At 2:30 we pulled ourselves over the top of the cliff, just as my phone buzzed in my pocket. Georgie was waiting with Sahr and Frank in front of the school. She had brought chicken schwarmas which we devoured hungrily as Frank bounced around us, filled with nervous energy. As he excused himself to get ready Foday and Sahr became embroiled in a lengthy debate on whether the theoretical failures of an official were better blamed on the official or on his employer. Georgie was called upon to mediate.
By 2:50 we were balanced on child-sized seats in a stuffy classroom, ready for Frank’s graduation ceremony to begin. 3 o’clock came and went with no sign of proceedings beginning until at ten past a flyer was handed out with a precise and detailed itinerary for the afternoon’s events which were already hopelessly behind schedule. Georgie and I were busily chuckling at the very specific timings dictated for each item on the agenda, but fortunately Sahr was reading the flyer more carefully and soon there was hushed discussion between him and Patrick. Sahr jumped up and scuttled out of the auditorium, reappearing a moment later, nodding urgently at Patrick. Patrick turned to us.
“I think we’re in the wrong place.”
It’s very difficult to get out of a tiny metal chair on a wooden floor without a considerable amount of scraping and squeaks, and so it was with scant subtlety that Georgie, Foday, Patrick and myself extricated ourselves from the school forum on child labour just as proceedings were getting underway.
Downstairs, in a considerably grander hall, we were grateful for Sierra Leonean time keeping as smartly white-suited students were still in the process of filing into their seats, exhibiting the maximum amount of casual nonchalance as befits students in their late teens attending a school function for the final time. There was a lot of studious slouching and self conscious posturing as they languorously filled the seats furthest from the front.
But of Frank there was no sign.
A certain amount of time must elapse after an event’s scheduled start time before it can begin, and although I am not sure of the exact duration of this buffer, events here seem to start quite punctually after this limit is reached. Georgie, Patrick, Foday and myself were still anxiously craning our necks in our seats to try and spot Frank amongst the graduating students, but as the opening prayers began he was still nowhere to be seen. We could see, about a third of the way down the agenda, Frank’s speech scheduled for a five minute slot, so he still had about twenty minutes to turn up. But we were becoming concerned. And we were feeling a bit strange, the four of us sat there as non students in attendance to see a student graduate who was not himself present.
“We’re definitely in the right place?”
Non committal shrugs from Georgie, echoed by Patrick and Foday behind. Excellent.
As the opening prayers came to a close, the head prefect stood to welcome the principle and special guests, and then there was an opening address, a vote of thanks and then introductions for the speakers. Then one of the speakers stood up to introduce another of the speakers and before you knew it the ceremony was under way. The first speaker, after the appropriate protocols had been observed and acknowledged, invited the head prefect to take the stand again to give a further address after which he was invited back again to give a speech on behalf of his faculty. Speaker two invited speaker three to take the stand, with an apparently standard speech that introduced the speaker in enough detail to demonstrate how he was a man who needed no introduction. Speaker three berated the students at length for their shoddy time keeping and implied that the school had gone downhill since he attended in the eighties, to the visible discomfort of the incumbent principle. Speaker three then gave the floor to speaker 4 (or possibly 5) who spoke on behalf of his faculty before speaker two once again returned to invite speaker six to take the floor.
There was an awkward silence.
Speaker six did not take the stand.
“Franklin Conteh?” The speaker asked again, and now there was no mistaking it: Frank had gone AWOL.
The speaker was unfazed and pushed on to the next speaker, who also wasn’t there and so, admirably cool under pressure, he invited the drama group to take the stage who, it turned out, also weren’t present. It seemed like a good time to cut to the interpretive dance.
Georgie and the Ngbotima supporters have been backing Frank since 2006, and over the years he has grown into an incredibly likeable, intelligent and witty young man. He’s become the natural leader of the Ngbotima group and has ambitious plans for his future. I only met him for the first time when we arrived here this year, but he welcomed me like an old friend and I took to him immediately. I’ve said before how amazing it is, what this small charity has done for these young people, and I felt incredibly honoured and excited to be part of this graduation. So it was with no small measure of relief that we finally saw Frank slink in to the auditorium with the rest of the missing drama troupe. They took to the stage to sing a rousing – and lengthy – a capella version of “We are the world” before launching into a bemusing and hysterical dramatisation of their schooling. It was brilliant, from Frank’s turn as the cane-happy principle, to the acutely well observed portrayal of a fussing mother; the all-make cast clearly relishing the chance to get into drag. Finally the school leaving certificates were handed out and Frank got a huge cheer from his classmates – and from us, too.
To draw proceedings to a close the head prefect was invited to take the stand again. In his crisp white suit he stood at the lectern and said, “I have been asked to say some closing remarks. Instead I would like to call upon my classmate Frank Conteh to speak”
And Frank – finally – took the stage to deliver his speech. It was a grand affair, quoting freely from Shakespeare and Scriptures he spoke at length about his time as a Prince Walean, his classmates and his future. I don’t think I am speaking with undue prejudice when I say he gave the best speech of the afternoon, and I fancy he even earned some glances of approval from the guest speakers – one of which a senior government official. He spoke of the classmates and teachers that had helped and supported him over the years and my mind wandered for just a moment but I came back to hear him speaking of one such supporter who had helped him at a dark time – when he had prayed in desperation for help, and someone had been sent to his rescue, a mother, a friend, a saviour.
“Blimey,” I thought, “he really has a thing for this teacher,” and then the penny dropped and I slowly revolved just in time to see Georgie, bright red, trying to edge sideways out of the door, but it was too late as, with a flourish, Frank invited a round of applause for this saviour, his monarch, his light in the dark and how I sniggered from my vantage point, perilously close to the stage until Frank’s eye found me, too, as he announced “and she’s marrying this man!” At which point the audience – no doubt wondering who on earth these gate crashers were – swivelled in their seats and politely applauded me, too.
Outside Frank was ebullient, grinning from ear to ear and flushed with excitement. He posed for pictures with Georgie, his classmates and with Foday, Patrick and Sahr, and Georgie and I snuck away to allow him to bask in his success and to enjoy his well-earned celebration.
We would see Frank again, two weeks later, grinning from ear to ear while he took a bath in the middle of the muddy suburban street he calls home, ducking into his dark and cramped tumbledown shack to dress for a day at the beach. It is difficult to fully appreciate what an achievement it has been for him, and for hundreds of students like him, simply to arrive at the point where he can leave school. For Frank, the support of Georgie and all those who have backed Ngbotima – as well as that given by his unusually supportive parents, has made such an achievement possible. But to turn that possibility into reality, against all the odds stacked against him, and to do it with such dedication and determination – for that, Only Frank can take credit.