It was my fault for not looking at the timetable he pressed into my hand the night before.
“Tomorrow will be a long day”
Frank (my Vocational Training Centre manager) told me.
Just getting there would be hard enough. The rain started lightly at 4 in the morning and by 8.30 it was torrential; biblical. Noah would have been out rounding up his animal companions and busy measuring gopher wood into cubits. I only had to drive a motorbike through it, apart from a pair of turkeys (looking for the ark?) I saw nothing else on the road.
It is extraordinary how quickly these events come together. One minute I was dripping in front of the locked hall, it seemed as if I had just taken off the soaking waterproofs when my phone rang:
“Where are you Markwhite? They are ready”
“Your opening remarks”
That was when I looked at the timetable for the Cultural Event: Music, Dance and Drama, a competition between four colleges training vocational students under the DFID sponsored Youth Development Programme, competing for the Gold Cup
9.00 pm Opening Remarks by Omona Frank Gateway Centre Manager
9.10- 9.30 Opening Remarks by Mark White, VSO representative
9.30 Traditional Song by each college, followed by Drama on the theme Bridging the Gap, finishing with the climax, the Traditional Dance. All planned to end by 4 ‘o’clock. Although the rain had delayed us a bit we were all ready to go now, just waiting for my rousing speech apparently.
“What do you want me to say Frank?”
“Oh, you know…”
The hall was very busy, it looked like every plastic chair in Gulu had been arranged and was filling up fast with people eager to watch a hard contest, probably not so keen to hear the words of wisdom of a wet white man. I walked to the centre, aware that I had three bands of visible sogginess: around the neck; around the waist and squelching water filled ‘waterproof’ boots.
“Acho maber, Appoyo…”and off I went, probably saying something traditional about it’s not the winning but the taking part I expect. How wrong that was I would find out later.
It is I suppose obvious that vulnerable youth (students on this programme have been out of school for over a year if ever and are selected on obvious need) will find learning difficult. The aim of the programme is to get those youth into ‘meaningful economic activity’; earning a living. The aim of this sort of event is to develop the social and life skills you need to help you learn and get on: self confidence; co-operation; conflict resolution; how to celebrate who you are and where you come from without conflict; how to be equal but different; how to win and lose etc.
The first two sections were intensely didactic and involved spectacular ‘drunk’ acting that caused waves of laughter throughout audience and actors. Alcohol is a serious problem, plastic packets of gin are cheaper than any food, the empties are everywhere along with the effects. Drink ruins lives, families and communities, the four traditional songs and dramas focused on this problem and its resolution: communities and families banding together; building self confidence; skills training leading to work.
I think I have mentioned before the desperation I felt when, taking an exchange party of English students to Southern India, we were asked to present some of our traditional dances, it ended up with a sort of ring of roses hoofing around in embarrassed awkwardness. ‘A national song or two please Mr Mark?’ The only acapella tune the English youth could all carry was, for some unknown reason: ‘Build me up Buttercup’ originally by the Foundations in the Sixties I think; does that count as a national tradition?
But here, the traditional dance is what everyone knows and really wants to watch, it is the most energetic, deeply felt and understood activity of the day. Every member of the audience has opinions on foot positions, the rhyming between the calabash (A huge half gourd) and drum, the skills and interpretations of the dancers; a passionately shared process. Atiak Technical College, from right up by the South Sudan border and the scene of one of the worst LRA massacres, even managed to continue the anti-alcohol theme with the dance from a funeral and ‘drunk’ acting giving way to ‘drunk’ dancing. The other dances were the more familiar traditional courtship.
After a long speech from the adjudicators listened to with great attention, the winners were announced. With home advantage it was Daniel Comboni Vocational Institute and the students erupted, winning really matters, none of that gentle handshake and casual raising of the cup here.
It was shaken high and at the losers too, the students poured out around the muddy college compound, screaming and ullulating, they ran through the main gates and then charged in a phalanx back to the main entrance landing on their knees in the mud at reception, holding the cup high; football gets in everywhere it seems. The ecstatic celebrations went on for a very long time. As an instructor said to me,
“This is the only thing most of these students have won, or might ever win for some”
We hoped not, through training and events like this, we hoped more opportunities might come their way soon.
By the way, some of you might remember an earlier student, Maurice Bricky and his song: DFID, it has been remade by current students and they gave a lively version of it during the break.