Every head teacher worth his or her salt ordinarily has a catchy nickname given by students. Retired missionary teacher John Gomes taught at various schools in central Kenya between 1960 and 1992 and some of the nicknames he picked along the way are “Hitler”, “Ghost”, “Dad” and “Mwalimu”.
Being the disciplinarian he was, many students have deemed the moniker “Hitler” befitting, as they drew parallels between Mr Gomes and the infamous German dictator.
He would stealthily patrol dormitories at night and if he caught someone smoking, at lunch time the next day he would take the student to the dining hall, sit him on a table, light a cigarette, then take the student’s lunch. He would do the same with supper.
Such treatment, he says, helped stamp out smoking in the schools he taught.
That, and a notice he placed in every class that read: “A cigarette is a quantity of tobacco surrounded by white paper, and it has smoke on one side and an idiot on the other.”
Whenever a student proved incorrigible, he had a unique way of humbling them – sending them to dig up an anthill to find the queen.
Those who know about anthills understand that the queen is the hardest to find. You have to break your back digging up tough mounds of soil and deal with ill-tempered soldier ants with their sharp mandibles fervently guarding their residence. Once done digging, the student was required to present the queen to Mr Gomes on a plate.
“I loved eating the queen,” Mr Gomes, a biology teacher who definitely missed a nickname capturing his funny side, tells Lifestyle.
“And then I was to take them back to teach them biology: This queen is so special that she lived in a royal chamber in the hill.”
To the boys in schools surrounding girls’ schools he led, particularly Moi Equator Girls Secondary in present-day Nyeri County, Mr Gomes was definitely a dictator of Hitler’s mould. Else, which headteacher takes note of the closing dates of neighbouring boys’ schools and closes his girls’ school two or more days after the boys have closed?
The “Ghost” nickname came out of his uncanny ability to catch students who had sneaked from school.
But the most enduring nickname of all was “Dad”. Many understood that his disciplinarian side was meant to bring the best out of them. Many found him fatherly in the manner in which he handled girls who became pregnant: He reserved their space in class on condition that they went home to deliver and not to abort.
Many identified with his style of leadership, where he and his wife were literally on duty from early morning till late at night; the wife going as far as preparing snacks for students on outings and tasting meals in the kitchen before students were served. When a student fell ill, their daughter Paloma says, it was Mr Gomes who was often the ambulance driver and his wife Annie the nurse as they headed to hospital. This, definitely, was dad.
That explains why, when Mr Gomes retired as the head of Moi Equator in 1992, the girls in the school staged a protest.
The ex-teacher’s eldest child, Desiree Gomes, remembers that day: “Six hundred girls got up and blocked the road, and they were holding mum and dad so tight so they wouldn’t leave… They went to the DC’s office demanding that ‘Mwalimu’ and ‘Mama’ had to come back to the school.”
But their time at the school, which Mr Gomes had headed for 20 years, was up and he was headed for retirement. And in his retirement, the name “Mwalimu” has taken prominence.
He taught some of Kenya’s most prominent people, including Equity Bank founder Peter Munga at Gaichanjiru High School in Murang’a County; former Cabinet minister Martha Karua at Kiburia Girls in Kirinyaga County and senior counsel Waweru Gatonye at St Mary’s Karumandi Secondary School in Kirinyaga County.
We are having an interview with Mr Gomes, 86, a few weeks after he was given the Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya (OGW) award by President Uhuru Kenyatta for “distinguished and outstanding services rendered to the nation in various capacities and responsibilities”.
Mr Gomes was among the 56 Kenyans who received the OGW honours during last month’s Jamhuri Day. He believes the recognition is among the rewards he was promised by the former bishop of Nyeri when he asked about getting retirement benefits for his work.
“When (nearing retirement), I went to the bishop and I said, ‘I am finishing my work. Do I get any benefits for my work?’ He put his hand around my head and said, ‘My dear son, you’ll get that reward in heaven,’” recalls Mr Gomes.
“So, these are the rewards I get now based on that prediction. I am so happy that this happened. I didn’t ask for it (the OGW award) but I got it because of my hard work,” he adds.
