Little did we expect, when we arrived last month in the Gambia, that we would participate in a graduation ceremony at the University of the Gambia (UTG). Yet we were invited to attend the seventh graduation of UTG and its affiliated college, held on February 16.
UTG was founded in 1999, and started with a medical school and a law faculty in Banjul. Later a school of business administration was added. Courses in Arts and Sciences became possible when the campus in Brikama was opened, about forty km from Banjul. About two years ago a new permanent campus was started in Faraba Banta, about ten km beyond Brikama, away from the capital.
Part of the new campus, with another building visible on the left
This campus is not yet in use, even though its brand new classrooms are stocked with some of the latest audio-visual and computer equipment. A fiber optic cable will provide internet access to the students, a considerable improvement on current wireless access, which is sporadic at best. But this is where the graduation ceremony was to be held, this year for the very first time, and we wanted to join the celebrations, in part to satisfy our curiosity, and in part because one of our former students in the Gambia Theological Institute program was graduating from a program in early childhood education.
Graduates putting on the robes outside; the faculty had a room for this
We were given instructions to be at the Brikama campus at 10 am, and from there we would be brought by bus to the new campus. So we left our home at 9 am, using public transportation to get to Brikama. From there we joined some of the faculty, found one of the numerous buses to be used, and arrived at the new campus by 11 am.
There we waited with the rest of the faculty, most of whom dressed in robes provided by the university. We did not have the proper academic robes or hoods with us; indeed, had we asked on time, UTG would have provided us with robes. Even so, we found our colleagues were very tolerant of our somewhat unusual garb, as we had to make do with our African clothes. However, these ultimately proved much more comfortable as the day progressed, with the hot sun beating down overhead.
Some of the graduates, with Master's students in the front rows
The graduation ceremony was held in a huge tent set up for this purpose, or rather, a series of tents; in fact these were enclosed (probably for security purposes), and were supposed to be air-conditioned, but as they were filled with a few thousand people, it became almost unbearably hot. The mainly polyester academic robes were pretty uncomfortable for our colleagues!
The program was to start at 12 noon, and the students (some 2,000) were the first group to be ushered into the tent by bagpipers; after them came the faculty, ushered in the same way. By then it was 1 pm. The audience of guests and parents was already seated. On large screens we watched the arrival of the presidential party at about 2 pm; the president of the Gambia, who is also the Chancellor of UTG (and thus its chief executive), was shown waving from an open vehicle. However, that did not mean that the ceremony could actually begin yet. In fact, the ceremony did not begin officially until 3 pm, three hours after the scheduled beginning. This is Africa, and people here are used to such long waiting. But even so, very few could have been prepared for how long the ceremony turned out to be.
Some of the faculty, Wendy is visible in the fourth row
Protocol is important in Africa, and each speaker duly mentioned all the invited guests, concluding with the remark, “and all other protocol having been observed,” to cover any possible omissions. That procedure was observed each time, and invariably followed by a long speech. The two longest were by the Vice-chancellor and the Chancellor, each of them speaking for more than an hour.
The speech of the former was very informative, and was filled with useful facts, especially for us who are new to this university. The speech of the president, whose full title is “His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. A.J.J. Jammeh,” was spiced with humor, much of which (unfortunately) eluded us.
President Jammeh, as Chancellor of the university, awarding a diploma, as witnessed on a screen
The actual awarding of degrees did not begin until after 6 pm. Throughout, the audience was very patient; attendants did hand out packets of biscuits, water and soft drinks, but that can hardly have made up for foregoing both lunch and supper. The graduates numbered almost two thousand, mainly because the ceremony had been cancelled last year. We stayed long enough to watch the awarding of Master's degrees, but decided to leave by 7 pm so that we would be able to get home in Kololi by a reasonable time, if not before dark (even by taxi it took more than an hour to get home). In fact, it is hard to find public transport later in the evenings. And we discovered the next day that the ceremony had not concluded until after midnight! Since Wendy had a class with the Gambia Theological Institute scheduled for the next afternoon, it was good we got home when we did. One of our GTI students received a certificate in early childhood education.
We are grateful that we had this opportunity to see the university in action, and that on the significant occasion of awarding degrees. Even though we were not properly garbed, we sensed that we were fully accepted by our colleagues in the faculty. Many of them realized that we were the “Canadian couple” who would be joining them in September to begin the new program in Christian Studies. So, who knows, we may be able to join them next year for the eighth graduation ceremony of UTG – and in proper robes!
Graduates being ushered to the large hall