Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Death Poems and Catwalks: A Graduation Ceremony

For Caleb's graduation ceremony, there were quite a lot of things done differently here in Kenya than they would have been done in the US.  The first of which is having a graduation ceremony.  He's three.  He's moving on to another year of coloring and block building.  But Kenyans, it appears, love ceremony and celebration and his "closing day" festivities were no exception.

The notice to parents said to arrive at 8:30 AM.  So, I showed up at 9:30 and the festivities began promptly at 10:00.  (I'm getting better at this.)  The school had erected and decorated some tents, placed out plastic chairs and offered tea and mandazi (doughnuts) to the waiting parents.
The expectant parents, like parents around the world, checking their smartphones while waiting
Finally the children emerged, looking all kinds of adorable in their matching uniforms.  Welcoming speeches were made and then...the long awaited "entertainment" portion.
See if you can spot Caleb.
Holy pre-school - the cuteness of it all. Is there anything more heart-swelling than watching your small child stand, for the first time, like his own independent person, reciting something you had no idea he ever learned?  No. There is not.

Caleb's class recited 3 poems, 2 in Kiswahili and the third in English. My Kiswahli is not terrific, but even native speakers struggled to get the gist with 20-odd three year olds stammering memorized sounds accompanied with jerky pantomimed gestures.  The first was something about a tea pot, and the second about growing up, ended with a sad wisdom beyond the tellers' years about getting older: "mateso imeanza" (the struggles begin), which got a quite a few laughs from the audience.

But the English poem was the most surreal.  The subject: Money.  Our little darlings regaled us with a tale about how money is ... well... generally good (buys you an education), but can ultimately corrupt you, shout-citing "people DIE over it" while hand motioning death with their little faces leaned against clasped hands.


(Yes, they scream "What the Devil!" at the end. But Caleb remains true to his Jewish roots with his hand gestures.)

The older classes had equally bizarre poetry choices; the first about child labor (with the refrain "For I.  Am only.  A child.) imploring their parents (middle class Kenyans who are paying for a private school, mind you)  not to force them to sell mangoes in the market or carry heavy loads. The second was cheerful little ditty about HIV/AIDS ("AIDS, Where have you come from? I am like a ball being kicked from all sides...").  The only thing I can figure is that some NGO is claiming credit to their donors each time school children recite their poetry no matter the relevance or audience.  Their third poem was about the sky being blue.  Thank goodness.  I had been bracing myself for a safe sex talk.  
"For I... Am Only... A Child" (in case you heard otherwise)
After we were sufficiently entertained and the class 3 (3rd grade) graduates were given their certificates, it was time to bestow the gifts upon the students.
Just when you thought it couldn't get any cuter - tiny graduation gowns and hats 

And.... diplomas?  Not sure.
The teachers had very sweetly wrapped little gifts (crayons and notebooks and the like) in shiny wrapping paper, painstakingly labeled each with a students name and stacked them to ceremoniously present to each student .  It was all well organized. Only one problem: Who to bestow said gifts upon the waiting children?

"Mama Caleb," announced the microphoned Master of Ceremonies, "Would you please come up and help us hand out the gifts."

Heck yes! I've been here long enough to know that the lone mzungu at a ceremony will at some point be appointed some such honor.  So, I rose from my seat and started happily handing out the individualized gifts and shaking little hands like an American dignitary.

But then I heard some laughter slowly build from the audience.  Feeling self-conscious, I adjusted my skirt, only to realized the subject of their laughter was not the awkward impromptu dignitary, but the small White boy slowly creeping over to his mother from the other side of the field, making a tenuous lone walk right in front of an amused audience.  They found it cute - the little mzungu boy pulled out of his seat by the presence of his mother.  But they got it wrong; it was really the presence of the shiny presents that ripped him from his seat.  Argh.  Parenting fail.  I screamed "Sit down Caleb!!" with my eyebrows.

Wanting to stave off a scene, the school administrators, simply indulged him, found his present and he skipped off happily.  But it was a short sighted strategy because once the other 3 year olds got wind that there were PRESENTS, they got out of their tiny chairs and stormed the present table.

Chaos ensued. Teachers were pulled up to help search through the well organized pile and quickly dole out individual presents to the mob of short people.  I was told to sit down.

This doesn't quite capture the scene.  Just picture a mob of small children beyond the frame, frustrated administrators and an audience of parents in hysterics.

The triumphant little gift thieves.
But the coup de gras of the whole morning was the ... fashion show.

Now, one of the things you might not understand about this part of the world is the ubiquity of amateur fashion shows.  Every graduation ceremony I've been to, even in more rural areas, has had one. I went to a modern dance performance, and it too started with a fashion show. Even the Liberian refugee camp I worked in held fashion shows and beauty contests.  Children at the tender age of three already know how to "walk the catwalk," one hand on swaying hips, jauntily skipping forward to pose and "smile with their eyes" to a nonexistent camera at of their walk. Caleb schoolmates were no exception.  Caleb, taking a cue from his friends, started his walk strong, skipping along to the music, but then saw me and took off running full steam (are you sensing a theme here?). Again, the subject of much amusement for our audience, but SO not getting to Milan Fashion Week with that kind of behavior.

While American parents are busy trying to shield their children from the ego-crushing pressure to measure up to some impossible beauty ideal perpetuated by the fashion industry, Kenyan parents are busy light heartedly celebrating it.  Why the difference, is a subject for an entirely different post. Maybe a dissertation.

