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Ellen K. Dunbar

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Boarding School
By Ellen K. Dunbar
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

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Many African girls leave home yearly to spend the entire school year on boarding school. This was my experience.

My sojourn began at Gbarnga Methodist at the tender age of 8, after two years at Methodist Elementary School in Monrovia. My doting father really struggled with the issue, with guilt at sending his children to boarding school at ages seven, eight and nine. He found it especially painful to leave his only daughter with complete strangers, I learned later.

Boarding schools in the Western world have lockers. Gbarnga Methodist being an African boarding school, students kept their personal supplies and goodies locked up in a chopbox. I bring this up because Papa had spent the entire Chrismas vacation hyping up the boarding school (the “mission”) and I began to buy into the idea. He even let us spend afternoons at the sawmill watching him nail each chop box with his own bare hands, this was not work for the carpenter! As he worked on our chopboxes, he regaled us with his escapades at B.W.I., his alma mater. At the end of his stories, my brothers were always charged, imagining themselves soccer stars being cheered by the girls, etc. Moi, he told I would have a different girl to play with each day of the year. Gradually, my father cheated us into wanting to go to boarding school.

The chopboxes completed, we boarded Papa’s truck for the long ride. We stopped to visit several of Papa’s many sisters along the way, and they loaded us with all sorts of goodies for the chopbox. One aunt tearfully offered us a place in her home, saying we were too young to brave the mission. Papa was adamant, saying that boarding school would only make us stronger and emphasized that the other children living there had not come to harm. Boarding school training took precedence over pity and my brothers and I were soon on our way with Papa.

Papa made a grand announcement as we arrived at the entrance of the campus, “Lady and gentlemen, Gbarnga Methodist Mission.” I’m not sure what I expected to see but it was beautiful. A tree-lined driveway ushered in a dusty road flanked by a fishpond on either side, at least as I remembered. To this day, the scent of freshly cut grass reminds me of boarding school, for that was my first impression as we arrived on the campus. Many girls my age dashed back and forth on a huge lawn, their bright smiles a testament to the merits of having many little play-mates around the clock, or this was the unsolicited explanation offered by my father as he saw them.

The dormitory smelled like pinesol. My father introduced me to the matron and unloaded my chopbox. I could tell from the matron’s expression that my chopbox was larger than expected. Papa reminded me to be good, assured me that he would visit often, and then my eyes popped out as he slipped the matron a fifty-dollar bill. The “hotplate” and shiny metallic electric heater that he handed her for me did not escape my prying eyes either. I reminded him loudly that we were banned from cooking on campus but my beloved father snapped at me to mind my own business as he broke the rules. I guess the fifty-dollar bill was to prevent confiscation of the contraband items.

When he hugged me tightly to say goodbye, I changed my mind immediately about attending boarding school. I tried to tell my father that I was withdrawing my agreement to stay on campus but it did not work. When it sank in that my hero was actually leaving me, I panicked and it was on, a serious showdown. I wrapped my arms around his neck and locked my legs around him and broke into a dramatic cry that turned into a wail. An only daughter at eight, such tactics always worked, for Papa could not bear to see me cry. For example, he had decreed many times that if it had to hurt so much then his daughter did not have to comb her hair, was she going on a date or something? Unfortunately, things had changed. As my future schoolmates looked on, that same Papa unwrapped my arms and legs, apologized, hugged me and hurried away as I threatened to die instantly if he didn’t take me back with him. Papa left.

I wanted to die. I hated everyone. The matron hugged me, shooed the spectators and took me to her room. She explained to me that my father left me there because he loved me but I barely heard her. I was already imagining how sad and forlorn my father would be when I died of heartache in this forsaken place. A few girls my age attempted to talk to me. They invited me to join them in the shower that night, something that later proved to be a daily group activity, but I rejected all attempts at friendship. An imaginative child myself, I spent the rest of the night planning my funeral complete with a crying father whom God would punish for neglecting his only daughter by calling her home to heaven. The thought of my father mourning made me sad and I cried myself to sleep that night.

When I finally settled in with campus life, it was nice to have friends twenty-four-seven. The big girls were also nice: somehow they were all called sister this and sister that. As an unwritten rule, each girl had what was called a “school sister” or “play sister” in other parts of the world, but leave it to Liberia to put a new spin on the whole thing: that person was your “play-ma.” I had several.

