At a public health workshop in Leribe last week (a city one hour from the capital by private car and 4 hours back by public taxi), I was standing in line waiting for coffee and sandwiches during my favorite aspect of meetings here – tea time - when a Masotho woman behind me shed integral light on an issue I have long pondered in Lesotho. We had been waiting for 20 minutes with no explanation, as the coffee and sandwiches we were meant to enjoy sat beautifully laid out on the table, albeit covered in plastic, crying out to be eaten. We had the food, the hungry people, and the serving trays. So what was the holdup?
“I hate to wait for food, “ I said to my line companions. “Maybe it is because I am an American and so I enjoy things to be done quickly.”
“Mmm, Aussi (girl),” the woman responded. “In America things always work by the clock. When it is this time you do this and when it is that time you do that. In Lesotho, time isn’t counted by the hands on a clock. It is counted by events.” Her insight left me confused and intrigued.
“So now, what we are doing is waiting?” I asked, warily peering at the coffee I so desperately wanted to just grab. “And when we are done waiting we will be eating? And when we are done eating we will be working. And then we will be going home?”
“Ah, now you’ve got it!” She said, and sat back on her heels to wait some more.
Time in Lesotho baffles me. Things get done when they get done, and if tasks are not accomplished, they will be finished… some time. Often I suggest that we get to work, do something now, or jump the table, uncover the sandwiches, and shovel them into our mouths before anyone notices we’ve ditched the line, but these suggestions mostly garner blank stares. And when they don’t meet confusion they receive concern. An elderly woman pats my arm and tells me to relax as we wait for the public taxi to finally fill and be off. I have said nothing, but she sees the tension in my face and it deeply concerns her.
I swear I listened when professors and friends warned me that things might work a bit differently while I was abroad, but I’m beginning to think that maybe I don’t really like to relax. Before I came to Lesotho I thought of myself as one of those laid back type A’s – you know, the one who says, “Let’s get it done, sure, but have a good time doing it. “ I never realized how much I relish checking things off my to-do lists, showing up on time, cramming meetings so tightly into my schedule that eating requires a special timeslot in my planner. I love hitting the ground running and having things done by 5pm yesterday and planning and organizing and, and, and… and that gets you nowhere in Lesotho. Well, it may get you somewhere, but you’ll be there by yourself, with everyone behind you annoyed and suffering from whiplash.
And so I’m trying to get it. I’m starting to understand that it’s okay for greetings to take longer than conversations, can be complete conversations themselves, in fact. And I’m working to accept that waiting in line is what we’re doing, even though I thought we were in the process of getting to the food. I’m attempting to speak slowly, not because people don’t understand me but because my rapid-fire speech patterns seem to stress them out. I enjoy the time we spend simply being in one another’s presence and I have come to learn that the end of one project does not necessitate the immediate beginning of another, and that it really is okay to let things be for awhile.
More than anything, however, I am coming to understand the importance of working to respect both my culture and that of my co-workers. Deadlines must be met and advancements made, but we don’t need to break our necks in the process. And while it’s important to let things go at their own pace, it’s also okay to make the occasional list and even to enjoy checking things off. So, for now at least, I’m just sitting at my computer, typing this blog entry, and later I will be doing something else.