Getting Over The Bullying Years by Ruvimbo Janet Tuwe

We were on a family holiday in the Eastern Highlands in December of 1998 when my father received a call that was redirected from his office in Bulawayo. It was pretty urgent since it was a prestigious school in Bulawayo calling to confirm that I had been accepted to start my Form 2 studies with them at the beginning of the new year.

To say that I was excited would be putting it extremely lightly.

My father’s immense pride at finally managing to get me placed in a school that his status afforded was a coup of note. The expectations were high as I embarked on my journey to a first class education in a first class private school where I would be surrounded by the offspring of some of the cream of Zimbabwe’s – and at times southern Africa’s – society; the children of ministers, diplomats, business people, successful farmers and miners, social and opinion leaders, philanthropists, you name it this school had it.

And it was as expensive to go there as one would expect it to be, with the calibre of people mentioned above baying for places for their daughters. To be afforded the privilege to attend was an honour that made me puff my chest out with pride any time thoughts of leaving the public school system wandered into my mind.

So in my innocent pimple-faced pubescence, I marched through the small gate at the  entrance, ready to conquer the world. I had no idea that in planning to conquer the world, I would go through so much that would change me, hurt me and crush me.

The educational aspects of it were far more superior to what my parents or I had anticipated. I excelled in the classroom and genuinely benefitted from the extracurricular activities offered thereof. The lessons in deportment, office skills, eloquence and grace still benefit me today as they are so deeply entrenched in the school culture.

But socially, I wasn’t faring too well.

I had developed extensive scarring from constantly poking at my face, back and arms due to very aggressive acne and oily skin that plagued me as soon as the violent hormones registered as a preteen, I was also quite heavy set. I had difficulty fitting in as most girls in my stream were clear-faced and limber. No one wanted to be near me. All but one whose enduring friendship is a rock for me, Taurayi Chiedza Nyakunika. Her uproarious laughter was one of the only resonant highs through those dark days.

Race never came into it, thankfully, as the school – to its enduring credit – is an amalgam of many cultures and ethnicities. Acceptance of that kind of difference was never even a topic for discussion as we all just took it in our stride.

But there was one segment that never accepted anything or anyone for who they were: these were the numerous cliques born of the ‘Jesus/Disciple’ phenomenon. Anyone who was there during that period knows to whom exactly I refer.

I had a deep love for the arts and music but had been discouraged in primary school from joining the choir as our exchange teacher from Japan had been unable to class my voice as either alto or a soprano. And since she couldn’t place me, I was excluded. My high school life changed one day while waiting for auditions for junior choir with Mrs Smith. We were early and fooling around on the stage and I had my back to the hall. She walked in as I was dancing  and belting out “….DANCE FOR MY LORD YEAHHHH….”

With a thud, she set her files on the piano and screamed, “Who was that?!”

Having identified me, she made me sing Swing Low Sweet Chariot and decided that I was now a soloist.

She was adamant I had one of the most powerful Contralto voices she had ever heard. She would train me vocally and schedule lessons with me (in your face to my primary school teacher!). The only downside was that this also entailed practising with the senior choir periodically.

I will never forget how awkward I felt on the first day I had to rehearse with them, the deep wish that the earth would just open up and swallow me whole… the snickering, the gawping  at me, the (LOUD) deriding whispers.

It was hell.

The hell would only get progressively worse. I started being treated like a Pariah even more among my own peers as I was now suddenly “special” or “brand new” yet didn’t deserve it being as fuggly (fat and ugly) as I was. The same singing that had now become an escape would be the same tool that opened me up to abuse from an ever-widening circle as we associated with other schools extensively.

I have never suffered from stage fright as being on a stage and being severely short-sighted made everyone in the audience look like a blur anyhow. I loved the power of a silent audience in awe as I started singing my first note and the way I could have them spellbound throughout my performance and even better than that would be the thundering applause at the end. I was relevant. Even if I had your attention for just ten seconds, it was a sweeter taste as compared to the remaining 23 hours 59minutes and 50 seconds where I had my inadequacies screaming in my mind, every day.

I have accepted that I will never know what drove one of my closest associates to purchase (at substantial expense) a copy of the school magazine and circulate it to all the boys’ schools with the express instruction to ‘diss the proverbial sh*t out of me’.

This magazine did its rounds and upon its return, was unleashed in the circles of the seniors for them to add their esteemed views. No names were under any of the comments but the sheer spew of hatred page after page in type after type of handwriting after handwriting indicated how much effort had gone into it and how many had contributed to it. I was first alerted to its existence by another long enduring friend and church mate who had become a boarder, and she made it her mission to get her hands on this book.

I can only laugh now at some of the things I read in there; one was as bold as to say that people should avoid showering after me when I slept in hostel after late events at school as they were at risk of contracting my severe contagious facial syphilis. It affected me deeply as I now knew most of those who tolerated being around me were actually disgusted by me.

Even though my singing had earned me a scholarship to complete my A’ levels, I was in a desperate rush to leave and join my parents who had relocated to Harare. No way I was about to subject myself to the hell that certainly awaited me in hostel life. I packed it all in and ran for the hills like the coward I had become due to the teasing.

I had a boyfriend, my first when I was 16, simply for the sake of trying to prove someone could find me attractive. Even if he wasn’t from the desirable or popular schools, he engaged my mind and validated me. This set the tone in my adult relationships where the scars from that time carried through. Self-doubt shadowed me and I never felt pretty enough or good enough, I got married far too young because of that need for validation and that fell splat on its face because the reasons were wrong.

I still have mental and emotional ties to overcome from those years. I kept that magazine for years, with no good reason for keeping it, only destroying it just before I got married by burning it before I buried the remains in a compost heap…a purge if you will.

I am now more self-assured and confident and have learnt the hard way that aesthetics are not everything, hell they aren’t anything at all. As I have discovered through my work, a few clever strokes of a makeup brush are all it takes and if that doesn’t do it there is always Photoshop and filters.

P.S.  As a side note I just want to mention a certain lady who enquired as to how it was possible for someone as ‘fuggly’ as me to make as gorgeous a child as I produced… All I have wanted to say to you since you said that, is, by God’s grace, one day you will grow up. My daughter will never know such self-hate and will be accepted, not on merit of how pleasing she is to the eye but on the contents of her mind, her heart and personality.

I am not totally free yet…but I am getting there, no matter how much has delayed my journey.

[Cover photo is taken from ]

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