The absurdity of the school rules at the Dominican Convent
And the tacit tension between enforcers and their wards
Imagine if you will, a prison yard. Its perimeter is defined by a high fence with a small gate. Within the fence are men, dressed on an orange prison uniform. As the sun beats down on their shaved heads, they engage themselves in different activities. Some are sitting on benches under trees, reading. Others are gathered at an exercise bench cheering on a burly chap lying on his back, orange shirt on the ground, who is bench pressing 200lbs. Still others just stare out across the fence, probably wondering what had possessed them to commit that act that had landed them here, enclosed in a fence with a bunch of other men, like orange chickens in a coup. There are other men, dressed in uniform. Their uniform is navy blue pants with short sleeved grey shirts. Their epaulets are decorated with shiny brass buttons. Atop their heads are smart caps, with an emblem on the front. They are clean shaven, with hawk like eyes that periodically sweep across the expanse of the yard, taking in the orange clad men who seem not to notice their presence. Handcuffs dangle from loops on leather holsters carrying pistols. In their hands are truncheons. They patrol the yard in the leisurely fashion of those with nowhere else to go, strolling along the fence occasionally looking beyond it onto a road. There is the scene, the prisoners, and the enforcers of the law, encircled by the fence. Who bears the burden of the law? Who is really free?
Those who know me know that I have an aversion to rules in general and to the school rules we were subjected to at the Dominican Convent in Bulawayo in particular. Those who know me will also recall that I was one of the enforcers of said school rules as a prefect. I thought I would share with you some of the more ridiculous restrictions of our days at the Convent and the dilemmas I sometimes experienced.
I think though I should say in fairness to the nuns and teachers who came up with these rules, most of them were meant for our own protection and the safe guarding of our virtue as young maidens who were placed by our parents into the care of the said nuns and teachers for our physical, intellectual and spiritual well being and development. For this I will be eternally grateful. For it is this nurturing that has brought me and my fellow DC- Veritas girls to the varying points in our lives. On balance I think we have fared very well and we continue to shine a bright beacon of light wherever we are on the global stage. So it is in jest that I pick and poke holes at some of these rules and also highlight how ignorance can lead to rules that are more detrimental than utilitarian.
Rule 1- no going into town in school uniform
This rule was a very difficult one to enforce because many of the girls had to go into town in order to catch buses to and from school. The buses from the different suburbs did not drop kids off at the school gates. There was a twenty minute walk involved for many of us to the Bulawayo City Hall to catch a bus to go home. This walk involved walking through town because our school was on the perimeter of the Bulawayo Central Business District. The Bulawayo City Hall was right in the city center and this was where buses from and to Killarney, Khumalo, Barham Green, Riverside, Matshamhlope, Sunning Hill, Hillside, Bradfield, Ilanda, Northend, Parklands, Suburbs, Queenspark, Northend, Morning side, Montrose, Trenance, Four winds and Burnside. These were the once White only suburbs, until 1979-1980, with their spacious homes, manicured lawns and azure swimming pools. Dominican convent girls hailed from all these suburbs and so it was not uncommon in the morning to see a stream of blue and beige clad girls jauntily strutting along pavements headed along purple jacaranda lined streets towards Lobengula Street where our school was situated. To the west of our school was the Bulawayo Bus Terminus, which was the huge bus rank for buses in and out of the high density (western) suburbs. These were the places that had been designated black areas prior to independence. Places like Mawgegwe, Barborfields, Luveve, Phumula, Mzilikazi, Sizinda, Nketa, Pelandaba were also home to D.C girls and they would stream in on the morning commute along Lobengula street past the Cathedral and Hosea, who had elephantiasis. On a good day he would hobble, dragging his gigantic baobab trunk of a leg and politely ask for twenty cents (this is when the country still minted coins and twenty cents could buy a Coca- Cola and a bun). On a rough day he would wince in agony as he shouted “Bastards! Ngizalitshaya! Msathanyoko”! He would lunge at the closest girl and topple over as the weight of his big, puss oozing leg dragged him down. Hosea was a permanent fixture at the convent gates from the time I was in first grade till I was in fourth form after which he disappeared. No one, not even the workers who used to stand at the gate talking to him, or Sr. Luidgard who brought him food from the sister’s dining room, knew what had happened to him. Many of us were curious but relieved to no longer have to deal with Hosea’s erratic behavior as we trudged back and forth, to and from school.
