I have often been asked what it was like to go to a boarding school, which is a difficult question. Apart from primary school, between the ages of 5 and 7, the rest of my schooling was as a boarder, so I don’t know any different. I have nothing to compare it to and no idea what it is like to be at high school and live with your parents. To me, boarding school, was school.
THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
Kenton College was a fee paying private boy’s preparatory school in Nairobi. It is still functioning, although co-educational, multi racial and no longer boarding (I think). Boys were taken from the age of 8 until 13, where they sat an examination called Common Entrance or CE. From there, depending on the CE results, the boys usually went to Public Schools in England, to sit ‘O’ level, then ‘A’ level and then on to university, typically Oxford or Cambridge, or Sandhurst if you were destined for the military. (‘Public School’ is a bit of a misnomer, since they are private fee paying schools). Since only around 1 in 10 young adults went to university in the 60s and 70s, if your parents could afford to send you to prep school at the age of eight, you were entering into a system of education that in twelve or thirteen years time should culminate with excellent career prospects and all the other advantages that go with a privileged education. This was considered a ‘classical education’ as it involved studying the ‘classics’ – Latin and Greek, although fortunately I only had to do Latin!
The alternative to going to a prep school was to go to a local school, of which there were a number, but due to this educational ‘streaming’, a local Kenya education would probably mean further education in the UK would be difficult. British Children sat the 11+ exam at eleven years old, which resulted in the brighter ones going to a Grammar School and the rest to Secondary Modern Schools – I am not sure whether it was possible to sit that exam in Kenya. Besides, most schools in the UK offering boarding would have been public schools.
So, in regard to boarding, there wasn’t much choice for my parents, and David and I did not have a voice on the matter. I think everyone’s view in retrospect is that this was one of the costs of living abroad in a beautiful country, and we all had to cope with it, each in our own way. Practically speaking, boarding was the only answer for many expatriate families who lived in rural Kenya.
A BIG STEP
We were still living in Mombasa when David went to school in 1964. Mombasa is 300 miles from Nairobi and the journey to and from school was by an overnight train (steam) that took 12 hours. One ‘lucky’ parent joined the little band of school boys on the train to keep order, needless to say the journey back to Mombasa was more raucous that the journey to Nairobi at the beginning of term. I think in this respect David had a harder time that I did for the first two years, since he didn’t see our parents for the whole term, with the exception of half term, (which was a long weekend) when they came to Nairobi. When I went to school in September 1966 our family were also moving to Nairobi. As a result David and I were able to see our parents at one or two other ‘open’ afternoons during the term as they were in the same town.
The school was no more than a couple of miles away from our house, as the crow flies. If the wind was in the right direction, my parents could hear the sound of the school bell. The school bell was an old gas cylinder, which was struck with a piece of iron.
My memories of this period are sharp and clear, and certain smells or words can quickly bring back many reminders, probably because it was such a critical time in a young boys life. Homesickness was a prominent feature of the first couple of years, but after a day or two this quickly receded, and by the time I was eleven I was in such a routine that my letters to my parents don’t suggest that I missed home much at all, although the days leading up to the start of anew term were always overshadowed by the thought of having to say goodbye to our parents. I can clearly recall the painful heartache as my parents drove away the first couple of terms and the red eyes that all the first year boys had that night.
What made all the difference was the quality of relationships that all the boys experienced. It was a small school, less than 100 boys when I started, and about 115 in number when I left. Since all the boys were in the same boat, regarding leaving their parents, everyone understood what the other was going through. In addition, friendships quickly deepened as we lived, studied and played together. I am not sure that ‘day’ boys would ever be able to experience the richness of these relationships.
My best friend was Hugh Gibbon, known to me as ‘Gibbs’ since the school used surnames rather than first names when calling the boys. As a consequence of this, we called each other nicknames based on our surnames – I was ‘Goddy, or ‘Goddo’. I realise now that we became friends because we would have had adjoining lockers, his name preceding mine alphabetically. Sadly it was very difficult to keep in touch once we were at school in the UK. At Kenton Gibbs and I kept a couple of chameleons in a tree as pets and would visit them once or twice a day, giving them tasty snacks and watching the curious way they would eat and disguise themselves.
