The Buffalo and the Ballerina in the African Bush

October in Zambia is so hot that it is called “Suicide Month”. People do strange things and some hang themselves from trees.

Sweltering in a maths class with other sixteen year olds, I have chosen front row. I am desperate to pass so I can leave school. It’s the last class of the day, one month before our school leaving exams, and the mine hooter blasts ‘noon’.  I struggle to focus, my sweaty skirt sticks to my chair and Mr. Williams Welsh accent drones on.

Bang. A sharp pain in my back and another bullet flicked from a wooden ruler lands, the fourth this class. My torturer is Myra - wide and muscled like her boxer father - a hockey player who smashes balls and terrorizes players. Her accent reveals poverty (my mother’s opinion) and the tough English background she left behind two years ago.  From the day she arrived, Myra has made my life miserable. Her bullying, her taunts and raging insults were never heard by the teachers. I suffered hockey stick blows, her bike crashing into mine regularly, pushes, punches, bruising and humiliation.

I was African born and small, a ballerina. My English working class parents were strict Catholics who escaped their childhood poverty and migrated to sunshine. They believed in discipline, elocution and ladylike good manners. I could never retaliate; anyway Myra terrified me and Marian my best friend, another ballerina. The other girls, also scared, switched teams and became her allies.

The class erupts when the bell rings at home time, 12.30 pm, and I bend to put my homework into my school case. A heavy punch to my back winds me and Myra’s dusty shoes stamp through my books. Stifling a sob I grab at her ineffectually and she swings at me, fists flying.  Mr. Williams shouts a warning and lunges, a scuffle ensues, and he drags her off.   She turns, spitting hate - “I am waiting for you Guthrie, and I am going to bash you up.”

I am shaking and so afraid, I want to run. I want to pee and shamefully, I cry. The excitement is over and the classroom empties.  Marian and I stand terrified, whispering in panic – what to do?  We wait long minutes praying for safety, and eventually inch our way down silent, empty stairs to the bicycle shed.

Myra is waiting. She runs at me swinging a heavy suitcase, crashes it into my ribs and sends me flying face down in the dirt. A moment passes. I lie winded, in pain. Then I see a blinding red flash and hear a strange noise.  Effortlessly I am up and running and as I spring at her broad retreating back, I hear the noise again and I realize it is me - screaming like an animal.  I tear clumps of hair from her scalp, I kick and bite and rip her shirt, I drag my long fingernails down her face and arms and feel her flesh curl under them with satisfaction.  I see fear in her eyes and I stop screaming only when I am dragged off my prey.

We are threatened with expulsion and permitted to stay and sit our final exams provided we are never closer than twenty feet. Myra’s wounds become infected and are treated in hospital.  For the next month, the hottest month in Zambia, she sweats wearing a woollen jumper to hide her bandages.

I pass everything including maths, and leave school with several distinctions.

And nobody ha ever bullied me since.  


Published on ABC website on  13 Nov 2014.  Berry NSW 2535