Embakwe: ahead of its time

Embakwe Coloured School was a mission school for Coloured children. It was started in 1902 when, so legend has it, King Lobengula said to Roman Catholic missionaries ... "Go teach my dogs …"

This is what Michelle Faul, writing for Associated Press, has to say –

“Embakwe Mission was founded in 1902 by the spirit medium Njemhlophe, who gave up throwing the bones after he converted to Christianity. He came at the behest of Catholic missionaries who soon followed, a Jesuit priest on horseback and three intrepid nuns fresh from England in an ox wagon loaded with provisions, including a hen, a cock and a cat.

First they turned back because of a thunderstorm with forked lightning. On the second attempt, the wagon got bogged down in mud. So the nuns, from the Belgian-based Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, trudged through the sludge to their new home, a loaf of bread under one arm and a bottle of altar wine tucked under the other.”

By the time of my arrival in 1955 it was well developed, with the main buildings constructed of unplastered red brick, contoured and ornate. It would be wrong to imagine that because it was reserved for Coloureds, we were highly privileged. The privilege, undoubtedly fundamental and vitally important, was that payment of basic fees by government was guaranteed. African black children were denied this.

However, as an educational institution, Embakwe was the poorest and most under-resourced of all Coloured schools in the colony. It was without both a science block and a library.

It is pertinent to point out that two great African schools in the Plumtree area, Empandeni and Tekwane, were both better resourced and each had a science block and a library. In addition the outside World would only grant scholarships to Blacks, not Coloureds, as we were classified as "White" for educational purposes. However this "White classification" gave us no access to scholarships to South African universities. So, to put it bluntly, we were stuffed!

All three schools however were "slums", when compared with nearby Plumtree High School, reputably one of the best schools in the history of the country, and therefore reserved for Whites. Most of the children in Embakwe were from poorer families. The school also served as a "reform school", to which problematical children were committed, on court order.

Sister Mare
Sister Mare

Not to put too fine a point on it, we were a rough tough lot of proverbial ragamuffins … as the picture, taken in 1956 of some Embakwe boys, shows

Still, I could not have got a finer education. The curriculum was British and students left on attainment of either Cambridge School Certificate of the General Certificate of Education [GCE]. It achieved a pass rate in excess of 95%. The current pass rate for South Africa [2008] as regards its Matric results is 62, 5%.

I could not have been better prepared for the problematical world that this region was and still is. All of us are forever indebted to teachers like Richard Brown, Vernon Bowers, Danny Pillay, Abie Davies, Ethel Faul, nee Bowers and our legendary Head Mistress Sister Mare Nugent SND.

Sister Mare was light years ahead of her time. She introduced sex education in 1958, decades before the world even started thinking about it. I should say we may have needed it rather badly. We boys believed that girls fainted at the moment of penetration. She also introduced "social and life skills", now standard subjects in schools. In the result Vernon Bowers was tasked to teach us ball room dancing at which we all became proficient. Believe me when I say she also allowed us to become champion "Rock n' Rollers", something most schools discouraged.

What makes me realize what genius there was in our education is that our "Embakwe way of thinking" is now the vogue throughout the planet.

No one was more discerning of the inherent hypocrisy of so many "revolutions" than we were. George Orwell, and his iconic novel Animal Farm, represented truth in its finest form. World history since then, especially as regards Africa, fully vindicates this perception.

No one was more cynical about the inherent tendencies of dominant groups, and their governments, to propagate "convenient untruths" and suppress "inconvenient truths" than we were. The "Arab Spring" and "Occupy Wall Street" has more than validated our cynicism, just for a start.

However what clearly marked us out as being different was our brand of humour. It was unconventional, basic and thoroughly irreverent of the status quo. At the time this incurred disdain for us by others in society. We were often referred to as "raw", i.e., insufficiently sophisticated to appreciate social order and imperatives. Our stance, as regards people and governments, was that if you are going to be that concerned with self and your importance, you are already a big joke. In later life, when we met in pubs, a favourite song that we would resort to with little provocation was "Who is fooling who" by Ray Phiri and Stimela.

Today, programs like South Park, John Steward's "Daily Show" and the Colbert Report, are smash hit industry standard examples of our Embakwe brand of humour and social commentary. Any number of my mates from school would be more than competent as a script writers for these shows. So we were indeed way ahead on our time.

