People often talk of “Africa time”. And it is often juxtaposed against (in my presence) “America time”. There is a conception – I believe it is a misconception – that people in Africa do not value time, or move in time in the same way that Westerners do. Even to write such a sweeping generalization should give us a clue that it cannot be entirely true.
It is true that things rarely happen as scheduled. We often make programs, set agendas and plan in advance. By we, I mean the leaders here in the Malawi Missionary Conference – American, European, Zimbabwean and Malawian. We make the plans, but rarely do the plans happen at the designated time. This is not because people in Malawi do not care about time. It is largely due to circumstance. Mini-buses don’t run on time. Filling stations run out of fuel just when you’re on your way to pick up a friend. Air Malawi grounds its plane for service when you want to fly to Zimbabwe. Electricity goes out. Water goes out. The best laid plans are confounded by daily circumstances.
It is not that Malawians do not care about time, but that they have a realistic understanding of the circumstances they are facing. I can assure you that the two men who set off yesterday to move a pastor to her new circuit did not take it lightly when they got stranded on the side of the road at 3am after visiting two mechanics and suffering through two breakdowns in the only pick up truck that the circuit owns. And the Publications training event had every intention of starting the meeting on time so that participants could make it to their homes on time last night. But when 30 youth need to bathe and there is only one bathroom, it makes starting at 9am a logistical impossibility.
Why am I thinking about this tonight? Because I am exhausted. I know after 18 months of living in Malawi, that it is unrealistic to think that everything can happen according the schedule that I have made. I know that just because I want a newsletter published by January 15 there are a million bumps in the road that will make it impossible. I know that just because the immigration office says that passports will be out in 2 weeks does not mean that it will actually happen. I know these things, yet I still default to my culture of origin where things can be planned down to 5 minute increments, planning a dozen activities for one month, setting dates and deadlines that are only realistic if one has daily electricity, internet that stays connected for more than 30 minutes at a time, and colleagues who have the same basics.
So I have compiled a newsletter, pushed authors for deadlines, translators for translations, leaders for calendar dates, and printers for commitments. I have planned and taught a writing seminar without the help of colleagues because I ran out of time to coordinate assistance, edited 2.5 books, written a 10-month preaching plan (really, that’s ludicrous), and submitted two sets of Policies and Procedures that assume our leaders here have phones, phone units and money for transportation. I still function as if I live in the USA, demanding that time conform to my needs.
“Africa time” is viewed as charming or amusing by some, backwards by others, and denigrated by many. “Africa time” is viewed as a disrespect for time, when actually, I think my partners have a much more deep and abiding respect for time. Time is of great value and projects and tasks should not be abandoned simply because they take (too much) time. While Jeff and I would rather get traffic ticket after traffic ticket instead of stand in the endless queues to get a proper Malawian driver’s license, our friend Chimango, patiently goes from one line to the next, from Road Traffic to the bank and back again to Road Traffic. He asks the same questions of different people, searching out the process that will finally and enigmatically lead to a driver’s license. It takes immense amounts of time, but he does it and with such patience and grace. While I would be sighing and grumbling and cursing, he passes the time, makes progress and show results.
He is not a saint. He also gets frustrated. But he knows time is precious. And so he persists and perseveres in the face of time, not cursing the waste of time. So who is it that truly respects time?
This is not articulated very well – because I’m tired. But tomorrow I’m going to rest. I’m going to paint my toe nails, help Carter and Claire with their homework, and not follow up on any deadlines. Maybe I’ll even journal something coherent. But just because I say I’m going to blog, don’t expect to read a new entry tomorrow… because I’m on Africa time.