Friday, 28 December 2007

Intriguing triads: The story of the three boys

I was once working on conflict prevention with a small research team – four African, two British members - somewhere in West Africa. I’ll just share two in-jokes among people working in international development:

1.Before you start the research you know that the conflict has been caused by a World Bank project
2.Those who style themselves experts in conflict prevention seem to be expert at creating conflict themselves – self-generating work, I suppose.

Both these applied in the case I am telling you about. Our team leader was not an easy person to work with and there were already tensions in the team because of this. We had travelled through the heat of the day on a dirt-track road to arrive at a small provincial centre - where we were welcomed by local officials and then shown to a modest hostelry. Very basic rooms where nothing really worked, not even the television - and no catering facilities. Our host had said something about offering us an evening meal, but nothing materialised. By this time our leader had become extremely tetchy because, for health reasons, he really did need regular meals. So in the end we walked down the road to find a local restaurant.

The team occupied two contiguous tables. As you will find in establishments all over West Africa, there were a number of young men sitting around - presumably, but not necessarily, actually employed there. There was very little on the menu but we gave our choices to the first waiter. Another young man came to lay the covers. A third came out to bring drinks. Someone changed their order at this stage. When the food finally arrived, the kitchen had got it wrong. Our leader completely lost his temper and shouted at the whole restaurant. For the Africans this was incredibly embarrassing: you just don’t do that in Africa. For me being British, well, I felt the same. And everyone was afraid that I too was going to explode.

Just sometimes in a tight situation, inspiration can strike. “There are too many boys,” I explained. And then told them the story of the three boys, which was coined by a good friend’s grandfather, Will Franks, during his time as a transport manager:

“One boy’s a boy. Two boys are half a boy. And three boys is no boy at all.”

This went down extremely well with the three African men and their female colleague. They laughed and retold the story and laughed some more. And somehow the whole situation was lightened, we all managed to eat something and went back to the guest house to sleep.

At the time I was just happy that I had somehow come up with the right thing to say. Our team leader had to leave soon after this incident, I took over and it goes without saying the rest of the research trip became a much more positive experience. But the story of the three boys had really captured the imagination of my African male colleagues. From time to time they would recycle the story. And at the end of the trip, when we had become a small family and found it hard to say goodbye, they brought it up again. I was expressing the feeling that we had done a really tough job really well and one of them said:

“Yes, we’ve been worriedly discussing how it could be so successful when we are three boys. But then we decided to count in Patrick the driver, which makes four, so maybe that takes us back round to the one boy.”

Female triads

It’s heart-warming to think that the story, which originates from the east end of London, has probably circulated all over that particular west African country. Clearly humour, like the truth, knows no borders. And what makes something funny is the recognition of a kernel of truth.

As it’s the festive season, I’m not going to turn the story into some sophisticated allegory of patriarchal global politics: readers are welcome to do that themselves. But I don’t want you to think I’m in any way biased, so I have racked my brains to find an equivalent story about three women.

King Lear’s three daughters chose not to work together, so I’m claiming that doesn’t count. But what about Macbeth’s three witches: good on futures. The three furies: on target. Does this mean female triads are always negative? Hardly. What about the three graces? According to Seneca they represent the cycle of giving, accepting and returning: the chief bond of humanity. They were also good at organising parties.

Then there are the three muses: inspiring. Faith hope and charity: always in demand. The three little maids from school: in harmony. Not to mention the Supremes: still famous after all these years.

I’d like to invite readers to ponder on this conundrum – and to respond with a similar light-hearted touch.

o If you can’t think of any female triads that don’t work effectively, what does that tell us?

o If you can you think of any male triads that are effective, what are the circumstances?

Please note, I’m not accepting the three wise men. I’ll admit they did manage to get to Bethlehem but as the old feminist joke goes: three wise women would have arrived on time, helped to deliver the baby, cooked a hot meal and brought more useful gifts.

The Three Graces from Primavera by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Read and hear more

Faith Hope and Charity

Note: to stop the music on this link, press Escape on your keyboard when the music starts – or before you leave the link webpage.

Three Little Maids from School

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