Many parents, foster parents and soon to be parents, are beginning to reconsider the choice of a boarding school for their children following the death of a form four student – Marius Awuma, at Saint Joseph’s College Sasse, Buea – Cameroon. While it is alleged that this student was beaten to death by a lower sixth student, a statement from the above mentioned institution says the student died in a hospital after he fainted during sports. Unfortunately, at this point I can’t tell which narrative is true, given that we don’t have Marius to tell us what actually happened. This unfortunate incident made me do some serious thinking and soul searching as I examined the breathless body of this student in a picture.
I spent seven years in a boarding school quite similar to Sasse except for the fact that my school was a mixed one (comprising both male and female students) while Sasse is an all-boys school. Looking back at the time I spent in a boarding school, my first two years could be likened to the Ulwaluko rituals done by the Xhosa people of South Africa. I was taken to a hill, far away from family, friends and fun, to a place with arid cold, strange people, and a well-disciplined routine. It was pretty much like some adventure in the middle of nowhere. As was the case with most students, the first days at school were usually not fun at all. As time went by, we had no choice but to make new friends, enjoy the food – usually different from home food both in quality and quantity – while remembering the end goal was to go home with a good average score. Honestly, by form three, I began loving school so much that a three-month holiday sometimes felt so long; I missed my boarding mother, sisters, brothers and friends. By form four, the feeling was a mixed one. While I still enjoyed school and all that came with it, form four students in my school traditionally experienced an extra form of ‘discipline’ from the newly elected student leaders –‘prefects’- who were lower sixth students in my case. Being in form four in most boarding schools at the time was quite dreadful. The prefects generally ‘disciplined’ form four students with an iron fist. Form four students were generally expected to do the most tedious chores. The prefects bullied, starved and occasionally beat up the form four students more than the others. I can’t really give an explanation for the choice of the form four class but we were made to know it was a tradition and that was meant to be respected and upheld. If there was ever a year I struggled to find a reason not to return to my boarding school, it was definitely form four. Don’t ask me if the school authorities permitted corporal punished by students on other students. I guess it’s obvious the theoretical answer is NO!! However, somewhere in my guts, I knew there was some unwritten permission for some students to dish out corporal punishment on other students. My conclusion was based on the fact that, some prefects repeatedly got away with whatever they did to junior students. From lashes, to ‘sore backs’ (a rhythmic hit on a subordinate’s back with the palm(s) of your hand(s), exerted with force from a distance in order to inflict pain) and acts of torture coined ‘punishment’. Once that stage was over and I made it to form five, school felt like home again.
In my opinion, my boarding school contributed a lot to the person I am today; disciplined, punctual, adaptive, resistant, independent, organized etc. This made me promise myself; if it was up to me to decide, I will always want my children to have at least 3years of boarding school experience- at least the type of experience I had.
With the recent occurrence at Sasse, (worth mentioning this is not the first time it is happening in that same institution) I have seriously began to rethink the decision of sending a child to a boarding school. What actually happened? Is it that my school was quite different from the likes of Sasse? Is it that the students and the systems in boarding schools are no longer the same? Or this particular institution and the supposed lower sixth student were just unfortunate? Unfortunately, the form four student is dead and we all mourn him and frown at every act of brutality in boarding schools. From one of the narratives provided, it is said that this student was sick and had just returned from the hospital when he was beaten by the lower sixth student. Very few students who made it through high school in a boarding school will boast of not being guilty of at least pulling the ears of a junior student. In fact, I disciplined students sometimes but the question remains; how much discipline is too much?
This unfortunate situation brought a vivid picture to my mind of how I narrowly escaped a similar situation. My last year in my boarding school was quite fun. Of course that is when you enjoy maximum freedom and you have the luxury of ‘disciplining’ junior students after years of being ‘disciplined’. I was a prefect who went by the rules and expected everyone to do same. I literally punished with my right hand and gave out candies with the left hand. I occasionally gave lashes too. Yes I did, but not like I was whipping animals. Maybe I should mention too that I received an award for the student with the best leadership qualities in my badge. Not that I was a perfect prefect but I tried to avoid brutality as much as I could, which I guess paid off.
I remember asking a lower sixth student to choose between cleaning tables at the dining hall and receiving ‘sore backs’ from me as punishment for two crimes he committed and he chose ‘sore backs’. Usually, students will prefer cleaning the tables over ‘sore backs’ as the later were usually painful and embarrassing. For reasons I can’t explain till date, this lower sixth student chose ‘sore backs’. Fortunately for me, I was not in the mood for ‘sore backs’ that day so I insisted he clean the tables instead. Sometime later, I discovered this lower sixth student was constantly being rushed to the sick bay (on-campus health facility) or home for medical care. I was later made to understand he suffered from some heart-related problems. Away from being melodramatic, I thought to myself, if this boy knew he suffered from heart problems, why did he insist I give him ‘sore backs’ which was definitely very dangerous for him taking into consideration his health situation? Exerting that amount of force on his back might have affected his heart. Hmmm this is the part where we say “God forbid”. Since then, I have never been so proud of myself for applying restraint.
Maybe Marius just returned from hospital as one of the narratives state and was still a convalescent, needing much care and precaution. Asking him to go jogging or beating him up only jeopardizes his health. These are grey areas not carefully taken into consideration in boarding schools. Children are different and their levels of resistance equally vary. These are peculiarities which cannot be properly handled in boarding schools where every child is expected to be treated equally with the same uniforms, eating routines, activities etc. Parents know their kids better. This event should therefore make more parents think seriously before sending their children to boarding schools. Boarding schools may be good for some but not good for others. I loved my seven years in a boarding school but I am not sure all my mates will say the same.
Sometimes, I wondered if parents know what actually happens in a boarding school before they send their kids in there or they actually know and just think, things like that will prepare their children for the real world. Alternatively, do parents just bundle their children and send them to boarding houses for the fame and acknowledgement that comes with it at their ‘njangi’ meetings, work places etcetera? For my sanity, I will want to guess most decisions to send children off to boarding houses are heavily uninformed. Thus, I will want to think this generation of parents should know better. Not that boarding schools are bad, but making an informed decision is better than making an uninformed one. While I still have more time to decide on whether a Yay or Nay for a boarding school, I will want to urge parents and stake holders of boarding schools to begin brainstorming on a way forward for boarding schools in order to avoid a recurrence of such events. Needless to mention that boarding houses may face a decline in enrolment if things like this do no get appropriate attention or are not resolved properly. The institution concerned in this case may say whatever they want in their defense especially as Marius is not here to give his own account, but one thing is certain; God sure knows exactly what happened and He knows how best to deal with anyone involve in the actual act or in its cover up. RIP Marius, my condolences to your family. A mother sends her son to school and later receives his corpse…goshhh!!! I will not wish this even for my enemy.