If you have been following my Ghana journal here, I think you can’t help but feel how much I admire the culture. Many times I feel I’m leaning too far to the Romantic view and just praising without reservation. I don’t think that’s a harmful thing, but even as I praise, I know that every culture has its shadow and that if I lived here long enough, more and more of it would appear. Or I would be less patient with the shadow issues I’ve observed. Like today.
The African “rubber time” is a wink-wink joke both among travelers and Africans and coming from the culture of clocks and obsessive timetables, I often enjoy the more relaxed conception. Except sometimes. Like when we waited two and a half hours for our lunch the other day. Well, actually that was fine, we enjoyed each other’s company. But yesterday I ordered a lunch by myself at our hotel here and was told it would be ready in 30 minutes. Knowing what that meant, I came back in 45. Naturally, it wasn’t ready, so I sat and talked with a friend. At one hour, I checked with the man at the window. “Oh, yes, just a small time more.” Twenty minutes later, I checked again. He shook his head and walked away to find out and didn’t return for another 15 minutes. Still no lunch. We were now an hour past the original estimate. Finally, my friend and I threatened to go into the kitchen (we didn’t) and then said that if it wasn’t ready in five minutes, I was leaving to go find somewhere else to eat. It was a bluff, of course, because if I did go somewhere else, I imagined another two-hour wait. So just before the given deadline, my lunch finally appeared. Go figure. (I’ve noticed that when Kofi says the group is going to play a “slow” piece, it’s at a tempo that I can barely keep up with. So my new proverb for West Africa: “In music, slow means fast. In service, fast means slow.”
When we buy a beer at the bar here, the waiters suddenly have no change. So we give them more money and they write down a credit on a little piece of paper. It’s charming.
Except when you go the next day and order another beer using your credit which has suddenly disappeared on that piece of paper. Or you use the makeshift Internet Service they have here, wait for the hamsters to spin the wheel and then when you think you’ve logged out, you discover the next time that the time ran out and the answer as to why is a shoulder shrug.
I don’t’ want to be one of those obnoxious Westerners flashing my entitlement around. I recognize I come from a culture where we expect things to work and buses to run on time and we feel justified in getting pissed off if something is 3 minutes late or our Internet connection is slow. If something doesn’t work, we expect it to get fixed right away and if it can’t be, we expect a new one or a refund or a credit, along with an apology.
I remember traveling here with my family 17 years ago and coming to a hotel where we paid and then went to our room and discovered there was no water. And then the electricity went out. Off we marched to the front desk to tell them and their response was, “Oh, yes, That happens sometime.” “Will it be fixed tonight?” “Maybe yes. Maybe no.” “Well, if we have no electricity or water, can we pay a different price for the room?” Puzzled look. Translation. “No.” It makes for some charming travel stories, but let’s face it, it’s frustrating sometimes.
So the question is whether such things are necessary counterparts of a loose relationship with time and technological expectations. Would the people lose their humor, their affability, their relaxed quality, if they turned to the Western model of efficiency and tight-lipped insistence that everything work perfectly and come on time? Can they have that cake and eat it too?
I have no idea. But I just had to vent. Let’s see if I have enough credit and the Internet works so I can post this. Maybe yes. Maybe no.