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waiting on the rain

August 16, 2011

People say everything is slower in Africa. They make t-shirts that read, “Americans have watches, Africans have time.” This line of speech generally annoys me. Maybe because it’s cliché. It’s the kind of “Africa” talk that involves ooo-ing over how cute “the kids here” are, gushing about your “heart for Africa,” and attributing any mishap from potholes to food poisoning to “TIA: This is Africa!” Or perhaps it irks me because it strikes me as a simplistic perception of time. Sure, a meeting starts an hour later than scheduled, but try loitering in line at the supermarket and you’re toast. And somehow in the midst of supposed “Africa time” the past year of my life in this corner of Africa has raced past me faster than I can keep up.

But sometimes everything does seem slower. There are days when everything takes mind-numbingly longer than you think is humanly possible. Days when it seems like all I set out to do when I wake up is accomplish one small task before evening sets and yet even that is too much to ask for. It is a pattern of life that can leave you utterly discouraged from taking any form of initiative and quickly erases any semblance you ever had of yourself as a productive member of society.

The other day I had but one errand to run and it took the better part of the afternoon. I set out to procure interfacing fabric for a project I was sewing for the daycare. I was confident this wouldn’t take me more than half an hour as there are a slew of fabric shops within walking distance and I’ve seen our tailoring students use interfacing in many of their projects. Yet when I asked for “interfacing” in the first shop I entered, the games began.

“Eh…now, it is what you are looking for?”

First we parroted the word back and forth in various tones and inflections. Then the attributes of interfacing were discussed followed by a display of several bolts of material that could possibly fit within my description. Yes, cotton fabric is iron-able, but I was looking for fabric that could be ironed on. And while I found the fact that adhesive faux fur is available for bulk purchase in Gulu quite intriguing, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. It was then that I learned the Ugandan term for interfacing: “Stiff papers.” And no, this shop did not carry it.

I then tried the market. I zig-zagged from stall to stall identifying which area of the market “stiff papers” might be sold in, locating a shop that had it in stock, and selecting the correct grade of papers I desired. I had just handed over my money when the afternoon downpour began. The shopkeeper vehemently insisted I stay to wait out the rain. My thoughts were on the unfinished projects I had waiting for me back at the school but as a near flood was already forming outside, I reluctantly obliged. Inside the crowded tin stall we angled chairs away from the storm blowing in the doorway.

We waited.

While we sat he talked of his two kids, of the Ugandan education system they’re working their way through. He asked about my country’s political climate. The rains gathered speed, a gurgling brown river gushing down the path outside his shop and he laughed; he explained that in the time of Kony, one would never take cover inside as we were doing. The rebels might take the opportunity to attack groups who had sought shelter. Better to brave the storm than risk being an easy target. We talked of seasons, here and at my home. He told me about the fields he is digging, the crops he is planting, of the city’s plans to move the market vendors to a new plot of land. The rain eventually lessened and I parted for home, exchanging names and handshakes. By the time I hailed a boda, trudged to my door, and hosed off my muddy shoes, the school day was drawing to a close and kids packing up to go home. The rainstorm had also cut out the electricity, erasing the possibility of using an iron on the “stiff papers” I had at long last procured.

Another day of productivity lost. And yet, I feel a bending of the tenets I once held as truth.  Something convincing me that perhaps there is a kind of value in the intangible tasks. Of talking of cabbages and carrots and watching raindrops form streams.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2011 8:38 pm

    Hi Lizzie thanks for send us your comments about the way of life your struggling with. It make me think again that there´s another way of facing life situations. And a lot of experiences that teach us the different way they value things. I´m sure in Africa time is not money, it´s just time. Good luck and a special hug for you, tía Clarisa

  2. Bob Shea permalink
    August 16, 2011 10:49 pm

    A fine, reflective post. It neatly frames the tension between the urgent and the important.

  3. Jackie permalink
    August 17, 2011 4:34 am

    So much to be gained from the interuptions to our plans. I remember a peacefulness about being in the flow of time walking to the village, weaving my way through the crowds on market day, seeing new and old friends and exchanging long, drawn-out greeting about health, family, children, animals, weather, where are you going, where did you come from. I’m trying to get some of that into my life in Portland, Oregon. There’s a challenge!

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