But the one thing that is was not different - that is universal across the globe - was the pride and joy the parents felt watching their tiny progeny perform, strut, celebrate their accomplishments and assert themselves in their own unique and unabashed way.  Heart strings were universally pulled.  People smiled easily at the nascent displays of individuality and were quick to snap pictures and hug their children.I was the only mzungu, but despite the tremendous appearances and events to the contrary, I didn't really feel separate. I felt more a part of a group of parents sharing a common joy than apart as a foreigner.
I captured the moment capturing moment.

30 comments:

  1. I laughed, I cried, I cheered. What a fabulous post. Adorable.

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  2. I remember too my own daughter's "graduation" ceremonies, but never at the tender age of three. What a fascinating recount. I am so intrigued by the fashion show. What stuck with me through out, though, was the sense of pride and love.

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    1. Yeah, there's a lot to disentangle about the fashion show - definitely at least enough for another show. It's really a fascinating phenomenon. The pride and love were really what carried the day though, like you said...

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  3. This was great as usual but I'd like more pic's of of my litle pal from the train

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    1. But this was the most pictures I've ever posted due to our frustratingly slow internet connection. See you over on facebook with more...

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  4. I love it! Haven't seen a fashion show in Malawi yet but then again I haven't been to a graduation. So glad you have all of this to show Caleb when he's older - what an education he is getting! I laughed out loud at the song topics but seeing all these gorgeous kids in their uniforms makes me wish my girls had the same opportunity. My oldest would be all about strutting her stuff and performing. Love, love, love that Caleb inadvertently started the mob of little people!

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    1. I'm dying to know if fashion shows are a "thing" in your neck of the woods. I found it interesting that they are so common both here and in Ghana. The Kenyan school experience has been decidedly mixed (another post in there for sure), so I'm not sure your girls are missing out on anything. But the uniforms are off the charts adorable. You can always get them some home schooling uniforms. ; )

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  5. Haha! My daughter would do just the same thing, especially if I wasn't beside her to restrain her. So interesting to hear about the details of this graduation ceremony. I particularly enjoyed your description of the unique lyrics in the entertainment section of the program.

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    1. Yeah, the lyrics were definitely interesting. I couldn't quite capture it in words, but the hand gestures were almost as good. They do this cute little curtsy at the end of each poem saying "thank you" in a very robotic way. It's awesome.

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  6. I so enjoying reading your posts ... learning about the different cultures, but then loving how you pull it all back to universal themes and show we are all just human and doing the best we can.

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  7. Me too! You are having incredible experiences and I am enthralled, envious, and totally in awe of how you make your way through all of it. And how wonderful are your son and your writing? The tops.

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  8. Parenting is such a universal language. The one thing that can bond complete strangers in a heartbeat.

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  9. It's neat to read the things that are different and the things that translate across the world--parental pride. Even in weird poems about AIDS? Yikes!

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  10. I just loved the way you laid out the differences but yet pulled in the sameness across our cultures. I simultaneously felt like I was dumbstruck by the song choices and fashion show, but connected to the fact that the parents' pride (and the childrens' love of shiny presents!) was no different than how it is here.

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  11. Great post! You are such a funny storyteller! As TriGirl said, it is great how you emphasize our sameness despite our differences. I esp love the mad dash for presents, and, of course, all those parents checking their smart phones :)

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  12. Awesome story. It's funny what translates across all cultures and others that just make you go "hum?"

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  13. Best post of the day! I love the sameness and the differences of the moment.

    The poem choices did crack me up. Now I'm wondering what occasion they are saving the safe sex poem for. It must be a big one!

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  14. PRESENTS. Ah the misunderstandings of a thoughtful crowd. Don't you love it when your body is screaming "NO" to your child, and someone with good intentions gives them what they want? I got such a kick out of the catwalk.

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  15. How wonderful! And I love it that you captured everyone capturing the moment. So cute your son got our of his seat too - maybe it wasn't about the presents.

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  16. I love your blog. An interesting life, well told! And how cute are all of those pictures?! This was a great read.

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  17. Oh, I love this post! You are so right--parents proudly celebrating their children's milestones is a universal thing. I love, love, LOVED the way you described all of the unusual poems and songs. HA!! Well done!!

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  18. I love this! Those videos are SO. GREAT. I once performed a series of African songs with a women's choir I was in, and my favourite song, full of joyful-sounding harmonies, was about being afraid of AIDS. Just goes to show... things are different there. But I had no idea about the fashion shows - that little girl can really work it!

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  19. So much love and pride! My sister would have died and gone to heaven had she the opportunity to strut the catwalk after every darn thing, she loved that stuff so much!

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  20. I love that you felt common joy. I felt it through your writing. While it's easy to spot Caleb in the photo...it is sooooo cute. I really loved the 3YO's doing their poem and, OH MY, the fashion show was fab! Glad they gave you the honor of gifting...until chaos ensued. Hee hee!

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  21. That's funny about the fashion shows. I laughed about those songs - what odd choices. Seeing kids do their thing like that is just so adorable!

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  22. Hi Kim!

    I just remembered you gave me your blog address. It's so fun to read this. I went to a graduation ceremony for pre-schoolers last year in Kisumu and had a similar experience to yours.

    1. The late start - it started at 1:00, not 10:00 as indicated.
    2. There was a fashion show. I wonder how that trend got started!
    3. I also was asked to hand out gifts and certificate even though I had nothing to do with anything. Just the mzungu in the room!

    Hope you all are well!

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  23. We have "graduations" for 3-year-olds here too (of course). Including horrendous distraction by smartphone. I'm the worst culprit and I hate myself.

    The fashion shows - what's that about? What a bizarre thing!

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  24. Your blog is hilarious. I was thoroughly amused by teachers being mobbed by short people for their presents. They all look so cute in the pictures.

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  25. This is great! Where do you find this stuff?

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