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.