During my time back in the states, I experienced a sort of reverse culture shock. Small things threw me, such as eight lane highways, large shopping malls, strangers not smiling, and of course my sister’s smart phone. Lily thought this was hysterical since I’ve lived in the US for 27 years, but it really was an adjustment.
One of the biggest challenges was that suddenly, I was expected to be on time. When someone said let’s meet for lunch at noon, they really meant to be there at noon.
Before leaving the US, I was the most punctual person in the world. I was so extremely punctual that I considered fifteen minutes early to be on time.
And then, I moved to Malawi. Here everyone operates on ‘Africa time.’ I remember working with African refugees newly arrived in the US, trying to impress upon them the importance of showing up to appointments on time. It was an adjustment for them, just as learning what time means here was an adjustment for me.
I remember being invited to a bbq early on in our time here. Our host said to come around four. Trying to be on Africa time, we showed up at 4:30, much to our host’s surprise. The rest of the guests arrived at seven.
While it is not always that extreme, it is common for meetings to start and run hours late. Buses sometimes leave on time, but never arrive on time. When meeting friends, it’s acceptable to be 15-20 minutes late, even our American friends.
This relaxed attitude towards time can be very frustrating. I have heard people claim that it is lazy and disrespectful. But the truth is that it’s cultural. There are lots of reasons for people to think about time differently. For one thing, if you are dependent on walking or public transportation, or even taxis, it is nearly impossible to manage time. Secondly, because 80% of Malawians live in rural settings, time is more related to the movements of the sun and the season than hands on a watch. And thirdly, people here are more relaxed in general. The pace of life here is slower and people seem to have a deep understanding that there are much more important things to worry about.
Again, this doesn’t mean that it can’t be really frustrating, but I have found that I have slowly not only grown accustomed to it, but that I have begun to think about time the same way. Thus, when home in the states, I found myself to be the last one ready and the one who was always late.
And I really couldn’t work the smart phone – but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to regardless of where I lived.