Saturday, September 29, 2012

Tanzania Time

This morning started at 6 am. I rose early to rehearse my first training session before we left the house for devotion at New Life. The mass ran from 7:30 – 9:15. I then retreated to my office at New Life to practice my training one more time. I was nervous. It was my first public health training. I would present alone for one hour, to a group of over 200 students who did not speak my language. By the time that I finished my final rehearsal, I was quite confident, but I had another worry on my mind. We were supposed to be at the school, 20 minutes away, by 10:30. Mama Shoo wanted to stop in town to give money to a business partner, which was in the opposite direction. We left New Life at 10:15. We finished the meeting with Mama Shoo’s friend at 10:45. We arrived at Msufini Secondary School at 11:07.
For those of you who know me, you may know that I value punctuality. I was raised in a household where everyone ran just a few minutes behind schedule all the time. I learned to resent the habit and value punctuality. I plan my days so that I arrive on time or two minutes early wherever I go. Whether I am walking, driving, running, or swimming, I factor in time for transport and I get where I need to be.
Coming to Tanzania, I knew I would have to adjust. I have fooled myself into thinking I am being flexible, but when I am honest I find I only am on the surface. I do not complain about the constant lateness, but I strongly resent it. It stresses me out and makes me feel unaccomplished.
This morning I addressed the problem. As we were pulling into Msufini Mama asked the time.
“11:07” I said.
“Agh – we are late.”
I almost retreated as usual by making some pass-off remark along the lines of oh well, but something stopped me. Instead I said, “At home, I am very good at keeping schedules. Would it help us to get places on time if I tell you what time it is when it is time to get to the next place?”
Mama was mildly offended. “Knowing the time is not my problem,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you tell me the time. The problem is that I have many important things to do.” She then continued to explain some of the things that she handled while I was rehearsing this morning, and described why they were of importance.
Seeing that she was closing up, I tried to reason. “I’m sorry Mama, maybe I was unclear. I would not interrupt you during that. But in situations like this morning when I was sitting there during your business meeting, can I lean over and tell you the time? Is that okay?”
“In Tanzanian culture the person comes first. It is rude to cut them off and say, ‘I have to go’. You let them finish the whole story, the whole meeting, then you move on. I was already trying to rush the other lady telling her that I had somewhere to be. I could not just cut her off – that would be rude.”
I wish I had said:
“Okay. In American culture the person comes first too – every person’s time is just as valuable as another’s. That is why it is rude to make someone wait.  A solution is to tell someone at the beginning of the meeting, ‘I can be here until X time – let’s meet until then and get done what we can, and then we will pick up again whatever we cannot finish now.’”
Instead I listened as Mama explained, “If a child broke his feet, I would drop everything and go. I would call the Msufini headmistress and say, ‘sorry we cannot come, we there is an emergency’ and she would express her condolences and that would be all.”
She paused to open her window to speak to the man waiting outside. In Swahili he said to her, “You’re early! We are not ready for you! Go and park and we will wait and have tea.”
Mama and I had a laugh and parked the car. She thanked me for speaking my mind and apologized for the cultural difference. I said there is no reason to apologize – I am learning. We did not go to tea, rather we asked begin the lesson “early”.

I am not yet sure how I feel about this interaction. Sometimes in my time here, I feel misguided. I spend so much time at church services and praying and thanking the lord because it is such a huge part of the lives of the people with whom I am living. In coming here, I aligned secular goals: public health training, teaching English class for teen mothers, and blogging the progress of Uzima Healing Center. Somehow, the majority of my day is spent at religious events. (Even now I am sitting at a religious seminar that Mama is giving to pastors’ wives.) This is the result of a chain of circumstances I did not anticipate – without the ability to drive to and from my secular events, I spend hours every day in worship, because that is the centerpiece to Mama and Baba Glorious’ lives. I hope to find a way around this issue either by finding a way to occupy myself during these religious expeditions (most likely by meditation), using them as opportunities to study the culture, and/or gaining more control over my schedule in time.
This post is definitely a stream of conscience post. It is important to include some of these so you are privy to every aspect of my journey, including the moments when I grow confused.

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