Monday, 31 August 2009

Graduation Day

'Slow & Majestic'

The Graduate

A Day to Remember

It is not hard to stand out in the crowd in Africa. Just being white usually does the trick. This is amplified, however when one is 192 cm tall, wearing a pink and black ankle length gown, a black velvet wide brimmed hat with a pink tassel. No, not dressed for a drag party - Graduation day. If you can picture a big white Beefeater from the Tower of London, then you are pretty close to the mark.

But for me the theatrics of the day was worth it as I was receiving my PhD after 12 long years of study. Dressing up in such costumes might seem anachronistic to some, or as suggested to me by an educated Yawo friend, the result of doing too much study. “You know what Ph.D. stands for don’t you Baba, he asked me rhetorically. “Permanent head damage”, after which he threw back his head and roared with laughter.

I had attended a compulsory rehearsal the previous day. It was chaotic. There were 750 students all attempting to get their gowns, hats and hoods from one man. The unfortunate part of the rehearsal was that we didn’t really get a chance to practice as getting the gowns took far too long. They did show the Bachelor and Master’s students where to stand and how to bow. For the PhD students they just told us to walk ‘slowly and majestically’. They also said that we would need to time our walk, so that we arrive at the podium at the completion of our narrated biographies.

Like a sunny day after a rainstorm, everything was fresh, new and in order for the big day. The marquees were erect, the seats arranged, the flags were flying high and everyone looked, well, academics like.

The President arrived and then joined the academics in a colourful procession down to the podium. After a few speeches they got down to business. There were 750 students graduating, and so many received their degrees in groups, according to their academic discipline. All the student’s names were read out as they walked down the red carpet. Then at the beat of the Kenyatta Drum, they bowed in unison and the President pronounced them graduated.

The PhD ceremony was different. We would receive our awards from the hands of the President. After all of the other awards were completed we were ushered to the staging post from where we would begin our ‘slow and majestic’ walk to the front. I was fortunately last in line, which I thought would give me time to work out what ‘slow and majestic’ really meant. Unfortunately, I was no closer to knowing when my turn came around.

Some of my fellow PhD graduates walked quickly and arrived at the front before the appointed time. This left them standing like marooned sailors on a lonely outcrop, awaiting rescue. Others interpreted ‘slow and majestic’ to mean bowing, turning and waving to the crowd, who roared approvingly.

Standing at the edge of the marquee, on the cusp of my big walk, two ladies seated next to me started niggling me. “So how do you feel brother?” they asked. “Are you nervous?” “Can you walk like that?” “That’s the President down there!” “Your next!” My head was abuzz.

At last I heard my name announced and so I stepped out of the shade into the sunshine. The big white Beefeater from Australia dressed in pink and black. I could feel every eye, but decided to just keep looking straight down the long red carpet to where His Excellency was sitting, waiting. ‘Slow and majestic’, I am not sure, but I was moving. I could hear the narrator talking about me. He was saying where and when I was born and which country I was from. He fumbled at first. He nearly made me twenty years younger, which I wouldn’t of minded and of South African origin, which I would have objected to. But then he recovered and I heard him mentioned the great Land Down Under.

Unfortunately, partway along the carpet I got a rush of blood and for an instant ‘slow and majestic’ became arm raised, power-walking and waving to the crowd. I am not sure what came over me. The crowed had roared with approval when the narrator mentioned my role in the Yawo - English Dictionary Project and for a moment I just couldn’t help myself. Fortunately, I recovered as I refocused on the President who was sitting, calmly waiting, not more that 20 meters in front.

Finally, I reached “the place of bowing” as I will forever remember it. I think it was actually the chalk line of the penalty box on the College of Medicine football pitch, just in front of the podium. Then I heard the words, which brought it all to completion: “Doctor of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, Ian David Dicks”. At this point the President, all of the academics and dignitaries stood. I stepped forward again, but this time I was really flowing. It was ‘slow and majestic’. I had finally found my rhythm. At the base of the steps I bowed again and then up I went. At the top I put my hands together, as we had been instructed, and then the President grasped my hands in his and he said to me, “Congratulations” and then handed me my Doctoral certificate. It was finally over. I had made it. And yes, it was certainly a day to remember.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

You're Lucky!

I had a pigeon poop on my shoulder recently while at an outdoor café in Pretoria, South Africa. It was a moist slushy dollop about 2cm in diameter and it dissolved quickly into the fleece I was wearing. I had just ordered coffee for Wendy and I to have while we discussed our recent run-in with a used car salesman up the road.

I called the waitress over to get something to wipe away the little message. When I explained to her what had happened she replied, “You're lucky!” I thought perhaps that she was joking because the poop had missed my head. When I asked her what she meant she said that according to her culture (Zulu) when a pigeon poops on you it is a sign of good luck. Intrigued by her answer I called over her colleague and asked him what it means if a pigeon poops on you. Without hesitation and with an air of awe in his voice, he replied “You're lucky!”

The strange thing was I didn’t feel that lucky. For one thing we had just driven 1700 km to look at a vehicle only to be yelled at by the used car manager for daring to ask for a slight discount.

