August 2nd 2015
Over the past three months I’ve developed a whole new understanding of time. In North America ‘African Time’ is a common term used to refer to the way time is understood in this part of the world. I don’t love this term, but for the purpose of this post it holds some value. I can’t speak for other African countries, but in Uganda being on time is a foreign concept. Meetings often start two hours late and no one blinks an eye. The phrase “I’ll be there soon” means nothing, since people can arrive anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours later. Time is inconsequential.
When we first arrived, this way of operating drove Shelby, Jeremy and I crazy. In North America being late is frowned upon. For casual hang outs with friends, there is an unwritten rule that a person can be up to 10 minutes late without being considered rude. But when it comes to a formal appointment like a meeting, if a person arrives late it is seen as a sign of disrespect. The person would be labeled as flakey, unreliable, and flippant. As a result, people make it a habit of arriving early.
These two opposite understandings of time boil down to different cultural values. In North America, we value punctuality. We are slaves to time – constantly trying to keep up, saying there isn’t enough. Productivity is highly valued. Here however, productivity is valued in a different way. There is an understanding that the meeting will start when people get there. What would be the point of starting beforehand? It is a people-centered approach – time doesn’t drive people; people drive time.
As a kid, my mom put her own spin on ‘African Time’. That is to say that she always approached time as fluid – something to be shaped and molded according to our will. As someone who hates to be rushed, I would freak out when I felt I didn’t have enough time to get everything done. Similarly, my sister couldn’t handle the pressure of the clock’s constant ticking. In response, my mom would tell us to take a breath and slow it all down. “We have all the time in the world”, she would say. “If you don’t think you have enough, make more. You are the master of time.” She meant this in an abstract way of course, but as imaginative kids we believed that we could literally slow down time. And in a way we could. By adjusting our relationship with it, time expanded and contracted according to our will.
Now, back to the Ugandan context: as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Amartya Sen has a Nobel Prizing winning theory of development as freedom. In a much less scholarly addition – and in light of my musings above – I would argue that development is also about having access to free time. Let me explain:
For many East Africans, their days are spent taking care of their basic needs: earning enough money, using that money to get food, seeking out water, etc. For example, when we were in Rwanda we drove past many women and children carrying buckets of water on their heads, taking it back to their village. This is a popular image shown in North America. Stories are told with horror of people in Africa walking many kilometers to get water, often without shoes. It is meant to inspire sympathy, and paternalistic pity. But being here, this image is one we see almost every day. It isn’t seen as a hardship, it’s just a necessary part of a person’s day.
After driving past several women carrying buckets of water I vocalized my thoughts and we got into a discussion about it. I explained how something seemed off about pitying people who are taking care of their basic needs. Walking 5 to 10 kilometers isn’t ideal, but it doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world. In response to this, Erica and William helped me flesh out my half-formed thoughts. Erica pointed out that while walking that far to get water isn’t a huge problem in itself, the opportunity cost of it is. That is to say that the time spent gathering water could have been used for other purposes. In other words, by spending their time taking care of their basic needs, these people are losing to opportunity to develop in other ways. This fits with Maslow’s theory of a Hierarchy of Needs: people can only focus on higher level needs – like intellectual endeavors – once their basic needs are taken care of. Because rural Ugandans and Rwandans often have to use their time to farm enough food for their families, they are unable to pursue other endeavors. And this curtails their potential.
Many Ugandans provide for all their basic needs, which is both empowering and limiting. In North America we would generally see it as the former, while here people would probably see it as the latter. For example, many North Americans – myself included – idolize the ability to provide for yourself. Words are used like ‘sustainable’ and ‘self-sufficient’. But many Ugandans may see this same situation as being limiting and taxing.
This of course leads to a discussion of division of labour. Because of the division of labour in a globalized world, people and countries produce based on their comparative advantage (thanks Adam Smith). For example, one person may contribute to society by being a lawyer or a doctor, and in return their basic needs are provided for. I have never had to grow my own food because there are farmers who take on that role. I don’t know how to cut my own hair, because there are hairdressers who do that. The dentist knows everything there is to know about teeth, so I don’t have to worry about that either. Everyone is taught to specialize, and in that way the collective burden of ‘life upkeep’ is lightened. We are not individually self-sufficient, but our lives are also easier. We have time to pursue other interests.
In this way, access to free time creates a hierarchy. Even though I’m a relatively poor student without many qualifications, I am high up on this hierarchy because I have the luxury of time. Although our regular boda driver is equally as smart as me – which is obvious just from the way he talks and conducts himself – a combination of factors means that his time has to be used to attain lower level needs. Because the combination of factors I was born into means these needs are taken care of for me, I have the time to focus on self-improvement through intellectual endeavors (like spending hours sitting in a café and writing this blog post).
What I’m trying to say is that time is powerful. Access or lack of access to it can define a person. I hire the boda driver because I have the time and the means to pursue an education and travel to foreign places, while he drives the boda because his time has to be spent providing for his family. Time is a tool, and it dictates what people can do.
But as they say, power corrupts. Time is powerful, and in my experience most North Americans have corrupted their use of time. We have the luxury of free time, and we are at a loss for what to do with it. For me at least, before coming to Uganda I spent my time carelessly – I binge watched Netflix, I browsed Pinterest, I napped daily, and I regularly thought I deserved a day off. Although I had a job and five courses, I still had copious amounts of free time. My basic needs were – and are – delivered on a silver platter, so I am left with blank space. Space that I fritter away. Time is a luxury, which is something I didn’t appreciate or even recognize until I came here and saw that not all people have it.
I’m being hypocritical. I’m talking about the value of time, but meanwhile I’m wishing it would speed up. With only a month left in Uganda, I want to use my time well. But like Jeremy talks about in his recent blog post, we’re all a bit burnt out. I’m saturated with experiences, and like a heavy sponge I don’t know how much more my brain can hold. I don’t want to leave Uganda, but I want to be home. Every morning I wake up and take my malaria pill, and I see how many there are left. Right now the two and a half packs seem to be taunting me, representing a barrier between me and my friends and family back home. The time is crawling by, and I’m not appreciating it even though I’ve just spent the last 1000 words ranting about how important it is. My mom taught me how to slow time down, but how do I speed it up? And then I feel guilty for wanting to. I know that when my time here runs out I’ll be incredibly sad to leave. Time is funny that way: when you have a lot you want less, but when you have less you wish you had more.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, I want to apologize for this choppy, incoherent, stream-of-consciousness post. As usual, thoughts that make sense in my head become scrambled when I vomit them onto paper. But what I’m trying to say is that being here, I’ve discovered the value of time. Having time is rare, and therefore it must be coveted, and used well. Bertrand Russell said that “time you enjoy wasting is never wasted time”. While I agree with this statement, I feel a responsibility to appreciate the fact that I have time to waste. I have the freedom to do what I choose with my time, and this is powerful. Even the fact that I can call time my own shows how incredibly lucky I am. Time drives people, and people drive time.
Does that make sense?