one of the architecturally doleful medium high-rise structures that resembled the deplored public housing structures in many North American cities. Later a number of us were moved to more comfortable suites alongside the Porter’s Lodge that we called “Block X” and proudly and self-consciously declared that the “X” indicated unlimited potential.
L-R, Franklin Knight, Mrs Edna Manley, Habiboola Niamatali, The Hon Norman Manley, and other Chancellor Hall members.
Each hall had a high table in the dining room for special formal occasions with distinguished guests. While I was in residence distinguished visitors included the Chancellor, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone (1883-1981), the last surviving granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and Prime Minister Norman Manley and his wife, Edna Manley.
In the early 1960s The University of the West Indies had only three campuses. Mona was the main campus with the largest cohort of students and was genuinely international and cosmopolitan. When I arrived the campus was an external college of the University of London. The red undergraduate and black graduate gowns as well as the relaxed curricular structure reflected that older, venerable English institution. Professors lectured in their formal attire and all students likewise attended lectures with a covering gown. The gowns were even required at the formal dinners in hall – and university regulation required the attendance of at least five dinners per week, even for the few off-campus students. During my sojourn the University College of the West Indies emancipated itself and became The University of the West Indies with Sir Arthur Lewis as the first Vice Chancellor of the independent operation. Soon thereafter Sir Arthur left for Princeton University and he was succeeded by Sir Philip Sherlock.
Student life after the first week was delightful. To begin, the students were few and in three years one could almost know all one’s peers. Also, entering The University was akin to winning a lottery. All students were handsomely rewarded just for the privilege of being a student. Generous stipends covered meals, lodgings and other affiliated expenditures with sufficient surplus to maintain, at least in my case, a comfortable bourgeois existence. Students bought books, owned cars and travelled overseas during the summer months. None of my student friends worked for supplemental income – and even medical students engaged fully in intra-mural sports and other extra-curricular activities both on and off the campus. Some of us knew (and were known by) all the clubs and bars between Papine and Spanish Town, and even as far as a notorious club of ill repute called Ad Astra on the St Thomas highway.
The age range of the students was unusually wide. Some had previously been full-time civil servants encouraged to attend, or to return to The University to improve their technical competence in their specialised occupational fields. Despite this, the campus had a contagious egalitarianism and spontaneous intellectuality that fostered stimulating interchanges of all sorts not only among hallmates but also across age groups.
It is well known in educational institutions that students learn as much from their peers as from their professors. Whether in general studies or in honours, professors were readily accessible and the ambience was almost stress-free. Although there were occasional research papers, there were no regular end-of-term examinations. Instead, after three years students spent about two exhausting months constantly engaged in a variety of final examinations. The advantage of this system was that attendance at lectures became optional. Lecturers did not compose the final examinations; and those who set them did not grade them. Honours students had less formal requirements than general students – and a lot of time to engage in multiple activities on and off the campus.
At Mona I associated with some extraordinarily gifted students who later made their marks in the wider world. Geoffrey Woo Ming, Pauline Sahoy, Walter Rodney, and Gordon Rohlehr were from Guyana. Woo Ming, a medical student, was also a gifted writer and wrote several of the funniest skits performed in hall. Rodney and I were quite successful hall debaters. Maureen Warner, a campus carnival queen, hailed from Trinidad. John Cumberbatch and Betty Gollop came from Barbados. Henry Lowe, Erna Brodber, Winston Davis, Orlando Patterson, Richard Fletcher, Norman Girvan, Lloyd and Patrick Bryan and Colin Palmer were fellow Jamaicans. Lowe, Davis and Girvan attended Calabar High School, as did I. Lloyd Bryan served as headmaster of Calabar for a number of years; and Palmer (who taught for a short time at Calabar) and I continued for graduate studies to the University of Wisconsin in Madison and became close lifelong friends. Without doubt, Palmer, who earned endowed professorial chairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Mellon Chair), City University of New York (Schlesinger Chair), and Princeton University (Dodge Chair), is not only one of the foremost Caribbean historians but also, by any measure, one of the most distinguished graduates of The University of the West Indies.
Just as the students, the Mona faculty was also international. Even to undergraduate students in those halcyon days it was abundantly clear that not all tutors were created equal. Some like Professor Elsa Goveia and Professor Sir Roy Augier were young, dynamic members of the history department and internationally recognised. They were outstanding teachers and mentors and had the rare capacity to evolve graciously from tutor to friend as the years passed. Others were adequate. A few were definitely intellectually out of place. There was one visiting professor in my time who lost almost 90 per cent of his audience after his first lecture. Many of the absent, like myself, could be found doing alternate study of appropriate beverages in the Students’ Union during his lecture hour. To lecturers like those I partly owe my expertise in the connoisseurship of rum.
Nevertheless, the poor lecturers were offset by some memorably brilliant ones. Prime Minister Eric Williams gave a standing room only lecture. Philip Mason gave a series of lectures that were eventually published as Prospero and Caliban; and V S Naipaul was writer in residence as he worked on The Mimic Men.
My memories of my undergraduate days at Mona could fill a large book. Some were deeply personal.
A few were somewhat painful. But overall the delightful moments far outnumbered the dreadful.
I still get a special thrill from the committed communal contest to secure the bell for those closely intra-mural sports events, especially the football matches with Taylor Hall. Normally, the hiding place of the bell was a closely held secret between a few privileged members of the hall elite. Every Chancellorite, however, was told that not even his own life was dearer than that of that old cracked bell. When it tolled in the hall everyone was required to drop everything and rush to its defence. On several occasions I awoke, hastily put on some clothes, and ran briskly toward the sound of that bell and I remain proud to say that during my three years Chancellor Hall lost many sports contests with Taylor Hall but it never lost its hold of the bell.
L-R, Warden Dr Francis Bowen, Princess Alice, Franklin Knight and Habiboola Niamatali Photos Contributed