by Quincy Godwin
If I awake before 8 am on a Saturday morning it usually means that I’m expecting an amusement park, a huge breakfast forged at the hand of a master (e.g. Dad), Dragonball reruns, or an equally pleasurable experience. Incredibly seldom is it that I will disturb myself from my bed for something as dismal as an academic assembly at such hours. So rare indeed that I can only recall three times that I have gone through a similar trouble in the past half a decade.
Once as a graduation marshal for the Hertford County High School graduating class of 2014 – once more as a graduate of the Hertford County High School graduating class of 2015 – and finally as an esteemed music teacher at Good Hope Primary School and Orphanage in the beautiful foreign country of Tanzania performing a critically acclaimed original song with the graduating 7th class where I was praised as an honored guest and hand-fed cake alongside a great feast of other delicacies.
For some reason I got out of bed slightly less begrudgingly for the latter of the aforementioned processions. It occurred this past Saturday.
The sunlight stood stagnant in the air like great pools, and I felt that if I wasn’t careful then I’d be in danger of drowning in the nostalgia of a bright fall day from my childhood.
I walked across the dusty field with my morning cup of tea, and looked out over the white canvas tents and brightly colored plastic chairs. The audio equipment was being assembled nearby while I peeked into the dormitory where the 7th class was preparing themselves for the recognition of their achievements.
With a sad smile I looked into all the faces of the kids that were looking up to me with an unhesitating admiration. Each face was a bullet wound of spirit plastered by a glare of love that dug a little deeper into my heart with each one that caught my glance. They looked stunning in their fresh robes and hoods. These were the kids that welcomed me into this new world with such intense warmness and appreciation that the only transition I felt from the U.S. to Africa was one that a child might feel when going from home to grandma’s house.
I had spent nearly every day of the past 2 months with these young people, getting to know how they each were shaped, appraising their virtues, and predicting the beauty that they would lend to the world. Now I had to say good-bye.
But not before the performance of a lifetime.
Our song, composed in simplistic verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus format, was the grand finale to the extensive graduation process which in contrast was composed of complex and planned chaos, like a God’s fire Beethoven symphony, and a few of the first chairs of the orchestra were late.
They weren’t aware of that, though.
You see, African time is perceived a little differently that the folks back home are used to. To administer some understanding, if you want to, say, meet somebody, or catch a bus, or have a huge milestone life event of paramount importance, then you decide a time that’s good for you… and then add an –ish to it.
The graduation began at 10-ish.
Classes 1 through 6 had been present since the early hours of the morning. I was astounded at the iron discipline of the hundreds of children as young as 3 years old that sat obediently in their designated seats under the tents for over 6 hours. I attempted my best to imagine American primary school students doing the same, but the image refused to assemble.
Halfway through, even my own patience was fatigued, and the child in me (or more appropriately that I am), was already fidgeting heavily with a 100 shilling piece and trying to clot the outward expression of my overflowing enthusiasm for the 8th speech of the day that was delivered in flawless Swahili.
Despite my inability to understand the language, I was captivated.
Each class had a special routine dedicated to their departing friends, all leading up to class 7’s performance and diploma ceremony. It was touching to see the conviction and solemnity with which they regarded their final goodbye to their comrades. The Good Hope student body is great and strong, with skin as tight as a drum and the blood of love beating hard against it.
After ages of watching the different ages, it was our turn to perform. We took the stage the way we had rehearsed, and I looked at them standing there in the hot afternoon sun with bittersweet contention.
I struck the first chord and they each allowed themselves to be illuminated by a network of fiery passion and from the depth of their chests, up through the gates of their tongues and lips marched a grand symphony of triumph, melancholy regard for the past, and hope for everything beautiful in the future.
My legs trembled. My fingers couldn’t find the strings. I was made weak by some force pressing down on my lungs. I had to forfeit my emotional regard for that moment, in that moment, in order to embellish it with my participation. I composed myself with a deep breath and a clench of my jaw.
The kids performed with excellency, precision, and compassion. My pride felt not like a vice, but like a sincere prayer. Our song, called “Mambo” (the equivalent to ‘what’s up’ in Swahili), was the highlight of the ceremony and just as we finished the crowd burst into cheers as gasoline bursts into flames. As a result I can’t walk anywhere on campus without hearing someone, student, teacher, auntie, or even headmaster, humming the tune or shouting the lyrics of our creation, and be it the first or millionth time I’ve heard it my heart liquefies and trickles down into my stomach.
Everyone absolutely loved it.
When the song was performed and the crowd settled once more, a small bit of confusion ensued, for the kids and I remained center stage. The impression was made that the climax had been reached and I could see everyone preparing to slump back into their chairs and to guard themselves once more from the onslaught of meticulousness with automatically induced sloth.
I was obliged to satiate the obvious hunger for contrariety.
Until this point, I had been relentlessly working on a secret song with the kids that no one except the headmaster, class 7, and I knew about. This was the moment of the grand reveal. I felt that this song’s meaning was situated just in the cusp of relevancy, and that I was constrained by my morality to have it played here. What song was it, you ask?
Enlighten yourself by asking this single question, *Van Zant voice* “What song is it you wanna hear?!”
The appropriate response is “FREEBIRD!” followed by forcibly removing your flannel shirt and smashing the nearest glass object.
Yeah, we played Freebird.
Six chords and nearly 4 minutes of dense bliss followed, sans guitar solo for the sake of sparing the ceremony an additional hour in length. In my mind everything went perfectly and at the end I felt like a champion, but it wasn’t until the disappointingly meager response from the crowd that I considered the idea that maybe Freebird didn’t quite reach the state of legend and infamy in Tanzania as it did in the States.
They would have rather heard ‘Mambo’ again, so I guess from certain perspectives our song is a better song than Freebird.
Blasphemy, or far-reaching insight on the power of perspective?
This was the question I was pondering as cake was shoved into my mouth.
After all the students received their certificates and gifts, the feast was initiated by the guests being hand fed cake by the students, and I, being a guest, was fed nearly an entire cake one bite at a time by different hands, respectively.
I thought of it as a delicious form of bonding.
Afterwards, my ruined appetite found new life as we tucked in to a bounty of culinary doubloons.
I am ashamed to say that I fell for the stereotype and received the impression that I wouldn’t be eating as much in Africa. To my great pleasure I was proved to be an idiot. Some of the best meals I’ve ever had have occurred here in Tanzania, and I’m sure I’ve put on a stone.
I will conclude my relay of events as the actual event concluded: with a happy scene of high cholesterol and lethargy. Once the feast was done everyone was eager to dip out as fast as their newly conceived food babies would allow them. I hugged all of my class 7 with great respect to the moment, and with great hopes that I would see them again soon. When I pulled away from our final embrace it felt as if my heart clung so closely to them that it was ripped from my chest as a honeybee is ripped apart after its sting.
Bacari and Moses, my star pupils who had become quite adept at guitar and piano each, approached me at this point.
“You were my favorite teacher,” Bacari said with a simple smile. “I’ll miss you very, very much,” said Moses. That one hit me deep. Simple though these statements were, I couldn’t find the justification to do so if you asked me to trade them for a second life.
I’d love to credit my success to teaching expertise and general good-nature, but hindsight tells me that they loved my class for the lack of structure and my lenience which allowed them to do whatever they wanted. Either way, we both had a good time.
I walked back to my room with the crown of my head towards the heavens, with the aching hole in my abdomen freely bleeding emotion, and with assurance of my importance in at least a few lives.
I love you, Class 7. I hope the best for you, and I know that whatever you do, you’ll do it big.