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At school, whenever we mentioned Nigeria it would have been in the context of a “new teacher from Nigeria.” And it would be a male, Christian teacher who dazzled us with his knowledge, passion for teaching, and affection for students.

K.T. John joined Loyola in 1986 to teach maths in high school. Within two years, by the time he became my class teacher, he had earned a reputation on two counts—the first as a brilliant teacher, the second as an efficient organiser of events.

In 1989, P.A. Mathews passed Fr Pulickal’s tests to become a teacher at Loyola. I have heard that Fr Pulickal asked him to spot three mistakes in an English passage, and he identified four. “PAMs” was a teacher whose diction and gait conveyed that English was as much to be learnt as to be lived.

“PAMs” was followed by “JAMs” (Jacob Mathew) who taught at Loyola from 1991 to 2001. Jacob Mathew, with his charming smile and inventive ability to teach chemistry, was a popular teacher in not just Loyola, but in the whole city. Students thronged to his private tuition classes but his integrity was such that we never heard charges of favouritism levelled against him.

Back in the late 1970s, B.O. Sebastian too came from, I think, Nigeria. As his students would attest, “BOS” (pronounced “boss”) was a very friendly and popular teacher. Unlike K.T. John, PAMs and JAMs, he was young when he joined Loyola. With his cloud-burst smile, he spread cheer and was always among the students—whether playing in the basketball court, directing a play on the youth festival stage, coaching us in mass PT for Sports Day, or strengthening alumni relations at an old boys’ meet. He too was a good organiser of student and staff activities.

Each generation of Loyolites, thus, would have their favourite “teacher from Nigeria”. It prompted me to find out more about this African country 8,150 km from Loyola.

In 1960, thirteen years after India gained freedom, Nigeria gained independence from Britain. Till then, most schools in Nigeria were run by missionaries, with grants-in-aid from the colonial government. After independence, the Nigerian government set up several schools. This is strikingly similar to the history of school education in Kerala: during British rule, there were numerous schools run by missionaries in Kerala, the grants-in-aid system was popular, and it was only after Independence that the large-scale expansion of government-run schools happened, especially in Malabar.

In the 1970s, Nigeria experienced an oil boom thanks to discovery of oil in the Niger delta, and the government set up several schools and colleges. Several people from Kerala and Tamil Nadu migrated to Nigeria and a few other African countries to take up teaching positions.

Britannica tells us

Nigeria’s educational system declined significantly in the 1980s and ’90s. There was a shortage of qualified teachers, and the government was sometimes unable to pay them in a timely manner. Moreover, the number of schools did not increase proportionally with the population, and existing schools were not always properly maintained.

The collapse of the system probably prompted (and was fuelled by) Keralite teachers returning home. An article in The Week magazine mentioned that “a change in governmental policies and xenophobic outbreaks forced them to leave” African countries. Such scattered bits of evidence fit well into what we experienced—it was in the 1980s and 1990s that teachers from Nigeria took up positions in Loyola.

While this potted history of education in Nigeria sheds light on why we had teachers from there in the 1980s, there are other questions which remain to be answered.

What lies behind the success of B.O. Sebastian, K.T. John, P.A. Mathews and Jacob Mathew? (How) did Nigeria prepare them to be stars at Loyola? And also, why Christian teachers?

Nigeria is four-and-a-half hours behind Indian time. But it appears that it was years ahead of Kerala in school education. Or perhaps these teachers were moulded in Cambridge’s IGCSE system in Nigeria, and it helped them fit well and shine in the ICSE system later at Loyola. One day, when I meet these teachers again, these are stories that I would like to hear in detail.