As I whizzed through a shopping mall in Kigali my tempo became unbearable for my Rwandan colleague, he grabbed my hand, breathless, and exhaled: You European girls walk so fast!
African time. Source of endless frustration for Westerners trying to settle in or do business on the African continent. Source of endless jokes for the Africans themselves and for those Westerners who realised that frustration is a dead end. Time hits you right by the luggage belt at the majority of African airports. If your patience is stretched there - perhaps you should just put yourself on the next plane back home.
Whoever I tell that I'm working in Africa first thing I usually hear is that Africans are notoriously late and don't respect the notions of time. How do you do it? You arrange a meeting at 8 and they turn up at 10... The due dates are fluid and the pace is slow. For some Western cultures this may be beyond acceptable.
But let's just pause there for a minute and look back at a little bit of history. Europeans have actually been preoccupied with the notions of time for quite a while. Marcel Proust, a great early 20th century French novelist, was the first to stand up to European's obsession with speed that he defined as
the self-satisfaction felt by "busy" men - however idiotic their business - at not having time to do what you are doing
Proust was definitely on African time. In his novels sentences sometimes stretch as far as the entire page or even more, where he goes into the most minute detail of how it feels to dip a cookie in his tea. His narrative voice is so slow and detailed it makes you uncomfortable and restless. It forces readers to focus on the nuances one would never pay attention to if they were running. Proust insisted that
the advantage of not going by too fast is that the world has a chance of becoming more interesting in the process
Why time is such a sensitive issue is because it defines our awareness of space and others. As the world keeps shrinking in front of me, I feel like perception and use of time remain the few concepts resistant to globalisation. Time is where globalisation stops. It puts communication and adaptability of human species to test.
It's a social choreography. When you learn to dance with someone, you have to learn to be in tune with their pace. The outcome is incredibly rewarding. Time simply allows you to get to know other human beings, a concept that is slowly being erased by the rat race where we send emails to colleagues who sit behind us.
One of the projects my organisation was putting in place in Rwanda was halted by the authorities and I endured hours of meetings being quizzed about various aspects of the work and even about some (apparently irrelevant) biographical details of my life. What was missing for the project was the human bond. I realised as an organisation we didn't allow enough time to get to know our partners, hear their stories. We had sleek one-pagers, 1-minute films and succinct presentations: all the tools making our collaboration time effective, but we haven't given any time to people who were consuming our glossy documentation. Because people take (too much) time.
The truth is - any project that will be set up in most places across Africa will take time. More time than it would in Europe or North America. It may be an incredibly stressful and frustrating time yet it will be rewarding. It shifts the focus from outcome to experience and allows you to grow on the way and a result will most definitely come, just not exactly when you expect it. And before you embark on the journey, perhaps reading some Proust may stretch your time muscles.