It seems unusual in Congo to find a common worker who is simultaneously attending university, but such is the case with Benjamin who works for Jon and Cher as their night guard. It’s a cushy job for him as he mostly sleeps the night away (to Jon and Cher’s chagrin). Still, I’m happy that he is trying to better himself and I’ve tried to be supportive, showing interest in his classes while trying to understand the stories told in his meager English.
After finishing his lab tech courses in early summer, he spent the months of July, August, and September working on his big thesis paper, 28 pages of research on Bilharzia, which culminated in a presentation before three professors, with family and friends as spectators. Ben invited me.
The surprisingly well-organized presentation lasted for one hour and consisted of Ben giving a short speech about his topic in front of the audience of approximately 30, the judges publicly critiquing the paper, the judges conferring together on whether he passed or not while we waited outside, and finally announcing the results. No secrets here. No being nice and giving only positive feedback in front of the family.
While Ben gave his speech sitting at a small table decorated with a yellow table cloth and white artificial flowers, a friend walked around the front of the room taking pictures, often standing right in front of Ben or the judges without the slightest embarrassment, which seems to be the Congolese style. Ben spoke carefully, clearly, and smiled a lot. The family applauded. The judges ripped him to shreds. His smiling face fell into a frozen grin. For at least 20 minutes, they seemed to tell him nothing nice about his paper, but according to a friend, they were criticizing the written mistakes throughout, not the actual research. Ben doesn’t type or own a computer, so he is forced to hire someone to type the paper and pay to have five copies printed and bound. Since French is his 2nd language, it’s inevitable that mistakes will be made. As I watched this scene, I couldn’t imagine anything resembling this taking place in America. As my brother says, we Americans are thin-skinned and don’t take criticism well, especially not publicly.
Following the onslaught, we all stepped outside to wait for the results: pass or fail. Someone gave Ben a bouquet of artificial orange and yellow flowers. We took a few family photos. When the judges were ready, we gathered back in the room. They quickly announced that Ben had passed although he would be required to make corrections and print up five new bound copies of the thesis, at a cost of approximately $40 – an enormous sum for a guy who makes about $3 a day, the normal pay for a 12-hour/day guard. The next time you feel poor, think about that. Also consider that this schooling and degree will probably never result in a job as a lab tech for Ben, and even if he got a job in a government funded hospital, he would rarely get paid by the government. Even so, Ben and his family seemed genuinely proud at his accomplishment, and so was I.