14 April 2006

African protocol

African protocol is all about waiting. About making YOU wait, more precisely. I will show you what an important guy I am by shamelesssly claiming your time and make you sit and wait until such time as I choose to show up and get on with whatever it was I called on you for.

I guess we were lucky yesterday. It took the President and his wife, accompanied by the French Ambassador and his spouse, an hour and fifteen minutes to arrive, which wasn' so bad after all. My boss was once made to wait four and a half hours on a similar occasion: he sneaked out, had lunch at home, and came back again.

I had arrived in a slightly rebellious mood (as may have been clear from my closing lines in yesterday's post) 10 minutes late at the ceremony for the French Ambassador's departure, and was ushered into a 'waiting room' at the presidential palace. This turned out to be a large cinema-like space, and here I found some 150 people, diplomats, business people, government ministers, the lot, rather sheepishly waiting in long rows of theatre seats for what would come next. We were kept waiting for another 40 minutes (...), then herded to the place where the banquet would take place (they hadn't been able to set the thing up on time).
I was seated between the capital's mayor, and a parliamentary deputy. The latter started bitching right away about the smallish sum of money (4 million euros) we were going to disburse at the end of the month, saying it would only pay a month of salaries. I've been a good boy, explaining politely that what we are trying to do is provide sustainable aid, for instance make the country earn its own money for a change (he seemed to sort of agree that thjat was not wholly unreasonable), while doing doing the occasional financial d├ępannage to help to keep the country stable.

To the host government's credit I must say they hadn't turn the occasion into some lavish extravaganza. Good plain food (homecooked in the presidential kitchens), soft drinks, a few bottles of wine, a petit glass of champagne for the toast, but nothing excessive (I noted that the President toasted with a glass of Fanta; his predecessor was a notorious drunk). Even better were the speeches, something I didn't really expect. It was one of the rare occasions that I have enjoyed official speeches, and they made up for the boredom of the first two hours of the event. People in this country, in Africa in general I guess (a consequence of oral culture?), are often very, very eloquent, and wise things on the country's present and recent past were said by the Foreign Minister and the Ambassador. The events in Chad and the painful memories of the country's own recent violent past added charge and drama to the occasion.


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