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When the bell rings for food

I wonder why there aren’t school-genre books written in this country. A book along the lines of ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ that would chronicle life in a Ghanaian boarding school.

There I go displaying my age again, for I suspect that only very few people, alive in Ghana today, would have heard of, never mind, know about or read the famous Thomas Hughes novel, ‘Tom Brown’s School Days’ which was published in 1857 and for years, was the standard source of preparation for English boys for what they would encounter when they went to boarding school.

When the British colonial masters set up boarding schools in our country, they used the same model as in their country and even though ours were not private schools, the students who came to those establishments were made to feel special and superior. In many people’s minds, secondary school is meant to be selective and where you train people to go out and rule and not for the masses of the people.

There are surely endless books to be written about life in our boarding schools throughout the years, instead of the snatches that you get when you attend funerals and the Year Group of the dearly departed gathers around the coffin to tell the story of how its members entered the school and became champions.

So, why am I going into boarding schools and digging up old tales in old books, I hear you ask.

Food is on my mind, institutional food, that is, and school food in particular and this is because I have been following the campaign about the food that is served to students in our senior high schools. I have also now watched the JOYNews documentary titled, Empty Plates, the Free SHS Promise.

Food is a critical part of the boarding school experience, and it can make a great difference to whether you enjoyed or hated school.

This period is also critical for your physical and mental health growth because that is when children grow most rapidly.

Some children enter boarding school showing signs of stunted growth and thanks to the much-maligned food in the dining hall and the sporting regimen, they shoot up and become tall teenagers.

Ancient

I am in that category of old students of a school that is referred to as ancient. I finished boarding school in Mawuli School some sixty years ago and therefore my experiences are probably not relevant in today’s considerations, but maybe, there might be some similarities.

As I recollect it, it was supposed to be infra dig to say that the dining hall food was good.

The popular students would complain loudly and regularly about the food served in the dining hall, even though they always cleared their plates.

They would often be the ones that had extra money to spend and some of the teachers’ wives on campus made brisk business selling cakes and bread and other snacks which they patronised.

Of course, we all had chop boxes that contained the normal student fare of gari, sugar, tin milk, biscuits, sardines, corned beef (for those with rich parents), Ovaltine and other snacks. Lifelong friendships started in chop box rooms around gari soakings. Some people claimed they ate more outside the dining hall than the official three meals that were served daily.

And yet, on reflection, the food we were served was excellent. There were some favourites that everyone who went to Mawuli School would always crave for the rest of their lives.

There is the famous Borbor, which is what you call beans and gari and in Mawuli School, you cut up your banana and mix it with the Borbor.

We had fruits every day.

The school had a piggery and every once in a while, we were served pork for supper.

We narrated with pride, the story about some students from another school who came on an excursion and had the pork supper and decided there and then they would come to Sixth Form in Mawuli just because of the pork.

And yet I remember the constant complaints about the food especially, when a rumour went around that the wife of the school bursar was providing some of the food served in the dining hall.

It ended in a mini-riot one evening in the dining hall when soon after we sat down to eat after the prayer, someone threw a ball of steamed abolo from one end of the hall and before long, a chant had started and students said they wouldn’t eat the food. It was never admitted that some people had begun eating before the rumpus broke out.

The anger was because apparently, abolo was not what was on the menu for that evening. The headmaster threatened to send all of us home to go and meet our parents individually away from the protection of, in his words, “mob bravado” which made us throw food around the dining hall and put some tree branches and leaves in the bursar’s car.

Those days, very few students had visits from their parents and there was no question of phone calls to report bad quality or insufficient food to parents.
When it came to the 1980s and 1990s when my age group were parents with children in boarding schools, children had become so precious, that parents couldn’t tolerate the idea of a child ever eating food they did not like.

Fast foods

By the time we got into the 2000s, children in boarding schools had been brought up on fast foods and were free, when they were home, to place orders for hamburgers, KFC or chicken wings rather than eat what had been cooked for the household, it had become a major operation to try to get such children to willingly eat dining hall food without complaint.

In the late 1980s, my son attended an expensive English public boarding school. He discovered the regular food served was mash and bangers, the normal English school fare, which had not changed very much from when Dr Matthew Arnold was Headmaster of Rugby during Tom Brown’s school days.

My son would have preferred Jollof rice and kelewele, but the rules did not allow that food to be brought into the school. When he came home on exeat with his friends, they had jollof rice and kelewele to their fill and went back to school.

Today, a young cousin of his is at the same school and he tells me they are allowed to order food to be delivered to them in the school and he orders regularly.

I have a nephew currently in a very fancy and expensive boarding school in the Greater Accra area. The school offers three meals and two snacks daily. I know that some of the children are on the phone with their parents regularly lamenting about how “hard’ the school is, because of the food.

This past week, I met a group of young police recruits who were passing out of training. I asked them what the food was like at the training depot and they all burst out in nervous laughter. “Horrible, it was horrible throughout, one day we were given palm soup and you could see your face in the soup and the ladle of rice you are given is so small”.

Now, these were not teenage, growing children, they were not in fancy fee-paying schools and were certainly not in Free SHS institutions. But their complaints about the food sounded not unlike those I heard from the “Empty plates, the Promise of Free SHS”.

There will always be legitimate reasons to do stories and documentaries about food in institutions generally, and in schools especially. It is stretching it to try to hang it around a failure of Free SHS.

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