“There will be no storm”
Coming back to the house for lunch I met a meter reader from Umeme, the national electricity company, at the gate. Water and electricity are billed monthly; that means a lot of visits.
I was en route to a college twenty kilometres south and the clouds were threatening. But the man from Umeme was so reassuring that I tried another question:
“And the power?”
The power had been off for the last thirty six hours. On this he was absolutely definite, sincerity quivered from his yellow sunglasses to blue flip flops.
“Oh no Sir! The power will be back on by the end of the day, you can be sure of that”
On my return from the college the rain was so hard that it poured under my motorbike helmet, ran down beneath the waterproofs and exited through the lace holes of my shoes. The rain lasted to the early hours. Without power (obviously), it was so dark that even had I put a hand in front of my face I wouldn’t have known.
Complete and total darkness is something we have got used to by now, along with great formality in any public behaviour. Meaningless sincerity is common to utility companies across the world I’m sure. As I lay in bed listening to the thunder and rain on the roof, Mary was in Kitgum giving workshops, I thought about that formality. At the college I had been asked to sit in on a student debate: “Strike by the student is not the best way of solving the problem”. About forty to fifty students. Two opposing teams, Time Keeper, Chairman, Jury, all participants addressed as Honourable Member (although Acholi accented English often renders an ‘n’ as ‘r’).
Each speaker was articulate and clearly spoken, difficult as it was all in English and remember these are ‘vulnerable youth’ with little schooling or literacy, and extremely sincere. They were also extremely witty; points of order came fast and were splendidly disruptive: was it in order for opponents to cross their legs whilst listening, surely this was disrespectful to the Debating Room? Huge hoots of laughter and applause at that one. It reminded me of a school exchange trip to Southern India some years ago, watching Keralan students at ease with formality and public speaking and our English students tongue tied, mumbling and incoherent.
My Ugandan colleague later explained that formal approaches to public behaviour, a shared set of learned rules, are vital for conflict resolution and self confidence. It would also explain why the meetings we go to are such formulaic affairs, with rigid agendas, roles and rules.
We should not forget he said, that strikes can be extremely violent, many injuries, much destruction sometimes even deaths; formal and objective examination of such issues was important. Interestingly, the debate audience does not vote, the winner is decided by the jury, perhaps that keeps the sense of dispassionate enquiry.
After the debate I was, as usually happens on such occasions, suddenly called upon to give the closing speech. I like to think I channelled my inner English public speaker, a combination of Bertie Wooster floundering about trying to give prizes at a girls school and Hugh Grant babbling mindlessly.