Beatrice and African Time

The teachers across Kenya have been on strike since we arrived.  No students are going to school right now.  It’s been two weeks, and everyone I have talked with is hopeful it will end this week.  I’ve spoken to many worried parents, a frustrated teacher, and children who are disappointed to be staying home.  Most of the children I have met love school and wish they could be there.  The teacher was worried that they are missing out on a crucial time of year.  She also let me know that while there are no teachers in the schools, kids are not able to access the materials needed to continue their studies (like textbooks).

So I wasn’t surprised in the middle of the afternoon to hear ‘Hello?  How are you?’  in short, clipped English.  Not just once, but four or five times.  I couldn’t see a face to match the high little voice.  I walked behind the house to the hedge, and saw a face just barely able to peer over the top of it.  The young girl must have been standing on something to look over the 8 foot hedge.  I waved and replied to the young girl.
I asked her what her name was, and she told me it was Beatrice.  I told her I was glad to meet her, then walked back a few meters to finish washing my laundry.  As I worked, Beatrice kept popping over the fence to show me her greatest treasures.  First a little puppy, then a small child.  She raised the child, then suddenly they both disappeared and I heard a thump, then a little commotion behind the hedge.  Oops.
No screams though, so I assumed they all landed safely.

Since then, every evening as I scrub my boots I hear a little voice shouting ‘Hello Jessie.’  I’ll walk over, and Beatrice and I will have our daily chat.  The other day, I heard her quietly repeating over and over – ‘Please, make yourself at home and feel welcome.’  Not quite loud enough to really convince me that she wanted my attention, but that I could tell she was practicing for our next chat.

Kenyans have a different use of ‘you’re welcome’ than Canadians do.  To me, it’s an acknowledgement after a thank-you – mostly an empty sentiment that is kind of devoid of any true meaning.  The Kenyans will proclaim it before anything else is said – they want to make it clear that they are happy to see you and that you are actually welcome.  It makes me smile a little each time – both at the discrepancy in meanings between the two cultures and at the genuine sentiment behind the delivery of the words.

We’ve joked often with people about ‘African Time.’  As Canadians, we are in a rush to get things done, complete the task, have that meeting, and move on to the next thing.  The people of Kenya are more focussed on relationships.  It’s important that everyone has been greeted properly (with a hearty handshake and ‘You’re welcome’), that everyone is present and that everyone can contribute.

It can easily be a source of frustration for us goal-driven Canadians.  We have a limited amount of time here, we have ambitious goals for out project, we have checklists a mile long to complete.  However, ‘African Time’ seems to have evolved out of a desire to center life around relationships.

I don’t think that’s a bad way to approach things.

Connection and a feeling of community is rooted in relationship, and relationship is essentially based on shared experience.  If you haven’t invested in shared time to create relationships, you probably won’t leave a strong impact.  I’ve always believed that people rub off on
each other – whether it be positively or negatively.

I’ve also always believed that although you may meet thousands of people in your life, the ones that you remember are people that have taken the time to show an interest in you, and genuinely care about you.  You may only know them for a short time, but they remain in your heart because you created a shared experience.

The benefit of ‘African Time’ is that it lends itself to creating opportunities for relationship.  A few days ago, we stumbled upon some disorganization that could be attributed to African Time.  I sat outside on the stoop for over an hour with Shepelo (a Kenyan graduate student
heavily involved in the project).  We laughed about some of the funny experiences in life and consoled each other over some of the more difficult ones.

I learned a lot about Kenyans in that conversation, and I’m sure Shepelo learned more than she wanted to about Canadians.  Earlier in the week she was shown a pamphlet created by the government of Canada about working with Canadians.  As she carefully read each page, she smirked and with a great measure of wit intoned; ‘This will teach me how to work with Jessie.’  And here I thought sarcasm was a fairly advanced and characteristically Canadian form of humor.  Shepelo learns quickly.

It’s not always easy understanding each other’s cultural quirks and usually a lot of meaning can be lost in translation.  But there is one thing that speaks across cultures – a big smile and a ‘You’re Welcome.’