Songezo Mabece

My first day at a Model C school

As some may recall, 1991 heralded the watershed year where the Model C schools were to open their doors of learning to the whole South Afrikan population. My first taste of the Model C school society came sometime that year. That day, I left Zwelitsha, just outside eQonce, and headed to eMonti. Together with Mama and my two immediately older brothers, we got a lift with another school mate and his parents who were headed to East London. The collective assignment in East London was to put our best feet forward as all four of us were to be interviewed to become Selbornians for the following year. Indeed, in 1992, we exchanged our old uniform for the proud colours of the black and white: Selborne colours. Our first bit of success.

We were in a navy Ford Sierra and the January rains had subsided but it was still overcast. As we entered East London, the reality of boarding school at an all boys’ school dawned. Tata was driving, Mama was in the passenger seat; the three boys were in the back seat together with their sister (the youngest of the three girls). I sat on someone’s lap – I cannot remember dude – it was 24 years ago. A simple and most effective adjective to describe my mood in the car as this amazing school precinct greeted my eyes whilst driving along Crewe Road is EXCITING. I was so excited that I decided to rename the school “Borne-Sel”. Apparently I had a childhood tendency of “ukugqwetha amaghama” (twisting words) – something that would be very synonymous with my profession some two decades later.

Manicured gardens, green grass that employs a sprinkler system, weed-less pavement cracks, imposing two-tiers of the same building and the pure cleanliness and inviting demeanour of the infrastructure of the hostel – Stevens House – overwhelmed me. My reference point of a school was juxtaposed to this: I was accustomed to seeing two long buildings with two colours painted on them running parallel of each other, and the school would be generally very scant of the nature as described above. Also, a couple (two) of vehicles of which one was almost always a bakkie, parameter fencing that could do very little to prevent the free movement of unauthorised persons, and exclusively Ntsundu (our actual skin colour as Afrikans) people – to me that was what a school had represented until now. In short, the aesthetics could not have been further apart.

The fees were duly paid, the two-minute orientation of the premises conducted and the handshakes exchanged between my parents and the warden – a very tall man bordering on obesity – with white hair and beard. He looked like an unattired Father Christmas. The latter’s wife – a scarecrow lookalike – wore a very gaunt frame and stood by as she received three Ntsundu boys, from Hewu, to mother. Occasionally she would disappear for five minutes. Every time she returned, in tow was the deep and disgusting stench of Rothman’s King Size.

We headed for our private spaces. Boom – the biggest shocker was seeing about 30 beds lined up about a metre or two apart – and this was called a dormitory, alongside each bed were lockers as tall as I was with only a curtain to ward off anyone with long fingers. There were two of these dorms: junior dorm and senior dorm. Two of the three boys were in the junior dorm and the other in the other. I was in the former, of course. So as I looked forward to looking left and right and seeing a bed, I was ushered to a cubicle that slept two and was isolated from the rest within the dorm. I nearly died. I had never been one of two in a room whilst growing up. The traffic at home or at our relatives’ simply never allowed this. I was near wetting my pants at the prospect of being alone with another pikinin. I felt isolated.

The suitcases were heavy and weary. I was one of many Mabece children to pack and unpack this particular suitcase – big families mean there will be a plenty hand-me-downs. So much so that many of my clothes bore the nametags of my older male and female siblings. Outside the uniform, only my underwear was the exclusive exception to this general rule.

When Sisi was done packing my shelves, she gave me a run-down of what was where. I could hardly consume what she was saying as the grey skies darkened as daylight began to fade. This prospect of sleeping in this room became a scary-movie. What consoled me, as I looked at these skies through the window, was the tuck-tin on top of my locker. I do not know what nightmares were unfolding with my other brothers but at least I know Mama and Tata were assisting them in like fashion, as Sisi was, me.

When the family left, leaving us behind, the reality of boarding house quickly dawned. There was a bell that rang. That meant we had to shower – now this is worth every word you will read: The shower facility was no more than five by five. There were two sinks to wash hands and brush teeth, three urinals depots to relieve oneself whilst standing, and three shower heads. Yes, THREE BLOODY SHOWER HEADS. All 60 of us would shower in less than an hour. Only a military approach could safely and efficiently supervise shower-time. And one was employed.

We stood in single-file starting from the bathroom door towards the dorms. The duty master was at the bathroom door and this was his time to shine – “One, two, three in; one, two, three in; one, two, three in. Ones – get in the shower, twos and threes stand by.” After 15 seconds of water from head to toe, another order came, “ones out, twos in, threes get ready. Ones lather yourselves with soap please, as you standby.” After another 15 or so seconds, “two out, threes in, ones get ready you are next, twos start to lather yourselves with soap please.” After another 15 or so seconds, “ones get back in and wash the soap off please, twos get ready you are next and threes please lather yourselves.”