Your play-ma was responsible for making sure you learned how to comb your hair, took care of your personal hygiene and didn’t get taken advantage of. If she was nice, she would comb your hair herself and also provide treats once in a while. If you weren’t rude and disrespectful to her. Or to the other big girls.

The big girls would also delegate younger girls to wash their uniforms on the regular but somehow I was never given the honor, probably because my aunt, who was also my foster sister, was a drama queen and tomboy who cursed like a sailor. Piss her off and your mother's pedigree and body parts would be echoing the walls of the corridor in no time. She used to also smack me (or make me "pump tire") for not covering my head with a scarf at bedtime (do rags were unheard of), letting my friends wear my clothes, getting my clothes dirty, giving away food from our chopbox and telling Papa when she got into trouble or had a boyfriend. The other big girls thought I’d dropped from heaven but my aunt was a first class witch. How I hated her at the time! I declared to my friends (behind her back, of course) that she was my aunt and not my play-ma.

Some big girls took their responsibility to the next level by providing physical security, this needed for a play-daughter that didn’t know her place. As an indirect challenge, it was not unusual for a play-ma to instigate an argument between her playdaughter and another girl whose play-ma was her enemy. This usually culminated into caterwauling, a huge catfight, and then punishment of the participants. I shall describe the punishment in later chapters.

The big girls had an abundance of contraband items, anything from "hot plates" to hot combs to water heaters. This led to a lot of theft. Snacks, books, notebooks, novels, clothing, nightgowns, bath towels, toothbrushes, buckets: even panties and sanitary products were stolen on a regular basis. A common practice, when one fell victim to such atrocities, was to stand in the hallways of the dormitory and rain threats and insults on the unknown offender(s). The person letting off steam would usually be joined by her friends, sometimes even by the unknown thief.

This was junior high school but a few of the girls had a chronological edge over their peers, one or two already experienced enough to host their own talk show, and talk show they did host. Daily. To eavesdrop and hear all their business, we used to volunteer to comb their hair or paint their nails. After the first few minutes they forgot we were there and would start talking about everything under the sun, from periods to future husbands to who took whose boyfriend, even who looked pregnant. It took a while for me to learn that "dumping one’s belly" really meant having an abortion.

One particular girl was like the grand matron of all big girls. She never lacked an audience, her room was never empty. Nor was her chopbox. She was the man problem guru who always knew what to do about everything, her solutions often peppered with colorful advice that made my innocent, eavesdropping ears burn. Her advice, most often than not unsolicited, included how to snatch someone else’s man, how to get pregnant, how to avoid getting pregnant, how to hide your pregnancy and finish the semester, how to attract a sugar daddy, how to get rid of vaginitis without medication (straddle a steaming bucket of water after applying vicks, or so my burning young ears understood), how to turn a man on, how to enlarge your boobs, how to please a man in bed, how to pretend to be pleased, how to pretend to be inexperienced, how to put on a tampon, how to slow dance, how to walk provocatively, how to stir a pot of soup in a provocative manner (shake your butt slowly, throw him sly, seductive looks to gauge the effect). She even claimed to have the secret for how to avoid having a period at will.

Occasionally when someone would remind her that there were children present she would dismiss them with a comment about what those so-called children did when no adults were present. She would then delve into what SHE had been up to as a child, making my inquisitive young ears burn some more. If she thought we younger ones were being inappropriately attentive to her conversation, she would sit us younger ones across her bed and load us up with unsolicited advice on female stuff more appropriate for brides-to-be. So generally, I preferred to be nothing more than a fly on the wall, burning ears and all.

Having a life of their own, water and electricity (light) came and went at will. An Edgar Allen Poe fan, it was always advisable for me to remain friends with everyone to avoid being left alone in the bathroom in the middle of my bath, a common practice amongst enemies. After a while I concluded that these mass exits from the bathroom were staged to steal soap, undies and other items left during these emergency exits.

The big girls used to scare us at night, saying that there was a “ ka-ka-colo” or whatever the big, scary boogieman was supposed to be. Sometime you awoke to loud screams and confusion, the entire dormitory population in the hallways and the matron just as distressed as everyone. Some spirit or ginny had done something. One time a girl was even accused of being a witch.

The reality of the "mission" hit when I was late for school one day and some teacher smacked me hard several times with a large twig for being late in school. I soon found out that flogging with twigs and cutting grass, the standard punishment of choice, were meted out on a daily basis…

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