I successfully pulled off a flash mob this weekend. It almost gave me an ulcer.
For those of you unfamiliar with the flash mob concept, it is basically just a spontaneous event in a public place. Examples: hundreds of people freezing in place at Grand Central Station, a dance performance for an unsuspecting Oprah on her birthday, or even a proposal. I would venture to say that more often than not a flash mob is just for the fun of it. But why not use it for good while you’re at it?
I got the idea to do a flash mob here because there is a group of about 15 girls and 5 guys affiliated with the hospital who have danced for various events. And go figure they’re exactly the age of my target population. I started hatching a plan about a month ago: get the dance group together to dance and spread the message about protecting yourself from HIV, STIs, and unwanted pregnancies. As adolescents the last thing they need is a lecture from their teachers, parents, or a random blanche, but why not present them with an opportunity to dance and influence their community in the process? (That was the public health optimist champion speaking).
So I spent some time carefully choosing music that they could dance to and that would also tell a story: a guy and a girl meet in a club and leave together. The girl pulls out a condom and the guy freaks out, as if to say “what the hell I’m not using that.” She refuses him, and he in turn goes to his buddies to tell them about this ridiculous girl. Except, his buddies are all “WTF man? Why would you do that? Use a freakin’ condom.” He realizes his mistake and goes back to her. Idealistic? Probably. But I think that when it comes to safe sex we need less messages telling people to use a condom, and more messages showing people how to negotiate using them and how to deal with all the influences in life telling you different things.
So I set out on my flash mob mission. To be honest, it was a lot of frustration, and to be really honest, tears. I actually have quite a lot of experience with adolescents, not because I was one (everyone knows that the moment you’re not an adolescent you lose all ability to identify with that mindset), but from babysitting, coaching swimming, and being the sister of one or two at various times. For as angry as they make me at times, I’m also secretly fascinated with and sometimes envious of how stubborn and selfish they can be. They’re amazingly difficult, but when you manage to dig deep and reach one, it’s delightfully rewarding.
However, when you add being Blanche whose maternal language is not French, working with adolescents become a different monster. Adolescents everywhere have that unabashed confidence to at various times launch a big figurative (or sometimes literal) “F You” in the face of authority. I was frequently on the receiving end of this, but it manifested as this obnoxious apathy that made me want to regress age-wise and throw a kicking and screaming tantrum. I didn’t do this precisely, but with 4 days to the flash mob I had some harsh words to share. Sometimes you have to take the bull by the horns.
And sometimes, you have to be as rude and direct with them as they are with you. Example, I may not dance like these kids (a.k.a my hips don’t detach from my body), but after dancing for nearly 20 years of life I know a thing or two about choreography and performance. I was used to them laughing at me when I dance, but once I stopped the music to show them that people were doing two different moves and ask which one it was, and as I started doing the hip thing. A girl burst out laughing. I whipped around, looked her straight in the eye, and said, “Would you quit it? I see you. I’m not an idiot.”
The next day I missed practice because of the funeral in Libreville, and when I came back, I nearly erupted into spontaneous dance myself because of how much progress they’d made in my absence. A lesson in letting go if I ever saw one. They had decided to switch things around so that they danced first and then did a full on skit instead of having the skit via the dance. And it was ten times better than what I had planned. I lost a gross amount of time to choosing and cutting music and practicing it the other way, but the fact that they had taken charge of things themselves made me enormously proud.
Just when things were golden, I encountered what has become a frequent problem for me here: Blanche = $$$. Public health talks about framing projects and incentives so that the people want to participate because of things like “empowerment” and “community influence.” This may be true in some places, but here it was expected that the kids would A. be getting money from me for performing and B. that I would front the costs for the costumes and sound system. It was the assumption that perturbed me more than anything. And the fact that people would not leave me alone about it. As we got closer to the event, I was having more and more passive-aggressive conversations about money than I could swallow. I felt guilty and pissed all at the same time. I gave what I could specifically for the costumes, and when we didn’t get costumes, they used the money for something else without asking. I figured when I gave the money I would never see it again regardless of whether we got costumes or not, but it felt disrespectful all the same.
The day of the event I was cautiously optimistic. We were planning to do the flash mob in three different locations and I knew the logistics were going to be nightmarish. We had several hiccups along the way (late starts, technical difficulties, transportation issues, etc), but overall I’m really proud of the kids and of the event. They kicked some major A**. They were absolutely exhausted by the end of the day, but I think they’ll look back on this with pride too. We had good crowds at every location, and I’ve heard people talking about it this week too.
At one point, one of the nurses I work with came to lend her “support,” which ended up being a slew of critiques per Gabonese fashion. “Molly, did the kids even practice? What is wrong with the microphones? Why didn’t you get better ones? There aren’t enough people here! You should have advertised this better!” she said over and over. This might as well have been my conscience incarnate. But, during her rant, my friend tapped my arm. I looked up at him and he was shaking his head and mouthing, “don’t listen to her. Let it go. This is great.” And y’know what? Yesterday at work that same nurse could not have bragged more about the event and how great it was.
Could it have been better? Yes, of course it could have. Was it a damn good start? Yes, yes it was.