Hugh’s father ran a tea estate in Sotik in the Rift Valley 150 miles up country. We visited each other during the holidays and I will never forget standing up in the open back of his father’s Land Rover as he drove around the bumpy dirt roads on the tea estate. His father let Hugh drive occasionally, which impressed me. However, they also had to cull the antelope since they could easily devastate the tea plantation. It was rather a shock to a city boy of ten, to see Hugh’s father shoot antelope and then have the local African workers throw the bleeding carcass onto the back of the Land Rover next to us! A few days later we had antelope bolognaise. It was nice, but a bit strong maybe! They showed me how the tea factory worked and ‘Gibbs’ and I roller-skater round the endless warehouses, trying not to feel sick by the sweet smell of tea. The tea estate was very remote – his parents did have a telephone, although it was a ‘party’ line. This meant that everyone in the community shared the same phone connection, and when it rang – the phone would ring in everyone’s house. The operator would ring once for your house, twice for the house down the road, and so on and you had to count the number of rings to know if the call was for you. It was also easy to ‘listen in’ on your neighbours conversation.
During our free time we made ‘dens’ in the ‘bundu’ (bush) that surrounded the grounds of the school. There were acres of ground and with only 100 pupils, it was easy to find places to call your own. We had to wear ‘shamba’ hats (Swahili for ‘garden’) to protect against the sun. These were made of felt, which being waterproof made excellent water carriers!
Toys were often home made and the enduring favourite was a ‘tractor’ made from a cotton reel, which was slowly propelled forward by an unwinding elastic band that pushed a pencil ‘lever’ against the ground, creating a forward motion.
We had the usual array of school boy games, such as roller skates, stamp collecting and the like, but each term seemed to require a new ‘craze’. Sometimes it was ‘dinks’ (diecast ‘Dinky’ toy cars/trucks), or yo-yo’s, or ‘superballs’ (very hard bouncy balls). We also made model aeroplanes, either from plastic kits, or from balsa wood.
The standard playtime game was marbles or ‘nyabs’. I am uncertain where the phrase ‘nyabs’ came from, it could be from ‘swopsies’ as in “‘nyabs’ your marbles for my dinky”. Or it could mean testicles (balls), because it was common to say “He got hit in the nyabs!” It has made me realise that there was a whole range of terminology used, some of it schoolboy slang, some of it Swahili, some Afrikaans, others Hindi. We mixed it all up, thinking it was all ‘English’. I didn’t realise until I got to school in England that the blank looks meant that my vocabulary wasn’t in fact English at all. I thought everyone knew what tekkies were. (Running shoes in South Africa – pronounced tackies in English). Or a donga – a steep sided ravine.
Radios were not allowed, and cassette tape recorders had only just been invented so nobody had one. TV broadcast was limited in Kenya (more on that later), and the school didn’t have a TV set anyway. On reflection, since we didn’t have newspapers either, we were quite cut off from the world. We only had the head masters word that man had landed on the moon in July 1969, since we didn’t see any pictures of the event.
However, I did manage to sneak a radio into the school. I had been given a pair of sunglasses that had a radio in the arm, and a discreet earpiece so that, with care, no one would know you were listening! I even managed to get a request played on the local radio, using a pseudonym – no small feat since this involved writing a postcard to the radio station and having to put it in with all the other letters that the boys wrote home on a Sunday morning. Had it been seen by a teacher, my secret radio would have been discovered.
We also didn’t have access to a telephone, so couldn’t phone home. However, there was a single phone available for the members of staff to use next to the staff room, along with a book next to write their name and duration of the call, presumably so they would be charged. I plucked up courage one day and phoned home for a chat. I am not sure if I expected to be punished, but it was worth it. I wrote my name in the book, but no one mentioned the event, so I think I got away with it!
Now, looking back on my education at Kenton College, I realise that it had been very closeted, and didn’t really prepare me for the rigours of British school life. Very much cut off from the rest of society in Nairobi, we had no access to radio, newspapers or TV. As a result at 13, I knew nothing about football, music, fashion, sex, or any similar subject that is integral to the teenage experience. Some of this was geographical – the media in Kenya was very parochial and didn’t really cover world news. My parents did have a shortwave radio on which you could just about hear the BBC World Service, but if you could buy British newspapers they would be at least a week to ten days out of date as they would have arrived by sea.
