12 Dec A Tale of Unsolicited Wisdom
As a child, I was forced to attend many Ugandan wedding ceremonies. ‘Joel, tomorrow we have a wedding.’ My mother would often say. One of the things I never understood was whether that was a suggestion or merely a notice. Frankly, I hated it. And God forbid if it was a wedding with bad food. My facial expressions at these events would have made worthy memes. One time, at a relative’s wedding, we sat next to the sound speaker’s system. The speakers were all black – about two meters long and half a meter wide. Whenever they played music, I was literally running mad. The sound was so deafening that long after the music had played, I’d hear its echoes within my head. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t go to any more wedding ceremonies. ’If you don’t attend people’s weddings, who will attend yours.’ I’ve been conditioned to believe. Ugandan weddings excluded; graduation parties are some of the most dramatic events I have attended.
Graduation parties are laced with humor and heightened emotions but, they also reek with intrigue and are easily some of the most presumptuous events. Isn’t it odd, how graduation speeches are sage and every speaker invokes practical wisdom from their successful lives? One would think that it’s a meeting of monks. Some cry, while most relatives, in a very assuming way offer unsolicited advice on the next steps to take after a degree. My two sisters completed their degrees this year. As their siblings, we planned a party to celebrate this milestone. But as it is, I was genuinely challenged. My brain was stretched to its creative limits, as I struggled to figure out what gifts to get my sisters.
‘What should I get Jacinta and Melanie for their graduation?’ I asked my brother. ‘Just ask them what they want?’ He responded with a smirk on his face. Such time saving, pragmatic and helpful advice! I still had some relative objectivity to look beyond my brother’s rational advice. Most people prefer receiving gifts as surprises instead of full-blown disclosures on their preferences. Where was the excitement in that?
On my most recent graduation, I was excited, but mother’s enthusiasm exceeded mine, by miles. As I prepared for my graduation, my parent insisted on buying me a suit, which I still have. It was a nice suit – even fitting enough to conceal my small bulging belly. Even though, my mother was unable to make it to the United Kingdom, I still felt the joy when I wore the suit she bought. To date, I wear the suit on special occasions. That’s how endearing the gifts we receive on graduation grow to be become a part of us.
I’ve always loved receiving gifts, everyone does. Afterall, gifts are free. The only challenge gifts present is the social pressure they create- the need to reciprocate the same affection to whoever has given you a gift. Despite growing up in a humble home – our family, was vainly materialistic at certain times of the year. Important celebrations were always marked with new clothes and shiny shoes. On Christmas and Easter, our delight wasn’t focused on Jesus’ birth or resurrection (however revolutionary these events might have been or are). Our main concern was which first-hand clothes we would get from the shops. My understanding of the importance of gifts on special occasions was rooted in this contradictory experience.
The best place to start when looking for gifts is the mall. Together with my brother we went to a city mall in Kawokya, Kampala. I began moving from one aisle to another within Aristoc, a Ugandan bookstore. I checked out different books and other possible gifts for my sisters. I knew I wanted to buy a book(s) for one of my sisters but, frankly, I wasn’t sure if they were that much into reading.
I felt my phone vibrating in my pocket, so I pulled it out. ‘Where are you?’ ‘Everyone else is here, you are the only one’s missing.’ My mother asked, in such a disappointed tone. We were running late. I picked out two books and a pair headsets. I hurriedly wrote my messages in the books, bought gift packs for each of the separate gifts. After which, we set off for the restaurant.
Weeks before the event, I thought about what graduation meant. I asked my colleagues how they felt at their last graduation. For most, the pandemic had delayed their graduations, and by the time the ceremony came, they felt that it was long overdue. For another, her recent graduation was an affirmation, ‘When I saw my name on the graduation list, I was just relieved, honestly.’ She spoke fondly about her recent graduation from the bar course. Indeed, graduations are exciting ceremonies that recognize a student’s efforts and the support of their loved ones. I could only imagine how my sisters felt.
Most people love recognition, but it is sometimes uncomfortable when you are the sole object of everyone’s attention. On my own graduation lunches, although I enjoyed the food, my experience was the least but exciting. I had to keep on smiling. Wearing the mortarboard hat while eating was very inconveniencing as the strings on the hat kept on covering my face and mouth. At the beginning, I had to hug everyone who attended. Some of these hugs were with people, I could barely have a five-minute conversation with. Then, I had to regurgitate the same small talk to entertain everyone who was asking me about my journey to the degree. It was exhausting. Before, I knew it, we had arrived at the restaurant for my sisters’ party.
There was a well set up photo booth inscribed in calligraphy with the words ‘They just made it: Melanie and Jacinta’. We took pictures with the graduates and were then treated to a Chinese buffet. My sisters were stunning. Jacinta wore a sleeveless maroon dress while Melanie wore a green ball-room like gown. The emcee led us through a few games where we were asked questions to test how much we really knew about the graduates. I failed most of the questions including their best colors. I couldn’t even guess their favorite movies. In typical Ugandan style, although the winners celebrated, as the losers, we contested the results.
In the late afternoon, the speeches then began. One of our relatives whispered to my sisters, ‘now we want another degree’. I am not sure whether that meant a master’s degree. I learnt that usually it means that the next degree is marriage. I understand that this is directed mostly to female graduates, which my sisters obviously were. It is quite interesting how, instantaneously, relatives expect upon graduation that women should get married. It is often the measuring rod for most women, and some of my older sisters have constantly had to explain themselves. Recently, I was also told by a close relative that I am incomplete even with a master’s degree. That, I need a wife. It is interesting that relatives know my needs more than myself.
My oldest sister, Susan congratulated Jacinta and Melanie upon their graduation in her speech. Hardly had she spoke, before she started crying. That was the beginning of a rainy day- indoors. Jacinta, got up to speak. She barely mustered two words before breaking down in tears. Then, her mother took over the speech and shared (in excruciating detail) a monologue on Jacinta’s journey as a baby to this day. Later Melanie, stood up to talk. In a collected and brief manner, she said a few words and then took her seat. Her speech was as long as the tik tok videos I’ve seen on her WhatsApp status. One of Melanie’s male friends sat next to her at the event. I kept on teasing both of them, asking whether they were more than just friends.
As the elder brother, I was asked to address the guests and graduates. I had prepared pointers for my speech. I told my sisters to treat people kindly, challenge themselves and asked them to strive to be better. I shared about the patterns after my own graduations. Coincidentally, I took on internships after two of my degrees. When I finished my undergraduate law degree, I interned with a commercial law firm before enrolling on the bar course. Even, when I finished my advanced degree, I undertook a summer placement with a commercial law firm in London. But, I had also worked for a newspaper company when I had just finished the Ugandan bar exams. Drawing from these instances, I rode the high horse and told them to be humble- that a degree was only the beginning. I had become the very person I detested, purporting to advise while drawing from my apparently fulfilled life.
Still, nothing beats the feeling of graduation. I handed my sisters their gifts and, in the evening, we set off. There is a lot of optimism and hope in the future that lays ahead. Perhaps graduates need more hope than anything, because adulting rips us apart, piece by piece, until we get to give advice on another graduation about humility, patience and kindness.