Time and Space Warps


Learning from Cultural Encounters: Time and Space Warps


Location: Guinea (West Africa)


It had been a challenge to accept the fact that meetings or scheduled events never start "on time" in West Africa. If a meeting is set for 8 o'clock, people begin arriving around 9 o'clock and the meeting actually starts at 10 o'clock. After this happened several times, I asked my friend if all Guineans were habitually late. Surprised, she told me, "We Guineans aren't late. You Americans are just early!" I had been acting like a typical American by arriving 15 minutes before a scheduled appointment, whereas I should have been arriving an hour after the scheduled time, which is the Guinean way.

In the beginning, I failed to notice the true meaning of the phrase "In'shallah" (God willing) which, people add to the end of certain sentences. For instance, someone might say, "See you at 4 o'clock, In'shallah (God willing)!" I now interpret this as, "I'll try to be there at 4 o'clock, but if something comes up, I may arrive a bit later than that." These words give people permission to come later than the scheduled time, so that they'll be able to greet people along the way and take care of whatever other problems may arise.

And in Guinea, many other interruptions can and WILL arise! The first and foremost obstacle is the weather. In the rainy season, it faithfully pours down every day, leaving knee-deep puddles of muddy water that form small lakes in the dirt roads. Plans are often delayed until the rain lets up a bit. In the dry season, the sun's hot rays beat down and force people to take cover in the relatively cool shade of their homes between noon and 3 p.m. So it is common knowledge that any meeting scheduled during mid-day will have few attendees.

Difficulties with transportation also cause delays. Few Guineans own personal vehicles so most people use public transportation, such as taxis, vans, buses, motorcycles, and dump trucks. There are no bus schedules or set times for departures and arrivals. Vehicles simply leave when they are full.

In the U.S., we'd consider a typical car "full" when it contains five people. But in Guinea, as many as eight people plus a few children will pile into a car. Then about five people will ride on the roof of the car, holding onto the luggage rack. And that's not all! During each trip, a breakdown or an accident of some sort can be quite normal, even expected. When this happens, all of the passengers get out. Some will push the vehicle as others cut off tree branches or search for rubber bands and tin cans that may be used to repair the car. (It's amazing what Guineans can fix without any tools or special parts!) Often, these repair jobs can take up to five hours or more, but people rarely complain. They simply eat mangoes that they pick off the trees, talk to one another, and sleep along the side of the road.

When I was in the United States, I never thought twice about how easy it was to leave my house 15 minutes before work and arrive on time almost every day. I remember getting upset when I had to wait in traffic for an extra half-hour because of a car accident …or becoming extremely upset when I got a flat tire, even though AAA would come to repair it within 45 minutes. Now, I've learned to be very patient. I've also become more tolerant. I realize that I don't have control over certain things, and that sometimes I must accept my fate and not get upset about unexpected events and problems. Also, instead of letting misunderstandings complicate a situation, I take the extra effort to talk about it until all the confusion is cleared up. My Peace Corps experience has taught me that a problem is only as big as you make it.


Account of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Guinea, West Africa