The rule that we were not allowed to be in town in school uniform was ridiculous and impractical. If we were not allowed in town in school uniform, how were we supposed to get to school and to get back home?
Well the ingenuity of the Convent girls was renowned. They would bring their civilian clothes and change in the bathrooms after school then go about town without fear of detention. There, outside Haddon& Sly or the Public library, chewing and snapping gum and sporting the latest rags, they would look defiantly at the now powerless prefects, who were posted to different parts of town on ‘town duty!’ Town duty entailed literally patrolling along Main street, Selbourne Avenue, being stationed outside Chicken Inn, the Hypermarket, Grasshut, Wimpy, Pizzagetti , Haefeli’s Bakery, Sunflower Chips, the Kine Cinemas and the City hall watching for students who looked as though they were loitering instead of getting on a bus and heading home or in school doing their homework at “study time”. Our job was to take down the names in a notebook and deal with the culprits the next day at school. Detention on Friday afternoon was the usual punishment (it was not much fun for the prefects on detention duty who had to give up a Friday afternoon to create a befitting punishment for the culprits). Now we looked like chumps walking around town in the hot sun, notebooks in hand, observing the flagrant subversion of the untouchable culprits in their civvies! The looks were like those exchanged by two lionesses engaged in a psychological territorial battle, with one silently exuding- I dare you! Say something in your cream blazer with its blue braiding! Go on, say something so I can reduce you to a jellylike mess in front of all these people! You’re on my turf now! We’re on the open savannah, not in the zoo! Show me what you’re working with! Give me an opportunity and I will gleefully rip you to shreds! She would look, on all senses on high alert as she monotonously chewed on her gum in exaggerated fashion, lip glossed lips curling with contempt. The prefect would look on, marinating, simmering a cauldron of anger in her belly. She would get the look, the look that said- wait till I catch your tail in school tomorrow. I will show you who is boss and you will grovel! Just breathe the wrong way and I will descend on you like a summer hailstorm! See you on my territory!
In order not to face public humiliation, the prefect would back down and walk away. Head held high, shoulders back, tummy tucked in, wearing the sickly cream blazer with the blue braiding and the numerous badges on the lapels, with wounded pride… revenge was a dish best served cold….revenge was necessary…
Rule 2- No talking to boys in school uniform
The Convent girls were not the only commuters walking along the streets of Bulawayo from the City Hall and the bus terminus. Usually we were in the company of men and women headed to work. Occasionally, we would bump into aunts, uncles and neighbors, parents’ colleagues, church members and so on and so forth. Such a “bump in” occurred one day and as my luck would have it, the person in question was none other than my obnoxious, troublesome, pain in the butt, uncle Z!! This man was the bain of my existence and he relished every opportunity he got to create some drama, with me always at the center and always having committed some major infraction that warranted a kangaroo court. On this fateful day, I was walking towards the City Hall with a couple of classmates after school. There, in front of me, like an ugly apparition of a cross between a troll and a gnome (with a darker hue of course), appeared Uncle Z. Behind us was a group of prefects walking purposefully to their various patrol posts in town. Uncle Z trained his red beady eyes on me with a hideous, brown toothed grin spread generously across his incongruous features. He stood in front of me expecting me to lower my eyes in deference, extend my right hand and curtsey like a dutiful Shona girl greeting her ‘small father’ (Uncle Z was my babamunini, small father, and his stature was very well suited to his title. At fourteen, I towered over him, which really made it difficult for me to take him seriously). Instead, I looked straight past him and continued chatting with my companions, who were oblivious to any change in the atmosphere. I felt a small amount of pleasure and I smiled to myself as I imagined him staring after me in mute horror.
