Thursday, 8 October 2015
PEN Network Members, Ateinda Ausarntu, Kathy Nanena, Olivia Haltman, Anne Reid, Yaa Asantewa, Margaret David, Tony Franklin (Photo Bernadette Wills)
There was this young boy, pride radiating in his face. He seemed so serious and studious. He wasn’t with the other children when group photos were taken outside the school. It seemed that he had superimposed himself, wilfully, daringly – like some pertinent reminder – near the shabby Odoi Atsem School sign. A reminder or a prompt. I remember thinking only one thing as I snapped his picture – of Dr Kwame Nkrumah. I thought that humble beginnings can sometimes prepare ordinary people to accomplish great things.
The school teachers have an inspired mission that’s aligned with Nkrumah’s vision. Located in this off track area in Labadi along the coast – the school wants to give its pupils the chance of a Pan-African education that would be a credit to Nkrumah’s legacy. The school receives some materials and sponsors from other well-meaning visitors; especially some Christian organisations. But one of the teachers was keen that the school should be supported by Africans as well, who might have allegiance and therefore support its interest to promote Pan-Africanism.
Often schools on the continent and diaspora regurgitate the curriculum of those countries by which they were once colonised. They teach in the language of those countries thereby relegating local languages to inferiority. Since language is a major part of culture the result is that cultural imperialism continues to impact these communities and perpetuates their underdevelopment. By including Pan African education in the curriculum, Odoi Atsem is at least trying to change the script. In doing so they hope to ground the pupils in their society and community, thereby helping to shape lives in a way that makes sense to them.
I recognised the spirit in that boy’s eyes which for me said something like – ‘I don’t expect charity just opportunity.’
I learnt a while ago that change can be achieved by small efforts and the will to change. The first fundraising efforts through an Indiegogo campaign raised just over £600 for Odoi Atsem. The school used this to pay some of their student fees, teachers’ salaries and a little maintenance. I’d hoped to raise £1000 that could go further. I had made a commitment to the school from my first visit to help raise funds to eliminate the need for pupils to pay the £6 a term school fees. £6 a term! I learnt that the school needs £5000 to cover its overall costs. This might not seem much to us here in the UK, but it’s significant in an underdeveloped country. This reality of ‘underdevelopment,’ the term preferred by Dr Walter Rodney to ‘developing’ is a tragedy in a country credited as the first to achieve independence in subsharan Africa, making the demands more urgent for others on the continent and the Diaspora to become independent. Why should school children in any ‘underdeveloped’ country be made to pay school fees? What happens when they cant? This is so far removed from Nkrumah’s vision of socialism and it reinforces Rodney’s ideas that Europe underdeveloped Africa to the extent that Ghana does not have a social welfare system that incorporates free education.
So what could we in the diaspora do? A few of us agreed that we could begin to support this school and others that share the Pan-African vision by hosting a fundraising dinner and dance. One way not - the only way, but a start. It would be spectacular, of course. It would bring different groups of peoples, drawn from our respective and diverse networks together. We would encourage them to glam up in their finest attires and step into a gorgeous venue, with exceptional food and great music, all aimed to raise funds.
There was an art and beauty in the organising. Seven busy people, sparing little time to get together and make it happen - we got on very well and were forced to develop new skills. We had no financial backing, let alone experience of organising something on this scale. We formed the PEN quickly (standing for Promoting Educational Needs), realising that the event needed some name or organisation for legitimacy – members include Olivia Haltman of Oh Services, Anne Reid, Tony Franklin, Kathy Nanena, Margaret David, Ateinda Ausarntu and myself. There was no ‘committee’ set up as our aim was the event – not so much the organisation at that time. That loose format allowed us to fall naturally into our respective strengths and support each other. No one was boss! We were connected by the vision to make the occasion special, and unlike anything we’d been to or thought others might have experienced. The order was tall, but we would aim to reach for it.
For me, I had wanted to see some folks come out, all dressed up, dancing and freeing up themselves. I felt that with all our social and political commitments, especially Pan-Africanists we hardly get together just to celebrate – but always for some serious issue. Or struggle – which, of course never go away. But surely we can mix and blend, as a way to reinvigorate the work we do towards struggle.
We wanted our guests to feel loved, and know that we’d carefully thought of them and what goodies they might enjoy. We came up with a welcome goody bag, dance off competitions and some raffle prizes. This latter we didn’t want to be slap dash (like hampers of tinned stuff!) and none were. Yes, we’d hoped some airline would donate a flight to Ghana – but none came through despite our attempts. We contacted the Ghanaian embassy – after a whole lot of effort they said the ambassador couldn’t come. In truth what would have been his role? When after all we had active community elders/leaders that gladly graced the occasion with their presence and for which we were so pleased: Mr Eric Huntley, Mr James Barnor, naming a couple and also Ms Wilhlemina Mitchel Murray, the local councillor who heard of the event and was thrilled to attend and support.
