“My first day at boarding school felt as if I had been shipwrecked alone on an island. The sense of impending doom, fear and desolation that came over me as we drove off from home set the tone for my four-year experience, which culminated in an almost tragic end.

I would suffer teasing, a sense of emotional and physical abandonment, and a feeling of being thrown in at the deep end that children endure joining a boarding school too young. The futility of a six-year-old trying to fend for herself is mind-blowing; every task becomes a herculean challenge. I remember going without food for my first 24 hours!

The dormitory prefect woke us up at 6am with just instructions to bathe and get ready for breakfast. From the tears and general sense of bewilderment in the dormitory, this was clearly the first time most of us were being woken this early.

There were two taps supplying over 500 pupils with water, so all we could do was keep on the fringes to avoid being trampled by the stampeding “giants” in higher classes. Most of us couldn’t get water so we neither bathed nor brushed our teeth.

The same scene played out at the dining room. By the time my turn came, there was no breakfast left. I was so embarrassed that I lied to the caterer that I had come for water to brush my teeth!

Beyond the abandonment
The dormitory alone was a very dangerous place for children. Not just because of the strong ammonia smell - a result of bed wetting - but the fights, bickering and high potential of being bullied too. I suffered lice, my uniforms turned black from green and I always felt devastatingly alone, especially after the student teacher who had taken me under her wing left.

Parents are convinced that taking a child to boarding school will force them to get out of their shell and make friends. This is not necessarily true. It is during these formative years that I learned to distrust friendships as I observed alliances form and breakup badly.

There is also a false belief that being left to fend for themselves pushes children to be sharp. From my experience, children are very innovative. With no or minimum supervision in boarding school, they devise ways of protecting the very weaknesses you had hoped to rid them of.

Does it ever get better as the child gets older? Yes, but this isn’t a good thing either. By the time my sister was in Primary Five, she had gained a notoriety in the school that she used to protect herself.
Primary Five girls were a target for older girls who had lesbianism tendencies and her reputation as the biggest gossip protected us from these poachers. I, on the other hand, was mainly left alone since I had established myself as a loner. This became the reason I almost died from an overdose alone in the sickbay.

Almost dead, alone
In Primary Four, I came down with a fever which persisted in spite of treatment. At one point, the matron thought I was feigning sickness so she forced me to go to class where I fainted during a maths lesson. I was taken by ambulance to hospital and diagnosed with typhoid. After weeks of drips and countless injections, I was sent back to school with a sack-ful of tablets.

A few days later, I accidentally took an overdose. When the bed started spinning and I started to foam at the mouth, I knew I was about to die. With the last strength I could muster, I struggled out of bed and staggered to the door hoping to find help. A nun found me hours later in the doorway where I had collapsed. Once again, an ambulance whisked me back to hospital.

When I finally went home, my sister told my mother that if she didn’t take me out of that school I would die there. Her argument was helped by circumstances when I was blown by a strong wind and I fell, breaking my nose in the process. This is what ended my boarding school stinct, a more harmful than helpful experience if you ask me.

Making it bearable

Here are some tips I can give borrowing from my experience:
• Choose the right school by questioning the following;
• The key to a nurturing safe boarding environment is the care offered by the staff, sometimes called housemaster or mistress, or more appropriately, houseparent. It is, therefore, important check out the relationship between the staff and pupils where you are considering taking the child.
• The range of extra-curricular activities. Not every child has superb hand-eye coordination.
• It should be appropriate, secure, clean and safe. Is everything in good working order?
• Disciplinary matters. Ask about the anti-bullying policies; only a naïve school would claim no bullying. How are parents kept informed? How is a parent kept abreast of school happenings?

The following year I was a very relieved but badly scarred 10- year-old starting life as day scholar.”
-As told to Carol B. Bagumire