Slowing Down the Pace in Africa

September 19, 2013

Pole-pole (po-lay po-lay). That’s the Swahili word for slowly, and it certainly describes the culture of Tanzania compared to the US. In the States we fill calendars and to do lists overflowing with events, meet-ups, schedules, tasks, and projects and are constantly running like chickens after the chopping block trying to squeeze twenty-fives hours of functions into a single day. But here in Tanzania if you are running behind and try to push a local to hurry up and get things done, you will likely get the response, “Hakuna matata” (yes, that is a real phrase) or it’s English equivalent, “No problem.” In other words, “Calm down. You will have what you need soon enough. Just be patient.” This is not the way of life in the land of instant dinners, fast food, and Wal-Marts, but if you try to force that mentality here, you will look like a crazy guy on speed.

One day last week I considered how much more relaxed and slower paced things were here in Africa. After over a week of being here I started running out of clean clothes. I had held out on doing laundry because the pump to our well on the school grounds had burnt out right before I arrived and so we were running on city water, which is not enough to run my washing machine. But since things don’t always move quickly here, the pump did not get fixed before I had to surrender to the fact that I would have to wash some clothes by hand. I looked at the five-gallon bucket of water. “I know this should be extremely simple, but how do I do this?” I put some detergent in the water, filled it with laundry, and looked for the on switch. Alas, I couldn’t find it. It took me over an hour to wash those few items. (I put WAY too much detergent in, so it took a lot of effort to rinse them.) After getting done I felt like a champion, but then, as I realized that this menial task is something that people do every day here, my ego deflated smaller than a tiny, shriveled rasin.

After this, I had to go into downtown Moshi to get some photocopies for school. I went into the kitchen looking for one of the workers that was going to go with me, and I saw two of the kitchen workers shifting with their hands through baskets of dry beans. I enquired to what they were doing. This long, monotonous process was to make sure that there were no bad beans in the dinner. At home, we complain if the can of beans does not have an easy open tab and have to dig through the drawer to find the can opener.

I found my friend and started the thirty-minute walk into town. The stationary shop that I have recently been using produces a poorer quality end product due to an out of tune photocopier that probably originally belonged to Aristotle, but I choose them because I can get out quicker than others to which I have been. Please note, though, that quicker is a relative term, and my visit was still over a half hour. This is much better than one time when I gave my order at one shop and waited close to an hour before I realized that they were just starting to make my copies. To add to my dismay, the copier was extremely old fashioned and it had to scan each time it made a single copy of a page, which is different from modern machines that can scan a page one time and make as many copies as you need since it is stored in memory. Also, I have yet to see a copier here that has a sheet feeder and can collate, so when copying a textbook, there are thirty-some face down piles that are slowly added to page by page as the copies are made. Sure, it took a long time and I didn’t like waiting in the heat, but what can you do? There is no option to order at and pick it up later.

I wrote the rough draft for this article that evening while sitting at a European-style restaurant. Me and my friend had been done with our milkshakes for a while, but the waiter was nowhere to be seen. Was I agitated? Ready to file a complaint with corportate? No, I was sitting there enjoying the cool African evening on the open air patio. After spending so much time in this country, I realized that everything doesn’t have to be done right now. I can enjoy the moment and not have to worry about rushing to do the next fifteen things on a to-do list.

Matthew Derocher

Written by Matthew James Derocher who writes about biblical subjects and teaches in a Bible college in Tanzania, Africa. You can follow him on Twitter