As Grinnell fellows, we are not the only people who come from far away to stay at St. Rodrigue. While some girls walk to school every day, through dongas and over hills, many of the students here, come from too far away to walk. One distinctive and special part of St. Rodrigue High School is that there is a hostel (dormitory) that houses the girls who hail from all over Lesotho, drawn to the opportunity to live and study with other girls.
Shelves upon shelves house the girl's school trunks, which carry all of the girls' belongings to school
The hostel sits behind the school, surrounded by a wire fence that is inevitably drowned in freshly washed clothes, dripping as they dry in the sun. If you want to know why the girls of St. Rodrigue cannot manage to study in the evenings, you need only to walk up the hill at any non-school hour of the day and listen to the enormous racket of shrieking, giggling, and gossiping teenage girls. For me, the hostel has a feeling of familiarity. I went to a boarding high school and, while the school itself was certainly different, as a teenage girl, I lived with my best friends. Like the girls of St. Rodrigue, we stayed up late, chatting and making noise; whenever I venture up the hill, behind the convent, I feel a momentary nostalgia. On the other hand, when I hear the hostel din, I feel grateful that from the teacher’s row of houses, the hostel hoopla is somehow out of earshot.
One of my hostel tour guides, giggling in her bunk
Grinnell students often complain about having to share a room with one other student. The girls of St. Rodrigue share a room with their entire class. The hostel contains five different dormitory rooms: one each for form A, B, C, D, and E. Rows upon rows of bunk-beds, made up in colorful blankets fill each hall; looking out at the sea of beds, one only can wonder how much sleeping actually occurs.
Many, many beds
The hostel, which inevitably appears in the girls’ compositions and in the pieces they write for literary magazine/newspaper club, provides the girls with a home away from home and a second family; the girls care for each other and are looked after by the hostel “matrons”. As one girl wrote, “in the hostel we have matrons who care for us, just like the days scholars who are with their parents at home.”
The "matron" fir the Form A dormitory; her bed sit in the corner of the room, looking out into the sea of bunk-beds
Additionally, the hostel is a place where girls get to hang out in their “privates” (non-uniform clothing) and a place where they get to live with all of their friends. After school holidays, most of the girls seem thrilled to be back at school; when asked, they will often say their holiday was “boring.” When the girls go home, many of them have responsibilities to help their families with harvesting and housework. While the girls have the responsibility to pass their classes at school, their other responsibilities lie primarily with their friends. The “hostelers” of St. Rodrigue have the opportunity to be carefree teenagers.
The girls not only hang out and play in the hostel. The girls take care of and support each other; as one of the girls wrote, “we help each other with food and all other human needs.” Other girls stated that “in the hostel I help those who need help from me. I ask other girls for help if I do not have anything to use or eat. I sometimes borrow [lend] them my clothes if they are attracted to them.”
Form Bs, lounging on their top-bunks in their "privates"
When the girls speak fondly of the hostel, they will inevitably bring up the kitchen, which allows them to fill their own eating needs. There is one kitchen for the Form A and Bs and a second for the C, D, and Es. Each kitchen consists of a very large iron stove, topped with many, many pots, a long table that extends the length of the room, and lockers lining the walls. The girls like to cook for themselves, and if you visit the hostel, they will be delighted to let you try their cooking!
The enormous iron stove, topped with pots
Pots, girls, standing on the table that extends the length of the Form A and B kitchen
Thato Litaba, a Form A, cooking on her personal stove
One student, when talking about her experience at a “mixed school” (co-ed school) before coming to St. Rodrigue wrote that “at lunch we were given food at school. We were not able to eat as much as we wanted because there were many students. Sometimes I spent the day with hunger. I couldn’t fight for myself because I was the youngest of all my classmates. But here at St. Rodrigue I am able to survive because there is a hostel and one cooks for herself.” Another student supported this, writing that “in the hostel we eat everything we need at any time because we cook for ourselves.” The girls are proud of their cooking abilities and appreciate the independence that cooking for themselves allows them.
Tohlang, a Form B student, hanging out of her dormitory window, snacking on self-made papa
The girls at the hostel are learning how to be independent, far away from the people they have grown up with. They have to figure out how to take care of themselves in a strange place. When the girls first arrive at the hostel, they choose one of the many generic bunk-beds and make it their own piece of home. They learn how to develop a support system. Despite their distance from home, the general feeling is one of comfort: as one girl wrote, “when we are here, we feel at home.”
In this way, the experience of many of the St. Rodrigue girls mirrors that of the Grinnell fellows: we come to a strange place, far from our loved ones and we figure out how to be ourselves, to be independent and support ourselves in a new way, to make friends, to work with what we have and to make ourselves a home.