South Africa

African Time

I am learning the way in which I look at my world is not necessarily the most profitable to humankind. Yesterday, a few friends of mine on the trip and I were talking about the distinct difference in urgency between the U.S. and what we’ve experienced so far in South Africa. For most of us, we’ve never experienced anything quite like this before. Time, it seems, is a moving target here. Time is given, appointments are made. However, it doesn’t seem like there’s much stress in arriving at said time. 

A friend who lives here in Khayelitsha gave me a word for this yesterday; he said this time-gap, or urgency lack (compared to many Western countries) is lovingly referred to as “African time.” African time is similar to the concept of island time, which is a slower pace, with much forgiveness around timeliness.

Lyndon told me about African time yesterday because he saw me last week, frazzled, stressed, and very upset. I now know the word to appropriate phrase to use in order to say this sentence;

For an American, African time is trippy.

Coming on this trip, I knew I’d see and do things that were outside of my norm. I ran towards something new. I didn’t realize how deeply ingrained my sense of time was until I arrived in Africa.

On a positive note, however, for the first time in my life I’m perpetually early.

So here’s what drove me to the brink; Nontsasa’s birthday was last week and the party went very, very differently than anticipated.

My housemate, Laurel, and I offer to cook a traditional American meal for Nontsasa and her guests on her birthday. Naturally, we decide to make spaghetti, so we head out to find ingredients to prepare our feast. We have about 4 hours before the guests are set to arrive.

  • Gathering our bags, we run to Score, the neighborhood supermarket, to grab the ingredients not already in our pantry. Score is closed.
  • Sharing panic, we determine cash stores are the next best option. Cash stores are small bodega-type stores found every two blocks or so, run by community members. They sell local fruit and vegetables, they also have the occasional dried goods for a good bargain.  As we feared, none of the cash stores carries spaghetti noodles.
  • It’s getting dark, we’ve wasted about an hour and a half, we have to get home. It’s 6pm and guests are arriving at 7:30pm.
  • More panicking shared.
  • On a brilliant last-ditch effort, we find the noodles at one of the host parents’ homes.
  • Scurrying home, we throw together our best effort to make a great meal.
  • Still cooking, we’re realize it’s vital to provide dessert. Of course! How could we forget? I leave one more time to fetch pears for dessert.
  • Returning home, there’s lots of running around, ferocious cutting of cabbage, frantic searches for the right utensils. We religiously check our watches. People are coming over soon.

Enter Andiswa: “Did you buy drinks? We always provide drinks with the cake. Tell me you bought drinks.”

Blank faces. 

Enter Tamie (pronounced: Tah-mee): Nontsasa’s boyfriend offers to drive us out of town so we can buy sodas.

  • Tamie, reassuring us we will make it back in time, gathers me and my host-sister, Andiswa into the car. I go, Laurel stays. The store is about 15 minutes away in another town
  • Tamie, Andiswa, and I pile into his car and head out. Laurel stays to watch over the food. Okay – ready, set, go! I’m doing that nervous twitch where we just need to hurry hurry. Tamie says something about hospital, and something about M-something Park-something. I smile and nod. Let’s go!
  • After about 30 minutes in the car, I’m confused. “Where are we, guys?”

Andiswa: “We are taking a route that will pass us by [another city] to visit Tamie’s sister in the hospital.”

Me: “Wait, what?”

Calculating time, I’m noticing we’ll be about 30 minutes late to the party at this point.

  • Pulling up in front of a house in a town I’m uncertain of the name, we walk inside.
  • This stop is to try to convince his sister’s daughter, 11, to visit her mother with us. She refuses.
  • We arrive home after 8pm sometime, no guests there yet, but still about an hour and a half later

That is African time. 

At least what I know of African time. Confused and aware I was the only one confused (except my roommate),  I actively tell myself to keep my lips pressed together. I don’t understand, but I don’t know there is an explanation. Every country has its own cultural components. If I’m going to live here, I’d better get on board and remember I’m a visitor who is here to learn.

The guests arrived sometime after 8:30pm and strolled in even after 9pm, bringing food and gifts. My host mother and sister knew everything would be just fine. Dinner that night was filled with laughter and conversation.

Nontsasa is a strong woman who has touched many lives and her friends and family were thrilled to celebrate her that night. There’s a feeling of community here I’ve never experienced. Friends that have seen each other through challenging times and celebrated during happy times. I’m being welcomed as family and that is such a privilege. My only fear is the intense sadness I will feel when I return home and leave this beautiful country with its beautiful people so far away.

I’m finally settling into my home here. I could stay, if only I had my family and friends here with me.

The energy in this country is unbelievable. Social movement is happening in waves, political discussion is pouring out of every mouth, actual human interest is seeping from every action. I’m convinced this is the time to be in South Africa. The push and pull, the moans and groans of the straining social society is fascinating. I am living in the middle of dynamic change. Change that will no doubt affect the rest of the world. It will help shape other countries’ perspectives on how to govern a people and the universe is watching. As for me, I will continue to look onward with open eyes and ready ears, hoping only to remember what I learn, and to let it shape the person that I become.

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