But feelings are subjective aren’t they? What are the facts? Let me explain how the next few days unfolded for us so that you can be the judge of whether you think ‘I am lucky’.

After being yelled at by the used car manager, we left the show room not knowing what to do, as we had no other leads and hence the need for coffee. That evening, however, I found another vehicle on a local web site. When I went to look at it the next day I found that it was in better condition, had done less kilometres, was priced lower and the salesman was even nice to me. Boy, I thought, ‘lucky’ that I didn’t buy the vehicle the day before!

But several things needed to happen before we could take the vehicle back to Malawi. First we had to pay for it. Then it had to be inspected by the police to make sure that it wasn’t stolen. Then we needed to get it deregistered and cleared for export by the customs department.

I promptly arranged for the money to be sent electronically from Australia. Unfortunately, Mike the used car salesman, gave me wrong bank account details in which to deposit the money. This meant that Mr. Ling in Shanghai, China suddenly saw his bank balance increase by $20,000, only for it to whisked away again a day or so later. Obviously pigeon poop means something completely different to the Chinese! Once the missing money issue was sorted out, Mike, (which is not an alias) sent the vehicle for inspection by the police and for deregistration. Mike told me that I was ‘in luck’, as his friend had a business, which handled these sorts of clearances. Unfortunately, Mike mistakenly gave him the wrong registration papers and so they spent two days trying to clear our vehicle using the papers of another vehicle! Both of these incidents put us about 4 days behind schedule.

Mike’s friend’s clearing business is called “Red Tape”. Despite their name they were just not able to cut through the South African bureaucracy. This was unfortunate as after nine days our guest-house manager told us that we had to leave as he had other guests coming to stay. This put us under a bit of pressure as you can imagine. But just as we were wondering what to do, Mike called to say that there had been a break-through. In the end I discovered that it wasn’t “Red Tape’s” business acumen, which cut through the red tape but the offer of a free lunch for the government official!

In possession of the vehicle and the necessary permits (with a few breadcrumbs and mayonnaise stains on them), we set out for the South African and Zimbabwean border. Unfortunately it was 5.30 pm on a weeknight when we set out and so we were caught in rush hour traffic in a city of 9 million people! We eventually arrived at our destination at 12.15 am. Fortunately, we had booked ahead and so we found our room still vacant. The next morning we were up early in order to be at the border post by 7.00 am to begin the process of exporting our vehicle. We used a clearing agent on both sides of the border to help speed up the process. Even so it took us 11 hours to get through. “You are lucky”, Lovemore, the clearing agent said, “some times it can take 2 or 3 days!”

After our long ordeal we decided to rest for the night about an hour inside the Zimbabwean border. Unfortunately, one of the vehicles in our party took the wrong turn shortly outside of the border-post and so we spent several hours driving around searching for them. The next day we had a slow start because of the events of the day before. A few hours into the trip, a truck, coming the opposite direction, threw up a stone and smashed the windscreen of our new vehicle, showering my son Benjamin and I with small particles of glass. Looking at the huge indent in the windscreen and at the quickly spreading crack, Benjamin said, “Wow, dad that was fortunate, we could have been killed!” “Yeh”, I said, “We could have been,” while contemplating how we had managed to be at that place on the road, at that time, when that particular truck was passing with that rock in its tires. Hmm! We had just replaced a windscreen on another vehicle while in South Africa at a cost of US$250.

It took us another two days of driving to reach Malawi, including a five-hour wait at the border to exit from Zimbabwe.
Unfortunately our clearing agent, ‘God Knows Jombo’, wasn’t fully engaged with our job. In fact we were thinking most of the time that only God really knew where ‘God Knows’ was, as for certain we didn’t.

Finally, we made it back to Malawi and after a good night’s sleep I went to enquire about a replacement windscreen for the new vehicle. “You're in luck,” the salesman said, “We have one in stock and it is only US$1,100”. “Yeh”, I answered while thinking of my once soiled shoulder, “I guess I really am lucky!”

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

I self medicate, do you?

Getting malaria is never pleasant, especially when you contract it the first night you stay in a country. What are the chances of that happening? No really! What would it be statistically? Now that would be a worth-while statistical analysis, even perhaps worthy of a Ph.D.

I always wondered, in all those classic missionary stories how people died so quickly, sometimes only weeks after arriving. Now, however, I think that it is amazing that they lasted so long, especially since they had no idea what was killing them.

Generally with malaria, it is possible to count back 10 days from when you get your first symptoms to know exactly where you contracted it. This knowledge is more aesthetic than helpful for diagnosis. Unfortunately, I can’t even say that I contracted it while at some exotic location or event. It is much more interesting to say, “Ah yes, it was while I was trekking through Elephant Marsh that I was bitten” or “it was while I was at the all-night initiation dance. Having to tell people that I was bitten while sitting around a dodgy in-ground swimming pool at a cheap hotel in Lilongwe doesn’t really have the same ring to it.

Unfortunately, contracting malaria is easy. Determining that you really have it is another matter altogether, especially where we live in Malawi. After 13 years of living here I believe that determining one’s malaria state is more of an interpretive art than hard science. It is a bit like divining water with a willow branch. This is partly due to malaria affecting people differently. I often don’t get a fever, which is usually the classic symptom. I do take anti-malarial drugs, which do give some protection. But, they also mask some of the symptoms.

