The high school graduation ceremony was yesterday. They have it in October instead of at the end of the school year in June because they need to wait for the results from the national exam before they know for certain who passed and can actually graduate.
They decked out the high school gymnasium for the event, moving all of the chairs and benches from the classrooms into the room or just outside on a patio that they covered with palm fronds to keep off the sun. Some balloons and a blue and white lapa cloth printed with the totally non-graduation-related item of a hand sporting a giant shiny diamond completed the decorations (side note: a lot of the cloth here is printed with really random objects – toothpaste, chickens, pipes, scissors, and so on).
In the morning, they had the religious ceremony. I showed up nearly an hour late, which turned out to be right on time (sometimes, the African way of approaching time – or rather ignoring it – is really welcome). Though I was not particularly looking forward to this part of the experience, it was actually very enjoyable. The singing was wonderful, despite being not completely on key and despite the fact that they allowed two random people in the school choir to use microphones, meaning that one alto part and one bass part were about twenty times louder than the rest of the choir put together.
In the afternoon was the graduation ceremony itself. The gymnasium was nearly empty for the morning service; not so for the afternoon. The chairs, inside and outside, were all full, students hung over the railing on the balcony overlooking the gym, and parents and friends who couldn't find a place inside peered through the open windows in the back of the auditorium. The ceremony was in some ways much like a graduation in the US – the salutatorian and valedictorian spoke, as did a guest speaker (though in this case the guest speaker was a member of the ministry of education, and instead of providing inspiring words to the students, used his speech time to blatantly promote the government and his own personal politics). In other ways, it was very different.
The best part of the ceremony for me, by far, was when a local singer took the stage and performed one of her songs. This in itself was entertaining, but even more so because, in the middle of her song, a female student stood up in the audience, walked right up to the dancing woman, and stuffed money down the performer's shirt. After that, nearly every student in the auditorium, male and female, followed suit. They filled the woman's bra so full of money that they had to bring out a separate box to put it in. And the whole time, the woman never blinked; she just kept dancing and singing as though nothing at all were happening. The whole thing was all the more surreal given that the woman was singing a song about Jesus.
Maybe it's just me, but none of the graduation ceremonies I've ever been to in the States have involved putting money in a woman's bra. I have also never been to a graduation ceremony in the US where members of an Indian police force was present, complete with bulletproof vests and rifles, which was the case here. Nor have I been to a graduation where the graduates all show up in a long motorcade of motorcycles, sometimes with three or four people on a bike.
Anyway, the ceremony itself was neat, and it was really cool to see how excited the family members were. Everyone was dressed absolutely to the nines, and after the ceremony everyone poured out into the yard to dance and sing and throw baby powder on each other (this seemed to be the substitute for silly string).
Unfortunately, there's a very bittersweet aspect to the graduation. A lot of students did not pass the exam to graduate. And of the ones who did, many will not be able to afford the time or money to go to college, or be able to pass the separate entrance exams. And even for the ones who do make it there, most will be attending college in a university system that is almost as broken-down and dysfunctional as the high school and elementary school systems. So as happy as it was to see these students succeeding, and to see the community and family support for them, there was still a sombre undertone to the whole event.