When the ones were dismissed, the twos were in the shower and threes on standby; those waiting at the door were given their numbers accordingly – in groups of nine. When the ones were done drying themselves and off to dress in pyjamas, and twos drying themselves, as the threes were under the shower heads, so the next group of nine entered the bathroom. This was repeated until 60 boys were clean – each with an average time of 30 seconds under the shower.

As uncharted as this was for me, nothing could have prepared me to be naked in a shower room with 60 sets of eyes within my immediate space, and a white man looking at me as I showered. It took me a week to be comfortable, as I would use my one hand to cover and other to do the rest. The covering hand – well it struggled to fulfil its mandate as early as then.

My first supper was intimidating, not least because an entirely new concept of table manners was introduced to me. Whilst that was not too difficult to follow, this bloody thing of eating with a knife and fork irritated me. I could use the utensils alright, but I felt they were a waste of time. A spoon was more than adept at performing both their functions. And if it were not, my fingers and teeth certainly laid the case to rest. Worse yet, the Scare-Crow lurked and wondered about us as we ate our supper. She was adamant that she would instil the discipline of table manners with no quarter given.

At the main table with the rest of the house masters, Father Christmas could only but tuck in. He did this to an extent it nearly killed him. Later that year (or was it the next?) he survived a heart attack. He returned to be king of the castle after a short hospital stay. And to this effect, he drank plenty of Castle Lager. Between him and his drinking, Scare-Crow’s smoking and their damn irritating cat – Skunky – they exposed me to my first white family. Hardly inspiring: they had no children and even slept in separate bedrooms.

After catching a few names – most of which were easy as I had always been exposed to the language (English), I, in turn, had to repeat, or correct the pronunciation of, my names a few times. This was another irritation that has persisted to this day. Just repeat after me for goodness sake – SO-NGE-ZO MA-BE-CE. Anyway, idle chatter as we prepared for the first day of the new school calendar kept the butterflies at bay. What I could not keep at bay were my eyes feasting on the cool clothes, shoes and other gadgets (Game-Boy) that the other kids had, or the conversations around VCR and M-Net. My Sada background simply did not know what these things were. “Songezo comes to town:” me-thought!

Before retiring for bed, my brothers and I combined 30 cents and slotted it in a blue-pay phone in the hostel booth. The call lasted for about five minutes and our parents and sister had arrived safely. They were 200 kilometres away and there were three weeks before we would see them again during the hostel compulsory weekend leave. Until then, we got to know our other 57 brothers. No sisters.

In my cubicle, exhausted from a day riddled with emotions, I got into bed and slept. I would follow this hostel routine at Selborne Primary for another 6 years. Thankfully, my brothers were around and we grew – necessarily – very close.

My first night!

© Songezo Mabece
Tshwane, 2 eyoMdumba 2016

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    • Elsie

      I went to school 80 kms away from my home, and stayed altogether 8 years in hostels. It gave me discipline and a love for order. We had time to participate in sports in the afternoons, and had imposed study times with supervision. There was no TV. Social media did not exist, we were allowed one call per week on a payphone. I never regretted one day, it made me a better student and I excelled, also in sports. The facilities at school were good, parents and churches held fundraisers and sold pannekoek and koeksisters to better the school. We did not wait for government to send us handdowns. The gardens were tended because it enhanced the feeling of being worthy and proud of one’s school. It was clean, we had days where we were taught “landsdiens”, we all had to pick up rubbish to be taught the real values in life. I wonder whether these things still exist in good schools and whether that will be perceived as racist if one school is better than another through joint efforts?

    • Isabella vd Westhuizen

      Schools like Slebourne, Maritztburg College, DHS, Winberg etc are great institutions which have produced generations of competent citizens and human beings who have gone on to contribute massively to this country and the world.
      We need to preserve them and treasure them because the alternative so far has not produced anything of note

    • Anna Muir

      Thanks so much for sharing. Your feelings of the alienation of this new world and your spirit and wonder are so well conveyed. Those first nights in boarding school were overwhelming for many young white kids and you capture the feeling of isolation and alienation so well – it must have been so much tougher to be pioneers in an even more alien landscape. I hope we will get a chance to read more.

    • Paul Bluewater

      Nice read, thanks! It could easily be the first chapter in a book.