Boarding School

One of my first boarding school experiences involved meat. I think back and shudder at the memory. Not used to fighting for food, I lined up with every other girl waiting to get my first serving of beef, overcooked veggies and burnt pap. It was a long queue. Those who were 'in the know' had all lined up early, and were getting their fair shares of 'top layer', i.e. lots of oil floating on top of the meat stew. Anyway, the top layer was interesting in a number of ways. For instance, it provided one with much missed fat/oil in the usual fare. This was understandable given that our usual everyday meals consisted of (in this order):

  1. Breakfast – black tea with a faint taste of sugar
  2. Ten o’clock 'tea' – White lumpy porridge
  3. Lunch – pap (burnt) with boiled yellowing kale (Sukumawiki veggies)
  4. Supper – boiled maize and beans with a generous dose of weevils and tea. Tea was not provided for those who wet their beds. Swallowing was hard.

All meals were punctuated with prayers, this being a Catholic school. “Bless us oh Lord, for this our gift, which we are about to receive, through Christ our Lord, Amen!”

So Tuesdays were special. We got beef. We got a chance at eating 'top layer' meat. But as I said, some of us were not as clued up, so there I was, waiting patiently for my turn. I finally made my way to the top of the queue. The cooks were all lined up behind their pots with huge serving spoons. Plop. A large serving of yellowing sukumawikion on my plate.

I stood there, waiting patiently for the beef with ‘top layer’ to follow.


“Move on little girl, we haven’t got all day”.

“But..., but I eat meat”, I said miserably, wondering why there was none on my plate.

Comprehension, then –

“Oh, you do, do you?” said one sweetly.

“Well, next time you better be at the head of the queue otherwise you get no meat!”

PLOP (behind me).


The lessons I learnt from these experiences were priceless. Like when I went without food for days because I was new and hadn’t yet learnt to ask questions like, “Where is the dining room?” I always wonder what would have happened to me had I not been discovered sitting somewhere looking miserable by Sister C, our principle. I learnt about what it meant to be really hungry and helpless. I learnt the value of fighting for survival.

Big lessons for a little girl.

Food was not the only thing that shaped my life. Being a Catholic school, we had to wake up very early each morning to attend mass. The morning ritual was a nightmare for some of us who were not accustomed to so much activity before sunrise. A bell was rung by the night watchman at about five o’clock in the morning. He would start ringing the bell from the farthest end of the school,
around all the dormitories and back.

This usually took about twenty minutes, by which time you would be awake either by the bell or because of all the noise the girls were making as they rushed to grab their towels and bathroom slippers and make it in time for the bathroom queue.

The bathroom affair also had a life of its own. Each of us girls had to carry a basin of water every evening from the school pond (complete with algae and frogs) to the bathroom, about 500 meters away. One had to learn to balance the basins on top of the head so the water wouldn’t pour out, otherwise you had to go back and do it all over again. There was a Prefect at the bathroom door who ticked off your name once you had successfully delivered the water and placed it on the bathroom floor where it would be neatly arranged next to other basins.
In the morning, we lined up again to stand next to a basin full of water. Normally, two girls would share a basin of water. One had to pray that whoever brought the water filled it up, otherwise there would not be enough to rinse off with. We washed up quickly, because the water was ice cold. One or two girls had to have their waters boiled because of one complication or other. However, the mission to have hot water was so complicated that often, these girls eventually ended up washing with cold water like the rest of us.

Once finished, we would run to the dormitories to dress up in our uniforms before running as fast as we could to queue for church. The matron would be by the gate to inspect that we were all there and behaving nicely ‘like ladies’. Church was often a drag, with Father’s sing-song sermon lulling you to sleep. But woe unto you if you were caught dozing! It either meant a few canes on your backside or some weird punishment like carrying sacks of maize and beans from the main storeroom a kilometre away to the dining room.

How you did this, Sister never wanted to know.