The When Wes

Today, driving through Chicago and past places I used to work and now barely recognize, I started thinking about the “When Wes.” The year I turned 16 I lived in Malawi. I went to an international boarding school. Most of the students were the sons and daughters of businessmen. A few, like me, were the children of professors. A few were the children of missionaries or diplomats. Most students were European, although there were some Africans, primarily Ugandans, South Africans, and a few Malawians.

The teachers, all of whom were called “Miss” and “Sir,” were a mix of young British teachers looking for something interesting to do before having children of their own, older Europeans who were there for various reasons, and white Rhodesians who had left during the war and upheaval when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. The former Rhodesians were not poor, but they were homeless. There was a lost look in their eyes and they spoke with a perpetual sigh.

“Oh him?” I was told late one night in the dorm when I complained about a history teacher, “he’s the worst of the whenwes.” “The what?” I asked. “Rhodesians are called when wes,” my new friends explained, “because they start every sentence with ‘Well of course, WHEN WE were in Rhodeeeesia'” We laughed and smoked our smuggled cigarettes and I tried to mimic “When We Were in Rhodesia” in my American accent, which only made everyone laugh harder and eventually we went to bed, some in our own beds, some in each others. There were those in the dorm who would have cared where we all slept, who would have cared about the cigarettes, but the Head Girl was with us, and the sister of the Head Boy and everyone except me was a prefect, so no one said a word.

We were young and beautiful, and at least in that country, wealthy. It made us merciless about all adults, but especially the when wes. One weekend night three of us went to a restaurant by ourselves. We had martinis and steak stuffed with prawns, and espresso and tiny cigars and no one batted an eye at the sight of three teenage girls eating like middle age men. We were just like adults, only better. We were not sad and we were fairly sure that we never would be.

Many of the girls had already lived in multiple countries and gone to multiple schools and the idea of mourning anything as silly, and as easy to replace, as a home or a country made no sense to us. Later that year, the former boyfriend of one of us was killed in a motorcycle accident. A few months later the term was over and I went back to the States. Almost everything about that year, the parties, the sun, the weirdness of it all, faded into a dream. It was before Facebook, or even email, and I had no other ties to Malawi, so I lost touch with everyone.

About a year ago I  found a man named Smitty who lives in Malawi and puts out a monthly email newsletter. It has some current news of the school, but mainly it is full of memories and history and death notices. Most of it is meaningless to me. The school has been around since 1958 and I was there for one year in the 1980s. But I glance through it, hoping to find something that I recognize, hoping to find a little bit of the time I lost.

Of course, it seems cruel now. Teenage girls emulating grown ups while mocking their loss. But we didn’t know. We did not know how easy it was to become a when we, no matter where you live.

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