My friend Miriam, a nursery teacher (yes, they have pre-school even in an African village), said the program would start at 8 a.m. When I expressed surprise at the early hour, she looked sheepish and hedged, "well, that's black man time, maybe 9 o'clock for you." On the day in question, ready to go at 10, as per Becky's recommendation, the girls and I wandered over to Friesens' (some 15 metres down from the Bonye tree where the students gather for their march) around 10:30 to wait for things to begin. Once a sizeable crowd of kids had gathered at the tree we walked over to the Presbyterian church and staked out a spot on the hill to watch the procession crest and flow down the hill towards the school grounds at the other end of the village.
Marching and singing, the groups came row on row--2 or 3 abreast--like an endless train of singing ants clothed in shades of blue. Students from the two government primary schools and the government secondary school of Big Bekondo marched led by flag, banner and sign banner carriers announcing their school name and motto, as did the private nursery & primary school of Bekondo, the Catholic primary school of Three Corners, the Presbyterian primary school of Three Corners, the government primary school of Three Corners, and the government primary school of Mofako Bekondo. (Aside: I was relieved to note "progress" was spelled correctly on the school banners.)
Their song lyrics ranged from the pedagogically appropriate "listen to your teacher" to the inspiring "we are the leaders of tomorrow" to the nationalistic "Paul Biya... he is president" to the religious "Oh when the saints," and "go down to Egypt and let my people go".
Two different groups of majorettes lead their respective groups, both attired in short, satiny pink dresses, holding hoops manipulated in unison while the head majorette blew a whistle. The primary school girls were miniature versions of their older counterparts and took their job very seriously, putting on more of a show than their sisters. These little girls literally got down and dirty as they danced.
Most school groups stopped momentarily after cresting the hill, but one halted and remained that way for some time. I wasn't clear on why they were stopping nor whether the argument that broke out was the result of the halt or the cause. In no time, all the children were screaming at each other at the top of their lungs (retaining their form remarkably well, however). With no noticeable cue, after a time they took up their song again and resumed their march, to the relief, no doubt, of the groups bottlenecked on the other side of the hill.
The children of St. Linus Catholic School of Three Corners were the most impressive: neatest uniforms, best marching form, accompanied by a teacher piping skilfully. When they paused to show off their form at the bottom of the hill, the flag carrier, momentarily distracted from her duties, let the flag touch the ground. Another girl shrieked in rebuke and the chastened girl hastily rectified her error.
It's hard to believe that only 10 years ago there was no secondary school in the village. Given how difficult it is to get kids to attend school when it's right here in Bekondo, I shudder to think how few would have gone to school if they had to go to Kumba to do it.
After the hundreds of children had marched past, we dusted ourselves off and raced to the soccer pitch at the edge of the village to grab seats by the grandstand to watch more marching and some games. The girls had to grab seats at the back of the shelter, but I was privileged to sit under the shade of palm leaves, in the chair section marked "missionaries." (There were only 4 seats, but Lisa took Joshua home shortly after the parade ended so I grabbed her chair. Many Cameroonians have difficulty distinguishing one white woman from another, so I'm getting used to being mistaken for Becky and Lisa.)
When the program got off the ground around 12:10, the announcer rebuked the students.and probably the crowd, too, saying "this was supposed to start at 7:30!" First some of the dignitaries needed to be introduced and there was some speechifying before staid British marching music blasted from the squawking and screeching sound system for the second "march-past" of the day, this time for the judges. ("Do you think they even know how to use that thing?" asked Dan with a good deal of skepticism in his voice. To Mike: "You should hold a course.") The little kids just strutted their stuff, singing and marching in unison being a significant enough accomplishment for the under 9 year-olds. The older kids not only marched but wove back and forth in formation. Some of the schools marched to the drums of St Linus. Two men and my friend Judith--history and civics teacher at the secondary school--judged the performances to hand out prizes later in the day.
Other than marching, one of the draws of the program at the school grounds is the games. Pre-schoolers are cute the world over, and these kids were no exception. Reading the program, I couldn't imagine what a game called "Catching the Train" might entail: eight little girls who must put on a dress & headtie, retrieve from a purse and apply a bracelet & lipstick; then unfurl an umbrella, shoulder the purse, and run to the finish line. It was both adorable and hilarious to see them struggle to complete their tasks, then see these little ladies high-tail it across the field like Mary Poppins in turbo-speed.
The boys' game, "Filling the Bucket," was less complex but no less amusing, if only for their NOT following instructions. They had to collect a series of balls off the ground, drop them into a pail, then proceed to the finish. However, half of the boys headed back to the starting line, the faster ones thus losing their edge.
Oddly, the flamboyant and masterful choir conductor is usually the one of the smallest choristers. "Maybe be they aren't old enough to be overly self-conscious yet," Lisa suggested. The school choirs competed, again with songs ranging in topic from incidental music about Youth Day, the march past, and the 42 years, to "salute all chiefs.fight against corruption," to "Jesus--He will never let you down; He holds the key to life". The diminutive conductors were truly impressive with their vocal leadership, grandiose conducting, and dancing-none more so than the group from St. Linus, attired in mini choir uniforms and mortarboards, whose conductor wore crisp white gloves as he waved his arms gracefully in time. Anyone impressed by the choirs' prowess or charmed by their cuteness could walk up to throw money at the conductor's feet or press it to his/her forehead, as per Cameroonian custom.
All the while these kids sang their hearts out, the announcer was blathering on the still protesting sound system, and the crowd talking and moving around. When the kids finished, it seemed all of 3 or 4 people acknowledged their performance with a brief applause as the choir took their bows and did one final march past as the conductor scooped up the dosh.
With each succeeding activity, the performance area of the field grew smaller and smaller as the children pressed in from every side to get a birds' eye view of the events. By the time the traditional dancing began, the formerly wide open soccer pitch now allowed only a performance space the size of a large meeting room. Upper primary and secondary school kids dressed in wrapper skirts, heads decorated with yarn, shook their shoulders and moved their feet to the rhythms of a drum while their schoolmates pressed in on every side.
This big event, themed "unity" (a typical sentiment, whose prominence in event themes does not seem to have resulted in the remarkable coherence and peacefulness among the general populace one might expect from its ubiquity) wound down gradually. Since the commencement of the schoolyard activities, the crowd had been ebbing and flowing--increasingly ebbing as the hours wore on. Around 4, they called a hiatus to prepare for the upcoming interschool football (soccer) match. I took my leave then, thinking I'd taken in about as much as I could. I would have been in err, however, had I thought things were over. Dan got roped into the dignitaries' palaver and didn't return home until well past dark.