Laughing, not to show happiness, but to share
I was on the move this week. I went far away, to Nigeria. More precisely in Abuja (the current capital), for a conference (Digital World Africa 2006 Conference ICTs for Education and Development). After the conference, I had a dinner with several people, including my panel chair. As we were talking, he asked me what I would remember from my visit.
1) The need for governmental/official approval for everything people do. Even when there is no real need to do so on a practical basis.
2) The very formal approach and the decorum. The speakers are "distinguished speakers". The participants or visitors are "delegates". The lengthy thank-you speeches before the conference. And after. The titles.
3) Seeking balance. After a series of presentation have been made, the "floor" (not the audience, the floor) is asked for questions. The chair selects 4-7 people. People very formally present themselves, their title and responsabilities, then ask their questions. Only when all of them have spoken do the (distinguished) speakers talk. But what may not appear so obvious is the way people in the "floor" are chosen... First, ladies are always asked to speak up. If only one woman raises the hand with 20 men, the woman will be selected. In France, we call that "positive discrimination" and feminists frown deeply in front of that. In Abuja, it seems to be respect. Inviting the ladies (the chair does not ask women to speak up, he asks "ladies") is certainly worth it ! Most of those who commented were full of wisdom and energy. But aside from restoring a certain balance (inviting the less numerous women to speak up), less visible is the balance of religion (if a catholic is invited to speak, the next should be muslim), or the balance of geographical origin (if a nigerian from north is invited to speak, the next should be from the south) etc... That sure makes the job of chairman or chairwoman is very diplomatic one. Mister Chairman also commented that in most conferences, it began with a catholic prayer and ended with a muslim one. Balance again...
4) African time. One the second day, the conference was supposed to start at 9H. I put my clock at 8h. Immediately fell asleep again, to wake up at 8h45. Ouch. Hurry and get there 15 minutes late. Why hurry ? The conference room is basically still empty. The conference will finally start around 10h. African notion of time.
5) Mama. During the first day, I noticed this rather old (maybe 70) lady, in very bright african clothes, standing in the first row. At some point, she gets up and talks. Immediately, the room sinks in reverencious silence, ponctuated by applause and heartely offered laughs. I feel a deep respect in everyone. I understand little of what she says, but the little I do, seems full of wisdom to me. The second day, she speaks at a panel. I feel deeply the full attention offered. Not only expectation as I felt at Wikimania, whilst waiting for Lessig or Stallman to talk. No, I feel also a deep love from the room. A tender respect for a wise elder. Joy. It is very strong.
5) Laughing for sharing. Speaking of which, I appreciated the general attitude of people I met. They were friendly, talkative, willing to share. A reference for friendly people is to me what people do in a lift. If they turn around, or pretend not to see you, or even look for stuff in their nose, they are not friendly. If they smile, say hi, or even start chit-chatting, that's a good sign ! Later in the week, someone told me that in some areas, by default, when one meet someone, both people are on a friendly basis (that's the case in France), so one does not need to interact specifically. In other areas, by default, the other is a potential ennemy. So before any serious exchange, one needs to symbolically check if the friendliness is here. Which may be simply saying to a man "you have a nice tie" or saying to a woman "I like your earings" or to smile at a kid and comment on the pretty doll she is holding.
Nigerian striked me as very smily people, who discussed in the lift... but there was more. They laugh a lot. Not a small dry noiseless laugh. A big hearty one. Which lead publishing they were the happiest people on Earth. Maybe not correct. Europeans and Americans interprete "laughing" as a gesture to show happiness. Is that always so ? Apparently, the laugh there was more a social gesture to qualify sharing. Saying "I agree with you" or "I hear what you say" or "are not we together and being well together".
6) Oh, talking about sharing. After each panel, 4-7 people were selected to ask a question. Most did not ask any question. They only talk. Commented. It was an odd feeling to me. As if these people terribly needed to "talk" rather than to ask others to "answer and comment". I liked that.
7) The satchel. Beautiful one. Any one who regularly goes to conference and accumulates ugly plastic conference satchel would have like this one
8) Anyone ever saw Sj in a formal suit ? I had not. I now did. Anyone ever saw Sj in african gear ? I had not. I now did. I need to retrieve the picture
9) Seen: the encyclopedia Britannica in a glassy bookshelf. For sale. 60 kilos. Limited supply.
10) Hilton using counterfeits. Uncool. But the bottled water in the room, Voltic, certainly did look like a counterfeit of Volvic water. Name, bottle design. Even the blurred picture on the bottle reminds of Volvic volcanoes. A bad point for Hilton. But what to say ? Most people at the conference obviously did not get the subtil differences between free of charge, free as in free speech, open source. Discourses about spam or children filters were clearly not their problem (yet) either. They are too busy struggling to install computers and internet connections. But they will soon discover these delicacies themselves.
11) oh, and yes. Singers. The group of singers at the beginning of the conference. Singing the anthem and other songs. Beautiful. And worth reminding in an ICT conference that whatever the good of technology, the real songs come from humans and are interpretated by humans.