Another factor, which inhibits one knowing their malaria state, is the system and in this arena I am at an immediate disadvantage. Many locals just treat themselves. Every thing is malaria - flu, common cold, you name it. They buy the drugs at the local store and off they go. But because of my background, (western, middle class and tertiary educated) I have had drummed into me my whole life that I should follow correct procedures and that I should defer to proper authorities. Therefore, to ‘treat’ myself without a proper medical examination is one step from being a casual drug user. So it was with this burden that I took myself off to the local clinic to get my blood checked for parasites.

The malaria test is really not a difficult test. All that is needed is some blood, a glass plate, a few drops of special fluid, some heat and a microscope. The day I went, I was fortunate enough to meet the medical assistant, which is not always the case. This however, was where my fortune ran out. After listening to me ramble on in my stupor about the possibility of having malaria he told me that he was unable to give me the malaria test because, “the microscope was a little bit broken”. To the untrained ear this might still offer some hope that you will eventually get a test done and that the machine is being fixed as you speak. But for me, with finely tuned ears, I knew that there would be no test. The microscope had been completely obliterated in some freak accident or by some force of nature and that the chances of ever seeing it again in that hospital were about as slim as meeting Elvis in his blue suede shoes on the streets of Namwera. In an attempt to encourage me, he suggested that I just take the drugs. “If it is malaria it will treat it and if not, well then, it will be something else and you can come back again”, he said. Defeated in my quest for the definitive test, I decided to buy the drugs and dose myself up hoping that my doctor back home wouldn’t get wind that I was a self medicator.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

My Exit Row Experience
It is not my usual practice to pray audibly for people when traveling by plane. But when a 49-year-old man grabs my arm on take-off and squeezes for all he is worth, I figure freaking out a few fellow passengers is of little significance.

I felt that something wasn’t quiet right when we boarded the plane. The first warning sign was olfactory. There was a strong smell of alcohol on the breath of my fellow passenger. The second sign was audible. My fellow passenger turned to me and said that he was really scared of flying.

I initially tried to reassure him with the good old scientific rationalist argument; that flying is statistically safer than driving. By the wide-eyed look on his face I could tell that the enlightenment didn’t mean that much to him. While we were still talking a Stewardess interrupted us and asked us to move up several rows to occupy the exit row. The reason, she said, for our sudden elevation was because there were two men of ‘North African’ descent in the exit row who didn’t appear to understand her safety drill about opening doors and helping others to exit. After my recent failure with my scientific rationalist talk, I decided to try a different communication technique with the hostess. I winked at her and nodded my head sideways toward my inebriated friend. This was my sign to indicate that we were really unworthy candidates for the exit row. Unfortunately, she was not the subtle type. I shouldn’t have been surprised, as she had completely miss-read the Sudanese’s lack of eye contact for a lack of understanding. It was perfectly clear to everyone else on board the plane that they had understood as they cursed and swore in perfect English at their sudden down grade.

My fellow traveler and I moved into the still warm exit row seats. I had the centre seat and my fellow traveler, the window. The aisle seat was occupied by another man who just kept reading his newspaper through the whole incident.

After a minute or so there was an ever-so slight bump as the plane pushed back from the terminal. My fellow traveler literally jumped in his seat and with terror in his voice said, “What was that!” It was at this point that I knew this was going to be a very long flight to Melbourne! As we began to taxi to the runway, my fellow passenger began to tell me rather loudly but with shaky voice why he was so afraid. He had been in an aircraft accident while he had been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and some of his colleagues had been killed.

Once on the runway the plane turned and then began to accelerate. Without shame my fellow passenger grabbed my arm and squeezed it for all he was worth. His eyes were all scrunched up and he was groaning and swearing. This was the moment when I decided to pray. I told my fellow passenger that I believed in God and that I was going to pray and ask God to help us, which is what I did. Eventually, after we were well and truly in the air and after what seemed like my longest audible extemporaneous prayer ever, my fellow passenger let go of my arm. With a look of complete exhaustion he then just sat or rather slumped in his seat and stared out the window at the wing.

When the hostess came through with snacks, my fellow passenger ordered more alcohol. Obviously my prayer was not enough! I tried again to indicate to the hostess that my friend had probably had a bit too much to drink, but to no avail. She just kept dishing it out. Good-on-you Qantas! By this time I could tell that subtle communication was not her thing. After the alcohol, my fellow passenger decided he needed the bathroom, which was not too surprising. After letting him out of the exit row I turned to the other passenger in the aisle seat and informed him why our fellow passenger was behaving so strangely. He just scoffed and said, “Ah, I am not afraid of flying. If I live or die, it is all the will of God.” When I asked him where he was from, he replied Pakistan!

I am not sure what you are meant to say to a person after such a statement, but by now I was also completely spent and so I too just slumped back into my seat. One thing I knew for certain, if there was an emergency on this flight and people needed to get out, they wouldn’t be getting much help from any of us in the exit row!