Published: April 5th 2008January 31st 2008
A few weeks ago, hobbling around Backpackers on my bum ankle, I was approached by the owner, John, and one of his employees. Hasifa has been working at the hostel for almost a year, as part of a work-study program through Makerere University. Now, with graduation just days away, and Hasi completing her degree in Tourism and Business Management, John had penned a vigorous letter recommending her for highest honors. Hasi, blushing and effusive, thanked him for the kind words. But John, pulling me aside, asked if I might do him a favor, using my editorial skills to smooth out the letter’s rough edges. After all my weeks here, it seemed the least I could do, even if I was happy to watch John himself - loud, brash, always veering toward the inappropriate, wholly Australian - floundering about in a pre-literate sea. I trimmed a bit here, nipped a bit there, and added a few embellishments. It took about as long as it takes to polish off a cup of coffee, and I didn’t think anything of it afterwards. It was great to help Hasi in some small way, even if it was just the words - and not exactly the
sentiment - that was my own.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, when Hasi hands me an invitation to her graduation party later that week. “I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done,” she says. “That letter was just…” She makes a face of soaring, inarticulate joy. And I, too, am a bit speechless. I take the invitation and turn it over a few times in my hands. It’s a neat, embossed little card with a graduation cap in one corner and a pink-petaled rose in another. I offer my warmest thanks - really, I’m touched by the gesture, even if I’m a bit embarrassed by how little I did to deserve it. Afterward I call her father, Salim, to tell him how honored I’d be to join his family on their special day. Salim, for his part, seems a bit surprised by my call. He mumbles a few things into the phone (and, I get the feeling, through a mouthful of muchomo
), grunting his assent when I cheerfully chirp “See you at three tomorrow!” and then wordlessly hanging up the phone.
Apart from my vague, metaphysical discomfort at being invited, I’m even more disturbed
by the prospect of picking out something to wear. There’s not much in my backpack that says “Graduation Party,” so much as “Will edit for food.” I take a harrowing turn through Oweno Market before returning to the hostel empty-handed. I rifle through my things, picking out my fanciest shirt (it has buttons) and my black linen pants. Henceforth known as “Old Faithful,” these quickly catapult me from the sartorial ranks of a grubby backpacker to, well, the ranks of a grubby backpacker in black linen pants.
None of which impresses John when I find him in the lobby of the Grand Imperial, just a few minutes to three on the day of the ceremony. “Boy, you look like a real backpacker,” he says, lounging and resplendent in a double-breasted navy suit. There’s an air about him suggesting we’ll be measuring our cocks on the buffet table before the day is through. I sit beside him in one of the plush leather armchairs, terrified by the prospect of small-talk. Soon he’s off on a lengthy diatribe about how things are done in Africa (poorly). The clock creeps past three, then three-thirty. “That’s the thing about these African ceremonies,”
John says, checking his wristwatch, before going on to explain what the thing is about these African ceremonies. He finishes and I get up and poke my head in the dining room, where I’m hoping to find a happy crowd mingling. To my distress the wait staff is still laying out the place settings. The guests are nowhere in sight. It’s close to four - a full hour after the party was meant to have started. Somewhere inside me, I can feel something dying.
When the guests finally arrive a half-hour later, it’s a grand procession. Husky women in elaborate dresses, swaths of color wrapped and tucked around their bosoms; broad, handsome men with sports jackets over their white gelabbiyeh
robes; young guys in sharp suits and playboy loafers; pretty little girls in pastel-colored communion dresses; pint-sized boys in vests and neckties; and finally, in caps and gowns, the graduates. As distinguished guests, John (Hasifa’s boss for the past year) and I (white) get our own table at the front of the room, just steps from the graduates themselves. In one of the rare moments when I can appreciate his verbal aggression, John manages to protest the ludicrousness
of having the two of us at our own table - or, as he puts it, “on display like animals at the zoo.” The waiter is briefly torn between two competing demands: on the one hand, to have the wzungu
on prominent display; on the other hand, to not argue with the wzungu
. Finally, with a bit of shuffling at a nearby table, we manage to arrange ourselves discreetly in with the rest of the crowd. Across the room, Salim looks slightly crestfallen, and I make a solemn promise to myself to pose for all sorts of photo ops before the evening is through.
The music is turned up and more guests arrive, hobbling on tall heels and hugging presents to their bosoms. There’s plenty of milling and good-natured catching up, and it’s only as John begins to chew my ear off that the fact that Hasifa’s family is Muslim - and hence, the party is alcohol-free - strikes me with the full force of despair. A small junta breaks off from the main party to gather in the adjacent bar, where the African Cup of Nations is playing out on a small TV; as John continues to make
short, angry judgments on all things African, I silently vow to join them as soon as the first opportunity presents itself.
Finally the music dies. The emcee, true to Ugandan form, warms up the crowd with a lengthy monologue, reflecting the conventional wisdom that the best way to add gravitas to an occasion is a twelve car pile-up of adjectives.
“Let us all congratulate them on this special, amazing, incredible day. They have worked so hard…through so much difficulty, and hardship, and challenges…to finally achieve this incredible, wonderful, proud achievement.” And so on.