Again we had no budget for this - but knew it had to be good. And those family friends who are talented and need exposure got their moment and delighted the audience: J-Unity (Britain’s Got Talent finalists), Alysha and Georgia two lovely young girls who performed a dance routine, making memories that will also build their confidence in creative expression; Natalie David whose smooth vocals gave us the dreamy vibes of ‘somewhere over the rainbow.’ There were wonderful collaborations and ensembles too; the St Michael and All Angels Steel Band played Pan to guests on arrival; it’s a local (to Wembley) group comprised of young and elder members. Amra Anderson, Siayoum Karuma and Ras Prince blasted the drums, contributing the collectiveness of call and response. This all followed the unusual (for this kind of event) but culturally relevant pouring of libation by Priestess Osuyemi Rose.
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Above photos Bernadette Wills
And we wanted the catering to be superb. We wanted our guests to not wait. There was some of that, unfortunately. Africans have a way of looking mean when they have to wait for food. And behaving so! I have a bugbear of having to queue for food! In our planning we had asked the venue management about the possibility of table service to our guests, so they wouldn’t have to queue. There’s this curious idea that ‘Africans’ can only manage buffet style. I continue to voice my disagreement, but we were put off the table service idea because – so we were told – ‘it was our first time’ and we ought not to try this apparently novel way of doing collective dinning for such events – for our people! We will stand our ground, should we do this again because I think it’s a false perception that we can only do buffet!
That said, the food was indeed exquisite. Our caterers, Refill provided a wide spread to satisfy a range of dietary needs and tastes. They were professional and I really can’t big them up enough. If you go to an event and the food is wrong – the entire event is! So we’re grateful to Clive and his team for getting it so right. (Have a look see if you can get a feel...)
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We had an agreement with the venue, run by Mr Fixit that he would also be our DJ (his profession). I cannot explain why but this agreement and arrangement did not manifest as we had expected. On the very day of the event, Mr Fixit said he couldn’t be there. We implored him to recognise our agreement, that we’d bigged him up on our flyers and radio promotions, so he had to attend. He said he would but did not. Instead he installed other DJs with whom we’d had no prior discussions and who were less experienced and did nothing to engage the audience, as he (Mr Fixit) had said he would be doing (as part of the co-hosting). That meant I – the assigned hostess- was speaking too much (I know, I would have probably done so anyway…). He would have had the experience to urge the guests to support the event through raffle sales and other fundraising activities; take part in the dance offs etc.
It also meant that the music, though generally enjoyed by our guests did not always suit the diverse audience. This was a shame because one of the successes of the event was that there was a wide range of people who attended; the youngest being a two month old baby; the eldest probably 87! This is in no way to say our guests didn’t enjoy the music. It could have been much better – as I had anticipated with Mr Fixit on the decks. He has a good Djing reputation.
Our dance off competition saw guests doing rumba, salsa, cutting shapes and shaking it all to James Brown’s ‘Get up off that thing’ in what turned out to be a combi African/funky style. In that style too we saw some daring attempts to win the competition. Aside from the young brother who dipped effortlessly into a split and bounce, there was an awesome Matrix style, slow wind down to the floor, a skilful move that was seamlessly accomplished in suit no less (click here to see what I mean). During the Salsa there was a tussle between one of its pairs – a sister instructing her (dance) partner that ‘she would lead.’ She didn’t get her chance as he strongly told her ‘no – I’m the man. The man leads.’ The idea with this activity was that people would pay to enter a style. An instructor would show them how, they’d follow and be eliminated should they fail to do the style as expected. The Cutting shapes (shuffle in our day!) was lead by young Alysha and Georgia and monitored by 16 year old Shawana who singled out an able young brother who made the splices and bops look too easy. Few wanted to take part initially – seemed shy, or tight (you had to pay to enter) or didn’t get it! But those who did seemed to have a fab time.
And of course there was the brilliant group bonding dance of CANDY. I squashed myself in and had to focus to not bump into bodies or trod on toes. It was great. See it here.
Dressed to impress
The surprise best dressed male and female activity was won by those guests who we thought looked stunning, though in truth all the guests had made a great effort. I had all sorts of fantastic images in mind when I was thinking about how our guests would look – epic! And there were some amazing outfits; one of the winners (Desmond) looked so so fine in his silky tunic. And model figure Shanice, in her hugging long red dress over which was draped a piece of Kente, matching the big bow on her head also won for making a brilliant effort. We hope by this gesture others will feel inspired to look sharp in their outfits, whether tailored or sought and bought if we do it again. As for my dress, this was made, I’m proud to say by a local seamstress called Celia – who met my last min.com challenge and did it in five days! Why the last min? Too busy with the organising, don’t you know.
Did it work – was the fundraising mission accomplished?
The happy reports and feedback from the majority of our guests and the calls for a repeat of the event; even the generous donation by sponsors like Pauline Bennett of Project West who also came with two full tables and a further number of dance only tickets; the evidence through smiles and ready involvement of those who came all speak to the success of the fundraiser. But the big question bulging lips was whether or not we’d raised our expected or even enough funds. No. Is the simple answer. The income streams we’d envisaged didn’t fulfil our expectations. The bar, the raffles, the dance offs, the blind auction – the little brown envelopes (only one guest used this!), didn’t generate what we’d hoped. Those of you who have organised fundraisers like this, I’m sure will understand some of the issues and perhaps WHY it didn’t quite generate in the way we imagined it would, despite the evidently wonderful experience our guests had, many of them singing praises for the well organised event.
A major reason why the event was not financially successful, though it was socially, is that the venue manager stitched us up. We relied on the experience and advice of Mr Fixit (I’m using this medium to enable me to be frank because I feel his antics are detrimental to community development and needs to be addressed). Promises made, for example, that he would promote the event to his networks (since this is ‘what he does’) and so bring us more ‘dance only ticket sales’ were not fulfilled. Instead of the expected and potential 200 dance only tickets (for which we’d budgeted following his advice) there were no more than 50. He didn’t promote the event, at all, as he was not intending to be there. This he told us on the same day, a few hours before we were due to be setting up.
Those extra guests, who might have bought from the bar would have given us the sum we hoped to raise. Fixit demanded upfront payments for everything! Members, having now committed to holding the event at the Royal Lounge were forced to source funds from our own pockets for items that should have been paid after. This was despite our negotiation with the Caterers who was happy for us to pay the balance (of their part) after the event. The Venue had given us the total budget, you see, and entrapped up so that we weren’t expected to communicate with the ‘third parties’ (one being Refill). We were warned that ‘Fixit’ is all about ‘business’ but that he was kind of ruthless didn’t come into our thoughts as one of the members knew him and had recommended the Royal Lounge based on her experience of him. Toilet attendants, not necessary though we went along with it were asking our guests for money – this was not agreed with us and it seems probable that this was their means of income for that night as opposed to the fee we’d been charged for them. Further, we had asked Mr Fixit how we should budget for the bar. He gave us figures that we now know were grossly exaggerated.
We take some of this on the chin as it were. Accept the lessons and our own culpability. We are thankful for the experience and will reassess, rather than regret. We wouldn’t have been in the conscious position we now are. We were totally ‘green’ and ‘vulnerable.’ I’m aware some fundraisers are fronts for exploitation; aware that unless you organise something you don’t see the behind scenes nightmare and might assume, because it ‘looks good’ that all is well. Sadly all is not well, when well-meaning ventures are sharked by those who know the ‘ropes’ and capitalise on the vulnerability and inexperience of others. This hinders community advancement, quashing the humanist principles I hold dear. For our community to be transformed we need to stop exploiting each other in the name of grabiliousness and greed. It would also benefit all our efforts to respect the process of organising – many of our would-be guests took time to advance payments, leaving it to the last minute. I think we can change this script too. What we didn’t want and didn’t achieve very well was making anyone wait for anything. This we must work on (lose the attitude that tardiness is a ‘black people’s malaise’) because it’s an important matter of discipline.
In all this we are grateful for the realisation that ultimately we didn’t do our due diligence on several fronts. We are wide awake now and accept, as one member expressed beautifully ‘post-mortem don’t bring back dead…’ but it can identify cause.
Imagine, in one room more than a hundred people (about 150/60) brought together to support a single issue. Some had no particular idea what ‘Pan-African’ means in its political sense. That it is a symbol of unity, which we all recognise we need now as ever. Many had never heard of the school, which name and location they now do. Some level of consciousness was raised, therefore. Sponsors who gave us space to promote on their radio shows, and those who volunteered, the entertainers who asked for no payment (though next time we’d love to afford this); the team spiritedness of the PEN Network members; the sumptuous banquet; the tables named after an African Icon, or great Pan-African leader, with a piece of Kente draped across; that the 19th September was especially chosen to honour Kwame Nkrumah whose birthday it was; the feel of being in the midst of a large loving family were all signs that the event was something special. A glimpse?
And of course, we will advance £2000 to the school, as this is the sum we had hoped to raise for them. We know there are many who will support us and fulfil promises to donate. Will we do it again? That question is answered by the realisation that with every struggle there are lessons to learn and that transformation begins with readiness of a few ordinary people to take on struggle. So see you at our next venture…
Our press statement, on the website (thepennetwork.org.uk) gives more information about the event, especially our big thanks to supporters and sponsors. Do have a look and help us do this thing...