Bush school - A memoir


Our school was in the middle of the bush, ten miles from the nearest town in the harsh beauty of the Zimbabwean highveld. It started life in World War II as No 26 EFTS Guinea Fowl, a Royal Air Force elementary flying training school and I arrived there in 1954, just seven years after it became an all-white co-ed state boarding school.

Jack Lundin

The boarding houses were the cadet pilots’ barracks, now called hostels, named after wartime bomber aircraft: Wellington, Lancaster, Sterling, Lincoln and Blenheim. The bell that roused us in the mornings and rang to notify the end of lessons, as well as to rally us out of bed in the middle of the night to fight encroaching wildfires, was the piercing wail of 26 EFTS’s air-raid siren. In the Sixth-form classroom hung a framed letter titled An Airman’s Letter to his Mother.

This was years before UDI, Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Then Southern Rhodesia was a self-governing colony and part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. I was an odd addition to the pupil strength, being decanted without much consultation at age 15 from my 400-year-old all-rowing-and-rugby English public school, and dropped off the steam train at Gwelo in the middle of the night with my mother and sister, who were heading on for Salisbury, now Harare, en route for a new life in Nyasaland, now Malawi.

Later that Sunday the headmaster collected us all in Gwelo, whisked my mother and sister off to his house for lunch and dumped me at Wellington hostel, where a boy with fuzz on his cheeks called Frost helped me carry my large tin trunk in to Middle Dorm, where I underwent intense grilling from the inhabitants.

“Do you play rugby?”

“Yes”. I felt on safe ground here, as my public school was one of England’s top rugby schools.

“What position?”

“Wing-forward.”

A baffled silence. Then: “Bullshit! No such position!”

“Fuckin Pongo!” muttered someone. Then a voice piped up: “Hey, isn’t that the same as flanker?” It was.
For good measure my reception committee hit me with a barrage of Afrikaans – even the English-speakers seemed adept at the language – which left me wondering how long I’d survive in this hellhole.

But it was mostly good-natured and only once was I hit with the old Boer War sin: “You Brits put our women and children into concentration camps”. However, I was battle-hardened by five years at my English public school, from its pre-prep “Inky” to the Monday night thrashings – they called them slipperings – in Upper School for trivial misdemeanours. These were delivered by the house prefects.

“You’re going to get six! Take off your dressing gown!” the head of house would announce grimly, and each prefect thundered the length of the senior changing room to deliver his whack with an enormous wooden clothes brush on our pyjama-clad behinds.

Although already 15 when I arrived at Guinea Fowl, I was selected to play for the under 15s in the following all important Saturday’s home game against arch-rivals Milton from Bulawayo, or was it Prince Edward from Salisbury? I thought I would be too old for this age group, but apparently it depended on the date of your birthday in relation to the current rugby season, and I just scraped in. That outing eased my reception into the school, and even Frost, my helper with the trunk who was also in my class, seemed to approve.

But I came unstuck in the next inter-school match. This time I was relegated to reserve and as such had to act as linesman. I’d never done this role before, and was baffled by the hand and flag signals I had to make: did I point to the side who had put the ball out of touch, or the side who should take the throw-in?

My dismal performance gave the entire school, massed in the pitch-side pavilion, a sideshow that they pounced on with glee. Screams of derision greeted my every decision. I still don’t know how I managed to survive the game, but I never stepped on a rugby field again. I blamed the U15 coach, the gym master known as Slimy, for putting me through this ordeal.

Wellington House was rows of barracks connected by a central corridor. At one end was the prep room, then Senior Dorm, Middle Dorm and Junior Dorm, with intervening locker rooms. The ablutions block consisted of cold-water showers (never used) and a row of eight-or-so baths, into which we jammed ourselves morning and evening, three or four to a bath, legs hanging over the edge. The toilets were disgusting and apparently escaped the eagle eye of our matron, the chain-smoking Mrs Poisson. The floor swam in urine, with boys from farms squatting high in the rafters for long distance craps – they were accustomed to a hole in the ground and their bowels refused to function on a normal pedestal.

My single appearance for the under-15s spared me the ordeal of the traditional New Boys’ Concert, when the annual intake of 13-year-olds in Junior Dorm underwent a scary initiation. Before it was banned, this included running naked down the long corridor linking the dormitories, lined with boys wielding wet knotted towels, causing at least one knock-out.
Rugby at Guinea Fowl ranked above anything else.