“There! I thought to myself, now you can come home and create a nice storm in a teacup. I have given you some lightning!” He was so very predictable as to be boring and I knew he would be at our house to complain to my mother about my errant behavior and how generally, I was a wayward child who could only be cured of my madness by serious corporal discipline, which he would have gladly, magnanimously delivered, if only my mother would allow him to take his role as small father and of course small husband . Since my father’s death two years prior, he had been unable to disguise his desire to dis-grace my mother’s bed. Hence the frequent unannounced visits to Bulawayo all the way from Gokwe, where he left his poor wife and children on a wild goose chase. He endured three bus changes (Gokwe to Sanyathi, Sanyathi to Gweru, Gweru to Bulawayo) and 18 hours of travel every three months on his futile mission. Some men have a very special gift, which is the inability to see their own ugliness (inside and out), and therefore the inability to assess what kind of woman they should be chasing after. Perhaps it is also because some truly believe that their one eyed trouser snake and the size of their pocket is all a woman should be concerned about, and so looks have no bearing in the matter of courtship. Small father was a primary school teacher and also a successful cotton farmer, who would come all the way to Bulawayo to cash his grain marketing board (GMB) checks after selling his bales of cotton (mabherro edonje). He was convinced that his brother’s children and their love for super kools (frozen colored sugared water), sherbert and maputi would win them over to his side and then their mother would have no choice but to welcome his advances. What he did not know is that we had a rather more sophisticated palate and we threw away the hard, dry, salty air popped corn, gave the superkool’s to our gardener’s children but definitely ate the sherbet! May be if he had brought home some cheddar, gouda and gorgonzola cheese, some Colcom Polony and some Cadbury Chocolate Chomps and Nut Logs, just maybe he might have stood a chance!
Anyway I digress. I arrived home before my mother, but I warned my brother that small father was on his way and he would be holding court over my treatment of him. Dennis simply laughed as he recalled the last such incident. “Well what did you do this time? Last time you did not kneel in front of him when he visited you at school and you greeted him on your feet, humiliating and disrespecting him in front of all those white children!”
“Well its worse this time, I said feeling very proud of my feat. I did not greet him at all. I walked straight past him on Main Street! If I am going to get punished for talking to a boy, let it at least be a real boy, not some bearded gnome from Gokwe!”
My mother arrived before Uncle Z did and I explained what had happened. I explained that there was a group of prefects walking behind me and that school rules were that we were not to be seen talking to boys. The only regret I felt about that whole incident was the fact that my mother would have to put up with the haranguing and badgering from small father. To cut a long story short, Uncle Z arrived with the same exaggerated huffing and puffing and lamentations about how far he had travelled to see his brother’s children who had no regard for him as small father. Without batting an eyelid, I denied having seen him at all and told him there was no way I would have walked past him without greeting! Never! I had a glint in my eyes as I dutifully apologized with my mouth but laughed at and taunted him with my eyes. He fulminated silently, having been disarmed by my unexpected gesture of remorse and repentance!
Rule-3-No grease in your hair
This was one of those rules which, I was ready to relinquish my badge so I could actively protest against, because I found it very offensive. A meeting with Sr. Angela the headmistress soon set us on a path to better understanding of the needs of black girls in the school. This rule was directed at all the black girls who wore their hair in a perm. One of the side effects of the perms, be it the curly perm or the straight perm, was excessive dryness of the hair which was remedied by applying oil sheen. Failure to do so resulted in uneven hair breakage which left unsightly, mowed patches on the head. The complaint (and I have no idea where it originated) was that the oil that the African girls were applying to their hair was causing grease stains on the text books (which belonged to the school). I found this preposterous because firstly the implication was that African girls spent an inordinate amount time scratching their heads (probably full of lice!) and greasing up the text books. Secondly calling our hair oil grease was very offensive to me and insensitive. Third I am willing to put a wager on the possibility that grease stains on the books were the result of students eating while doing homework or setting their books on dirty kitchen and dining room tables, or even a sibling with grubby hands getting hold of said books. That our hair oil was causing mass destruction of school property was ludicrous.
