Sakeji - Some Bitter Memories


I experienced being left at Sakeji the first time as abandonment. My parents left me behind and took my brother and sister home with them. Although my parents are still living and I love and respect them and I know they didn't really abandon me, that early experience has coloured all my life. Because I didn't cry - I was too stunned - my mother thought I didn't care and was deeply hurt also. It caused misunderstanding for over twenty years.

There was always the dull ache of loneliness in me while I was at Sakeji. I never felt connected to my friends, always felt set apart as if I didn't really belong in the world. I felt like I lived in a bubble. Not a protective bubble but a suffocating one. A bubble that kept me separate, kept me from reaching out and touching other people in the real world which I could see through the clear film of the bubble.

The first nights of each term were dreadful. The dorm seemed so large and empty and ugly. I would lie on my back and look up to the apex of the roof - there was no ceiling - and think: there's a hole in me as deep as from my bed to the roof. And I would wonder how my skinny body could contain such a deep hole. I didn't often cry about it but the agony was there.

Leaving parents and going to Sakeji was traumatic for many of us. I remember a term when one small girl cried all day while another cried all night for the first weeks. No one helped us deal with our emotional wounds. Perhaps no one was equipped to help or perhaps no one realized the extent of our grief.

A Surprise

One year I was left out of a project that other girls in my class were working on in their spare time. They kept it a secret and every time I approached them, they would cover the project. I could see they were building something of paper and cardboard, an activity I would have loved to be a part of. I was deeply hurt and felt very lonely and unwanted and wondered how I could change myself so that I would be accepted by them. On my birthday, they gave me the project as a surprise gift. It was a model of Sakeji, with all the buildings and trees.

For me, there was no joy in this gift. It was a symbol of my rejection. I had trouble receiving it and wondered if they had really meant it for me all along or if, when it was finished, they hadn't known what to do with it and had made it into a present for me.

Mr. Hess

For the most part, I loved Mr. Hess. He seemed to like me and teased me in fun many evenings. I knew he had a terrible temper - I witnessed his anger with other children many times - but I was not the object of his fury until one terrible morning before breakfast, I turned the wrong light on in the little school where I went to practice piano. The larger light in the room drew more power than the little light over the piano. I didn't know this until I looked up to see Mr. Hess standing in the doorway, fuming, and he informed me in no uncertain terms.

He also told me I would not be taking piano any more and was to leave the little school immediately. There was more. That very afternoon, I was to write him a paper on electricity. And I would 'march' for two weeks.

'Marching' meant spending the evening after supper walking around the playground while other children played. It was standard punishment. But that afternoon, my group was going to go on a rare field trip that would count towards a badge that I really wanted. I wouldn't be able to go.

I heard Mr. Hess shouting about my misdemeanor as I crossed the playground. I would have been alright if Miss Hoyte had not come and asked sympathetically what had happened. Her kindness started my tears flowing in a torrent I couldn't stop for much of the day. I was mortified because I was a 'big' girl. Mr. Hess lectured the school at breakfast about the turning on of proper lights and ridiculed my tears.

That evening, when I gave Mr. Hess the paper I had written, his anger was forgotten. "What's this?" he asked, and he dropped it in a wastebasket. I had missed my badge for nothing. I was probably forgiven most of the marching, too, but I never felt the same about Mr. Hess after that.

I have a temper much like Mr. Hess's. It rises quickly and strongly, does irreparable damage, and then evaporates quickly. It is a trait that I'm struggling to overcome as I deal with my own children.


Fears tormented me, too. I had a great fear of jackals because the only ones that came onto the school grounds were mad with rabies. They always came down the road at the end of the girls' dorm.

And I was horribly afraid of snakes, especially mambas. I was afraid I'd see a snake and not be able to kill it. Would I be brave enough to try? This worry didn't really affect the outcome of my imaginary encounters. If I ran like a scaredy cat, the snake would be faster and get me. If I turned out to be brave, I wouldn't be able to find a strong branch to fight with, or if I did chance upon a pole, the snake would strike too fast and bite me. Poison would flow to my heart and I'd die a terrible death, in awful pain.

We were allowed to roam freely down at the river but I never went anywhere alone because of the snakes.

I liked to garden but the gardens lay on the other side of a small gully that was surrounded by lush growth. A mamba was said to lurk there. My friends and I would gather on one side of the gully and then dash through together. I reasoned that the mamba could only get one of us at a time and I hoped it wouldn't be me.

Nighttime trips to the toilet filled me with dread and I took them only in direst need. It was a long, lonely walk, past sleeping friends, along the empty hallway, through the huge, deserted common room, towards the bathroom where the outside door stood open directly in front of me - open to that road down which the jackals ran, open and inviting to all the snakes in the wild world outside.


On many days we would swim in the river. The teacher on duty would be the last to leave the river, coming up in the rear to make sure everyone got home safely. If the teacher wanted someone, their name would be called up the path, passing from child to child until the named culprit heard the call. The reason never came with the name. Just the name. That child would then wind back down the path to the teacher, fearful, embarrassed, to learn the reason for the call.

The day my name was called, the teacher was Mr. Hess. He was not angry this time but the residue of what he said stayed with me for years. He said he had noticed that I panicked easily and he wanted to teach me to swim without panic. I don't know what he noticed but for a long, long time, I worried that I'd panic in an emergency. Years later when I handled a car accident without panic, his words finally lost their power.

My heart was lonely and I couldn't pierce that confining bubble to reach deep friendship beyond it. My mind swarmed with fears. I carried the burden of believing I was unlovable, cowardly, and prone to panic to adulthood.

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Copyright© 1999-2003 Martha Greenhow
Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada