Ben’s Thesis

Ben gives a speech to three professors acting as judges, and an audience of about 30 family and friends.

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 judges read through the thesis paper while Ben presents it in a speech.

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.

Ben's professors go over the thesis page by page, highly critical of the writing mistakes/grammar, but conclude that the research is sound.

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.

Ben listens to the criticism of the judges, along with more than 30 of his family, friends, and fellow students who will go through the same exercise when they finish their thesis papers.

Although I couldn't understand everything, it was clear that it was not positive feedback. A few times a judge asked Ben a question and his reply sent the audience into cheers and applause. Later I was told he had responded well to the question.

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.

Ben is presented with a bouquet of artificial flowers and congratulated while everyone waits outside the room where the judges decide if Ben should pass or fail.

When the judges make their decision, everyone is ushered back into the room for the announcement. A nervous Ben is told that he has passed but must re-write the paper to correct the mistakes. Everyone cheers and applauds, someone throws a Christmas-style lei around Ben's neck, and photos are taken with his mother.

Ben's family gathers for a photo following the announcement that he has passed.


  1. Ken Mullins 20 October 2010 at 6:03 pm #

    Was this a PHD for Ben?

    • lcadd 20 October 2010 at 7:06 pm #

      No, Ken, it was a short lab-tech course so that he can be an assistant lab technician. Unfortunately, the odds of him getting a job here in Congo and getting paid more than a night guard are slim to none.

  2. Bill Sjoblom 28 October 2010 at 4:46 am #

    Great post, Lu! Loved the story and the detail. Seems so unfair that one could go to that much trouble and effort with pride as the only tangible payoff. Then again, maybe we can learn from that.

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