Failure, Fiasco, or Otherwise…

21 June 2013, Friday

“There’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is merely the absence of success. Any fool can achieve failure. But a fiasco, a fiasco is a disaster of epic proportions. A fiasco is a folk tale told to others to make other people feel more alive because it didn’t happen to them.” – Elizabethtown

I really love this quote, and I think I may secretly have been looking for a fiasco in my life just so I could use this quote.  However, in its definition of fiasco, it does not mention a lack of success.  Yes, it may be hard to believe that a “disaster of epic proportions” could be successful, but in Namibia it seems that just such an anomaly is possible.  Here is the saga from the last couple months…

This story really begins about two years ago during one of my first visits to the school.  At that time the principal mentioned that the school was going to plan a Gala Dinner to raise a lot of money for the school.  In a morning staff meeting he stated that he was putting the new volunteer on the Gala Dinner committee.  Now I was a brand new teacher, fresh out of Peace Corps training where I had been told repeatedly not to take on too many additional projects during the first year but to focus on teaching.  Having not even been asked whether or not I wanted to be a part of the Gala Dinner committee, I decided if I was ever asked to attend a meeting or do anything involving the Gala, I would explain at that point that I did not have the time.  However, nothing ever came of the Gala Dinner.  Over the next two years, it was mentioned at several meetings, apparently some half-hearted planning was done, but the result was that the Gala Dinner was postponed indefinitely. Until now…

About 3 months ago the principal decided that we needed to try this Gala Dinner again but for real this time.  The principal is all geared up to build a school hall where we can have assemblies inside and a place to play indoor sports.  During a staff meeting, where I was in my corner marking papers because we were entering about hour 3 of the meeting, the topic of the Gala Dinner was brought up.  I was really only half listening where they were discussing an old committee and something about having keys to a special room in Windhoek or something like that.  Anyway, the next thing I know we are electing 10 members to this committee.  One person is nominated by a staff member, another person seconds the nomination, and suddenly that person is a member of the committee.  We were on person 7 or 8 before one of the young male teachers was elected to the committee.  As soon as that happened he turned to me grading papers in my corner and with a malicious glint in his eye he nominated me for the committee.  I was quickly seconded by other teachers who were hoping to keep from being elected to the committee themselves and who were so tired of this meeting that they just wanted to finish and go home.  Turns out that I had just been elected to the Gala Dinner Committee.

The committee met a couple of times soon after that fateful staff meeting.  We got an advisor from the Ministry of Education, and within no time, the “Gala Dinner” had morphed into a whole dog and pony show.  (Ok, so there was never any mention of including dogs, but the principal was suppose to bring in horses for the kids to ride)  During one of these meetings, the members of the committee threw out ideas and it seems that no one could have a bad idea.  Whatever was thrown out was included.  These ideas were scribbled into a book and then the next morning, in front of the staff (because heaven forbid I get asked to help in private instead of forced to help in public) the principle and another teacher decided that I was the best at organizing so I was going to organize all the ideas and make everything happen.  So in my “free time” I took some of my own precious resources and I wrote on four large pieces of flip chart paper exactly what needed to get done for what was now being called a fundraising event.

The first couple of items on the list included things like “find a location and a caterer for the dinner” and “get a blessing from the ministry” and “send a delegation to the founding father to ask if he will attend.”  In the beginning the goal was that the first president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, was going to attended the event.  Or in his absence we were going to get an article of his clothing to be auctioned.  We were also going to invite the Prime Minister or get an article of his clothing.  At the same time, I had a whole list of places we were suppose to ask for donations for the event.  During another morning staff meeting, I help to write names next to all the different tasks which needed to get done and all the people or businesses that needed to be contacted for donations.  About a week later, no one was looking at the lists any more.  I can’t believe that I didn’t take a picture of these lists hanging in the staff room.

At the height of planning, if I understood everything correctly, this is what the Gala Dinner had morphed into:  a few weeks before the Gala Dinner, there was going to be a bazaar.  Not the kind of bazaar we think of in the States, but basically a barbeque dinner.  They were going to cook some meet, make some potato salad, and sell cool drink and beer.  A few weeks after the bazaar would be our “fundraising event.”  This would include events on Friday and Saturday for the kids.  There would be a bouncy castle, face painting, potato sack races, horse riding, etc.  Then for the adults we were going to bring in experts on business, health, relationships, and make up.  The adults would have to pay for tickets to either hear these experts speak or to have a private consultation with them (not sure which we would have landed on).  There was also going to be a room at the school where they were going to put old learners from the school who had grown up to be doctors or lawyers or athletes or what-have-you and make people pay to go in the room and talk with those people.  There was also going to be a room where they were going to dress of a girl from grade 7, who is a little person, and have people pay to go see her.  Thankfully another teacher and myself squashed that idea quickly and the principal, back off and tried to claim that he really meant she should get a group of other kids and perform a song or a dance.  Also, to entice old learners to come, we were suppose to dig up old photos of the learners and put them up for an auction where they could buy pre-primary and grade one photos of themselves.  Then in the evening, there was suppose to be time for the teens.  We were going to get some performers or a DJ or something for the teens from 7pm to “late.”  In my experience of Namibia, having teens all grouped together somewhere away from their families and with very lax supervision until “late” is going to result in a few babies being made.  In addition to these events, there was to be a Gala Dinner on Saturday night which would be so fancy as to warrant N$300 a plate for dinner or businesses could pay N$10 000 for a table of 10 or the real VIPs could pay N$15 000 for a table of 10.  I know that math doesn’t work out to anything logical, but that’s where we landed.

But before any of the planning for this extravaganza could really take place, we had to settle on a theme or slogan for the event, which took soooooo much longer than it should have, I’m talking weeks instead of hours.  I think the first part of the problem was that we couldn’t distinguish between a theme and a slogan.  The principal wanted the theme/slogan to incorporate the following: building a school hall, bringing together old learners, and celebrating the Day of the African Child.  Because heaven forbid it was something as simple as Under the Sea.  It seemed that nothing else could get done until we had decided on a theme because the them was suppose to be on everything.  Day after day papers were circulated around the teachers to ask for themes and day after day no one could choose one of the themes.  Eventually the initial motivation wore off and reports on progress at the morning staff meetings were fewer and farther between.  Eventually the invitation cards needed to go out so the idea of a theme and slogan came up again which would go on the invitation cards.  In the end I modified the wording until we came up with the following: Karundu PS 31st Anniversary, Fundraise to Educate and Empower the African Child.  I never saw the actual invitation but I believe this was on the invitation… and never seen again.

From there on out, I wasn’t sure if anything was getting done, but I was really just focused on teaching.  I know I am going to miss some school this term for peace corps events, so I really wanted to push my kids through as much as possible to make up for being gone.  About a week before the end of the term, it was decided that the invitations had to go out.  We spent one morning meeting brainstorming any and every person in Namibia that we could invite to the Gala Dinner.  It sounded to me like a list of more than 100 people or more because many of them were companies we were hoping would send a whole table of people.  The last day of school teachers were suppose to pick up the invitation cards for the people they had suggested or knew they could get cards to.  At this point, I believe the invitation cards were in the hands of one of the younger teacher and it was her responsibility to make sure people got the number of cards they said they would take.  From there I went on to the All Volunteer Conference and South Africa.  I didn’t have anyone who I was in charge of inviting.  When I found out that the Prime Minister was going to be at the Group 37 Swearing In Ceremony, I did take the opportunity to mention that we were having a Gala Dinner and that an invitation had been sent to his office and I hoped we would be able to see him there.  I found out a couple days before the actual Gala Dinner that even though we had intended to invite him, no one sent an invitation to the Prime Minister.

When we got back from the school holiday, all the attention was focused on the bazaar which was suppose to happen the second weekend of the term.  One woman was in charge of planning the bazaar.  A few days before we were suppose to begin with the bazaar, the principal called an impromptu parents meeting to inform the parents about the bazaar and the fundraising event.  During this meeting he realized that the tickets were priced too high for the parents to come to the Gala Dinner and the parents were upset because many of them were former learners of the school.  He tried to back track and say that he knew the price should have been lower when in reality, at one point, he suggested the price be N$500 a plate.

As the bazaar drew closer, the amount of teaching happening at the school was considerably reduced with teachers running here and there trying to find tents and animals and drinks for the event.  Finally by the Friday of the bazaar, two goats, a sheep, and an oryx carcass were in line for the bazaar.  If I followed all the conversations correctly, the oryx was donated but we paid for the goats and the sheep. The school also purchased many chips and candy and oros (a Namibian kool aid of sorts made from a juice concentrate) bread and hotdogs for the learners.  As with the spring fun day last year, the learners were forced to purchase tickets ahead of time which they could use to buy food on the day of the event.  On the day of the bazaar, there was suppose to be school until noon (hahahaha, like that ever would have happened) and then the learners were going to be release to the bazaar which would start at the school and then move to a place in the location for the rest of the weekend.  In reality, school sort of happened until 10am.  Then the learners were allowed to start buying things at the bazaar but very quickly the hotdogs ran out and the lines for the other items were ridiculously long.  There was a sound system set up and learners were dancing in the center of a circle, but there was not enough room for all the learners to watch.  The problem we can’t seem to solve is having enough to entertain 1200 learners.  Many of the learners did not spend all the tickets they purchased because again we ran out of food.  And what I didn’t realize until later was that the kids didn’t get any of the animal meat which was purchased.  I stayed at the school after the event was over because I had been left with the keys to lock up.  As the tent and food and such was being moved to the new place in the location, I watch the comings and goings.  The plan was to be up and running and selling food by 2pm.  At 2pm, one teacher was looking for the ropes to tie down the tent.  Another teacher pulled up with in his pickup truck with two live goats and a sheep in the back, so they weren’t going to be ready to eat for a while.  And the teacher in charge of music hadn’t picked up his speakers yet.  I just tried to stay out of the way and avoid the fray.  I had a bunch of volunteers coming to spend the weekend with me, so I wasn’t able to help out with much of the selling and really I’m no good with the butchering part.  What I was able to do was bring some customers with me to help eat the meat.  Being at the bazaar was really nice.  I enjoyed being able to spend some time with my colleagues outside of school and I think it was good for them to get to see me in a social setting.  Plus, the meat was excellent!  I was a little nervous that we wouldn’t actually make any money because while I was there a lot of people were taking meat off the grill and putting it in their mouths, but not a lot of money was exchanging hands.  Although, the unofficial report I heard was that we brought in about N$9 000.

After the bazaar it was another two weeks until the rest of the fundraising extravaganza.  Then the questions started coming in about how many people had bought tickets to the gala dinner.  At first count the answer was zero.  I’m a little confused why the principal told us zero tickets were sold because two minutes later he said he had sold 3 tickets and another teacher had sold nine tickets.  So for the next two weeks I don’t think anyone was ever really sure how many tickets were sold.  During this time I was just trying to stay out of the way.  I didn’t want anything to do with this event that I was sure was going to be a fiasco.  Two weeks ahead of time and nothing was planned.  The principal still wanted to put an ad in the newspaper and a banner across the street in town and make announcements on the radio.  Which means going on four different radio stations to make announcements in each tribal language.  There was no entertainment booked, no experts contacted, no MCs, and as far as I know, no one had contacted the founding father.  Yet they were still going around telling people that he was probably going to come and be the guest of honor.  The meat for the dinner was taken care of because only the sheep and a leg of the oryx was consumed at the bazaar, leaving two goats and most of an oryx for the gala.

The week preceding the event, things took a turn for the worst.  The principal began to realize that very few people had purchased tickets to the gala dinner so he started to get upset with the younger teacher he had entrusted the ticket selling to.  Monday night as I was trying to leave the school I stopped by his office for a completely unrelated reason and ended up staying for two hours as he told me to draft a letter to this person and then to that person and then he needed an invoice form he could use for the people buying tickets to the gala and he needed it now now because the deputy minister was on her way over and couldn’t just do it for him.  So I stayed and helped and then went home and marked papers and wrote my lesson for the next day.  Tuesday morning I was told (again at the staff meeting) that I needed to help a group of people draft the radio announcement so it could be translated into different languages.  Then at the end of the meeting the people I was suppose to work with were sent on a different errand so that never got done.  In the same meeting the principal revealed to us our newspaper ad for the event.  His vision all along was to have a whole page advertisement, but when he went to advertise he learned that one page was about N$10 000.  Even half a page was too expensive. Even a quarter page was still expensive.  He opened the paper to reveal the ad for our gala dinner which was no bigger than a business card, and still cost us a couple thousand dollars.  I almost laughed at the size of it after all that build up.  Tuesday I ran for my life after school so as not to get sucked back in.  Wednesday morning the principal was all in a rage as he brought a stack of posters advertising the Fundraising Event into the staffroom.  He hollered about why what these posters not been hung up all around town and how could he have ever trusted the young staff members.  He yelled that if he had just done the whole thing himself instead of delegating then we could have raised at least a million dollars and instead he didn’t even know if we would be able to have the event.  As to the matter of the posters, I had seen one of them before a couple weeks earlier.  It was suppose to be our full page newspaper ad, but when I read it the English was so terrible I said we couldn’t put it in the paper like that.  I fixed the English and thought that was the end of it.  Where the entire stack of posters came from I will never know.  My guess is that they were in some corner of the principal’s office and he just got upset when he realized the mistake.  However, to rectify the situation, several teachers volunteered to take them around town immediately and hang them up.  One clever teacher voiced my thoughts aloud when she brought up the point that the posters advertised for all the kiddie games and the teen night and the guest speakers.  The gala dinner was only one small line on the poster.  The principal said each teacher who was putting up fliers must write “postponed” next to everything that wasn’t going to happen, essentially everything on the poster.  That was the first we were informed that only the Gala Dinner would be happening that weekend and not all the other events.

Thursday was by far the worst.  I had planned to give my learners their test on decimal fraction on Thursday because I knew Friday would just be chaos trying to get ready for the gala.  Thursday morning I was informed (again at the staff meeting) that I was to make a Powerpoint presentation for the principal to give at the gala dinner.  It was going to be about the history of the school, and several other teachers were paired with me to help collect the photos.  When the rest of the teachers were dismissed to go teach their classes, I informed the principal that I had to give a test to my learners but that I was free during fourth period and could help him with the Powerpoint at that time.  Then he hollered at me “WE ARE IN CRISIS MODE! THIS HAS TO BE DONE NOW. You can postpone the test or give it another time.  You have to stay for the first period and make this Powerpoint.”  I was furious.  I did not come to Namibia to make Powerpoints and he had no interest in learning how to make a Powerpoint.  And I was doubly mad because again I am trying to get my kids through as much as I can and postponing a test will just slow down the momentum I’m trying to keep up with the kids.  I tried to explain this to him but he did want to hear it, probably because we were “in crisis mode.”  I pouted trough the ridiculous meeting where he simply listed what he wanted in his slides.  I couldn’t do anything until the other teachers found the pictures anyway, so I didn’t really need to be there.  For the next two days it was constantly “Marsha, I want to add this to the powerpoint.”  I did manage to make up the class period I missed and give all my classes their test, but it involved taking a class period from the only other grade 7 teacher who was still teaching, so I felt bad.  Friday was just chaos.  I didn’t teach any of my classes, but I did supervise a few classes for other teachers.  I actually spent most of the day proofreading letters to be sent out and finishing the powerpoint.  By the time I finally got to leave on Friday I was exhausted, only to be called back a few minutes later to add another slide to the Powerpoint.  But of course when I got in the principal’s office he was upset because he didn’t have a pledge form for the following night.  So I quickly whipped up a pledge form which somehow meant that I was now also in charge of collecting the pledge forms and typing the invoices for them.  My only respite was that the Peace Corps IT committee was having a workshop in town that weekend and I made the excuse that I needed to go to the workshop.  After leaving school for the second time on Friday and trying to walk to the workshop, I was picked up on the street by one of my colleagues who had a big check that he needed me to write one.

Side note: So one morning that week before the gala there was also a debate about teachers buying tickets for the dinner.  One teacher raised the point that it should be compulsory for all the teachers at Karundu to buy a ticket for the dinner.  Then there was a debate about the teacher assigned to watch the cars outside, whether or not he should have to pay if he wasn’t going to have much time to eat.  Another teacher said it should be compulsory for all the teacher whether they would be at the event or not.  This made a lot of teachers angry.  Still another teacher mentioned that polo shirts were ordered to sell at the event and it should also be compulsory for teachers to buy a polo shirt.  In the middle of this big debate over how much money teachers should be forced to pay for the event they were putting on, one teacher came up with the idea that the Karundu teachers should pledge the money.  If we put together the amount of money for the plates for each teacher plus the polo shirt for each teacher, then the staff of Karundu could pledge about N$18 000.  It took a minute to get the math correct.  But then everyone thought that was the greatest idea ever!  And it was settled, we would pay for a big check from the bank and the teacher would pledge the money.  In my head, I was still thinking “but you still have to pay the money.”  So when the teacher had the big check in his car, that was why.  And the check was laminated so it could be used again and again (meaning we were borrowing it for free, thank goodness) , but he didn’t know what kind of marker to use on it so it would erase.  Thankfully I had some whiteboard markers and helped him fill out the check.  The principal told us to make it out for N$10 000.  Where the other N$8 000 went, I have no idea.  Will we ever collect N$10 000 from the staff? Highly unlikely.

Saturday I went back to the IT workshop until late afternoon when I received a call that I was needed to come put another slide into the Powerpoint.  I attempted to give them the steps over the phone and then via text message, but they couldn’t figure it out.  They did manage to figure out the scanner and get the pictures on to the computer though, so I guess making them into a Powerpoint is kind of meeting them half way.

