Time and Space Warps
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.
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.
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.
of a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Guinea,