We stand in a line just outside the entrance of Blue house. My heart is doing the thump-thump thing again. I had heard many stories about boarding house, some good, some downright scary. So far I have had two experiences of boarding school, the first did not count as it was when I was transported into the fictitious world of Enid Blyton while reading The Twins at St Claire’s series. Secretly I hoped my boarding house experience would be like theirs, never mind that I will not be brushing my hair at night till it shone or forming pigtails with it. Never mind too that I would not be needing a winter coat- ever. My 2nd boarding house experience was when I attended the school’s entrance interview. Candidates were required to stay for 3 nights in the hostel and have a taste of life without their parents. It was on that trip I met Funmi. I lay on my side, back toward the bed where these giggling girls lay and tried to fathom what made them so happy. They were laughing? I was very homesick and every time I thought of home, which was pretty much every time, I burst into tears. I remember Funmi and her friends calling out to me to come play with them. They probably assumed I was tired since I didn’t respond. In actual fact I was crying. My brother who was a year ahead of me in another boarding school had warned me this would happen. “Toks you will cry“. “Absolutely not!” I retorted. I was certain I was such a big girl yearning for her independence that I would be doing cartwheels instead.
Back to the line. We are all dressed in exactly the same blue check uniform. There is a general buzz of excitement in the air as people like seniors Ayo and Ronke busy themselves, walking hand in hand in twos or threes- they are the confident, very excited ones. I am to later learn that they are in the second year, seniors for the first time. New words fill my ears like kerosene lanterns, dining hall, morning piece of work, prep time and siesta. I struggle to figure out the meaning of siesta, I don’t want to come across as being too naive. I hear these seniors can take advantage of you in a heartbeat.
The soft spoken woman at the front of the door is calling out names and assigning the students to their hostels. I listen very carefully as I don’t want any attention drawn to me, you know the kind that results from everyone looking around as she calls the name a second time, wondering who Tokunbo is. I hear my name and hear hostel A. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not, but I squeeze past the girls, most of them bigger than me and make my way to the hostel that would become my home for the next five years. I am scared, I am excited and I’m uncertain. I miss my mum and dad. I miss my brothers and our dogs and cat. I miss Benin and I want to go back. There is something comforting about Mrs Udehin. She continues to call out names and I quickly realise that she is the first likeness I have seen of my mummy. She is very soft spoken so she must be kind, like mummy. The tears well up again behind my big eyes and I force them back down. I am becoming quite good at doing that. The method I use is to think of all the times mummy and daddy smacked me when I was sure I didn’t deserve it. That brings up sufficient anger to force back the tears. It isn’t a fail-safe method, but it’ll do for now.
In the hostel I find out that my wardrobe partner is a senior called Senior Shade. She is a real mother figure, a bit plump which makes her huggable. But I don’t hug her, I don’t know what the rules are and I don’t want to start by breaking them. She tells me to arrange me provisions (another new term) on the left side of the single shelf wardrobe and her’s will be on the right. She explains that we put non-consumables like the kerosene lamps, buckets and soap at the bottom and the rest on the top. I love to arrange things, one of my favourite games at home was to arrange mummy’s dressing table. I would start with the tall perfumes and nail varnish removers; “You stay at the back” I’ll tell them. My role was a photographer arranging people for a group picture. The tears well up again and I force them back. The thought of being independent, grown up gives me good goose bumps and I smile.
“Hurry up, it will soon be time for dinner.”. Senior Shade reminds me of aunty Titi, she has a sing-song accent like that and I find myself warming up to her even more. I wonder what dinner would be. As if she can read my thoughts, she continues; “Friday night is Rice and Fish Stew, you don’t want to miss that”. Now we have a problem. I don’t like fish, I wonder if they’ll give me beef? Of course I don’t say that out loud, but I really hope they will. Oke and Folukemi stop by to inspect my “corner” This is nice they say; “let’s go we don’t want to be late.” All this clamouring for fish is doing my head in, what is wrong with these people? Oke and Folukemi were some of my first friends along with Mubo, Ijeoma, Ifeayinwa, and Funmi, who really talks a lot! I also become friends with Folake, Kehinde, Ashenedu, Aisha and a host of wonderful girls I will never forget.
Mummy had warned me to be careful as “They steal in boarding house”, hence the three padlocks she armed me with. So I clutch my cutlery, plate and cup and go to the dining hall with my friends. Another long line. This time there are boys there too. A man who is clearly an adult in uniform is calling out our names and assigning us to tables. There are about 13-19 people on each table and a head is elected to bring order to the table. The food is brought in in the largest metal bowls I have ever seen. Someone gets up to serve the rice, our plates are pushed to the front of the table. Mine is a large shiny metal one which I don’t like. I see some of the plates I become quite satisfied with it. I try to tell the server not to give me any stew or fish for that matter, my attempted request is met with a threatening glance by the table head, so I withdraw my raised hand. The dining hall is huge and very noisy. I nearly jump out of my skin when someone hits the table 3 times, very loudly; these people know the drill for there is a sudden hush. The man prays out loud, “For what we are about to receive, we thank thee oh Lord” The “Amen” is swallowed up as spoonfuls of rice are shoved into hungry mouths…
The senior girls do not like to take their own dirty plates back to the hostel. In fact a lot of them act as though food, plates and dining hall are terms that should not be associated with their names. So we juniors have the sad misfortune of becoming plate carriers, along with other titles like shoe polishers, laundry girl, slave. This does not happen tonight, it is saved for later in the week.
Back at the hostel I envisage my friends and I sitting on one of our beds and chatting quietly into the night. That of course remains a fantasy, instead I spend my time with my friends, going to other hostels. We are told night prep has been cancelled so people can unpack. From time to time someone will make an announcement, “Blue house girls! The person that stole my socks should return it or else there will be trouble!” I find it fascinating and long to be able to make a bold, public announcement like that. I don’t have to wait too long as my cup disappears by the next morning.
“Blue house girls return my cup!” I shout with pride as I stroll down the middle of the hostel.
“Ehn???!!” Someone pulls me by my collar, “what did you just say?”
“I-I….someone took my cup” I manage to splutter.
Ohhhh! You are only a junior. You have no right to make an announcement like this. You can only say it to form one girls, understood?”
Then a bell goes, people start to move quickly. Someone counts very loudly but slowly to 10, the girls now start to run. It is almost chaotic as we scramble for our beds. I make it on time, the lights go out and she shouts “Lights out!!”
I cover my head with my blue blanket and give those tears free rein.
Thank you for reading, more to come 😀