He was born to a family of staunch Catholics in Goa, the former Portuguese colony in western India, on May 17, 1934. As a young boy in an area that has St Francis Xavier as its patron saint, it was almost natural for him to take church responsibilities early.
“Our church is very near to us, and in fact I was an altar boy for many years. That’s where I learnt how to drink a little wine. If the priest left a little wine, that was mine afterwards,” he jokes.
“So, whenever there was an elderly priest, we used to enjoy serving him because he used to put only half the wine in his chalice; so every time an elderly priest came I was very happy.”
He got his undergraduate degree at the University of Bombay in India, where he studied biology.
He aligned himself with the Consolata order of the Catholic Church and became a lay Consolata missionary teacher after university. His missionary work saw him go to Aden in Yemen in 1956.
“I went to teach in a Catholic school in Aden. There, I met a Consolata father who was coming from Italy to Kenya. He said, ‘Mr Gomes, please come to Kenya to teach over there as a missionary.’ So, he sent me the work permit and I came to Kenya in December 1959,” recalls Mr Gomes.
From then to date, he has been in Kenya. Unlike priests, lay missionaries are allowed to marry.
“But one wife,” he is quick to note.
“And then you carry on your work as a lay missionary, teaching anywhere. But then you know the salaries are not that excellent. That is the sacrifice you make,” he adds.
Mr Gomes’s first teacher posting in Kenya was at Mugoiri Girls in Murang’a County. That was in 1960 when roads were so poor that it was not uncommon for drivers to sleep in their stalled cars. This was also at the height of the State of Emergency, a period when the colonial government was out to crush armed rebellion to its rule.
“I had to learn a little bit of Kikuyu because that was Mau Mau time. So, I had to tell them in Kikuyu that I was going to a particular school, and they would push me right up to the school,” recalls Mr Gomes. “The roads were so bad that sometimes we used to sleep in the car at night. I used to keep a packet of milk all the time.”
He spent two years at Mugoiri and was then transferred to Karima Boys, where he spent a year, before being moved to Gaichanjiru Secondary, where he taught Mr Munga biology.
“He was a very intelligent person,” Mr Gomes says of Mr Munga.
From there, he was posted to Nyeri High School.
“Nyeri High was one of the top three schools at that time. And it was run by the American brothers. To teach in Nyeri High, you really had to be a good teacher because all the boys were above average. So, if you did well at the school, you were always likely to be promoted as a headmaster anywhere,” he says.
And true to that pattern, after Nyeri High his next posting was St Mary’s Karumandi as a headteacher. His next stop was to head Kiburia Girls, where Ms Karua was a Form Three student.
“She was a very disciplined lady. We made her prefect in Form Three,” he says of Ms Karua. “She is one of those who advised me to get a music set so that the girls could be kept busy (during weekends).”
In those days, he says, strikes were rampant and he had found out that being idle on weekends was one of the causes. Having dances in school was his way of keeping schoolgirls entertained on weekends to sap any negative energies.
From Kiburia, he was posted to Moi Equator in 1972, and that is where he would stay until his retirement. When he took over the school, he says, it had only two classrooms with 43 girls: 23 in Form One and 20 in Form Two.
It was not even known as Moi Equator; it was just Equator Girls. It was not until Mr Gomes and the school leadership invited the then Vice President Daniel arap Moi for a fund raiser that the “Moi” name came in.
Moi was pleasantly surprised when, as he went to open the administration block whose construction he had contributed towards, he found that the institution had been named “Moi Equator”.
“He was grateful that we had named it ‘Moi Equator’ when he was the vice-president. That was the first school named after him,” says Mr Gomes.
Starting out with just two buildings, Mr Gomes left Moi Equator when it had around 600 students, 12 classrooms, five laboratories, three dormitories, seven staff houses, a library, an administration block and a dining hall. He says Moi contributed to this growth through fundraisers.
“Plus, I started a farm with 1,000 chickens, 27 cattle, 80 pigs, 70 goats, 60 sheep,” he says. The farm, however, did not last long after he left the institution.
