The inaugural launch of our West and Central African partner organization was the reason that I made my way to Africa in the first place (no, it was not mainly to make sociological observations about dictatorial politicians and their entourages, unfortunately no one pays me for that – yet). So it was with great anticipation that I awaited the vaunted inauguration ceremony; however my anticipation did not do justice to the final event that transpired.
We waited in the gala auditorium, sitting in plush seats and looked ahead at the flower-bedecked podium and head table, separated from the first rows of seats by at least 20 feet. Cameramen and photographers buzzed around, scoping out the most advanageous positions for their equipment, and a 40-person-strong choir accompanied by a keyboard and two trumpets regaled us with renderings of upbeat national songs and uplifting Anglican hymns. Two nuns in white habits tiptoed in and took their seats in the second row, slightly incongruous amidst the background of men in suits (I’m still not sure why religious sisters were invited to a tech conference… but I’m also not sure why the choir broke out into Handel’s Alleluia from the Messiah to accompany our group photo after the organization’s launch, so I suppose I still have a lot to learn about other cultures).
An hour after the event was due to start, we were starting to get a little impatient, although we understood that with the country’s president due to appear, delays could be expected. It was then, as I was thumbing through photos of our previous day’s expedition on my phone, that a gentleman from the organizational committee approached me. Pointing out a row closer to the stage that had organizations’ names written on index cards and taped to seats, he indicated that I should sit in my properly designated organization’s seat, and from there, walk up to the podium in due time to deliver a speech.
I protested. “I’ve already given you a video of my boss wishing you all the best and congratulating you! We recorded it especially for you! I even practiced pronunciation of French names with her!”
It was all for nothing. The gentleman told me that there was no video available, that no one had the time to find it, and that I should be prepared to speak and address the assembled dignitaries, once they assembled.
Resigning myself to my fate, I made my way to the other part of the auditorium, found my designated chair, and after fruitless attempts to find a pen in my backpack, borrowed a hotel pencil from a colleague and started scribbling my ‘few words’ in French on the back of the inauguration program, using my laptop as a desk.
The next hour was spent in frantic googling of how to address a President in French, changed to frantic googling of how to address a prime minister in French as halfway through the ceremony I realized the president had never arrived and had been replaced, with no formal announcement, by the prime minister.
I had rewritten the remarks to my satisfaction on the bottom half of the sheet and was ready when my organization’s name was called upon. Marching bravely and hopefully gracefully to the podium, I adjusted the microphone, turned to the flower-surrounded dignitaries at the head table, and opened my mouth to say the first words of my speech.
All of a sudden, the voice of (not God) my boss boomed from the screen behind me.
The MC pulled me aside, panicked. “Is there a mistake?” he said. “Should I ask them to stop the video?”.
“No.” I replied. “Everything is exactly as it should be”. And I wended my way back to my index-carded seat, and breathed a sigh of unadulterated relief.