After witnessing the humiliation of a first form student by a fellow prefect, I knew I had to do something before I was overcome by my inner savage and beat someone up. This prefect had cornered a rather timid girl in the corridor as she was heading to her classroom and was rubbing her fingers in her hair, grimacing in disgust.
‘Your hair is greasy! Maybe I should march you to the sports field and wash it off with Surf (clothes detergent)!’
The poor girl looked as though she wished the ground would open up and swallow her whole. Some of her classmates hung back to snicker and giggle in shadenfreude.
Protocol was such that I could not undermine another prefect’s authority by intervening. Instead, I marched into Sister Angela’s office, placed my badge on her desk and declared that I could no longer be a prefect. My reasons tumbled out of me like a well rehearsed speech, rendered shrill by accumulated frustration over the absurd rules, which I started to feel I could not and would no longer enforce. I told her how difficult it was to enforce something one didn’t believe in and how instilling terror into the hearts of younger students felt much like institutional bullying. What I did not tell sister was that I missed my prankster days and I missed flouting all the rules myself. By making me a prefect, the nuns and teachers had successfully terminated my spontaneous acts of mischief and the restrictions being a prefect imposed on me were chafing me like a snug necktie which I was itching to loosen. I missed taking my shoes of and sliding across the highly polished corridors. I missed the freedom that came with not having to be on guard, watching to make sure socks were clean and pulled up, shoes were polished, uniform not too short, no cardigans in town, hat put on straight. It was all quite tiresome, not to mention dealing with the resentment- filled gazes of the junior students. Some of them had been my buddies before I was a prefect. Now they scuttled for cover at the mere sight of my shadow! The heavy responsibility of being a prefect far outweighed any pride or pleasure that came with wearing the badge of honor. I was ready to give it up.
Sister listened attentively as I chronicled the impracticality of the rule against no talking to boys. I recounted for her how two weeks previously, my brother had come up to me at the City Hall while I was on patrol and swept me up in a huge bear hug in front of all the students I was supposed to be monitoring, shouting:
‘Look your prefect is hugging a boy while in uniform!’ Of course I was mortified and my brother vowed to do this every time he bumped into me in town until this rule was repealed (he had his eye on a pretty third form student and he was determined to get the rule scratched so he could talk to her). I explained how the rule was ridiculous and we were getting a bad reputation for being snobs even among the adults at whom we fired rapid greetings as we hurried past them so as not to be seen talking to men while in school uniform.
I expounded on the effects that the no grease rule was having on our collective self esteem as African girls. I explained the science behind permed black hair and expounded on the different needs of our thirsty hair. I told her about the anti- parallel beta sheets our hair was made up of, which created kinks in the strands of keratin making our hair more prone to breakage. I explained how oil provided a lubricant that reduced friction between beta strands and therefore prevented breakage. Well, Sister Angela pushed my badge back across the desk towards me and told me we would hold a meeting to review the rules. I have a feeling that Sister Angela knew what I was looking for in giving up my badge. Her instincts to any changes in my behavior were near perfect and she knew what I really yearned for. However she was also able to see that if I was relieved of my duties as a prefect there would be many a rebellion against all sorts of issues in the established order. For this was my nature and it was the reason I had been made a prefect to begin with. My behavior had been far from exemplary, however the strategy to reign me in, slow me down and mellow me out, by placing the mantle of rule enforcer on my shoulders, had worked!
So back to my earlier example- in the prison yard, who was free and who was incarcerarted?