I don’t know what that word stands for, but it is the two and a half hours between supper and sleep which you must endure every weeknight when you attend a boarding Secondary school. It doesn’t matter if you draw flowers throughout, if you sleep with your eyes open or if you count down second by second the next time you will have a brief siesta in your bed, there are no excuses that can keep you from this ordeal.
The space between
At 7:30pm, the bell would ring with the wicked piercing shriek of a cat underneath the wheel of a reversing car calling us all to attention as it announced yet another evening of unyielding routine.
It was almost maniacal, the way in which they imposed these rigid rules. They ground them into our heads, they beat them into us. It became the only way we knew how to live, but sometimes we rebelled.
Senior threes and fours had been upgraded to sleep on the second floor of the blue dormitory building. We had small rooms with two double-decker beds each that were separated by walls that rose to just above the beds. We called them cubicles. In place of a ceiling, there was a timber framework that was supposed to precede the actual ceiling. Five out of ten times if you looked up, you locked eyes with a rat, a very fat rat that had just stolen somebody’s hard corn and groundnuts.
In the very first cubicle, on the right when you walked through the door, was a protruding box like structure, likely, an extension of an outer room. The architecture of a dorm room is not something on which skill, time or money is spent, but then, the interior of even our most majestic buildings is usually rough work posing as the finished version. The motto is that if it stands, it’s good enough. These builders, architects and engineers were, just like us, fed on an education of beatings and rigidity, dump minds swimming in a prep room, minds that lacked both sleep and creativity. It is the type of life that creates professionals who build structures such as those we were living in. We were built for mediocrity.
Someone soon discovered that the narrow space between the wooden frame and that high rising wall-box in the first cubicle could fit a few thin people closely packed together. It became my hiding place a few nights in a month when I predicted that there wouldn’t be a roll call. Sometimes about five or six of us would lay there, trying to breathe noiselessly as the matron walked around slashing empty beds with her cane as she looked for defaulters. When we could only hear echoes of her deep voice, we climbed out full of relief and start conversing even though the reason for staying had been to get a few more hours of sleep. If we heard running and swooshing sounds in the air, we scrambled back into our shelf.
Beasts among us
On most nights, once we had decided on what time we would walk out, we would shuffle out of the prep room quietly and then burst out into our “real selves” on the outside. Prefects in general; but de facto, only the male ones, were allowed to walk around without cause or at least under the guise of supervising. A friend and I had made it a habit to cut our bench time by walking to the toilet at least once. We would walk while chattering softly and ‘shush-ing’ when we reached the next classroom. On our way to or from the toilets, we usually met these prefects casually walking in and out of their broom closet offices (literally, because their “offices” were also stores for brooms and scrubbing brushes) hiding under the cloak of duty.
On one such night, as we made way for them to pass, a well-aimed hand which was probably trained by experience flew to my breast, touched me and moved forward. I STOPPED and turned for some sort of explanation which I soon realised that I would never get.
When I got back to my bench, I could still feel a heavy hand on my burning skin. I felt empty. I had not been able to do anything about a stranger touching my body at will as if it was his to enjoy and walk on, without retribution.
It happened again when we were scrambling for stools in the Junior Chemistry Lab. To avoid having to stand for fifty minutes of class, we would rush into the Lab with our eyes on the nearest wobbly stool. We were a class of sixty and there were about twenty stools. They would pretend to simply be walking out, but one day you would feel two stealthy fingers exploring the back of your skirt. There was no face to blame, just a row of blameless accomplices walking out of one class to another.
There must have been many of us undergoing a collective experience but I never heard anyone talk about it. It was mentioned once on the Monday assembly, about how some girls were targeted in a planned assault after their tormentors created a power black out.
In my final year, there arose a big enough reason to report. I thought about it over and over again, thinking that maybe I should have walked faster, that I should have anticipated it; the raw stings on my skirt, the snickering, the approval from the rest of the crowd as I and another girl were assaulted.
It was the beginning of election season and our prospective leaders had been making their rounds in classrooms campaigning for different posts. This always came with a lot drama and entertainment because it discontinued, if only for a night or two, the monotonous rhythm of daily life. They always came with a crowd of their supporters waiting for them outside.
That night, when the bell rang, everyone stood up hastily and rushed out. There was a crowd waiting outside the doorway and I remembered the type of people who thrive in the invisible protection of crowds. When the doorway was clear, I and the other girl that had waited walked out. When the back of our skirts was in view, some of the boys run out and smacked the objects of their fancy. I saw one of them running away and I leaped for his shirt as he buried himself deeper and deeper into his fellow boys. They swallowed him, accepted him. I pushed further into the crowd determined that this time they would not get away with it but he scampered away like a squirrel. My frustration was to be doubled as when I retreated, this time not one but three or four of them managed to join in the fun.
We reported the incident to the teacher on duty who asked us to return to the staff room the next day to make written statements. I went back alone. I overheard the other girl speaking to a friend about it saying, “Who would want to announce to the whole school that you had been touched?”
The teacher on duty asked me to identify any face. I could not.
It was a crowd, a red shirt. No one I could recognise. They had protected him and they would all remain as silent as accomplices always are.
The matter was tucked away after a stern warning on Monday evening assembly.