“What time shall we have the meeting” I interrupt M., as he politely blinks up at me from his computer screen. “Whenever you like, whenever you like.” is his automatic reply. After nearly two years of working side-by-side with the head of our team in Senegal I’ve grown wise in his ways and I know he’s likely to slip out of the office, into his car and drive away at any moment. Whether he simply feels like leaving the endless barrage of questions presented to him by his employees, or there’s some kind of urgent rice cargo crisis to deal with at the Port of Dakar, I don’t always know why he leaves and where he goes. “You plan to stay here all morning?” I double check with him trying to keep my voice level. It’s hard to hide the fact that this meeting is important to me, and so infrequent are our meetings, between the movement of all of our bodies seeking the office, port, warehouses and lunch, that I’ll consider it close to a miracle if we are actually able to gather the 4 secretaries, myself and M. all together in one room for 10 minutes this morning. I’m also daring to dream for no cell-phone interruptions during that time. “Does 10:00am work for you?” as I glance at my phone which states 9:30. I wince internally at this display of OCD (from an African perspective) and regular-time-management (Western perspective). To some degree it really doesn’t matter how many books you read and how many people you talk to about our different concepts of time because when push comes to shove and when your nerves are rattled you’ll inevitably default to the culture which is most deeply ingrained in you. I’ve physically experienced the zombie-like state of waiting hours for a bus to fill before it leaves to your destination (in Haiti) numerous times, so you might say, on a deeper level, I really do understand the maxim “the bus leaves when there are enough bodies to fill it” as the very logical and reasonable answer to the question offered by the white woman “Please sir, when is this bus scheduled to leave?” I feel that if not for M.’s distraction while he tries to send photos of discharged merchandise, correct a survey report and answer an email all at the same time (while invigorating himself with a smack of his desktop PC and grumbling that he’s having technical problems again).. he really would tell me that the meeting will simply take place at the time when everyone gathers in the same place to have the meeting. Sigh. My exhausted Western psyche gives up on the questions of time, for the time being. In my last attempt at organization I tackle the question of location. I decide to make life easier for M. and to simply inform him in which room we will meet instead of asking him about it. I can tell that he is inwardly grateful and I leave him to his work for another 30 minutes. My own brain is quickly calculating what kind of work I can actually get done in this time frame. I sigh again realizing that the obsessive pursuit of efficiency is another pernicious Western quality that I’m gladly weeding out of myself with calm, calculated movements. That particular weed is obviously far from all-out, I realize. My nerves are tense and I feel like a cold, iron fist is closing around my heart. I know I won’t be able to get any real work done in this state. I also know that I’m doing the right thing and that it’s time to leave here, but that doesn’t make today’s meeting any simpler. How do you tell the kind, calm people (read: Senegalese) who have put up with your crazy moods and antics for two whole years that your time together has come to an end? In fact, it’s for this, for their patience and tolerance (especially for M.’s patience!) of my strange behaviours that I am most grateful. They’ve seen their boss weeping from exhaustion and frustration (I’m not very good at hiding my emotional break-downs and well, seriously, dealing with European clients when you work in Senegal is not easy) and heard me raising my voice at employees as I would get increasingly irritated that for the third time in the same week they’re explaining to me how they don’t have enough phone credit to call their colleague in such and such warehouse, in essence to properly DO THEIR JOB. Wow, my nerves still get rattled when I think of that. The point is, after every occasional outburst when I would start breathing again, I’d see that great cultural divide again, what looks in my mind’s eye more like the chasm of the Grand Canyon, between us and them and our different concepts of everything. And through it all, when I would come to my senses again, they were present there for me and smiling, and reassuring me, reminding me that I always had tomorrow to try it again.
It’s as though Western mind has so thoroughly bought into the ideas that time and money are to be dominated and controlled by us and buried it so deep in our thought process that we allow ourselves to forget that it is all an invention in the first place. Instead we discuss investment strategies and the benefits of morning yoga practices acting as though we are the Lords of Everything. An African observes Time, like a neighbour passing by, and doesn’t seek to respect it, while he pulls out the crumpled paper money from a dark hole, smooths it out, and considers it for using it as kindling to help along the small fire cooking his fresh fish. It is paper, after all. Trouble is, his mind has been warped with ideas of modern society as well, and whether he knows it or not he’s slave to the money dance now too. He’ll pocket the bill and try to find more. Besides, if local superstition is right his 1,000Francs note with careful prayer and attention may yet become a 10,000Francs note. Yet, superstitions aside, I feel his eyes will see paper first and currency later, as our eyes, if we care to see deeper, must make the opposite journey. Money then is defined not only by different currencies our nations use but by a different appreciation of what the paper-bill actually is and what it can do for you. Meanwhile Time, the so-called universal currency, bows to the African not unlike a slave to his master. It is glad to be molded by humans and not the other way around or otherwise, if it is too hot or we are feeling too lazy, it is equally happy to move on by.
Somewhere around a quarter past 10:00, I shepherd the secretaries, myself and M. into one of the office rooms, trying to ignore the bleating of the sheep outside, to begin our short meeting.
A month later, in early April, I receive a small, sweet taste of reverse culture shock. My mother and I have been visiting the historic centre of Warsaw all day and we’re feeling sleepy as we step back inside our flat at around 4:00pm. It’s a sunny, bright day and my eyelids droop as I head to my father’s office, temporarily my bedroom, for an afternoon nap. Few things feel as delicious on a Sunday (and on a holiday) as a sluggish cat-nap in the afternoon warmth and light. I snuggle in to the warm blankets I’ve laid out on the floor and sleep for atleast an hour. When I awake my thoughts are hazy and lazy. I do however perceive a small, nudge inside my skull reminding me that I have some kind of meeting at 6:00pm. Oh yes, the parents of a dear friend in Dakar are coming over for tea, I remind myself. Glancing at my phone it reads 17:40 at which point two parallel thoughts spring to life in my mind. Firstly, I think happily that I have plenty of time to take a shower, get dressed and have a bite to eat (haven’t had anything to eat since breakfast and my belly is rumbling) since no one shows up for a meeting like this on time anyways, so I can easily interpret 6:00pm as 6:30 or 7:00pm at the earliest. I sink in to happy visions of a warm shower and delicious sourkrout for dinner. I shake myself a little bit more awake though since I realize it’s a very Dakar-esque thought that I’m having and I am no longer there so perhaps it is not suited to be here. This is when the second though bounces in joyfully to remind me that although I am meeting this couple for the first time I should remember that Polish people are extremely punctual and so I can expect them to be here at exactly 6:00pm. Which also means that I have basically no time to do anything that I wanted to do before they arrive. Darn. That thought also reminds me about some idea of respecting-other-peoples-time being an importance concept in our societies and so on. I feel like I’m relearning basic concepts from my elementary textbooks while I nod sleepily, and somewhat guiltily, like the student in the back of the hot classroom who has been pretending to pay attention but has actually been doodling in their notebook and dozing this whole time. I mentally close the doodle-book, click my phone off and drag myself out of my pile of blankets laughing at this internal dialogue. The funniest thing is that thought number two is running around the room trying to get me to panic, aka. to stress me out. I acknowledge thought number two because it’s probably right in facts alone, and pat thought number one on the head since it’s way of being, its relaxed and calm manner, is much more to my taste than irritating, spastic number two. With ten minutes still at my disposal I move slowly and calmly to the kitchen to make myself a small coffee and then back to my room to change clothes. A face-wash and deodorant check will have to replace the delayed shower, and I plan to have my food while our guests have their tea. There, I smile, it’s 17:59, the doorbell rings and it’s time to begin.