Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To chair is to adapt

Dated: 18th May

I am truly grateful for the rare opportunity to chair the national conference before the start of my internship. It was perhaps the best positive pressure for me to adapt.

I arrived in Douala on 9th May 1120pm. Conference pre-meeting started on 10th May 9am, which was supposed to be hosted by the chair. Diana helped me to do the first session. That moment onwards, I knew I have to get out of my protective shell, and get out faster than normal people because I have a role to play. So from lunch onwards, I started proactively making conversations with people, learning more about people, the society and AIESEC Cameroon. The facilitators were really helpful for preparing me. The moment when I feel truly integrated was perhaps during the AIESEC dance time at night. Dancing in unison always makes one feel a part of the community. From that moment onwards, I am really feeling like I am the chair of the conference!

Being a chair was an interesting experience. I have to manage different groups of people without really knowing what the situation is like, and even better, without really knowing if what you are saying is right. People expect a lot from the chair to take the lead. Thus, after finding out from everyone that we more or less share the same expectation, I started assuming more that it is somewhat like a conference in Singapore. I am glad these assumptions held true.

There is always this very big task for the chair apart from all the formal responsibilities – to manage the time. It was an ever bigger challenge for me here, because Cameroonians do not have too much concept about time. When people said ‘I am coming’, it means 20 more minutes. When they said 15 minutes more, it means an hour more. I had to fight against all these to ensure that the conference run according to the agenda. So the OC and faci heard a lot from me asking ‘How much exact time will you take to come?’, ‘What do you mean by “I’m coming”?’.After the first day, everyone would giggle if someone else dare to say ‘I am coming’. Haha.

Everyone had a conception that Asians are very reserved people. Belinda described Asians as ‘talk and die’. So when they saw me hosting the opening plenary speaking a lot and fluently, they were very surprised. The fact that I am speaking already made my performance surpassed their expectation. Having people viewing you positively makes a lot of things easier. And somehow my way of speaking, my intonation, my pronounciation, my ‘cool?’ gesture, the way I run around, the way I dance intrigued them a lot too, perhaps it was all because it was different from their preconception.

The delegates were really nice, friendly and mature. They would pay full attention to me when I was speaking, responding to me in unison every time I asked ‘Cool?’, coming to me just to say ‘bon apetite’ when I am having my meals, and even cooperating with me to keep quiet after I told them my throat is sore. They love photo-taking. Everyday, every break, as long as I walked about in the plenary, I would be caught to take pictures with them. And one request would usually lead to 10 other requests. The delegates would grab me, hold my hands, hold my shoulders, or attempt to hug or kiss me. But they had respect for the chair. So after one delegate stunned me by kissing on my cheeks to bid good night, and another delegate found out that I am not alright with these French culture, the next day onwards, no one dares to do so again.

Because the people I was interacting with were AIESECers, it means that they are a lot more open to sharing, and I could ask interesting questions that I would not dare to ask otherwise, for example, "Are all Cameroonians sexually active?", "Why do you guys not use fans?", "How is the HIV/AIDS situation here?", "What do you think is the root of problems here in Africa?" etc. Of course, all due respect is given. I enquired for this information for intellectual curiosity. =P

The delegates have also surprised me with their vision. And they surprised me more with the determination in them to achieve their vision. Many of them want to improve various aspect of Africa. Berlin wanted to solve the food shortage problem, Arnaud wanted to be the richest young man so that he could inspire the others, another wanted to set up many enterprises, another wanted to manage Africa properly. It is truly noble of them to have realised these problems, and remained determined to stay and improve the situation, instead of going away in search of a better land. And the speech from CEO of Standard Chartered Bank has helped nailed in their vision. He said, ‘Many people, when they face problems, abandon the problems and go to a better place. The great people like Nelson Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew (he mentioned him because I was there) stayed with the problems and perfect them.’ I really wish that these youths can stay with their vision, and work on them for a better Africa. And I really wish that we from the better world can work with them to make things come true. Watch out for my next posts on possible collaboration!

Apart from the people that are so refreshing, the conference organisation was an eye opener too. Air-conditioning is not at all common here, so we had our plenary in a little hall in a hotel with fans. And the hotel is nothing to compare with any hotel in Singapore. During the opening plenary on the first night, the electricity went off when the delegates were setting their goals. No one complained. We stayed with the dark until the managers started their generators. Such power cut situation was plentiful for the rest of the days. The delegates made do without fans, the facilitators made do without powerpoint presentations. Budget problem was a huge problem for the OC this year. On the second day of the conference, the facilitators had to move out from our apartment to another hotel because it saved them some money. The OC didn’t have money to print handouts, and the MCP eventually took out his own money for the printing. We cut down on flipcharts, and even replaced lunch with coffee break. No one complained, even though that was not normal even here. The maturity level is amazing. Think about bringing this spirit back to Singapore.

For myself, I feel really fortunate to have such loving people to be the delegates for the first conference that I chaired. Their positive response kept me motivated throughout, even when I had 1 hour sleep or when I eventually fell sick. I didn’t need to resort to recall previous conferences to boost my energy. I have also opened my eyes to more things that can happen in a conference, some of which may not be pleasant, but definitely eye-opening. After the facilitators were downgraded to another hotel, that hotel has no shower head. Instead, there is a bucket of water, and I had to scoop water out using my palms to pour that little water on my body to clean it. The first time I saw that bucket, I was totally clueless. I thought this was bad enough. The third evening before the official dinner, there was power cut when I was taking that bucket bath! I was caught in absolute darkness, still having soap on my body, and I couldn’t see a thing. The other facilitators were completely at ease, but I was totally driven mad. I struggled to find my towel, put on my dress and 4-inch heels, walked on them on a pitch dark uneven mud road filled with rocks and stones, cursing and swearing in my heart. I couldn’t put on any make-up, and I considered that as totally unacceptable! It maddened me more when I saw all other facilitators still staying calm and happy. Seeing others like that made me know that I had to ease myself. I started comforting myself that it is alright to not make up, it is alright to not look too good, it is just a cultural experience. I got better when I reached the official dinner place, because I borrowed a delegate’s room to do some final touch up. Haha.

That’s all for some of the plentiful conference experience I have had from my very first chairing experience of AIESEC Cameroon NLDS. Seen a lot, learnt a lot, and, adapted more into the community through making a lot of friends.

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