A new headmaster was appointed in 1966 the year I started. Rev Roy Stagg was a Church of England clergyman of the old school. He thought nothing of preaching a fairly fiery sermon to us on a Sunday and then caning some poor child on a Monday. I was not afraid of him, but gave him the distance and respect that corporal punishment demanded. Each term there were two assessments of the pupils work roughly a month apart, these were known as ‘mark orders’. For each subject you were graded either ‘A’, ‘B’ or ‘C’. If you were unfortunate enough to be have a ‘C’ in three subjects at both ‘mark orders’ it was an automatic caning. During morning assembly following a ‘mark order’ mention was made of boys achieving three ‘A’s, then the dreaded words “and to see me after break… Goddard P” would mean you had the first three lessons before break to contemplate the pain that the forthcoming caning would inflict. Caning, between one and six stokes was pretty much a regular affair. I can recall being caned for having three ‘C’s on three separate occasions. It was known as ‘the cuts’ by the pupils, on account of the wealds and marked bruising that it left on your backside. We didn’t see it as shameful, nor as a badge of honour, it was just a fact of life. There was no point disguising it as during showers you could count how many stokes someone had received by the number of ‘the cuts’ on his bottom.
On one occasion after ‘lights out’ in a dormitory, two boys were heard talking by the headmaster. Since no one owned up to this heinous crime, the whole dormitory of around 15 – 18 boys were caned the following day.
The school reports were also handed out with the same disregard for a pupil’s ability. These days reporting always has to reflect some positives, my reports (and I am pleased to say those of my brother!) are full of pithy put downs. They make fascinating reading, particularly the head master, who seems pleased that I lost weight one term. I am particularly proud of my inability to do PE.
There was a lot of respect shown to teachers, we always stopped talking and stood up when one came in the room and always address them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Miss’. I am not sure that it was a mutual respect; they seemed to get away with far more than would be permitted today. If you weren’t paying attention in class, you could expect the black board rubber to be thrown at you. The blackboard rubber was made of solid wood, about five inches long by an inch and a half thick, with material stuck on one side to clean the board. It would hurt you if it hit you on the head, (and cover you in chalk dust!)
That said, some of the teachers were inspirational. My favourite Charlie Shayler, cycled from England to Kenya. Another had taken part in an expedition to traverse the Alps with elephants, to understand how Hannibal had achieved it. The younger teachers, being closer to our age were particularly friendly and we looked up to them. It was many years later that I realised that two of them were in fact gap year students (Mr Collier and Mr Harris). Since we lived in quite a closed society and didn’t meet anyone over the age of 13, we had no idea that an 18 year old could be part of the teaching staff. We assumed they were much older! There were two ‘clothes matrons’ who were older women and looked after the children’s uniform for them. They mothered the younger children, which was really helpful, and read stories to the first formers (8 year olds) at bed time, and one of them, who must have been a Christian, also used to teach choruses for us to sing before lights out. (“In my heart there rings a melody”) The older children (10 year olds) were also read to in class once a week. We all looked forward to a Friday afternoon, when we would listen to ‘The Silver Sword’, a story about a group of children in Warsaw, during the war who were trying to locate their parents.
On a Saturday night we would usually have a film show before bed. The school had a 16mm projector, but the problem was there was little choice in what to watch (video tape recording was still a decade away). Commercially available films were difficult and probably expensive to obtain, so the usual source was public information films obtained locally. Typical subjects concerned public health, such as a film on the importance of hand washing, or how to avoid malaria. Another film featured instructions on how to dig a pit latrine. Sometimes films were loaned from the tourist board, and these would feature the lives of people living in remote islands in Scotland, and the important part the local fishermen played in their society. The BBC also produced ‘fillers’. These were short films they had made to ‘fill in’ time in their schedules, or were used if they had one of many technical faults with the current programme. On more than one occasion we watched ‘London to Brighton in four minutes’, which was a speeded up film the BBC made of a train journey.
I was delighted recently to find this on the internet and have included it here for your edification. At the end of term, we were treated to a movie like ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (a famous western). Unfortunately it was filmed in widescreen format, so a special lens was fitted to squash the projection down to the schools square screen, which meant all the actors looked like spindly aliens!
