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Does anybody really know what time it is?

October 19, 2010

“As I was walking down the street one day, people running everywhere, being pushed and shoved by people trying to beat the clock.  I just don’t know, I don’t’ know!   Does anybody really know what time it is?  Does anybody really care about time?  If so, I can’t image why.   I don’t care about time.  I have time enough to die.”    Chicago

Everyone jokes about African time, but I think the North American concept of time is a big joke. 

Have you ever noticed how often you hear the word ‘busy’ in a day?  Every Christmas form letter you receive contains the word ‘busy’ said in a proud way.  I challenge you to count the number of times you hear, or use, the word ‘busy’ in the course of a week.  Being busy in North American culture is highly valued.  By contrast, African culture does not value being busy.  If you ask someone if they are busy, they look at you strangely and say, not so much.  That comment is usually followed by a question, how can I be of assistance?   Don’t even try to ask someone what time it is.  They don’t have watches.  This culture values spending time with friends and family.  They value helping each other.  They are a service society. 

Being busy isn’t the same as working hard.  One can be busy and never accomplish anything.  In Africa, like in North America, there are hard workers and there are lazy bums.  Being busy is about the budgeting of time.  It’s about how you choose to spend your resources. 

In North American culture, I can attend six or seven appointments in a day.  A typical day would include a breakfast meeting at 7:00 a.m., a staff meeting at nine, a sales meeting at 10:30, a working lunch at 12 sharp, a consultation meeting at 1:30, my personal trainer at 3:00 and by 4:30 I am anxious to meet with my therapist.  I might grab a fast food dinner in time for my six-thirty church council meeting followed by choir practice at 7:30.  Not in Africa.  A typical day in Africa consists of ‘footing’ to my office and waiting until someone walks in and wants to talk to me.  Sometimes there is a meeting scheduled for this day although it’s rare to have an appointment.  No one has a watch, let alone a phone to call ahead.  Executive meetings, even classes or workshops are not scheduled very far in advance.  One or two days’ notice is typical.  A meeting scheduled for nine, generally starts at 9:30 but sometimes it gets underway at ten or even eleven.  Tea, however, is promptly served at ten.  This culture values discussion and consensus building.   Decision making by consensus takes time, so there is no predicting when a meeting will end.  The more people that attend, the longer the meeting. 

Waiting, such as waiting in line or a “queue” is something we in North America abhor.  But it is expected in Africa.  Why hurry? 

I hear the word “loitering” being used, but not in a negative way.  Loitering is a way to chat and connect with friends and family.  (And everyone is family but that’s another article.)  We in North America never loiter, dawdle or linger around.  We are busy.  In my former life I was so busy I had to schedule a phone call with my friends.  I would book a lunch date weeks in advance.  I was so busy I would cry because I couldn’t get my work done.  There were never enough hours in a day.  When my children were young I often missed their sporting events or dance recitals because I was busy.  My husband and I had to split the teacher conferences because we were too busy to go together.  What was I busy doing?  Earning a living?  Dusting?  I’m not sure, but I know I didn’t develop the art of loitering.  In Africa, I loiter.  I meet a lot of people that way.  I learn about their life, their families, and their values.  Maybe we in North America have it all wrong.  Maybe the joke is on us.  Maybe we should loiter more often. 

Children learn early to connect.  Connect with someone today. 

Don and Maryjane Westra

Donald and Maryjane Westra are missionaries with the United Church of Christ in Zimbabwe. Donald serves as staff to the Micro-Enterprise and Strategic Planning/Management Program at Mt. Selinda.  Maryjane serves as a health and child care consultant at Mt. Selinda.

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