By Amber Skorpenske
Before traveling to Zambia our group was told of a thing called “Africa Time” – the idea that many Africans are late for everything from work to speaking engagements and even lunch. At many times this can mean up to an hour late. After experiencing this phenomenon several times I discussed it with one of my supervisors at my World Vision internship. Communications Officer Al Hamanjanji said, “Americans think time is linear, that once a moment is gone you can’t get it back. We think differently.” This quote really stuck with me and got me thinking about the differences between time management, punctuality and it’s effect on production in the states versus Zambia.
Asking for Directions
When you are lost and walking down the street unsure of where to go you typically stop to ask a stranger for directions. In the states we ask for certain information and expect it to be given to us instantly and to then “get on with our lives.” This is not so in Zambia. Al describes this scenario quite differently, “In Zambia it is rude NOT to ask someone how they are doing or ask about their families before starting a conversation or asking a question. If I asked for directions and you just gave me the answer and walked away I would think that was very rude.” On one hand, this may seem like a silly cultural tradition, most likely brought on by Africa being very family-oriented, but on the other hand it adds the humility and respect and that most Americans forget in their day to day living. We are so concerned with being early, getting on to the next project and finishing it, that we have no respect for who we are dealing with at any given moment.
Not a Waste of Time
This is not to say that Zambians think all Americans are rude, in fact it’s quite the opposite. When I asked Al what he thought of Americans and their attitudes he said, “America is good at production that’s why you are rich. We are happy, but also poor.” I wondered what would happen if a Zambian showed up to work in the U.S an hour late but still smiling and asking their boss how their family is. These differences are not only seen in punctuality. At work many of my supervisors typically take a two-hour lunch, while in America it is one hour at the most.
While it is VERY important that we continue to see the value in time and to continue to work hard to produce all we can, I wondered if I would rather be happy or rich. When someone is late in America or goes off on a tangent, we consider it to be “wasting our time” but in Zambia, talking with friends about their family or having a leisurely lunch with colleagues is not considered a waste of time at all. In fact, it’s very valuable to make sure other people are happy around you, as well as yourself. In a way, I like this new mentality and not just because I, myself am always late! Thinking this way brings out the best in people. You are concerned and connected with your family and friends in a way that is much more intimate than the states. You remain more human, patient and kind. “African Time” is one phenomenon I hope to bring back with me to the states – at least in the theoretical sense to show others what it’s like to relax, have a good time and care about others.
Amber Skorpenske is one of 18 Ohio University students studying abroad in Zambia with the Institute for International Journalism over Winter intercession.