It is impossible to read a book about Africa or listen to any first-hand account without hearing something about waiting and delays. Fallen “Three Cups of Tea” hero Greg Mortenson blames a life-long habit of tardiness on his Tanzanian upbringing. Some people are disgusted by the delays they have to deal with in Africa – what an insult to be kept waiting! Others view the “pole pole” pace as charming side effect of “underdevelopment” – a cultural oddity they can observe on vacation but would never allow into their professional lives. Paul Theroux, in “Dark Star Safari” – his account of a pan-African journey from Cairo to Cape Town – offers one of my favorite monologues of the African pace:
It sometimes seems as though Africa is a place you go to wait. Many Africans I met said the same thing, but uncomplainingly, for most lived their lives with a fatalistic patience. Outsiders see Africa as a continent delayed – economies in suspension, societies up in the air, politics and human rights put on hold, communities throttled or stopped. “Not yet,” voices of authority have cautioned Africans throughout the years of colonization and independence. But African was not the same as American time. One generation in the West was two generations in Africa, where teenagers were parents and thirty-year-olds had one foot in the grave. As African time passed, I surmised that the pace of Western countries was insane, that the speed of modern technology accomplished nothing, and that because Africa was going its own way at its own pace for its own reasons, it was a refuge and a resting place, the last territory to light out for. I surmised this, yet I did not always feel it; I am impatient by nature.
I have only been to Tanzania, so I can only speak of waiting in delays for one country. The first thing to realize about this change of pace is that as an outsider I will never really understand it. I can only see it through the lens I have grown up in – that of an American. That lens is thick with assumptions. Speed, efficiency, quick turnaround, and punctuality are all words we hold in high-esteem. 3G, 4G, 5G? Next-Day Shipping. Punctuality is the politeness of princes. In America we assume faster is better, and the way our culture is built, faster does fit in better. But Tanzania has a different culture that requires a different speed. What it has taken me three trips now to discover is that I cannot simply compare American speed to Tanzanian speed. I have to take Tanzanian speed on its own terms because it exists within a complex cultural structure that I will never understand.
High-speed doesn’t fit in with the other values of Tanzanian culture. Interestingly, while there are many words related to “hurrying” in Swahili, none of them have Bantu roots. Swahili is a language made up of words from Bantu and Arabic languages. The Bantu words reflect Tanzanians African roots and the Arabic words reflect the influence of Persian traders on East Africa centuries ago. All of the words meaning hurry – haraka, lazima, shidda, juhudi – are based in Arabic. There is a saying in Tanzania, Haraka haraka haina baraka – literally translated to, fast fast there is no blessing.
So, there is a cultural reason for waiting that visitors to Tanzania must not try to judge on their own terms. All we can do is take it for what it is and learn to adapt ourselves. Either that or stay on American time and go crazy.
Cultural explanations are important to understand and may help explain some of the more technical reasons for waiting.
I find myself waiting many times because of technological failures. The power goes out, the internet is down, the ATM isn’t working, and the cellphone signal has three bars but there is a “network failure.” Sometimes – many times – I have to wait for government officials. Maybe, they’re waiting for me to pay a “facilitation fee” before allowing me to move on. Last week I was in a line of 15 people with just one official working at the window. In the window next to her another official was sitting in his booth with his window closed finishing his lunch and looking at us. Other times there are delays because, what’s the rush? It can be maddening at first until you learn to plan for it, deal with it, and enjoy it.
I always have a book to read and a pad of paper to write and take notes. In Tanzania you are never far from a beer or a soda. So, when delays hits – enjoy it. On my last two delays I found a rooftop bar in Marangu I had never known about and met a potential future business partner. I’m looking forward to my next delay.