Published: September 4th 2011September 4th 2011
Despite now having been in Uganda for eight months I still struggle to understand, or adjust to, the completely different concept of time here. In my early days I remember being completely exasperated attending community meetings and waiting for the obligatory couple of hours for people to turn up. It is not like I had not been prepared, I had been warned that it was one of the hardest things to adjust to but nothing can quite prepare you.
Thinking that I may one day want to be employed in a 'developed' country again, I vowed not to lose the improvements I had made in timekeeping from days where I would head the class for being late to school. I came prepared for any meeting with a few hours work or language books. It helped. I begun to relax and realise that sometimes people would turn up and sometimes they wouldn’t. Occasionally though, I would think of the bigger picture and realise that we would never be able to develop anything as we could never get them to meet. Suddenly though people will come together, action plans will be made and I feel as though we were ready to change the world, or at least Kazo. Weeks of frustration would follow, people would have to go back to their home village to bury distant relatives, have hospital appointments, go to school or often simply forget…and then one day they built the education centre.
I would not want this example to give an impression that, if you are patient, things always get done here because some quite simply do not. Many ideas get thrown about, meetings arranged, then people do not turn up and they get forgotten about.
I have heard some of the most fantastic reasons for being late whilst I’ve been here. After Ronald missed another meeting by an hour and a half, “Did you used to tell the time by the sun in England?” “Yes, a long time ago.” “Well I think it is because we Africans are used to telling the time by the sun so we are not used to be exact.” It is difficult to argue with that.
Another particularly memorable time was when we were signing children up for the education centre. Even though by this stage I knew better I was convinced by Betty, a work colleague, to go back for a ‘quick lunch’. After four hours of waiting, and by this stage a sense of work duty and (mainly) hunger had me feeling a strange empathy with many African genocidal dictators, if they had to wait this long for food can make you do crazy things.... still, I couldn’t leave. My English unwillingness to offend forbade me. It is a great offence in Buganda to leave someone’s house before you have taken something from your host. The reason for the delay, “I think it is because we are used to going out in the fields to dig for our meals. We have to do that before we cook so it takes us a long time to prepare.” Never mind that you are living on the edge of Kampala, and walked 5 minutes to the market to buy all your food.
I have spent many hours perplexing over the reasons for this difference. Generally, I think many differences and be explained by circumstances.
One of the most noticeable effects of living in a poor society is the amount of time things take. I lived with a relatively rich family. We had a electricity, a TV, a proper ceiling in the living room and an indoor washing room. I did very little housework. I gave up trying to help after a month or two of standing awkwardly behind people while they did chores and laughed at the idea of me helping. Still, when I did manage to do chores I realised that being a housewife (I’m not being sexist here there is just no way anyone would be a house husband here) is actually a full-time job.
There is the constant sweeping and mopping of the floor (once or twice a day) as the dust creeps through all imaginable cracks; there is the fruitless task of sweeping the yard to stop dust blowing into the house and onto drying clothes; there is washing up without running water, requiring at least 3 bowls of water and a delicate method of stacking washed crockery in another bowl to dry; there is cooking which takes an infuriating amount of time as you wait for the charcoal to warm up and then cook one pot at a time on the stove. Then there is the washing, oh the washing, probably the only chore I have done regularly and the king of time consumption. With a large amount of time it can be a fairly relaxing thing to do but, like most Western people I have met, it is entirely against my conditioning to dedicate a whole day to one chore. Hence, most do a few clothes at the end of the day without particularly impressive results. Ugandans, on the other, usually set aside Saturday or Sunday afternoon and go through their weeks washing, defying nature to get clothes gleaming white.
At first I thought that the difference in was just that Ugandans are late, but it is not. There is just no concept of time, at least not in the way I am accustomed to. Most people wear watches here but if you ask the time you find most are not working.
Now I’m in a more structured working environment I have encountered a different slant on the time difference. Many of my work colleagues , especially those without much international exposure, will come into work at least an hour early and leave a couple of hours late. The four or five international workers will do the same but are acutely aware of it. I will have a good English grumble about how many hours I am working but I get the impression many of my Ugandan colleagues barely notice.
One of the only challenges I have had managing has been when someone will suddenly leave to deal with a family issue or deal with something like a driving permit urgently. It is not an issue of skiving work, as they work a huge number of hours but rather a cultural difference in adjusting to a European pattern of work.
The issue of time is one of those things that has made me totally re-evaluate my own concept of time. It is made me think, “am I this strange robot who can only work in this structured timeframe? In the UK (and I believe most of the West) we are programmed to make a careful distinction between ‘at work’ and ‘off work’. In truth, though, to be most successful working in the community here you must be prepared to wait around for a week doing nothing and then, when people suddenly decide to act on Friday at 6pm, be prepared to give up your weekend. I think it is one of the few things I am unable, or probably more accurately unwilling, to adapt to. My weekend is too precious!