It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
That’s what anyone who boarded at a mission school will tell you. Everyone started at the bottom of the food chain where you had to deal with having your food compulsorily acquired by a senior, being forced to clean the shoes of a senior and worse. People call it bullying now, back then you just called it life. The aim was to rise up in the ranks and one day walk the halls of leadership as a prefect.
You probably did not realise it at the time, but the experiences then, shaped who you are today, for better or worse. Some people hated it, others loved it but no one can say they were indifferent.
1. Beans and cabbage.
When you’re in high school your life centres around two things: the opposite sex and food. Sugar beans and cabbage was the tag team staple. Sugar beans with samp. Cabbage with sadza. Sugar beans and cabbage with everything! To this day that distinct cabbage smell is seared into your memory.
Goko is the layer left at the bottom of the pot when you’ve dished out all the sadza. The best way to eat it was to add your filling of beans and greens on top, fold it over and eat it like you would a wrap. Who knew that leftovers could be so delicious?
3. Chicken, glorious chicken!
Chicken was the Holy Grail in the dining hall and if you wanted to eat it, then someone had to go on duty to slaughter it. If you couldn’t be first in line then you had to be in the top ten so you could ‘reserve’ the piece that you wanted by pointing it out, usually the drumstick. Chicken was political. If you were on duty for serving your table then you gave the best pieces to your friends and the most miniscule piece to the girl who was spreading the rumour about you. All’s fair in love and war.
4. Hating the matron and being hated by her for nothing.
Everybody hated the matron. If you were someone that the matron had a personal vendetta against, then she would make your life a living hell. You always made the noisemakers list even when you weren’t in the room. She’d give boring lectures about how abantwana abasela mbeko (loosely translated, ‘children of these days have no respect’) and inevitably, you would be used somehow as an example.
5. Sneaking out of school grounds through the hole in the fence.
For the most part, boarding school was like jail and just like every prisoner dreams of the day they can make a prison break, boarders dream of the day they can make their escape. Most kids would just daydream, but there were those brave and crazy ones that actually did it. The cool kids. They would escape and come back with awesomely exaggerated stories about The Outside (which was really just a general dealer, a bottle store and butchery). The lucky ones never got caught but those who did, were subjected to…
Getting caned by the headmaster was standard for boys in almost every school. In the schools for masalad, punishment meant detention where you sat in a room in silence for three hours. Or, you were forced to write 1000 lines of ‘I will not eat chewing gum at school. I will not eat chewing gum at school.’ or, at the very worst, ‘fitness’ where you were made to exercise in the hot sun. Do you hear all the mission school kids chuckling? Because for them punishment was hard labour like digging a pit in the ground for the rubbish to be thrown in or feeding the pigs. If your school had a building project you had to move the bricks and for the minor offences, cleaning the dining hall. It’s a hard knock life.
7. Receiving letters.
Ndikaona tsamba dzerudo… was the matron’s warning as the letters were handed out. Getting letters was a big deal because in high school what’s most important is that you look cool to other people. Being an ‘it girl’ meant that your name was on the list of people who got letters every week, preferably from boys. He had to be an older guy, preferably a recent school leaver (because they seemed so sophisticated) or if he was a school boy then the head boy of your brother school.
8. The spies.
The matron always seemed to know when something big was being planned and that’s because she had covert agents planted in your midst. The spies always had the lowdown on who the ringleaders were and if there was a plot afoot they would run to the matron with the information. In exchange for what I wonder? Extra chicken?
9. Roll call.
Spontaneous roll calls were a tool used to catch out who had skipped hostel, gone under the fence and found freedom. Your friends knew that if they didn’t see you for roll call then it was their duty to answer for you when your name was called. Sometimes you got away with it. Other times the matron got a heads up from her spies that you were going to spend the next two weeks feeding the pigs.
10. Bunking class.
Everyone has a funny bunking story. The funniest one I’ve heard so far is how in between classes, kids would jump out of the window and hide in the Blair toilets before the teacher came in. Kids would rather hide in a toilet than be in a Geography class. Wow.
11. Entertainment – discos and movie nights.
These were the ultimate highlight in life. You had your mtsa (disco) outfit ready several weeks in advance and your friends had planned everything from your coordinated entrance to your group dance moves. Remember the butterfly? Everyone was waiting for that moment when the lights went off because that was chance to get close to your partner and take advantage of the few minutes of darkness.
12. Chapel church service.
Depending on what you did at the disco the night before, you were either falling asleep in the service or fully awake and repenting hard for every sin. If you went to an Anglican or Catholic mission school, then to this day, you remember all the words to things like the Nicene Creed or the Gloria.
13. Visiting day.
Everybody loved visiting day. That’s when your parents and family would come and visit you with a ‘scuff tin’ of rice, chicken and salads. They brought you your toiletries and the usual favourites – Mazoe, sweets and Charhon’s biscuits.
We all know that mission schools have occupied the top spots in high school ranking in ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels examinations. They are well known for their academics. But mission school life was more than academics. It was about tough love that builds character, finding friendships that last a lifetime and making memories that become epic stories.
What are some of your mission school memories? Share them in the comments!
Zola is a blogger whose aim is to encourage women with her writing. To get more of her writing, subscribe for free at https://realmukoko.wordpress.com/
Main image by Daphne Jena