Ugandans are very confident and articulate public speakers. On many occasions I have witnessed people being called upon, without any prior warning, to address a crowd on a particular topic and have been astounded and impressed by the unblinking calmness, coherence and eloquence with which they have done so. For me the thought of having to speak in public without comprehensive prompt notes and at least an hour of practising in front of the mirror is the stuff of nightmares, literally.
I should have guessed what was coming when I was invited by Betina, MMU accountant stroke youth mentor and motivational speaker, to accompany her while she addressed a group of prefects from St Leo’s college on the occasion of their annual induction last Saturday. St Leo’s is a bit like the Harrow of Uganda – expensive, traditional and with a glittering alumni. Its complicated prefect system is probably modelled on the English public school (although I doubt whether Eton has a Prefect for Furniture and Electricity) and the prefects clearly take their responsibilities very seriously. The boys, each in a dazzlingly spotless white shirt proudly bearing the school’s crest, had names like Basil, Hilary and Godfrey. As they began a jaunty, slightly mischievous warm-up game involving songs and disappointingly pedestrian dares to pass the time while the teachers arrived, I felt like I was being transported in to some kind of Ugandanised Evelyn Waugh novel.
So there were welcomes by various members of staff and a speech by MMU’s own DVC Professor Semana, an OB and St Leo’s board member. Then Betina began her very entertaining and engaging motivational address and I settled down comfortably in to my squishy sofa in order to enjoy it the better. Just as I was starting to really relax, Betina suddenly stopped mid-flow, turned to me and said, ‘and now Thea is going to address you on the subject of teamwork.’
I was seized by completely blind panic. I really do not have the first idea about team work, being a bit of a poor team player myself, and certainly have no wise words on the subject to convey to a knowledge-hungry and impressionable group of young men. To make matters worse, I am completely incapable of thinking on my feet, even more so when 50 pairs of eyes are trained on me. Of course I couldn’t refuse to speak or feign a sore throat or something, I just had to try and minimise the damage and not make too great a tit of myself.
As the other speakers had been talking, my mind had been wandering vaguely in the area of my brief and rather unhappy experiences of teaching in the UK school system. It was these thoughts that came flooding in to my mind as I stood up to address the crowd. Consequently, in the space of the following five minutes, I managed to convince a room full of 16 year old Ugandan boys that UK schools are full of rabid, knife-wielding criminals who attack their teachers and each other on a daily basis and that the social and moral fabric of the UK is in a state of collapse. I did manage to end on a slightly more positive note by telling them they were the ‘cream on top of the milk’ (somehow ‘crème de la crème’ sounded a bit foreign) and should seize the opportunities offered by their superior education. I don’t think many of them will be dreaming of study in England any more though.