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!”