Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Africa Time

If traveling has given me anything, it's given me this: the ability to float gently down the river of events-- to relinquish control. In Africa, the boat leaves when it's full. You might wait an hour; you might wait two weeks. If you spend that time tipping forward into the future, you sink. The best thing to do is just to sit on the boat and look around at the other humans who are sitting there with you. You might discover that you like the view. --from Somebody's Heart is Burning by Tanya Schaffer

I received a package last week that left the US January 19th and apparently arrived in Windhoek January 30th. That's right. My Christmas package of underwear and books and magazines and nail polish had been sitting in the Windhoek post office for over 6 months. Sounds impossible, right? Not quite. This, my friends, is what is known as "Africa time."

I've often wondered why Namibians even bother with timestamps. Everyone, aside from the newly arrived volunteer or tourist, is well aware of Africa time and therefore adjusts their plans accordingly. Africa time affects most things that have a timestamp on them. Work, meetings, appointments, school, school functions; all are prone to Africa time. Even things you would expect to happen on time rarely do. Building projects will run 3 to 6 months behind schedule, if not more. Meetings or parties will often be running so late that they will be cancelled at the absolute last minute, even if the more punctual attendees have been waiting for hours. Hikes that were supposed to leave at a certain time will be delayed by hours, sometimes even days. Even school, which starts every morning at 7am, is often held up by tardy teachers and learners. Everything is tentative. Things may happen now, but they seldom happen now now.

A few weeks ago, we had the "Mr. and Miss S.I. !Gobs" beauty pageant at the school, which I of course agreed to judge. I was told that the show would start at 19H00 sharp and that I should report for duty a little before then. At 19H30, I was just putting a piece of chicken on the braai for dinner. Some friends had arrived and we spent some time chatting and trading off braai duty. At about 20H00 I began to hear music and microphone feedback coming from the school hall—must be the sound check. A bit ahead of schedule, I thought! As it always does, the sound check began to lure the learners from their blocks and their homes in the location. By 20H30, we had finished our dinner and were doing the dishes when the senior girls stopped by. "Miss, we are waiting for you!" I'm sure, I thought. And just as I had suspected the audience was barely filing into the hall when I arrived. I took my seat at the judges' table and began making small talk with the fellow judges. At about 20H45, I went backstage to see what was keeping things. "Miss, we can't find contestant number 8 and contestant number 7 is refusing to go on stage!" one of my learners yelled. By this time the crowd was getting quite restless. After a bit of coercing, I was able to get contestant 7 out of the bathroom where she was hiding as well as convince the pageant organizers to scratch contestant 8. We rushed the willing participants on stage and by about a quarter after 9, over 2 hours after the show was supposed to start, all contestants were on stage and all judges and spectators were in their seats. The show wore on late into the night and just before 1AM, with half the audience gone and the other half, including some judges, sleeping in their chairs, S.I. !Gobs had their very own Mr. and Miss.

Sure, this event was organized by the kids and may have had a few understandable holes, but things organized by adults often times aren't any better. I was invited to a traditional Damara wedding a few months ago and I took Rachel as my date. We knew that there would be some pre-wedding festivities at the house, but that we were supposed to be at the church at noon for the ceremony. Neither Rachel nor I are all too familiar with Damara tradition, but we knew this wedding was as susceptible to Africa time as any other wedding in Namibia. At 11:45 we were still in town doing some last minute shopping. On any other planet, this may seem to be cutting it close; not on planet Namibia. I knew I had enough time to get home, get cleaned up, and make it to the church in the location within an hour, only a bit late. And indeed, by 12:30 Rachel and I were making our way to the church. Weddings in Namibia, as well as funerals, are huge gatherings. Most of the time since there is food served, you do need an invitation to attend the after party but since there's usually nothing much else going on in town, often times the whole community will turn out for a wedding or funeral church service. As we approached the church we noticed there were no cars and no people milling about, an unusual occurrence at a typical wedding ceremony. Perhaps we had the wrong time, I thought. I checked the invitation and found that we were nearly an hour late. "My dear," said Rachel, "this is Africa time." We sat alone in an empty church for another hour and finally, a mere two hours after the ceremony was scheduled to start, the wedding party arrived. Rachel and I had front row seats.

Africa time may be a bad habit to get in to. In the beginning I showed up on time for everything but just ended up waiting around worrying that I had gotten the wrong time or venue. But after nine months, I've adopted the laid back African attitude in most things I do. As a friend once advised me, "If someone tells you to be somewhere at a certain time, that's the time you begin to get ready. You know: bathe, select your outfit." Having lived the American way of life for 22 years, I haven't lost all track of time (for example, I still go to work everyday, I still complete all tasks I'm asked to do, I never miss a meeting or class I'm supposed to teach without giving notice of cancellation, etc.), but I'm definitely less focused on time limits than I was prior to Africa. Things get done when they get done. People move at their own pace, regardless of how quickly you are moving, and panicking about getting something done on time will only stress you out; generally if you are worried about time, you are the only one. It's better to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the world around you.

And no matter how late, it's always nice to receive packages. I'm enjoying the New Yorkers, Newsweeks, People Magazines and US Weekleys from December 2005 and January 2006 as if they were new. They made The Da Vinci Code into a movie? Who knew? Thanks, Cin:)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cait, my parents just emailed me your website, and I just spent half my afternoon reading the whole thing. All the stories you have are so interesting! Will be looking forward to getting with you in August for your brother's wedding and sharing some of my "sea stories". Hope all is well, love your cousin Patrick Gokey.

12:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Caitlin,
I'm catching up on your blog and find every entry absorbing. Gary and I have friends and colleagues who refer to "Schettle time," which is generally within 10 minutes of the designated schedule. We consider ourselves on time if we make it to a wedding while the bride is still in the back of the church. For Nolan and Soozy's wedding I guess we'll have to abandon African Time and Schettle Time and stick with Standard American Time - Central Daylight of course. We're looking forward to seeing you there. Keep up the great work.

7:50 AM  

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