Africa Time – Ups & Downs

Africa: a continent so diverse I can’t formulate one general description of it. It’s a challenge to feel stressed in Africa; life is just slower and the air is simply fresher. Unfortunately (and sometimes fortunately) what comes along with everyone’s relaxed disposition is a lack of urgency as well as the joke that scheduling is in Africa.

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While working in Tanzania as an English teacher if class started on time I questioned the sanity of my headmaster. Even in Morocco my pre-arranged car was almost three hours late to pick me up at the airport in Rabat. In South Africa they actually have slang to inhibit Africa’s bad habit; when you say “just now” that means meet you in 20 minutes and when you say “now now” that means maybe 10 minutes – there’s no such thing as being in a hurry. This overarching generalization of poor time management is what the traveling community knows as Africa time. Nothing ever starts on time, which is an adjustment from the structured Western world I come from and comes with its own set of ups and downs.

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UPSIDES – I’m an optimist person as well as someone who loves Africa so I’d much rather start with positives. Obviously having no true schedule is fairly conducive for relaxation and can be freeing to not live your life by a strict schedule. College has gotten me in such a rut with a packed planner varying from odd jobs, club meetings, actual classes, and social gatherings. It’s exhilarating to go somewhere where none of that matters.

Teaching without a community sense of time is actually awesome because it gives me the flexibility to make lesson plans on the fly. If something isn’t working I can change it. My school was grateful for anything I could do for them because my English skills were something they never had before. It’s not like there was a scary curriculum looming over my every move like it is in America. Sure there were standardized exams that were and are a big deal for my students, but I could get through the required information in about five minutes leaving me forty minutes of fun time.

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Another upside to “Africa time” is that no one is ever in a hurry. Yes this can also go into the negative section, but I’ll get to that in a few. Being able to snooze my alarm a couple times without waking up in a rumpus is amazing. It gives me the ability to stroll to my school instead of my fast-paced halfrun I do to get to class here in the US. Think of all the surroundings and people-watching you miss out on when you speed walk. That’s not a problem in Africa.

With a view like this how can one be stressed? This was the balcony on the back of my school - Tumekuja Secondary School

With a view like this how can one be stressed? This was the balcony on the back of my school – Tumekuja Secondary School

calo-bolletteDOWNSIDES – As I mentioned earlier there are many, like lists and lists, of reasons why “Africa time” is really awful. It can serve as a major roadblock in getting anything substantial done in a classroom setting or just with everyday life and it makes tourism less desirable for many people. All of this adds up to the fact that a lack of time management hinders Africa’s economic development on a larger scale. On a more personal level and with having experience teaching in a very disorganized environment, I’ve found that the biggest challenge was never really knowing exactly what my school wanted of me.

Basically when I arrived at my school on the first day they handed me a book and said teach. One day I was thrown into a random environmental science class to teach a lesson on environmental degradation and chloroflourocarbons to students only one year younger than me. I really should have recorded myself teaching that class because it just might have gotten on America’s Home Videos or something of the sorts. But really you just have to go with it – that’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from living and teaching in Tanzania.

It’s certainly irritating to have no set schedule, leaving me with more questions than answers, which is only intensified by most locals inability to speak English and my poor Swahili skills. I would go for a meeting and simply no one would show up for thirty  minutes. Break time at my schools was supposed to last 15 minutes, but I cannot remember a single day that it finished within 30. All of my lesson plans were constantly re-evaluated and re-worked because of the sheer quantity of unplanned occurrences. And you know, that’s ok.

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If you let the three hour late bus ride bother you, truthfully, you will never make it in Africa. Flexibility is key when traveling in general, but especially in Africa because of all the unexpected things that could happen – sudden rains, bad roads, violence, and so many more different curveballs that may be thrown at you. Africa is a learning and growing experience. So just go! Africa awaits you.

Interested in volunteering/interning in Tanzania?

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My one friend, Sean Stoerrle, is working with a wondering non-profit called Maasai Children Education located in Arusha, Tanzania including programs all over the country mostly centered in Arusha, but also in Zanzibar. You can doing anything from working with NGOs to environmental work with Roots and Shoots to teaching. Sean is an expert on Tanzania as he’s lived there for the past few years and he’s an alumni from my college, Washington College. Check out more about their program at their website or Facebook!

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Another possibility out there is called America’s Unofficial Ambassadors, which focuses on providing unique internships that connect Americans to the Muslim World in hopes of building better relations between the two areas as well as dispel stereotypes. In Africa, they have programs in Morocco and Zanzibar, but they also have a handful of other programs including ones in Indonesia and Tajikistan. Wonderfully organized opportunity and there are opportunities of funding through the program. Check out their website or Facebook as well for more information.

Almost Married to Maasai

maasai proposal 3A mirage of hums, chants, and other sounds I thought were impossible to make with a person’s vocal chords echoed outside my hotel window in Arusha, Tanzania. I peered out hesitantly and concluded it was a tribe of Maasai men enthusiastically welcoming us to their culture. These men clade with red and blue-checkered material jumped in unison, holding cane-like sticks in their hand.

From the beginning I was uneasy about their intentions of dancing with mostly young American girls. My whole group was standing, watching, and appreciating their bizarre hip thrusting and high jumps when they began to pull certain people in to the fun. They would take off a part of the wardrobe, which basically means one sheet of fabric and wrap it around us to formally invite us to the dance party.

One man, in particular, took a liking to me. He taught me some dance moves and we were grooving. I guess I impressed him because in no time he was removing his jewelry from around his neck and placing it around mine. My new white, beaded necklace with metal cutouts lining the jewelry jingled as I continued to dance with my new friend. At least I thought he was just a friend.

Thirty minutes and a few gallons of sweat later I was being proposed to. And not in the way we Westerners think a proposal should go. There was no ring, no getting down on one knee, no grand gesture of love, no love at all in fact. Instead there was just a bold promise that his family had a lot of cows. Cows are king in Maasai culture. They represent wealth. Cows are just another form of currency for the Maasai and a Maasai man cannot get married without the common farm animal.

After about twenty minutes of him calling me “his love,” I firmly stated I was not ready for a marriage of any kind. Rather than accepting my rejection, he continued on – offering me more cows. He told me that although he, himself, had no cows, his father had many cows. The fact that his father had many cows is usually an indication that he has many wives. In Maasai culture polygamy is very common, especially in the areas where the Maasai stick to their traditional roots. It took a while, but finally he grasped my rejection and moved on.

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About five minutes later I ran into him again; this time he was talking to my friend Caitie. Once I walked up he got a sudden look of guilt on his face. Little did I know, he had already moved on and was now proposing to my friend. We joke together that we could have been sister wives, but I almost think this Maasai was being at least partly serious. I do believe that if I had wanted to he would have gladly accepted me as his wife.

At the time I was laughing and not taking the situation too seriously, but reflecting back on that night I have realized that these Maasai men were all very eligible bachelors who would have jumped on the chance to marry a mzungu (white person). As fascinating as the Maasai family structure is, I am very grateful that when I decide if I want to get married, there are no cows, just love.