ATHENS OF WEST AFRICA

Naomi Kamara

There is confusion amongst outsiders and some Sierra Leonean minds about the phrase “Athens of West Africa”, which many Sierra Leoneans and writers take to mean Fourah Bay College, instead of the City of Freetown.  Athens in ancient Greece was a renowned center of learning and it is considered to have been the cradle of western civilization. It was where great men like Socrates, Sophocles and many renowned philosophers, writers and politicians were born. From this perspective, Freetown was West Africa’s cradle of higher education as well. Grammar School, Methodist Girls High School, Annie Walsh Memorial School and St Joseph’s Secondary School included, are schools where West Africans came for secondary and post-secondary education.

The original Fourah Bay College building is located at Cline Town in the east end of Freetown.  It was founded on February 16, 1827, by the Church Missionary Society, (CMS) making it the first college in West Africa. It was originally intended as an Anglican missionary school to train teachers in promoting education and Christianity. Later on becoming affiliated with Durham University in England, it became a degree granting institution in 1876, which allowed students of Fourah Bay College to study the same curriculum and took examinations which were identical to those administered at Durham University.

The Original Fourah Bay College building was in regular use till the Second World War, when the college was temporarily moved outside Freetown for security reasons. After the war it became the headquarters of the Sierra Leone Government Railway; and later as a Magistrate court in the 1980. The building ceased to be in use in early 1990. The Original Fourah Bay College building was proclaimed a National Monument in 1955.

Until the Second War, Fourah Bay College offered the only alternative to Europe and America for British colony West Africans who wanted a university degree. The Original Fourah Bay College is a four-story structure built with blocks of laterite stones. Sierra Leone’s first colored Governor, Staff Sergeant Major William Fergusson, laid the building’s foundation stone when its construction started in 1845. The building’s construction was supervised by the African American Reverend Edward Jones, who became the institution’s first principal. The Old Fourah Bay College is perhaps the single most influential institution in Africa in accounting for the penetration and acceleration of the spread of Western education on the continent.

Fourah Bay College pioneered the emergence of the earliest generations of West Africa’s educated elite. Fourah Bay College trained clergy played pioneering roles in the spread of Christianity in West Africa.  Samuel Ajayi Crowther, registered as the first student at Fourah Bay College became the first Black Anglican Bishop. Crowther was the pioneer clergy who brought and spread Christianity in the Niger Delta of present day Nigeria. Fourah Bay College trained James Johnson, became the second Bishop of the Niger. Alexander Babatunde Akinyele obtained his licentiate in Theology in 1906 and Bachelor of Arts in 1912 from Fourah Bay College and went on to become the first Anglican Bishop of Ibadan. Fourah Bay College product the Reverend Thomas B. Macauley was sent to Nigeria by the Christian Missionary Society (CMS) and worked in Lagos.

Products of Sierra Leone’s educational institutions pioneered education endeavors in Nigeria. When Alexander Babatunde Akinyele graduated from Fourah Bay College in 1912, he became the first Ibadan indigene to obtain a university degree.  Akinyele oversaw the establishment of Ibadan’s first secondary school and became its first Principal in 1913. Akinyele later became the first Nigerian Vice Chancellor of Ibadan University. Another Fourah Bay College graduate Kenneth Dike, became the first Nigerian to head the University of Ibadan. In 1859, Reverend Thomas Babinton Macauley from Fourah Bay College founded the CMS Grammar School in Lagos as the first secondary school in the whole of Nigeria. The CMS Grammar School produced the earliest crop of Nigeria’s political leaders and civil servants, including Herbert Macauley and Nnamdi Azikiwe. Mrs Lati-Hyde Forster who made history as the first female student at FBC in 1945, is also the first female graduate (1949) and she became not only the first Sierra Leonean but also the First African Principal of her alma mater, the Annie Walsh Memorial School (1961-1975).

 

Products of Fourah Bay College were leading figures in decolonization, political activism and were political leaders in the newly independent African States. These included Ghanaian author, journalist and politician J.E. Casely-Hayford, Ladipo Solanke, and Kenneth Dike of Nigeria. Kenneth Dike helped organize the First International Africanist Conference in Ghana. The West African Students Union (WASU) founded by the Nigerian Ladipo Solanke and the Sierra Leonean Herbert Bankole-Bright, provided the earliest opportunity for political and civic activism for students from British colonies. Kojo Botsio who obtained his undergraduate degree from Fourah Bay College became Ghana’s first Minister of Education under Kwame Nkrumah. A leading figure in the Convention People’s Party, Botsio served twice as Foreign Minister of Ghana. In Nigeria a graduate of Fourah Bay College, Sam Mbakwe became Governor of Imo State. During the civil conflict in the country (1991-2002) the building was used to house people displaced from other parts of the country. It was during the occupancy of the building by war displaced people that the building caught fire in 1999. The building’s roof, the top floor ceiling and rafters are now lost. The building now stands in ruin.

By 1945, Fourah Bay College was relocated to Mount Aureol thereby probably making it the most attractive site of any university institution in Africa. Her student’s referred to as “Aureolites” or “Fourabites”. The Nissen Huts was where students at Fourah bay college first had their hostels and in its place, modern blocs for students hostels erected. Science laboratories, administrative building and the nine storey scraper, presently Kennedy Building, were all constructed with money received from the United States of America during the Presidency of John F. Kennedy. The famous underground now completely sealed is still there, as well as the massive bloc of masonry which supported the gun emplacement and it is believed to have protected Freetown during the war.

Kortright House, built in 1874, was the residence of Governor Cornelius Hendrickson Kortright (1875-1877).  It has a distinctive architecture like the old Fourah Bay College constructed twenty six years earlier, complete with laterite stone blocks that resembles plantation type architecture of mansions of slave owners in America. With time, the building dilapidated and it was abandoned. The Monuments and Relics Commission decided to rehabilitate the building and used it as the residence for the late Dr Davidson Nicol, who was the first African to be appointed to the post of Principal of Fourah Bay College.

The Amphitheatre was named after the first student to enter Fourah Bay College Ajayi Crowther. Hundreds come every year to this building, parents, well-wishers included, to witness students have their degrees conferred to them by the Chancellor, which included citations for honorary graduates read by the Public Orator. Adjacent to the Amphitheatre is the Wilson Theatre named after Frank L. Wilson, a military officer who died of yellow fever in 1910. The stage was used as a platform for debates before the Students Union Hall and Mary Kingsley hall were constructed. The botanical gardens provided fields for academic and environmental studies.

What started as a training college for strictly religious affairs, now offers over eighteen degree courses and more than thirty diploma courses across all major fields of study.  Fourah Bay University remains an active institution of higher education with over 3,500 students. As part of the University of Sierra Leone, it grants Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees.

Cline Town & Mount Aureol.

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Written By Naomi Kamara

(Writer, Poet & Editor E2E Magazine)

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