My first couple weeks in Senegal, I woke up at exactly seven o’clock and I didn’t know why. I hadn’t set my alarm, and I certainly wasn’t the type to wake up without one. On a Monday, I woke up late. My host-mother explained to me that, every morning at seven am., my host-sister Deyfama would bang on my door with a broom, and that that morning, she had been at her grandmothers. When I asked Deyfama how she knew when it was seven, she told me she could just tell.
This is when I began to notice that time, as I have viewed and followed it in California, is not quite the same here in Ross Bethio. If we remember that our time in the United States began to be standardized because of the railroad stations, it seems only natural that Ross Bethio, which has no railroad stations, would be unstandardized.
Months after this initial reaction, the village chief of Ross Bethio asked me over for lunch. I hadn’t forgotten, but work at the clinic always ran late.
When I arrived, I apologized.
“Late?” he asked me.
“Yes” I responded.
“Why are you late?”
“You asked me to come for lunch.”
“I asked you to come for lunch, and you were there. You and I are the only ones in the entire world who know that you were late.”
“Yes?” I am confused now.
“It is a belief that you and I share.”
“I think so.”
“What time is it?”
“It is three thirty.”
“Time only exists because everyone believes in it. I say that it is three thirty, and that a meeting starts at three thirty. Without me, what time is it?”
“There isn’t any time at all?”
“There isn’t any time at all.”
As our conversation dripped into lunch, I began to feel timeless too.
But soon, aggravation began to seep through my cultural membrane. Meetings started hours late, fifteen minute breaks became days, due dates became due months, and I was antsy. I started paying attention to how much time there was left, how many days, how many hours. I was angry with my advisor for taking naps when he had so much to do. He was wasting time, I told myself. When I tried to bring up the subject, to complain or motivate, they would laugh, repeating the only phrase that everyone seems to know in English – “time is money”. This was the first time that time began to embarrass me.
What other aspects of the culture were dangling off of the rigid plane of temporal senses? At the clinic, half the patients don’t know how long they’ve been alive and when they do, no one is embarrassed to say it. Why are we embarrassed in the U.S.? Why is it, in fact, polite not to ask? When I reevaluated, I realized that even though women take dance breaks during meetings, and that lunch is never at the same time, it still works. Why? Well, because everyone believes in it.
So, I have something to say to American development projects. How can you give people a calendar when they don’t see their days as little boxes? How can you use patience in a project when you feel that wasting time somehow injures eternity? How can you hold a meeting at three thirty, when they don’t believe in three thirty?