All things must come to an end, and half way through my schooling it was decided that we could only watch films every other week, and ‘musical appreciation’ was substituted. This meant sitting in the hall listening to classical music from the record player on the stage. Bring back the pit latrine film! It was much more interesting!
I joined the cubs and later the scouts where I was troupe leader! Although this was primarily a school club, we did things that delighted boys, like camping in the grounds and organizing a scout bonfire, to which the parents were invited. The bonfire was huge and often set fire to the leaves on nearby trees. The evening featured scout songs, ceremonies, skits and displays such as creating and traversing rope bridges between the trees. We would also go on hikes to Mount Longanot, and compete in Scout swimming tournaments. At eleven, I won the 15 years and over backstroke.
In addition to this, I took horse riding lessons. I am not sure if it was a way of getting out of school for an afternoon, but it was great fun, particularly if we were allowed to go for a canter. I had wanted to continue horse riding when I got to school in the UK, but was disappointed to find that it was considered a girls sport, and generally not encouraged.
Some events were especially memorable. These include the day a teacher cut the head off a spitting cobra with a ‘panga’ (a large sharp machete). He wore a pair of swimming goggles to protect his eyes as the snake would have directed it’s venom towards his face. Other events that achieved notoriety include an attempt by a boy to poison one of the staff and / or prefect by mixing a homemade concoction into his milk. Finally a daring attempt by one boy to run away. I think he came from the coast (300 miles away) so I am not sure what his aim was. Since the school grounds backed onto a police station, the police had no problem picking him up no more than half a mile away.
Like most institutions, school food was mixed. Every day except Sunday we had porridge for breakfast, made by a Scottish woman who put loads of salt in it. It was disgusting, and put me off porridge for life. On a Sunday we had Kellogg’s Cornflakes, and after breakfast I would sneak off to the kitchen. I knew one of the African staff there and he used to save me the plastic toy car that came free in each packet. With 100 pupils, you could reckon on ten packs of cornflakes consumed, and consequently up to 10 little toys on a Sunday which you could then trade with your friends for sweets or marbles. I guess later the cereal companies stopped giving away plastic toys in the packets in case someone choked. You wouldn’t be allowed that these days! On the positive side, the school made excellent soup. Since we had soup all the time, I suspect they had a permanent vat simmering constantly in the kitchen which was added to daily with the left over meat and vegetables. It was delicious however!
If you misbehaved you could expect to get a ‘conduct mark’ which would result in a ‘detention’, the duration would depend on how many conduct marks you amassed during the week. In detention, you given a piece of paper and were required to copy out the school rules. I was often in detention, so I bought myself an exercise book and used that to write the school rules. After a week or two I had several pages of writing. The advantage of this was that if I brought it to detention every week, the teacher wouldn’t know at which point I had started this weeks writing, so I could point back a page or two and say I had started there, when in fact I hadn’t been writing at all, but was daydreaming out the window.
The boy who got the most conduct marks of all the everyone that term, would be given the job of washing down the shower room every day after sports as an example to others. I am pretty sure one term that award went to David, which I would have been delighted about.
Other misdemeanors would result in standing on a chair in the corner (the ‘dunces’ corner), or standing outside the classroom. Being excluded from class was a kind of Russian roulette, it could be brilliant as you could play with a toy secreted in your pocket, or it could be disaster if the headmaster walked past and noticed. Finally there was writing ‘lines’ but in multicolour! This involved writing ‘I must not…’ sentences, but with each letter being in a different colour. This meant picking up a different coloured pencil for each letter which was tedious.
Each school term was referred to by the church calendar – ie ‘Lent Term’, ‘Michaelmas Term’ and so on. Each term featured a sport that I seemed to fail dismally in. However Cricket was one that I considered a ‘doss’. When it came to being part of the ‘fielding’ team, I would opt for a position such as ‘long stop’, which was right on the boundary line. Since very few 10 – 12 year olds could whack a ball to the boundary, there was little need for me to do anything.