Attendance at First XV matches was compulsory and if we lost, the entire school went into mourning. After my touchline humiliation my energies were focussed on the dramatic society, run enthusiastically by our theatre-buff headmaster, HE Pegg, who considered drama to be in the forefront of school activities. The school went into hysterics at my portrayal, wearing a white wig, of the despotic headmistress Miss Philpott in Little Ladyship, the 1939 comedy by Ian Hay. “The part of a typical school marm seemed to suit J. Lundin down to the ground,” was the waspish comment by its reviewer PJW aka Peter Wilson, a friend who was head of rival Lancaster house.

I won Best Actor award in the first Schools’ Drama Festival as Alquist in The Epilogue of R.U.R (for Rossum’s Universal Robots), the 1921 science fiction play by Karel Capek that introduced the word robot to the English language. And finally played the blundering buffoon Teddy Deakin in The Ghost Train, the 1923 comedy thriller by Arnold Ridley. I was amazed and flattered to read Mr Pegg’s review in the school magazine that The Ghost Train was marked “by a very good piece of acting by Jack Lundin”. He added: “Lundin stands head and shoulders above all those who have acted at this school, with the possible exception of Pam Dale; his versatility is remarkable, his speech is very nearly faultless and his sense of timing in comedy is worthy of many professionals.”

A few years later found us both in London. I had returned to England when I was 20 and we met for a lunch-time beer. By then I was a staff reporter in Fleet Street with the Sunday Express. Mr Pegg had been appointed education liaison officer at Rhodesia House up the road in the Strand.

Now, of course, Rhodesia is Zimbabwe and Gwelo is Gweru. At the other end of the hazardous strip road that connected us with Gwelo was the chromium-mining town of Selukwe, now Shurugwi. On Sundays we dispersed into the bush with sandwich lunches. We built tree houses, had kleilatte fights, swam naked in farmers’ water tanks and filled army kitbags with raids on their avocado crops. Along with this, we collected an assortment of wildlife which endured usually short lives as our pets in captivity.

We had to keep them hidden from the authorities. In great demand were pukkies, or bushbabies, loveable nocturnal animals who spent the day sleeping inside their owner’s shirt. They came to life in the evenings, when they would make long leaps from wherever they were to the safety of their owner’s shirt, peeing on their hands for grip. Their natural diet included insects, beetles, moths and butterflies, but ours adapted to fruit – they loved bananas. Lemurs and civets were said to be around, but if they were caught it was kept secret.

Bes, Mac and I had an owl. Poor Egbert lived in a cardboard box under Senior Dorm and every after-lunch rest period was spent  throwing rocks at lizards on the squash court wall, for his food.

On one occasion some farm boys in Middle Dorm introduced a forest cobra which must have been eight to ten feet long. The most vivid memory I have of Guinea Fowl is the bedtime chaos when they put it in the bed of a boy they didn’t like. When their victim, alerted by the slowly-shifting mass in his bed threw back the blanket, out soared the maddened reptile. Every boy leapt as one from their bed into the roof rafters, and perched there screaming as the hissing cobra, hood spread and upper body high off the ground, crashed around the dorm in search of an escape route or someone to deliver its massive amount of venom to (death usually in 30 to 120 minutes). It escaped eventually, but sadly was hunted down and butchered by the farm boys.

On Wednesday afternoons we had cadets, falling in with ancient .303 rifles on the crumbling main runway of No 26 EFTS Guinea Fowl under the high-decibel shriek of Sergeant Major John Erasmus, a ferocious giant of a man who arrived every week from the Royal Rhodesia Regiment’s Llewellin Barracks in Bulawayo. He was rumoured to have killed a man in the ring.

In the afternoons, I often wandered the deserted runway. At my school in England my friends and I were determined to do our national service as pilots in the Royal Air Force. An older boy in our house was already flying Hawker Hunter fighter jets off a carrier in the Fleet Air Arm. So at Guinea Fowl, homesick for what I had left behind, I pictured myself as one of the cadet pilots who took to the air only ten years-or-so back at 26 EFTS doing their circuits, cross-countries and night flying in Tiger Moths, Link trainers and Chipmunks.

In my exam year – we took the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate – our housemaster in Wellington departed back to England on his six months “home” leave. In those colonial days a lot of the teachers were recruited in England, with the carrot of this long leave every three years. Our acting housemaster was the gym master, Slimy, whom I held responsible for my linesman fiasco. I was determined to show no ill feeling, but on his first day he approached me with a declaration of war. “I’ve been warned about you, Lundin. Be warned, I’m watching you!”

One morning as we lined up for the march to the dining hall for breakfast, we were greeted with an astonishing sight. In the middle of the night, someone had painted in massive letters SLIMY IS A SAP along the entire length of his cream-painted housemaster’s cottage. That afternoon, as we lay on our beds for the rest period, a wrought-up Slimy appeared clutching a bundle of canes. “Lundin, come with me.”