For the first two hours, as the speeches give way to more speeches, and the music is muzak, and dinner is nowhere to be found, it dawns on me that the only thing missing from this celebration is a celebration. Men nod solemnly into their neckties; women fuss with their handbags and take extended bathroom breaks. Photographers circle the room, hunched, predatory, vigorously snapping away and doing their best to squeeze the two white guys into every picture. Again the emcee gets up and gives a triumphant little half-pump of the fist as he offers his congratulations. Standing behind the graduates, who
sit behind a table at the front of the room, like a Congressional committee, he taps each on the shoulder and reads off their names and degrees. This sets off a minor sport of one-upmanship from the assorted family factions, with the day undoubtedly going to a pretty, fussily coiffured girl who throws up her arm and lets out a wild ululation, her tongue wagging and flapping like a pennant over Yankees Stadium. It’s an awesome sight to behold. During breaks in the speeches the music is turned up, Casio drum machine rat-a-tat-tatting, saxophone wailing. Members of the extended family come forward and press my hand, showing gratitude. How little I’ve, in fact, done for Hasifa continues to be a source of great embarrassment.
Finally the immediately family offer speeches of their own. First comes an older brother, admirable in his brevity, then Hasi’s father - grinning broadly, slipping between Luganda, Arabic and English, beaming with the undiminished pride of fatherhood. Last comes Hasifa’s uncle - a short, mirthful man with mischievous wrinkles around his eyes - offering bits of folk wisdom and sage words of advice. Earlier I’d been warned that it would just be a matter
of time before someone offered a parable involving goats or mangoes, and sure enough, after bringing his speech to a rousing climax, Uncle Hussein urges: “You have climbed that mango tree, but there are hungry people on the ground below you. So you must shake that mango tree” - shaking the metaphorical tree - “and allow the hungry people to get some mangos, too.”
It’s an inspired performance, and it’s clear that once the old guy’s warmed up, the emcee will have to pry the microphone from his hands before the program can continue. When he’s finally spent, John himself gets up to say a few words. It’s at this point that the evening’s awkwardness will at last take a turn for the inane. Relying on his humor and charm, it takes John a full five minutes to realize that he’s not all that funny and not at all charming. At the point when any normal man might cut his losses, mumble his congratulations, and slink back to his seat, John decides that his subtle humor and winning ways are being lost in translation. He asks Hasifa’s brother to repeat his zingers in Luganda, which leads to the unfortunate
prospect of hearing his jokes fall flat in two languages. Undeterred, he decides that what’s really been missing from our celebration of the graduates’ dedication and achievement is a bunch of insults.
“Through the years, I’ve had a lot of students come to work for me from Makerere,” he says. “And every last one of them was worthless. They thought they knew it all. That’s the problem with these Ugandan kids” - producing an audible shudder from the crowd - “is that they think they know it all. They think that because they come from the university, everything should be handed to them. But not Hasifa.”
It strikes me as the most back-handed of compliments, and wholly off-key to the tone of the evening. And it’s just as I’m wondering how many more bodies will be bludgeoned that John wags an accusatory finger across the room.
“And I have to disagree with Uncle Hussein. I have to disagree.” The whole room turns to watch the light dwindle in the old man’s eyes. “The problem with Uganda is that everyone is sitting around, waiting for someone else to shake the mangoes from the tree. But we need to
teach these kids to plant their own mango trees!” His voice roars to a crescendo, the color high in his cheeks, and he blinks expectantly, as if we might all rush the stage to carry him out on our shoulders, shouting “Hooray for Karamazov! Hooray for John!” But after a bit of polite, scattered applause, the room goes quiet. John, grudging in defeat, says a few warm, conciliatory words to the graduates before joining us at our table.
“That’ll rouse them a bit,” he says, as if everything were going exactly according to plan. He’s given, without question, the single most inappropriate speech I’ve heard since Uncle Stavros’ epic “Things You Didn’t Know About My Wife’s Bowel Movements” eulogy over Aunt Helen’s coffin in the summer of ’92. He looks mischievous, triumphant - a total dickhead, to be certain. Then the emcee thanks John - “owner of a big, international hotel chain” - and tells us that the food will now be served, producing the first moments of genuine joy since the crowd filed in hours ago.
If you’ve never been to an African buffet, it is breathtaking. Even in a room full of successful, well-fed professionals, there’s
a sense of panic as the trays are wheeled out, everyone rushing to stockpile the motoke
, the rice and beans and stews. It’s a scene I’ve seen repeated throughout these months in Kenya and Uganda, when workday crowds line up for the lunchtime buffet and proceed to eat like someone’s put a gun to their heads. I suspect it’s a throwback to generations past, a strand of bush DNA that recalls times of hardship, of scarcity. You eat all you can today, because you can never be too sure what will - or won’t - be sitting on tomorrow’s dinner table. This is a habit you don’t easily shake, even after you’ve improved your fortunes. And so the line snakes across the dance floor, over the speaker cables and between the tables and along the length of the wall, and we each of us heap prodigious piles of food onto our plates - chicken and beef, three types of greens - eating at our tables with elbows thrust out, hungry and wary of just who might be coveting the nearest dinner roll.
By the time we polish off dessert, my spirits are flagging. More speeches are being
prepared as a kind of post-prandial cocktail of misery, and John himself decides to give his failed oratory a reprise. I excuse myself for the bathroom, knowing I’ve seen the last of this party. I hang around the bar with a few other guys, watching the waning moments of Ghana vs. Nigeria, then head outside for some fresh air. The band is just now arriving - two butch women in tank-tops and leather pants, muscular, surly, looking like they’re here to break a few thumbs for Big Brucie. In spite of it all, it’s been a fine night. For all the marathon speeches, the ceremonious gift-giving, the philosophical waxing of the emcee, it’s enough to know that the people gathered in that room have something worth celebrating. I hope they’re still giving speeches when the sun comes up, and I hope there’s a second buffet, and I hope that Hasi and the rest of the graduates shake the high holy hell out of that mango tree, and there’s enough to go around for everyone.
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