‘It’s our home away from home’

2009-07-06 00:00

“THIS is not a boarding house. It’s a home. It’s our home away from home.”

For more than a year, The Witness has been following the story of illegal boarding houses whose owners allegedly exploit children and their parents for financial gain. The Msunduzi Municipality has acted widely on the matter, so there are now acceptable establishments. However, it was still a surprise to be invited to visit a legal boarding house where residents are happy.

It seems The Marines Boarding and Lodging in the CBD is just such a place. The owner, Gary Perumal, invited The Witness to visit and allowed free access to talk to the boarders.

The six-month-old establishment houses 40 boys from grade 1 to matric. Most come from the Eastern Cape, with a few from Durban and Johannesburg. They attend a range of primary and senior schools, mostly formerly “Indian schools” in the northern suburbs. There is separate sleeping accommodation for juniors and seniors.

In an interview with about 30 boys, without Perumal present, they pronounced themselves “happy”.

By nature newspapers are sceptical, so The Witness quizzed them closely, about everything from discipline and adult supervision through school transport and study facilities to food and laundry. Everything is “perfect” and there is nothing they would improve if they could, they said.

Though none of them would be quoted, they said they are proud to be living there and are envied by children who live in other, less pleasant, establishments. It is important to them that it is a Christian place where they have an hour of prayer every evening, go to a youth group on Friday evenings and church on Sundays. They appreciate the discipline enforced by “Sir”, as they call Perumal, and the house rules are prominently displayed. They are aware that it is “very different” from other places they had lived in or seen.

So what makes The Marines different?

First off, said Perumal, he did not go into the venture for the money, but for the boys. “I was an orphan, so I know how hard life can be. I went through eight different foster homes before running away to join the navy as a marine, which is where the name comes from. My wife, Sheena, and I subsidise the running costs of the house from our own money. We live here with the boys; we eat the same food as them. This is my full-time job; I am available to them at any time. Some of the boys finished school early and went home for the holidays. Then they came back again because they would rather be here than at home. That tells you something.”

The boys The Witness spoke to confirmed this. There is a full-time cook and two house mothers.

“We can call Sir at any time of the day or night, even at one o’clock in the morning. He cares about us very much. He deals with us like our parents would do. His heart is always open and it’s not about the money to him, it’s about love and about us,” said one boy.

Perumal displayed a thick file of evidence that his house is legal: applications, letters, forms and other official papers documenting his dealings with the authorities. He requires parents of boarders to sign a legal contract and understands himself to be acting in their place in caring for his charges. He said most of the boys’ parents are government employees like teachers, nurses and school principals.

The boys seemed reluctant to talk about why they are attending schools in the city rather than closer to home. However, some said they want the experience of living in a different place and all emphasised that they want to live at The Marines.

What future does the boarding house have, given the fact that Perumal subsidises it? Will he not have to increase the R880/month fee he currently charges to try and recoup some of the running costs? “No,” he said, “The cost is not a problem, because I am doing this from my heart, it’s my passion. It’s not about the cost or about me, it’s about the boys.”

His wife, Sheena, said she supports him “whole-heartedly, 100%. If it’s his calling, what God wants him to do, then God will provide,” she said.

According to the boys at The Marines, prospective parents should look at and ask boarding house owners about:

• Discipline — what are the rules and how are they enforced?

• Facilities — everything from bathrooms and toilets through sleeping accommodation to study and recreation space, including food and transport;

• Is it a genuinely Christian place?

• Most importantly: Does it feel and look welcoming to a child and a parent?

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