Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Distinguished High Table Member

Fabian invited me to a ceremonial Nigerian event.
I couldn’t refuse.
That’s why I found myself sitting at the “High Table” with a handful of dignitaries with a slew of noble titles placed before their names. I had no idea I was going to be invited to the High Table myself and be introduced as the “Most Distinguished and Respected Representative from the United States, Mr. Dominic.” I figured the intention of making such distinctions was to make its members feel recognized and important. But it made me feel ridiculous.

The High Table stood out from the rest of the rows of plain wooden chairs set up for the common folk. The table was decorated with cloth, ribbon, and flowers. Offerings of bottled water, juice, and kola nuts were placed purposefully on top. I sat there behind it, feeling out of place yet humbled by the odd honor.

The event was set up to commemorate the work that Fabian had done at the school as a National Youth Service Corp member. There were state officials in traditional Nigerian dress sitting on both sides of me; a local chief; the school principal. I felt underdressed and outranked. I was offered a kola nut, but didn’t know what to do with it. I was mostly preoccupied with mentally preparing for the speech I’d been asked to give about Fabian’s work in the community of Agbaduma. How would I start it? What would be my main point? Which words would be best understood with my American accent?

My speech went alright, probably because I’ve become more comfortable with public speaking in the last year or so—mostly because I’ve been asked to speak more often, with little time to prepare and many doubts about my qualifications to do so. Yet I’ve managed to get away with it so far, and—as I thought about it afterward-- my speech on Fabian’s behalf seemed passable.

The deficiencies in my speech didn’t become apparent until I watched the others at the High Table give their speeches. I had not erred in voice projection or eye contact. Rather, my error was a cultural one. Out of five speechmakers, I was the first and only one who failed to elaborately introduce and thank every member of the High Table before getting to the speech itself. Their grand introductions sounded something like this:
“Thank you and welcome most honorable and noble state inspector Abacha ...
--Welcome most distinguished chief and elder gentleman from Adgbaduma...
--We are blessed with the attendance of the high and mighty... “

And so on. Everybody introduced everybody at the High Table five times over, and after an hour had gone by, I thought the ego-boosting and self-congratulatory remarks might never end. Wasn’t this event supposed to be about recognizing Fabian? I thought.

That’s when the meat pies were served to us, along with Sprite and water. The meat pies looked like big empanadas and tasted good. That is, until I glanced over to the common seating area and noticed that the ushers were serving plain soda crackers scattered on a plastic tray to all the other attendees. No beverages were offered to the plebeians. I felt guilty as I watched from the High Table and wiped the flakey breadcrumbs from the side of my mouth.

The program went on forever—3 hours in total. Some of the most honorable and distinguished High Table members didn’t seem to sense their audience drifting or know when to quit rambling. Then there was Fabian’s presentation, the cutting of the ribbon, and a well-done dramatic performance by the students in pidgin English that I could barely understand.

After the ceremony I had the pleasure of meeting one of the distinguished High Table Members: the elder chief from Agbaduma. He had on traditional Igala dress, and offered me a welcoming, if limp, handshake.

‘Are you from America?’ He inquired, with a thick Nigerian accent.
‘Yes,’ I said. “California.”
“Is California close to America?” he asked.
“Well, yes. It’s in America.” I replied. “California is a state in the United States of America.” I said this understanding that the individual states within foreign countries are usually a total mystery to me too. But it turned out that the chief was not as willing to admit his geographic ignorance as I was.
“Oh yes, I know.” he said, confidently. “I know geography. It is my subject.”
“That’s great. I like geography too,” I said, then confessed: “But there are many states in Nigeria as well and I only know this one we’re in.”

Our remedial geography chit-chat could have ended there. But it seemed the elder distinguished High Table member from Agbaduma wanted to impress me with his knowledge.
“I know American states,” he said. “California... Canada...”
I was thinking about politely correcting him. Then I thought he might be referring to all of North America until he added: “...Sweden.”
Should I correct him? I thought. Then I figured there was no point in a basic geography lesson if the difference between Europe and North America needed to be explained. Plus, the language barrier was becoming more obvious. And he was a village chief! So I kept my mouth shut.
“What do you do in America?” the chief asked me.
“I teach.” I said. “English and History.”
“That is great. I teach as well.” He said.
So I asked him what subject he taught.
“Geography. I teach Geography” he said and smiled.
He wasn’t joking. He continued: “I know your country well too: California... Canada...”
“—Sweden?” I added.
“Yes.” He nodded and smiled again.

Our conversation was cut off, but resumed a few minutes later when he asked me if we could have 'a meeting.'
“Yes, of course... About what?” I asked.
The village chief said that he wanted to speak with me privately, so we turned and took a few steps away from the crowd. He asked me a question in a hushed voice that was so low it was inaudible.
“Sorry, what did you say?” I asked him.
“Please give me something,” he said. “I would like you to give me something.”
 There was no introduction. No preface. Just that.
“Something?” I asked.
“Yes, please give to me.”
I wasn’t prepared for such a blunt request. I assumed he meant money, so it brought to mind the only cash I had left for the trip: 3,000 Naira (about $20 U.S.).  It made my reply to him an easy one.
“Sorry. I don’t have anything to give you, sir.”
He responded softly: “Give me something, please.”
It seemed a strange plea from a High Table member. I looked across the red dirt road at the school’s library.
“The only thing I can give you is a book,” I told him.
I couldn’t tell if he didn’t understand the word “book”, or if my offer amounted to a humiliating insult.
“Yes,” the man said, “OK. Anything.”

So after the last ribbon cutting ritual ended, I found a book in the library and grabbed it. I approached the chief, still unsure if what I was about to give him would be appreciated or a complete affront to his position of authority.
“Here you are, sir,” I said, trying to sound as respectful as possible; trying to make up for the fact that the book I gave him probably wasn’t worth a penny on
He smiled a little and accepted the re-purposed gift. He seemed to appreciate it, but may have expected something more. 
“Please do not disclose this to anyone,” he told me.
 I smiled back at him. He grinned and nodded his head.
When the distinguished elder left the event a few minutes later, I noticed the hardcover California geography book strapped to the back of his vintage motorcycle.

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