This region has not been kind to us people of mixed race pedigree. To Whites other Whites were regarded as "us", Black folk were regarded as "them" and Coloured folk as "the other”. It was a huge management problem for the colonial government, and its dominant White society, given the incredible racial diversity and colouring of my people. It remains so to-day despite revolutionary changes in the region. We are still "the Other". Thus our kith and kin were brutally reminded of when they were recently told by Chief Government Spokesman, Jimmy Manyi that the Coloured people were "over represented" in the Western Cape, even though they are the sole descendants of the Khoekhoe and San people; the original inhabitants of the region. Where do we fit in under Zimbabwe's "indigenization" program?

However, throughout the difficult period of the last 40 years, the "Embakwe spirit" has always been noticed, commented on, as being remarkable, infectious and indomitable. I like to think that I have in some way epitomized that spirit. As a result of the start I was given at Embakwe I did succeed in later life and have left some footprints in the sands of time. So too as regards most of my school mates.

On behalf of myself and all ex-Embakweans I want to say "thank you" to Embakwe and, in particlar, to Sister Mare Nugent and her incredible team of teachers mentioned above. You did indeed make a difference!

Deo gratias.


Extract from book — “The Other – without fear, favour of prejudice”.

25. And necessity is the mother of invention

It is 1958 and there is a terrible drought in the area. Cattle are dying. Carcasses are retrieved and dragged to the mission by tractor. The meat is served up in our meals. It smells rotten. We cannot eat it. Hunger is now the order of the day. Adventure Boys needs to deal with this privation. On Sunday afternoon the hostel master, Richard Brown, assembles the boys as is the routine. An audit is conducted as to what we will be doing that afternoon so that he knows where boys are and what they are up to. Adventure Boys is going fishing to the dam. We have constructed fishing rods which we hold up in a show of true intent. He waves us off.

We run off, but do not go to the dam. We hive off to a farm owned by a Mr. Skinner some 5 kilometers away. On arrival we survey our target. It is the fowl run, situated some 100 meters away in an open grassland clearing. Baiting our hooks with mealie rice, we leopard-crawl up to the fowl run. We cast our hooks into the run and soon bag two fowls.

It is just then that an ambush is sprung. Skinner's gang of workers have been waiting for us. They now start to emerge from behind a building a fair distance away. Mark starts to laugh uncontrollably. I shout out "belt it … !" and we start to run. Given the head start we have, I have every confidence that the workers will never catch us. But then we hear the sound of barking dogs behind us. Dogs are quite another matter … bad news … very bad news. There is something terrible about knowing that you are being pursued by dogs. Dogs are fast. They will catch you, and when they do they will bite you, with big sharp teeth, and tear your flesh apart.

We run for all we are worth through the bush towards the river. The barking of the dogs grows louder as they gain on us. I think of dropping the fowl I am carrying in the hope that the dogs will stop to investigate it. Instinctively I change my mind, concluding that it is a vain hope. Ill gotten gains are never easily parted with. The river is in front of us. We run down the bank, across the dry river bed and up the other side.

Immediately we all stop, turn and crouch down, untangling our cattys from around our necks as we do so. Everything now goes into slow motion. As the first dog courses down the other bank, and reaches the river bed, the cattys twang in unison. There is a loud yelp from the dog and it half keels over. The second and third dogs meet the same fate. They yelp and howl out loudly as they are hit again and again. One runs back, the other two run around in circles howling and whimpering in pain. The workers have arrived. They stop and take cover on the other side of the river. There is a deathly silence, broken only by the now occasional whimper of the dogs, who have all rejoined their masters.

It is a classic stand-off. After a while we crawl away and make good our escape. Later the fowls are roasted on an open fire and eaten with some meat packed and reserved for consumption in the days to follow. Mark starts to laugh again and mimics the running around of the dogs after being hit by slingshot. "Did you see that…?" he says, face brimming with joy – "did you see how the garu1 was yowling and yowling? " and shamelessly we all join in with peals of laughter.

The next day an identification parade is conducted. Skinner's workers pick out the other three members of our gang, but not me. Fuyane's magic is at work. The punishment is six cuts and one week in the cellar. The cuts are administered in public, at the boys' hostel, on towel-covered buttocks, using a sjambok. Heads are then shaved and the culprits confined to a dark cellar receiving a little light via a very small ground level iron-grated window. Food consists of unsweetened mealie porridge served in the morning and the evening. After a week my friends emerge with eyes as big as an owls and a strong greyish white tinge to their skins on account of sunlight deprivation.

1Garu – is an Embakwe term for “dog’ – Greenland is a Retired High Court Judge.

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Post published in: Analysis
  1. Nompumelelo
  2. Francis Cook
  3. kathleen sampat nee Johnson
  4. mduduzi
  5. Patricia Thompson (nee Jameson)

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