As I mentioned yesterday, I went to the thanksgiving for Kenbric Vocational Training Centre down the tarmac in Nguluni.
Benard had invited me to talk about the importance of technical skills from the perspective of my culture.
He also invited me to take my radio cassette recorder with me. He left me with his chinese sit-up-and-beg bike on wednesday night so I could carry the huge beast as his bike has a rack and mine has shock absorbers and gears but nothing as useful as a rack. So I set out on wednesday early afternoon with my stereo strapped to the rack of Ben’s bike with inner-tube rubber, while the bike itself constantly tried to pitch me into the ditch by the side of the road. All this wearing smart trousers and shirt with a beautiful silk tie (50 bob from Tala = about 30p). When I arrived my back was wet with perspiration, I was late and they were still setting up the tent.
The event was supposed to start at 12.30 and end with us all having lunch. It became clear at about 4.30pm that I was going to be the **last** of the dozen or so special guest speakers. Katie says that kenyans like to listen to their own voices. I think there was a certain amount of one-upmanship going on. Those who spoke later seemed to think they were more important (and I, of course, was the most important of all) and therefore tey needed to speak for longer than their colleagues who went first.
“Bugger this”, I thought.
When it was my turn to speak I stood up and placed three clean, yellow tennis balls on the tablecloth of the tables that we invited guests were using to protect our nether regions from the audience of students, parents and guardians. I started talking properly, standing still, saying that I expected my friend Benard had invited me to speak about skills because he knew I am familiar with the education process. I mentioned that despite being almost 40 I was still at university just before I came to Kenya, and that next week I would begin training with my Kenyan colleagues in the CISCO programme. This was calculated to lull them into a false sense of security: believing that I was a crusty academic who was goint to deliver yet another dull heap of blather from the safety of the table-cloth zone.
So then I set out to the back of the tent where the students were sitting. The students sit at the back, then their parents and guardians, then the special people at the front, beyond the tablecloths.
I headed for the motor-vehicle mechanics students and asked them if they knew how to tighten bolts. I told them I wanted to talk about skills I never acquired and I lay down on the benches between the students pretending to be tightening some nut under a car, and twisting off the thread while my father shouted protests.
Next I told the carpentry and joinery trainees about how unsuccessful I had been at sawing wood. I mimed vigorous sawing while my father shouted remonstrations about the use of his tools.
Next it was the time of the dressmaking and tailoring trainees. I told them how I had run to my mother when my father continued to shout at me and tried to sew up a pair of trousers. I mimed operating a hand-crank sewing machine, complete with lavish soud effects which made the ladies giggle. Then I held up two hands, representing the sewn cloth, and let one fall slowly from the other while making a swanee whistle noise to show that I had been unsuccessful. Then I told them that when we looked for the bobbin inside the machine it seemed to be surrounded by a bird’s nest of thread.
Benard was valiently trying to translate all this into Kikamba. I gave him talking time by silently continuing my mimes. When he caught up, I walked back to the front and took the balls from the table.
“Here is a skill I have acquired”, I said, and proceeded to do a three-ball cascade*. This caused a murmour of approval, so I threw in a few tricks. The I called (in Kikamba, I’m so proud) the young guy who was in charge of the stereo. I summoned him to the front and handed him the balls, gesturing that he shoudl try and juggle. He did his best and when he realised that his mum (or guardian — it has to be said that many of these young peopel have lost one or both parents to AIDS or other blights of the continent) was laughing along with everyone else, he went for it full tilt and sent yellow spheres in all directions, bombarding the crowd**.
* How sad that I had to use this link for 3-ball cascade, I used to have my own animated juggler and, do you know, I think that animated .gif is lost forever!
I made the point that its not possible to just pick up three balls and juggle but that it takes practise. I demonstated practising with one and then two balls and invited the young DJ to try with one, which he did successfully, of course, and everyone applauded!
My final point was that acquiring skills is a lifelong process and that its no use giving up and crying when you break a bolt or fill a sewing machine with thread, that we continue to learn skills when we’re 40, 60 or 80 years old and that it never gets any easier.
Ben was so busy translating this, and from his tone of voice, I’d say he really appreciated th message, that by the time he’d finished, I’d sat down behind the tablecloths again. When he stopped talking and looked round for me I applauded him as if it had been his own speech (which, to a large extent, it had) and the crowd clearly got the joke and joined in clapping for him.
At last it was time for food.
* * Now it has to be said that I also had a go at bombardment. There was a guy at the event with great ’70s sideburns. He was acting as master of ceremonies and, apparently, he was the chairman of the school committee. I lobbed three balls in his direction when I was demonstrating failure, and one of them bounced on his head. He was cool but, as Ben said, without him we might have eaten at a reasonable time. At the end of my talk he lead the crowd in a sort of ritualised applause which involved
Everyone rubbing their hands together
A shout (I don’t know what he said, possibly “Wanker!”) followed by a tripple clacp: clapclapclap
Another, more urgent shout followed by another, louder tripple-clap: CLAPCLAPCLAP!
A final shout and everyone did a kind-of sprinkling-mark-with fairy dust gesture (I should be so lucky!) the kind of movement I used to use back in the UK to let the driver of the next car behind me at the traffic lights know that he had left his indicators on.
Apropos of nothing, this bus was passing while I was giving my speech and I found it lurking in the corner of the first photo on this page (which I had to crop and otherwise process with the GIMP to account for the lousy lighting in the tent with the sun scorching the ground outside) .