Putting out fires

Health and safety has not yet reached the epidemic proportions here in South Africa that it undoubtedly has in the United Kingdom. However it is making its well-meaning but sometimes counterproductive presence slowly felt, to the point where we recently had a whole school fire drill. Not that we don’t have these but this time in order to ensure we maintained our safety rating we had the full Monty, complete with ambulances, fire engines and simulated injuries.


In order to receive the necessary accreditation the whole community of more than five hundred students, teachers, staff from the laundry, kitchen and grounds had to be present and accounted for within fifteen minutes from the initial sounding of the alarm. A time was set, a managed fire lit and five ‘bodies’ to be rescued placed randomly around the school premises. All was ready.

It did not go well.

To start with the alarm, which typically sounds like a World War 2 air raid siren, did not work properly. It is usually guaranteed to send you running for cover while scanning for enemy aircraft overhead, but in this instance was barely audible, particularly if you happened to be teaching 9E at the time.

Once the alarm was finally raised, the school duly made its way onto the front lawn for the register to be taken. Once there they were treated to a number of spectacles. The first was one of the ‘bodies’ on the school roof who had to be wrapped in material, presumably to treat some fictitious burns, being winched to the ground. The other was the sight of the Head Master, who had for some reason been nominated to put out the fires, perhaps because this is something he does a lot of, attempting to manhandle a fire extinguisher that seemed to be suffering from performance anxiety. Both of these acts took considerably longer than I suspect they were supposed to. To be fair it did not help that the ‘body’ on the roof was clearly alive and well and somewhat terrified of being lowered over the edge of a building while rendered immobile in plastic wrapping and strapped onto a stretcher. In defence of the Head too he did miss last year’s Safety Training course and it turns out that his extinguisher was almost empty. Nevertheless these events served the unintended purpose of keeping the growing crowd fully entertained and manageable until all were accounted for and the drill was complete.

The problem of course was that not everybody was accounted for. In fact a whole class was missing. One teacher, bless him, had decided that the whole exercise was at an inconvenient time and simply carried on teaching regardless. Once this group was found it was then discovered a second teacher was missing. Fearing he had succumbed to the imaginary flames the authorities searched for him for some time before discovering him at home with his feet up where the only heat he was experiencing was of that emanating from the cup of tea he was enjoying, oblivious to the chaos he had left behind. It turns out the fire drill conveniently preceded a couple of free periods, so he had simply sent his class off and walked home to enjoy an extended break.

While all of this was going on one of the designated fire marshals whose task it was to check that the boarding houses were empty, radioed for help, trapped inside a building. Not sure if this was part of the simulation or not, the authorities responded with reassuring alacrity. It turned out that the marshal had indeed been imprisoned as a door had closed shut behind her and she lacked the necessary finger print access to make an exit.

Meanwhile someone had neglected to tell the surrounding community that a drill was being held. This might not seem like much but in a rural area predominantly consisting of forestry and farm land and at the end of a long hot dry spell, the risk of wildfires is a real one. The very thought of fire is enough to get the local farmers sweating and so when seven emergency vehicles roared into the local vicinity with blue lights blazing, phones started ringing. Tempers, if not flames, flared and the Head Master had to get involved in some more firefighting.

When all is said and done it seems we are going to be awarded our certificate. This is a pity, I was rather looking forward to having to do the whole thing again.


Christmas in school

At the end of November yuletide dinners are eaten in school and carol services sung (yes, in Autumn) and students head home for the festive holidays.

I work for a boarding school in the KwaZulu-Natal countryside of South Africa. Having left England for a gap year in Zimbabwe more than 20 years ago I am often surprised to find myself still in southern Africa. Moving south 10 years ago it was wonderful for our family to be integrated into the community that a boarding school provides; although work is pretty full on for the 60 or so full-time staff members who teach and live on campus, there is a lot of support, professionally and socially.

Working where you live has demands; in some staff houses you can hear the school bells ringing from around 6.30am through till 10pm and holidays are a much-needed break. During the term evenings and weekends involve hostel and sports duties – even on Sunday all staff are expected to attend one of the two chapel services on offer.

Although staff and their families draw a lot of support from each other, working and living in such close proximity can have its downsides. Your opponent in a common room spat may well be your neighbour, and the person whose dog keeps coming into your garden could be doing your end of year review.

When pupils left this Christmas, some staff went to assist with national exam marking. For me, the only thing I will be marking for the next 49 days is time. Playing garden cricket with my three boys, making and eating copious amounts of mince pies, reading on my veranda and perhaps getting away for a week or so at the beach.

It takes a while for the staff to realise that the campus is now our own: the empty fields, gym, tennis and squash courts lie waiting for us to regain the energy sapped from us this year. Like church mice we slowly venture out once the congregation has turned out the lights and left the building.

For the last 40 or so weeks teachers have avoided the outdoor swimming pool, either due to the cold or more usually for fear of unveiling their bodies with more than 500 teenagers in the vicinity. Now staff and families will be found at the pool: reading, sunbathing, playing pool cricket or even swimming. Occasionally a braai (Afrikaans for barbecue) drum will be found and an impromptu pool party will ensue.

The central part of the school holidays are the two Christmas services in our school chapel. The first is a nativity service on Christmas Eve. The service is supposed to start at the school gates and proceed to the chapel while singing carols. But in all the time I have been at the school this has only happened once. Usually the summer thunderstorms bring down enough rain to make the walk to the chapel from the car park look like a scene from the movie “Noah”.

On Christmas day we start early with the opening of stockings before the only bells we will hear all holiday peel out from the chapel just before 8am. Most staff that are not away visiting family or elsewhere on holiday come to the service, as well as locals and guests staying in the area. After church we retreat home to open presents with coffee and mince pies. Following which we join with one or two other staff families on campus to eat a fairly traditional English-style Christmas lunch, followed perhaps by an afternoon game of garden cricket, thunder clouds permitting.

Christmas always presents the dilemma of missing family. I would go and see my family in the UK but do not want to be away from my wife and children in South Africa. Air tickets are too expensive at this time of year to take the whole family over. Christmas day itself is so busy that I don’t have a chance to miss the English style festivities and family, but on Boxing Day I find myself more reflective.

This is when I will talk with my parents, brother and sister in the south of England and slip into a nostalgic or melancholic frame of mind. I can usually rouse myself from this by watching the Boxing Day test match on TV or one of the English Premier League games, hopefully Tottenham Hotspur, which can be viewed here.

It won’t be long before the fields are full again and the pool becomes a no-go area for all but the bravest teachers. When the bells once again resume their unforgiving schedule the Christmas break will seem like a distant memory.