The dread had set in weeks before when we received a very formal invitation from one of our favourite Lugbara friends and boda-boda (motorbike taxi) man, Peter. Being hand-delivered to our house at 7am on a Saturday morning, it had already produced less than welcoming feelings from me. However, as in all good African relations, the one-to-one, face-to-face nature of the interaction meant it was very hard to say ‘No’ or decline. Instead, we acted very enthusiastically about it.
In Africa, the very personal nature of interactions produces awkward situations almost daily when people ask directly for money or help in various ways. It means that there is a new dilemma to face and another question to ask yourself about the person’s truthfulness, character and actual needs. These are hard to answer in a brief encounter with someone you don’t know well…
Anyway, this invitation was from someone we know and like a lot and was for a fundraising event for Peter’s church St Michael (or St Micheal?, the flyer spelt it both ways…) of Pokea (wherever that is). Peter told us that they were fundraising to buy a piece of land at 20million shillings (£5000).
(Someone was telling us that the cost of having these fundraisers is such that it is hardly worth the money that is raised…, but I was obviously hoping that this wouldn’t be the case for Peter’s fundraiser).
The invitation included the details of the time for starting (12pm) and was stamped with the official St Michael of Pokea rubber stamp. The invitation included 3 signatories and was therefore very official-looking. To be honest, it wasn’t a very ‘inviting’ invitation at all… It definitely looked like an event to be avoided if possible, especially since all it promised was to extract as much cash out of you as it could. We wouldn’t want to miss the fundraiser, though, because of our close friendship with Peter and his brother Charles who was also involved.
Our concerns over an event like this arose from various factors. One big concern is the one of ‘African time’. Events in Africa can go on and on for hours. This can be especially taxing when you are sitting in the heat with little comfort and are pregnant (not me, but Emma) and have to look after an active little girl. We had considered some of these issues and packed some snacks and drinks and toys in our backpack. We also had decided Amelie and Emma would leave after showing face and I would ‘take the hit’ for the family by persevering (I knew that my reward would be increasing in heaven all the while I was sitting there…).
Another fear was the awkwardness of being white and the expectation of having a lot of cash. This might mean we were expected to give more than the common punter and could cause some embarrassment if we had turned up without ‘enough’ money…
On the day, we turned up an hour after the time the invitation indicated, thinking smugly to ourselves that we were keeping good African time. On arrival, we were met by people wearing badges ‘Security’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Protocol’ and others I forget. Someone wearing a ‘Protocol’ badge led us to the registry office. Initially, I had assumed the man’s name was ‘Protocol’, but then realized a number of people were wearing the same badge.
Officious-looking office people registering us
Amelie happily getting registered for fundraising
In the office, the 2 people behind the desk were shuffling papers and looking quite officious. We were asked how much we wanted to contribute. I was confused, was this already part of the fundraising?
Not knowing how much to give, my mind worked furiously to work out what seemed like an appropriate amount. I offered 5000 shillings for each of us (£1.25). From the man’s reaction, this obviously wasn’t good enough, he had expected a white person to contribute more than that, but he still didn’t give me any clue as to how much… On glancing at the floor, however, I noticed a piece of paper which must have fallen (or been hidden) showing prices for different seats. The seats were graded according to how much was paid on entry. 1000 shillings (25p) for the cheap-o seats, 2000 shillings, 5000 shillings or 10,000 shillings. I then realized we were expected to give at least 10,000 shillings to sit in the privileged section as it wouldn’t be right for a white person to be seen sitting in the cheaper seats…
The plastic chairs of the ‘privileged’ are quite comfortable as they fit your bottom contours quite nicely, especially compared to the wooden benches provided for the riff-raff. We were a row behind the sofas provided for a couple of dog-collared priests and the guest of honour.
Charles met us and chatted for a while, but he had to head off eventually, as he was involved in the organizing of the fundraiser. Peter was also there wearing a ‘Security’ badge.
Charles and Amelie at the Fundraiser
We quickly realized that we were going to be sitting around for quite a while before things got moving. There were only a few others around and those who were had wisely brought newspapers and had their heads buried in them (only those in the privileged seating as newspapers are a luxury for most) . It wasn’t all dull, though, sitting there under the UNHCR refugee tent canvass of the specially-built enclosure. A DJ was playing music from a couple of large speakers and one particularly energetic guy was enthusiastically busting some moves in the central section in the blazing hot sun. It was obvious the drinks he had been taking since the morning had dulled his senses to the heat. He was dancing with a huge smile on his sweaty face and was very entertaining. (After a couple of hours, he was carted off by security).
A couple of older men were posted at one of the entrances to control people coming in and out. They had made an effort to look the part and had suitable uniforms and long sticks, although their uniforms made me think of the Brownies… After taking their photograph, one of the guards asked me for money. Again, I was confused, wondering if this was all part of the fundraising too or if it was someone taking the event too personally…
Oversized Brownie Guards
Things started getting going around 3:30, a little later than the programme stated. The crowd started to thicken and the MC had started to prattle on in Lugbara. There had also already been a couple of rounds of an offering basket, one of the times brought round by the friendly drunk guy himself. I realized that at a fundraiser, there are many opportunities to give in the offering basket. An unwritten rule is that you need a lot of small change, handfuls of 100 and 200 shilling coins (2.5p and 5p). I also realized quickly that I definitely didn’t have enough.
The dreaded offering basket coming round again...
The MC’s role is to imaginatively keep the energy of giving going… He has various games or stories he plays. For example, the MC tells us we need to give to apologise to the priest for starting late. (not our fault, I was thinking…) The basket comes round, the music plays and everyone gives…Next time, we have give to greet the guest of honour, so the basket goes around again.One of my favourite ‘games’ was offering money to rescue children from ‘prison’ being held there by the MC.
A lady watches helplessly as the children are imprisoned by the MC
A horrible looking backpack was auctioned off. Money was also raised for a shirt and a pair of trousers which were then given to the priest.
I was excited to see people carrying local harps and drums and learn that we would be asked to vote on the different choirs represented. My natural guess was that the choirs would sing and play their local instruments and we would have the chance to give money to the choir we liked the best. Sadly, I was disappointed. Although the choirs had all their instruments with them, no one made any music, instead people gave money to vote on the best choir without even having heard them.
One aspect of the fundraising that I couldn’t related to was that of boasting how much you are giving or pledge to give (easy to forget how much you pledged, once the event is over, though, isn’t it?). Over the course of the afternoon, people would get up, go over to the mic and tell everyone how much he/she was giving. For that, they received a rapturous applause. It seemed to me that people were trying to out-give and out-boast each other. This system wouldn’t go down at all well in the UK, I was thinking…
I liked the little old lady’s announcement, though. In the midst of all the big money, she stepped up to the mic to let everyone know she was giving 1000 shillings (25p).
Nearing the end of the day, I was starting to get into the swing of things. I would shake my booty and dance up to put my money in the basket like the rest of the pulsating crowd, though I was still very aware of being the only white face around.
The crowd dancing and giving
Thankfully, all the effort of feeling awkward at different stages of the afternoon was not without it’s reward as food was brought out for everyone to enjoy whatever their seating class… The traditional Lugbara food called ‘enyasa’ (translated ‘mush’ in our Lugbara dictionary) took 4 men to carry in the huge pot.
I lined up to be served and felt I deserved a bit of nourishment following a long and tiring afternoon. I had survived a new cultural experience and managed to leave with a few shillings in my pocket to help me get home.