10 November 2014

graduation in tanzania is a nonstop dance party.

I teach entrepreneurship and the process of establishing and managing a group enterprise in Mwanza, Tanzania. Primarily I work with young mothers who dropped out of school due to pregnancy. Before they come to me for business training, they are sponsored by the NGO I work with (Education for Better Living Organization…or EBLI) to complete a four-month computer literacy program. At the end of the computer curriculum, a graduation ceremony is held at our office to celebrate their achievement.

What does this ceremony look like? Oh, it's a wild scene.

Let's take a look at how a graduation ceremony works in Tanzania (or at least my experience with it).

1. Put the graduates in charge of planning and funding the ceremony.

A total of 57 young mothers were scheduled to graduate from computer literacy training. Each is between the ages of 16 - 20. They were given six weeks to organize themselves, set the date and plan all activities that would occur on graduation day. They were given total freedom. The young mothers had to contribute their own money to hire a DJ, decorate the venue, purchase and prepare the food, and tailor-make all of their festive outfits.

2. Invite white people and make one of them the guest of honor.

Ashley and I were the white people. I was the guest of honor. That means we sat at the head table (similar to a wedding) and everything was spoken and done for our benefit. My name that day was not Michael, or teacher -  just "guest of honor." It felt weird.

michael at the head table handing out certificates. ashley was also seated at this table but stood up to take this photo.

3. Begin the ceremony three hours late.

Everything begins late in Tanzania. This was no exception. I have come to learn that Tanzanians, or at least the Sukuma people that dominate the Mwanza area, have no sense of, "I'm going to be late!" or "I'm going to miss out!" Time is made of rubber - it can be stretched any way you like.

4. Kick things off with a dance party.

All of the graduating young mothers processed in to Tanzanian hip-hop wearing the yellow and maroon (kind of Boston College-ish) dresses they had tailor-made just for this event. And did they dance!

young mothers process in to a self-choregraphed dance wearing custom-made yellow and maroon fabrics.

5. Follow that up with another dance party.

And the dancing did not stop. They moved from one slightly choreographed scene to another, with various young mothers popping in and out. The opening series of dances had at least three different outfit changes, ranging from traditional attire (brightly colored fabric dresses) to modern Western style (skinny jeans and tank tops). This section culminated in an original song thanking their teachers. Video footage below.

6. Graduates perform a serious, heart touching skit ending in awkward laughter.

Then the young mothers performed a skit, or drama, that they had prepared. It was actually incredible because it was their story. Each of these young mothers is just that - a young mother. And the skit brought their reality to life. It showed how they are going to school like any other kid. Then one day they are introduced to a young man who cajoles them into sex, often using money. And the girl becomes pregnant. She goes and tells her mother, who in turn tells the girl's father. While the mother is understanding, the father isn't and threatens his daughter with violence, if not throws her out of the home. Ironic given the father likely played the role of the young man in his youth.

And then there's the young mother. Thrown out of her home. Kicked out of school by law. And left to provide for herself and her child with barely any education and little prospects. This is why I work with them - because they are vulnerable, impoverished and rejected. 

The skit ended with the girl's father chasing her out of the house with a machete. Most of the audience laughed. Ashley and I just stared at each other, a bit shaken by the whole thing. Looking around the audience at that moment, something occurred to us: everyone was female. No father came to the graduation. No boyfriend. Just mothers, grandmothers, sisters and female friends.

young mothers perform a skit that tells their story.

7. Dance party.

Well, if the description of that skit has you feeling down, no worries, because it was followed by another rockin' dance party. What kind of music was being played? A mix of Swahili-speaking hip-hop and English-speaking American hip-hop. And other sentimental American songs from the 80s and 90s. Volume on the two four-foot tall speakers was cranked to maximum.

8. Graduates read a speech.

No graduation is complete without a speech. One of the young mothers got up and read a prepared, typewritten speech. Another just stood by her. The speech was actually really good. Very well written. It spoke about their experience, what they liked about the program and also the challenges they faced. The speech was clear, concise and authentic. And after reading it, they presented a hard copy of the speech to me to keep, which was cool.

young mother, mary, reads a speech at graduation.

9. Fashion show.

Naturally you transition from graduation speeches to a fashion show. Despite having only six different fashions on display, this somehow took a surprisingly long time. So what kind of fashions were modeled? Translating from their Swahili description: office wear, respectfully dressed mother, night wear, creative fashions, house girl, and model. I don't know what these girls watch (though I can guess), but they nailed the classic runway walk and pose. My personal favorite was "respectfully dressed mother."

young mother, halima, sporting the fashions of a "respectfully dressed mother." 

10. Lip-syncing duet with inappropriate touching.

Changing out of her formal gown into skin-tight hot pink jeans and a white tank top, one of the young mothers grabbed a microphone, as did the DJ of the graduation, and they began to lip sync to a Swahili hip-hop song. And then the DJ's hands began to get way too friendly with her behind. And three minutes suddenly felt like thirty. It was uncomfortable. Bear in mind that small children, mothers and grandmothers were in attendance.

young mother, esther, grabbing the mic for her lip sync duet.

11. Director in charge asks to see the agenda and then promptly eliminates remaining dance parties.

Bernard, the Executive Director of EBLI, was growing weary of all the singing and dancing. Not to mention it was 3:30 PM and no one there had eaten or had a single thing to drink all day. He demanded to see what was left on the agenda, asked for a pen, and then crossed off all remaining events. Why? The rest of the agenda was just one dance party after another.

michael and bernard in front of the office of EBLI post-graduation.

12. Guest of honor gives a speech and distributes graduation certificates. 

I actually didn't even know the date of the graduation until about four days out. Then two days out I was informed that I would be the guest of honor…and that I should give a speech and present each graduating young mother with her certificate. So I prepared a little something. On the spot Ashley was also asked to give a speech. She improved in Swahili like a champ.

michael addressing the graduating young mothers, speaking about the value of the education they have received.

michael presenting one young mother, elieth, with her graduation certificate.

13. Ridiculous number of awkwardly composed photos are taken.

I thought the photos would never end. Every possible pairing of people was construed and countless photos taken, no doubt most of them unusable. One of the challenges of living here is the attention you get as a white person. Young mother after young mother kept saying they wanted their picture taken with the mzungu. Also frustrating that after all of the time I spent with them, teaching them about entrepreneurship and business, they couldn't just say that they wanted a picture with "Michael." No. They wanted a picture with "the mzungu."

awkwardly composed photo with the group of graduating young mothers.

14. Presentation of the gift dance (but not a dance party).

After losing our patience with the photo taking, Bernard, Ashley and I tried to make a beeline for the food. Our efforts were thwarted as a crowd of young mothers surrounded us and inched closer and closer much like the green space people did with Buzz Lightyear in the Pizza Planet claw machine in Toy Story. They were raising a wrapped gift in the air which they presented to us. Bernard opened it up and found a piece of black fabric that went missing from our office earlier in the week inside the package. Thanks?

15. Finally…food!

Setting the stolen gift down, we pushed through the crowd like we were chasing the last helicopter out of Vietnam and grabbed a plate of food: rice, beans, cabbage and watermelon. So good to finally eat.

So that's graduation in Tanzania. Or at least my experience with it. No need for an after party when the entire ceremony itself is a dance party. That never ends.

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