Our parents were invited to a couple of events each term, which was greatly anticipated by boys and parents alike. However, I did dread the school sports day. I was never good at athletics! To compete in the actual sports day, it was necessary to qualify by achieving the appropriate ‘standard’ for your age, in the various events such as high jump, long jump, hurdles and so on. Each week leading up to sports day, we would do ‘standards’ in one event, and the next week would be yet another event. I never achieved a standard in any event – ever. This weekly humiliation paled into insignificance compared to the actual day itself. Each boy who had achieved a standard could proudly participate in his chosen field, watched by his adoring parents. However, since every boy had to participate, there was a race consisting of two laps around the football fields at the end of the day, for any boy who had not taken part. It was effectively the loser’s race. I absolutely dreaded it. I always came last! Perhaps this was why I took up long distance running in later years as a way of exercising that particular ghost!
Swimming was the one sport that I excelled at and this became what our family and particularly David, were known for. It was a sparkling and golden oasis in the midst of my sporting gloom!
When I started at Kenton, the school didn’t have a pool. We used to walk to the high school and use theirs. This meant crossing a stream that was known to have bilharzia, an infection caused by a parasitic worm that lives in freshwater in subtropical and tropical regions. By my second year, the school had built a swimming pool, and David and I soon started swimming for the school.
At 12, David was picked to swim for Kenya and competed in a number of international championships against Zambia and neighbouring countries. We were very proud of him, although it was a sacrifice for my parents as at times he was training three times a day. Our family quickly became part of a swimming fraternity with the Amateur Swimming Association of Kenya. I was never as fast as David at overall swimming but excelled in backstroke, and would always win my races. Swimming training at school meant getting out of bed before the other boys, at 6.30am and going for a swim, which was quite chilly since Nairobi has an altitude of 5000 feet and can be cold first thing in the morning. But the training had its advantages, as we would see more of our parents at various swimming matches.
The end of term was always a good time for pranks, as naturally everyone was excited at the prospect of going home. Common pranks, often directed at the Prefects were ‘apple pie beds’. This involved secretly messing up the bedclothes, by doubling up the bed sheet so that when the Prefect got in at night, he risked putting a foot through the thin cotton sheet and ripping it.
If you didn’t pay attention at meal times, it was possible to be subjected to a ‘water trap’. This neat trick involved taking a nearly full glass of water and swiftly turning it upside down onto the table, so that the water was trapped inside the glass. When an unsuspecting boy turned it the right way round of course the water would run over the table and usually soak his trousers. This had an extra benefit that if the unfortunate boy was seen by a Master, he would most likely be sent to eat at the ‘Pigs Table’ – a sideboard at the end of the dining room where he would have to eat the rest of his meal standing up.
One of the most successful pranks could be achieved in the science lab. Since the water taps had very long narrow spouts, it was possible to slip the end of a rubber pipette over the spout and turn the tap very slightly on. If this was done at the end of the class, the result was that at the beginning of the next class the rubber pipette would burst, spraying whoever was in the vicinity.
In short, there wasn’t much! My parents had, I think, assumed that this was done at school, and I don’t recall any conversation of any sort with them on the subject. Perhaps the school had also decided it was the parent’s responsibility! I do remember the headmaster gathering the senior boys together in the hall and having a chat with us. I think he may have alluded to the forthcoming puberty that was imminent, and may have said the word ‘wet dreams’ but most of his language was so flowery and sudo-spiritual that no one was any the wiser after the talk and we were all vaguely embarrassed and didn’t want to mention it further.
On one occasion a senior boy let slip the word ‘fuck’ in my hearing. I asked another boy what it meant. He took me to the most remote part of the school grounds, and said in a quiet voice, ‘it’s what you do if you want to get your girlfriend pregnant!’. Had I a girlfriend, I still wouldn’t have known how to get her pregnant – I was none the wiser!
Each term culminated in a series of exams. The exam papers were duplicated by a Mimeograph Machine. A stencil was created on a typewriter, and the stencil attached to the drum of the machine. When the handle was cranked the ink would be forced through the stencil onto the paper. The whole corridor would usually smell of the ink for days. The pupils of course used ink fountain pens, which would usually leak all over everything! Each desk had a little well for ink at the top right hand corner and during exams the desks would be covered with blotting paper, which was useful to dry spilt ink but also meant that it covered any writing on the desk, that might be used to ‘crib’ the answers!
I successfully passed the common entrance exam, and although I was excited to move schools and go to England, I knew that I would miss my friends. I had enjoyed my time at Kenton and certainly during the last year or two there had no real desire for things to change.