At Moi Equator, his family was part of the school. His wife, a professional stenographer, often helped in a number of roles and sometimes chipped in in home science classes.
Their daughters say they were raised as part of the school family. Mother, father and children attended school dances with the girls. They also helped on the school farm with other students.
“My wife was their cateress, caretaker, mentor and nurse. She was a part of everything. So, it was a family affair that made the students feel that the school was part of their family. And that is why, even after 50 years, we still meet every year and cut a cake to celebrate,” says Mr Gomes.
Besides the celebrations, the old girls of Moi Equator have been funding the John Gomes Foundation, which offers scholarships to bright but needy students.
“We can take two to three students at least every year,” says Desiree.
The foundation takes most of Mr Gomes’s time, besides the activities of the Earth Angels Welfare (Kenya) that is mostly run by his lastborn daughter, Paloma.
The team works with Mother Teresa homes in Kenya as well as 15 homes and schools for orphaned, underprivileged, physically and mentally challenged, abandoned, the HIV-positive and those living with albinism.
“In retirement, I am spending all my time helping the less fortunate; sometimes joining my daughters in their work with Mother Teresa Earth Angels,” Mr Gomes says.
In recognition of his work, the dining hall at Moi Equator is named after Mr Gomes. There is also a dormitory at Gaichanjiru Boys built by Mr Munga that is named after him.
“I was shocked and surprised that that dormitory was named after me,” Mr Gomes says.
Mr Gomes has some interesting philosophies from his days as a teacher, key among them that a school head should always be in school during weekends.
“The most important thing for any studies to be done is discipline. Discipline is missing in the schools. Today, there is no discipline at all,” he says. “And if you want discipline, the head of the institution must be in the school compound during the weekend. It doesn’t happen.”
He also notes that school heads should cut middlemen in school procurement to avoid paying too much for goods they could have obtained by themselves.
“I saved money because I did (most projects) myself: Supervising, building. Now we have contractors, we have suppliers, we have so many people who collect so much cash and the schools cannot build anything at all. If a school has to improve, discipline comes from the top,” he says.
Mr Gomes also believes that food eaten by students needs to be properly checked by a person no less than the school head.
On his family side, he lost his wife in 2012. Two of his daughters, Desiree and Paloma (first and lastborn), are in Kenya while the third one, Fabiola, is in Goa.
Paloma, the CEO of the Cereal Millers Association, recalls that their father subjected them to the same standards he treated his students.
“Our dad was a disciplinarian. When he said ‘jump’, you said ‘how high?’. But he was a very loving, caring family man. He never left the family even for a day even to go out with the boys. He was always with the family. When he disciplined the girls in the schools, he disciplined us in the same way. Because by our example the girls would learn what discipline was,” says Paloma.
“Mum and dad sacrificed a lot. They would go to work at 7am and finish at 10.30pm. If in the night a girl needed to be taken to hospital, dad would be the ambulance driver; mum would be the nurse. We had to share our mum and dad with those 600 girls,” she adds.
Desiree, the founding partner of the Engage BM public relations agency and the chair of the Goan Welfare Society, says that their father influenced their choice of partners.
“When girls are looking for future husbands, the first person that comes to mind on who to match is their father, and that’s what we’ve always done. Any man we meet or any man we’ve met, we always measured him against our father,” she says.
“He was the epitome of what you would look for in a perfect man. He was a disciplinarian but still kind, humble, God-fearing man and a father to everyone.”
Desiree recalls that his father has always been well-dressed, then she shares a funny story regarding his attire when he was teaching.
“We used to know from his suits or blazer whether or not he was in a good mood. Apparently, there was a certain blazer that we had to run away from him if he wore it,” she says.
In his parting shot, Mr Gomes calls for more sympathy in handling girls who fall pregnant in school to discourage abortion.
“My worry is about these pregnancies, especially during Covid. So many young girls are going through this,” he says.
“Tell them to let nature take its course because abortion can kill a child and kill both. This is my worry. And it can damage the future of these young children,” adds Ms Gomes.