Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Different World that is United States of America

By Ellard Spencer Manjawira, Malawi (SUSI scholar 2014)

When I broke news to my colleague in Malawi that I would be travelling to the United States for a six week study tour, his comments were:  “Get prepared for a lot of shocks because the US is a totally different world to the one you are used to”.

Shocks?  Different world?  I did not take him seriously

Throughout the first leg of my journey from Malawi’s capital Lilongwe via Nairobi in Kenya up to the moment of arrival at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, Netherlands it never occurred to me to check itinerary departure and arrival times. I paused for a moment to verify if what I read was correct. To my utter astonishment, the itinerary indicated 10.25 as departure time from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, Holland and arriving 12.55at Detroit Airport in the US.  

I hastily concluded that there was a mistake on the ticket documentation because it was virtually impossible for such a long trip across the huge Atlantic Ocean to take a mere two and half hours. One thing that had skipped my mind was the transition from one time zone to another, from western Europe to America.

I later discovered that because Europe was five hours ahead of US time, the journey was to take approximately eight hours and not two. I had to adjust my clock upon arrival at Detroit. Was this the beginning of the shocks my colleague had referred to?    I wondered.

“Go to the passenger’s side,” these were the words from the driver of a van picking me and another scholar from Detroit Airport to a nearby Airport for a short rest before an hour-long  trip to Athens. I had aimed at the front left hand seat,  only to realize that in US, cars are left hand driven. And to add  further to my confusion,the van drove on the right hand side of the road.   It was then that I knew I was destined for more surprises and shocks.

One dominant feature that I have experienced during the study tour is time keeping.

“In America we believe in starting  and ending schedules on time, no compromise on this”. Program Director of the Study in US Institute on Journalism and Media at Ohio University Dr. Yusuf Kalyango emphasized these words during an orientation briefing. When the program director handed to each of the eighteen scholars a detailed fifteen page program of activities,  I realized that the journey that finally got the training schedule in place was not an easy one; it had taken months of planning!

I asked myself whether it would be possible to follow to the letter the schedule of academic sessions and cultural visits spanning over six weeks or 44 days.  Five weeks into the  program, I have come to realize the possibility of what I have for a long time considered impossible.  Among many Malawians time keeping is a big challenge. It is practically impossible to follow schedules even for one day.  Functions are delayed because organizers, presenters or participants report late.  The SUSI program has taught me that it is possible to keep time.

One weekend a Malawi citizen resident in Athens took me out to a shopping outlet in Parkersburg some forty miles out of the town. On the way, I pondered several things that make the US experience very fascinating including that in summer the sun does not set until around 9 o’clock at night.

“I have had problems going to bed when there was no darkness thinking it was still afternoon,” I joked as our journey progressed. He then branched off to refill the tank of his car.  The filling station or what is called gas station here in the US looked deserted. I was about to advise the friend to check at the next one when to my utter amazement, he got off the car and got the service we wanted “You don’t need an attendant because self service transactions are possible using a bank card.  It is  the same as withdrawing money at an auto teller machine.” He schooled me.  While such a self service system would be convenient to motorists in Malawi, I fear that would mean job losses and a threat to survival of hundreds of filling station attendants.

For easy communication with fellow scholars and staff, I was provided with a Samsung mobile phone with prepaid airtime for calls within the United States. I compiled a long list of colleagues, friends, acquaintances, relatives living in Washington, New york, Arkansas, Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburg, Atlanta, San Francisco, and other cities whom I was calling time and again, sometimes even when there was nothing serious  to talk about. I was deceived by the month long “unlimited call” clause. Then in the middle of a conversation with a friend and long time workmate  based living in Washington, suddenly the line got cut. I shouted “Hello! Hello! Hello!”,  but still no voice from the other side. I then decided to call back  and then a phone voice came “You do not have enough credit to make this call!” Goodness me!  It was like a dream.  What? Enough credit? What credit? Was the airtime not for unlimited calls for a month?”  Upon enquiry from fellow scholars, I realized the facility had a call duration limit too. And in addition I was charged even for calls received. I then realized that part of 500 minutes of call time worth 35 dollars were consumed by in coming calls. In Malawi, only outgoing calls are charged. Thereafter, it took two days without getting a call from any of the people I had been communicating with frequently. This was unusual. Later I got a face book message from one friend that he was unable to get me on the phone. I later learnt that one must have credit on their phone to receive calls. This was unthinkable in Malawi where there are lots of people who rarely top up their phone air time but receive calls any way. Others even specialize in sending “please call me” messages. I spared a thought for thousands of Malawians who would be cut off from any communication with friends and relatives if the “no credit no outgoing and incoming calls“ facility were to be implemented by cellphone operators.

The experiences of the few weeks of my stay in the US have made me reflect on the advice by the friend prior to my departure Malawi that I needed to be “prepared for a lot of shocks”. I nodded in agreement that truly the United States of America was a totally different world from one I am used to back home in Malawi.

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