Growing Up in Africa – Going to School

Back here, I wrote about how my parents moved to what was then Southern Rhodesia in the early 1950s, bought 1000 acres of virgin African bush and made a farm – and life as a child growing up there.

Part of growing up, of course, is the requirement to go to school.

There was a kindergarten level school in the village, which was roughly 3 or 4 miles from where we lived, and I attended that, for mornings only, until the age of 6.

At the age of 7, having run out of classes at the local village school, I was despatched to boarding school, around 250 miles away.

Primary school

Boarding school pretty much anywhere in the early 1960s was pretty daunting – especially for a callow 7-year-old who had lived a fairly solitary life on a farm until that point.

Being pitched into an institution with, at that time, 120 other kids (all boys) was quite a shock!

The corporal punishment that was dished out, often with what appeared to be glee, by the staff – both masters and matrons – simply doesn’t exist today. It has been outlawed.

One of the more feared teachers had three sticks with which he used to mete out punishment. The lucky recipient of his attentions had the dubious pleasure of having to choose the stick he should be beaten with.

Another teacher, the deputy head master, specialised in ‘bacon slices’ – being hit on the backside with the edge of a ruler as you bent over. It was extremely painful..!

And the headmaster’s weapon of choice was a Jokari bat.

There were some staff members who seemed to genuinely like children – I remember the school sister who looked after the sick bay was one. We called her Cookie.

But there were an equal number who seemed to actively dislike kids – one matron, in particular, was quite fearsome. Makes me wonder why they took those jobs!

The school was located in the Vumba mountains, on Rhodesia’s Eastern border with Mozambique. The nearest town was Umtali (it’s called Mutare today) which was 15 miles away.

Getting to school for me (and many others) involved an overnight train trip from Salisbury (Harare today) to Umtali, and then a bus from Umtali up into the mountains to the school.

We frequently had to get out of the bus to push it up the steepest stretches of the road. The busses were of 1950’s vintage and weren’t designed to negotiate steep mountain roads with a full load of kids..!

The pictures that follow were all taken on my return visit in 1999. They are poor quality (I apologise!) because they were taken on 35mm film and weren’t scanned until quite recently, so they’ve faded rather badly.

Anyway, this one is taken on the drive from the main road down to the school – probably a couple of miles long. The arrow points to the school buildings:

Eagle school, Umtali, from the drive

And, taken from the same spot on the drive, those twin hills were called ‘Camel’s hump’. The school buildings were out of the picture to the right:

Camel's hump, Vumba mountains, Eastern Rhodesia

On reaching the school on my return trip, this is what greeted me. The Beit Hall is on the left with classrooms underneath.

Right ahead, behind the Land Rover, used to be the entrance to the admin office and, during my last year there, the headmaster’s office was on the left.

Between the Beit Hall and the admin office, at the back, is what used to be the kitchen and dining hall.

(Many school halls were called Beit Halls because they were built from funds donated by Alfred Beit, a mining magnate who contributed large amounts of money to infrastructure projects throughout Central and Southern Africa)

Eagle school buildings in 1999

Looking to the right from where I took the picture above, is this hill – we called it Mount Maduma.

A frequent Sunday activity involved climbing to the top and placing a home-made flag (which had often fallen over or blown away before we got back to the school!).

Mount Maduma, from Eagle School in the Vumba mountains

Term times were usually 12 weeks and at the end of the Summer term we used to have a school sports day, to which parents were invited.

On the few occasions that my parents turned up I experienced the luxury of returning home for the school holidays by car, rather than going through the bus and train routine.

A popular place for parents to stay when they visited was the Leopard Rock Hotel. It’s a beautiful location – or was when I took this in 1999:

Leopard Rock hotel, Vumba Mountains, Rhodesia

I eventually left my primary school at the end of 1965 and, in January 1966, started at my high school.

Secondary school

This was located in Salisbury (Harare) and was much closer to home – about 45 miles. Still too far to do as a day scholar, though, so, once again, I went as a boarder and lived in this hostel on the school grounds (that’s me with darker hair than I have today!):

Shangani House, Allan Wilson School, Salisbury, Rhodesia

. . . and here’s the other side of it:

Rear of Shangani Hostel, Allan Wilson School

Life in the hostel was no more pleasant than it had been in my primary school..!

I remember being constantly hungry. Whereas the food at my primary school was awful, the food at my high school was scarce (but slightly more edible).

We were allowed to walk out of the school grounds on Sundays and I remember going to nearby convenience stores and buying baguettes that were so stale they were like biscuits – but anything to stave off the hunger..!

This is the main school building – the class rooms were on both levels and only the windows immediately on each side of the entrance way (in the middle) were offices.

Allan Wilson School, Salisbury, Rhodesia

There were two subjects that I particularly enjoyed at my high school: metal work and technical drawing. This picture shows the junior metal work workshops and, on the left, the bicycle sheds.

The bicycle sheds, apart from containing the bicycles of day scholars who rode to school, were also home to the smokers.

That hostel that I lived in was across some playing fields, out of the picture and to the left:

Allan Wilson School, Salisbury, Rhodesia

I eventually passed sufficient exams to be accepted to Natal University, in Durban, South Africa, and left school with a huge sigh of relief.

I cannot think of one teacher in 10 years of schooling who inspired me. I remember two teachers at my high school who were good guys, and Cookie (the sick bay sister) from my primary school, whom we all liked, but that’s about it.

While boarding school is OK at secondary school age, I’m definitely not a fan of it for 7-year-olds. I’m also not a fan of single-sex schools (which both of mine were) – it’s completely unnatural.

After leaving school, I went into the military for my year’s national service. Probably the biggest benefit I got from boarding in the hostel at my secondary school, was that I was fully attuned to living in institutions when I reported for basic training.

I slotted into military life quite easily, and I was happier there than I was at school.

And then, after completing my national service, I went down to Durban, at the beginning of 1972, to start my University studies.

How did you enjoy your school days? Did you have any inspirational teachers? Tell us in the comments!


Martin Malden

Martin Malden
The Expat Traveller

What do you think?

2 comments… add one
  • John Mar 9, 2020 @ 22:43

    Wow Martin, this is a fascinating look into past experiences. I have read Bryce Courtney’s book the Power of One, and this sounded very similar.
    My experiences in Texas growing up in the 80’s and 90’s was very, very different! Although for my junior high school years (6-8th grade) I attended what was still called a “magnet” school.

    These schools popped up to offer Advanced classes to the students that qualified and constituted a school within a school, the whole purpose to bring students from different neighborhoods (Read demographics/race/ethnicity) and balance out the demographic count of the school. They have since been closed because of the increasing inequality they were supposed to resolve. However the teachers were excellent and I remember quite a few that were much better than the high school teachers I had when I returned to my home district.

    • Martin Malden Mar 10, 2020 @ 7:11

      Hi John,

      A good teacher can be inspirational – and people like that are worth more than their weight in gold.

      I have a friend who’s wife is a teacher with the English Schools Foundation here in Hong Kong and, if I’d had a teacher with her natural skills at relating to youngsters and generating their interest, I would have enjoyed my school days a lot more..!

      Thanks for looking in 🙂



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