He marched off down the corridor linking the dorms, the whole hostel watched agape. In Junior Dorm he strode into the prefects’ quarters at the end and slammed the door shut and told me: “I’m going to give you the thrashing of your life.”

“Sir,” I protested. “It wasn’t me.”

“Ha! Then who was it?”

“I don’t know.” (which was the truth).

“So, honour amongst thieves!” sneered Slimy. “Bend over!”

He broke a few of his canes on me, but I maintained silence throughout. After my regular “slipperings” by the English boarding house prefects, Slimy’s effort was little more than an irritant. Finally the onslaught ceased. “Get out!” spat the acting housemaster. When I opened the door to Junior Dorm the little 13-year-olds were frozen on their beds, staring goggle-eyed at me. I turned to Slimy and said brightly: “Thank you sir, anything else sir?”

“Get out!” screamed Slimy again, and Junior Dorm broke into hysterical laughter. I chalked it up as a moral victory.

The year after I left I was working as a cadet reporter on The Herald’s training programme in Salisbury when I bumped into David Spengler, a sort of friend of mine in Wellington House, who had been expelled for taking off for a few days without permission. As we chatted in the street he announced with a wide grin: “I painted that thing on Slimy’s house.” My intrigue at finally discovering the mystery painter’s identity was eclipsed by a mounting fury. How could someone have stood by and seen a friend thrashed for something that he had done? I never spoke to Spengler again.

Soon after I left, at the end of 1959, Guinea Fowl became boys only. The girls’ presence had certainly been appreciated by the boys. Romance was often in the air and if things got serious a couple would get formally “hitched”. This custom was taken very seriously and spanned all schools in Rhodesia at the time. If a Guinea Fowl boy was hitched to a girl at Eveline High School in Bulawayo, and dared to cast an eye at anyone else, his good name and reputation was ruined for good. The same for the girl.

The upshot was predictable. Every year saw the quiet departure of a few girls who found themselves in the family way. I remember one morning assembly when headmaster Pegg obliquely addressed the issue. Giving his seal of approval for boy and girl to continue the ritual of walking the school’s jacaranda-clad avenues hand in hand, he added: “Just keep walking!”

Finally, in 1978 and a year from the end of the 13 year bush war that was to give birth to Zimbabwe, Guinea Fowl School was closed down, after 31 years. In vain the boys in their Number Ones and boaters marched in protest through the streets of Gwelo. But their parents considered the isolated school a soft target for attack and opted for the grenade-screened security of schools in the cities. From a pupil strength of more than 400, only 223 remained. The last Form One intake numbered only 10.

However, the old RAF flying school continued its chameleon existence. Its remoteness was utilised for training by Ian Smith’s notorious Security Force Auxiliaries, the all-black militia known as Pfumo Revanhu. After independence, it became the headquarters of President Robert Mugabe’s infamous 5th Brigade.

Then, wonder of wonders, in 1998 it became Guinea Fowl School again, although after three years it was briefly renamed Nelson Ndamere High School. However, an old boy who visited in 2011, now a parish priest from northern Victoria in Australia named Canon Andrew Neaum, wrote in his parish newsletter that the name had gone back to Guinea Fowl again. Canon Neaum reported that the school’s friendly Shona headmistress was aware of the school’s tradition and had dreams of reviving its reputation and prowess, not least in rugby, despite labouring under shortage of funds and other difficulties. “She kept apologising for the state of the place, saying again and again how she wished to return it to its former glory.”

The security boom at the school entrance was lifted without question to visiting old boys. The present-day all-black learners were generous with their enthusiastic and unqualified welcomes. Neaum wrote that they still wore the original uniform of blue shirts, grey shorts (khaki shorts in my day) and navy blue blazers bearing the school badge: a red guinea fowl over the school motto “Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re” (Gentle in manner, vigorous in deed).

Another old boy shot a video of his return visit. My heart gave a lurch when I saw them enter a derelict Wellington House and into the prefects’ quarters where I received my whacking from Slimy. There are the corridors linking the dorms. There is Middle Dorm, where I began and where boys leapt for their lives into the rafters to escape the angry forest cobra.

Gentle in manner, vigorous in deed. The school motto’s Vigorous in deed certainly describes the way I remember those heady days. But Gentle in manner? Hardly. As Canon Neaum wrote in his parish newsletter: “Discipline was strict, fair, brutal and largely effective. The prefect system was adhered to with some favour. In a lot of ways it was a good school, although the last step before the borstal for city school rejects.”

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