Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Staff Meeting in a Zambian Boarding School

The very first full-fledged staff meeting that I had the privilege to attend, came up at the beginning of the new term after my arrival in Luwingu. It took place on a Friday before the reopening of schools. The meeting was scheduled for 14.00 hours Zambian time. Even though I wasn’t quite used to the 24 hour clock, I figured it out as 2 PM. In Zambia, it was customary in those days for teachers to wear a tie when they go to their classes. So, being a new teacher, I dressed up properly and reached in time for the meeting. The venue was given as the staff room. When I reached, I found the staff room in great disorder. Even though it was nearly the starting time, the chairs were not arranged properly and the room was very untidy. Some of the early arrivals had pulled up some chairs in a small circle and were involved in animated conversation. Most of them were British or Irish. The men were in their shorts and T-shirts while the ladies were wearing some very short skirt or frock. None of them appeared sufficiently well-dressed for a staff meeting. Mr. Syal, one of the four Indian teachers in the school, was sitting alone in a corner and staring at nothing in particular. He was wearing a clean shirt and tie. A huge Alsatian dog was seated very comfortably on a large chair as if presiding over the meeting. Later I came to know that it belonged to a teacher named Reid who looked like a high school student. The headmaster, Mr. Simposya, arrived very promptly at the starting time, but there were only ten or eleven people present and no one seemed to notice his arrival. However, by 2.15 PM more people were trickling in and soon the meeting was called to order. It appeared that the headmaster, being a very neat and tidy person, was a bit distressed by the general uncleanness of the place and mentioned something to that effect in his opening remarks. Mr. Campbell, the acting deputy head, growled something about the ‘master on duty’ failing to carry out his job and the headmaster checked the duty list on the notice board to find out who was on duty. Reid was on duty but he had ample excuses to offer. He had arrived from the Copperbelt only the previous evening. His servant did not look after the dog properly in his absence so that the dog became very sick and he had to take the dog to the vet that morning and had arrived from there just before the starting time of the meeting. That accounted for the dog’s presence in the meeting but he assured that he had instructed the dog to remain silent during the meeting. He was sort of hinting that the headmaster should be thankful for his presence under such trying conditions. Mr. Simposya did not make any comments but moved on to the next item on the agenda, which was the reading of the minutes of the previous meeting.

I thought the reading of the minutes was a simple affair. Someone who normally takes down the minutes of a meeting reads it out during the next meeting and the minutes will be passed with or without correction. The corrections are made only if some errors were noticed in the minutes. Any progress on the decisions made in the previous meeting or further actions based on the same are discussed during “matters arising”. In Zambia, reading of the minutes takes most part of the time in a meeting. All sorts of questions, discussions, suggestions and observations come up during the reading of the minutes with frequent interruptions of the reading. It appears that we are going on and on in circles. People talk not only about what happened in the previous meeting and what plans were made, but also about what should be our future plans and what some people noticed in some other places sometime back etc.
About half way through the minutes’ reading, three people walked in. They were the Pipers and their neighbor Longridge who were delayed due to some reasons of their own. Now it was the turn of Mr. Simposya to give the newcomers an account of all what happened and what we discussed in their absence, starting from his opening remarks and the general untidiness of the staff room. They too had some explanations to make for their delay, questions to ask and suggestions to make. Another period of discussion followed and no one seemed to be in a hurry to make any progress.

As a result of these lengthy discussions and repetitions, it was almost nightfall and the staff room was getting darker and darker by the time we were not even half way through the agenda. We had no electricity as the diesel tanker from Kasama had not arrived that week and the generator could not be operated as a result. Knowing this, I was very hopeful that the meeting would come to a close very soon and the rest of the items in the agenda would be postponed for discussion on a later date. But to my great dismay, one of the orderlies (‘peons’ are called ‘orderlies’ in Zambia) started bringing in some ‘Tilly’ lamps and placing them in different parts of the room. Soon the staff room was filled with sufficient light to allow the meeting to continue for an indefinite period. I also noticed that most of the people appeared very relaxed and no one seed to be in any particular hurry. Many were sitting with their legs drawn up on to the chair and chain-smoking. Reid’s dog was sitting patiently on its chair and wetting the cushion with its plentiful saliva. The room was littered with hundreds of cigarette stubs and ashes were sprinkled all over the place. The meeting went on unhindered.

By 8 PM I wanted a cup of coffee very badly but there were no provisions for that. I felt like screaming, but thought better of it and decided to go to sleep instead, as some people were already doing. As I was about to doze off, there was a lull in the discussions and a moment of silence prevailed. That was when it came – the sound of very powerful snoring from one of the dark corners. All the eyes were turned in that direction and the culprit was identified, but the sleeping person continued to sleep and snore away, blissfully ignorant of what was happening. It was Mr. M, the teacher of local languages who did the snoring. The headmaster knew when he was licked. Mr.M was a well-respected old man who could not be reprimanded in public even by Mr. Simposya. So he simply called the meeting to a close and I went home with a great sigh of relief, thanking Mr. M silently for the kind action unknowingly performed by him that day.