At the actual Gala Dinner, I was very impressed.  The woman who was in charge of the decorations is one of my favorite teachers at the school; she teacher grade 1.  She did a really nice job.  They just used the dining hall at the hostel, but she decorated it so nicely that you couldn’t tell it usually looks like a cafeteria.  Many of the teachers pitched in to help with the cooking and the decorating.  I worked to get the technology set up and the programs typed up and printed nicely.  Even after many demeaning comments from the principal throughout the week, everyone still pulled together to make a very nice dinner.  Down to the last minute I was being asked to add slides to the Powerpoint.  At one point I vetoed a slide of two of the teachers holding beer bottles and looking drunk.  It seemed very unprofessional.  This was while the principal was not around and I was getting my instructions via another teacher.  I was also told to put in the slide of one of our teachers dressed as a Himba woman.  The Himba live in the Northwest part of Namibia and their tribe wears very little clothes.  If you have ever seen the movie Babies, those are Himba women in Namibia.  Their breasts are out and they cover their bodies in a red ocher color.  The teacher who was in the picture came up while we were discussing adding that slide and she decided she didn’t want a room full of Gala Dinner guest to see her like that with her breasts out.  I got that so I didn’t add the slide and I deleted it from the slideshow the principal planned to play while guests arrived.  A short while later the principal arrived and wanted to check that everything was added to the slideshow.  When he didn’t see the picture of the teacher dressed as a Himba he told me to add it.  I explained about the conversation with the woman and why I couldn’t add it.  He told me he had checked with her that morning and convinced her it was fine.  I did not feel comfortable putting it in without her permission so I told him I wouldn’t add it.  We argued for a minute and finally I told him he could add it if he wanted to but I wanted nothing to do with it.  Pretty soon he realized he couldn’t add a new slide, so he hollered at me until I finally relented and put a new slide in for him.  Then it took him a while to find the picture again since I had deleted it from his slideshow.  I was hoping it was nowhere else on his computer, but eventually he found it and added it to the presentation.  I went home to stew and change my clothes for the dinner.  I debated for a long time whether or not to “accidentally” delete the slide as I was the one who was going to be clicking through the presentation while he talked.

The dinner was suppose to start at 7pm, so I went out about 7:15, knowing that I would still be early.  Little did I know just how early.  One of the MCs never showed up, so they didn’t start the program until nearly 8pm.  After singing the Namibian National Anthem and the African Union Anthem and a prayer, the speeches started.  When it finally came time for the Powerpoint, I left the picture of the Himba teacher.  When the picture appeared, the principal told her she could stand if she wanted people to know who she was, but she stayed seated.  Later in the evening though, that teacher was at the microphone and she admitted to being the Himba teacher in the pictures, so I guess she was ok with it.  Dinner didn’t start until nearly 10:30 pm.  This was a little awkward for me as I couldn’t afford the N$300 a plate for dinner.  (Don’t feel too bad for me.  I’ve saved enough that I could have paid that, but it’s a matter of not giving the impression that American’s have a lot of money.  They know I’m a volunteer but they still don’t understand the concept that I get paid much less each month than a real Namibian teacher.  In reality, I can’t afford all the little things they ask teacher for money for throughout the year, so I really can’t start paying now) The pledging was suppose to start after everyone had their food, so shortly before my table got their food, I excused myself and left the room for a bit.  Then I went back shortly before the pledging started and busied myself with that so no one would notice I wasn’t eating.  Through the pledging, they actually collected about N$30 000, a donkey, two sheep, and eland, 10 soccer balls, and 10 bags of cement from the 60 or 70 people who were present. I’m sure it will be a while before we hear the actual total collected because there were a lot of tickets bought on credit.  However, the school hall will cost about N$2 million so we are still a long way from being able to afford that.  My suggestion would be to forget the school hall since they already have the hall at the hostel and use the money collected to build a library or fix the broken windows in the school or buy books and pens for the learners.  Oh well, we still have all the postponed events to look forward to and bring in some more money, although I think the Gala Dinner wiped out a lot of people.  On Monday the principal mentioned that we should have another mini Gala Dinner for the parents which is cheaper so they can afford it.  He asked the staff it we thought that was a good idea (I think it’s a cultural thing that no one should disagree with their superiors) so no one said anything.  It was clear to me that no one wanted to do that, but that the principal was going to do it anyway.  He is really not my favorite person at the moment.  There are many more little insanities that happened throughout this saga but I’m sure you’re all exhausted reading about them right now and I’m exhausted writing about them. I know it’s a long story but maybe just maybe you’ll “feel more alive because it didn’t happen to [you].” Hope you enjoyed the story of the semi-successful fiasco.

TTFN,  Marsha

Below is a draft of the infamous Powerpoint before the last few slides were added if you care to take a look and what all the fuss was about:

<div style=”margin-bottom:5px”> <strong> <a href=”; title=”Gala dinner presentation” target=”_blank”>Gala dinner presentation</a> </strong> from <strong><a href=”; target=”_blank”>Marsha Swatosh</a></strong> </div>

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