Here the saying goes, “Wazungu have watches, Tanzanians have time.”
Anyone who has been to this part of the world knows the phrase–“Africa Time”–how people show up late or not at all, plans are canceled and changed last minute, and the general attitude toward time is that it refers to the present. A favorite saying of my professors when asked questions about the schedule or syllabus is, “let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.” Several times I’ve been told to “come back in one week,” only to find that the rough translation of this phrase is “I don’t really want to answer your question or deal with your problem at the moment, so please go away for now.” I’ve grumbled at missed opportunities, lost hours, the boredom of waiting. I’ve resigned myself to Africa Time as a fact of life. “T.I.A.,” we say, “This is Africa.” But my complaints sound feebler by the day.
What is lovely about the Tanzanian approach to time is that they are not bound to it. What could be better than to own the minutes and hours of our lives, instead of being dragged by the digits on our watches from place to place, meeting to meeting, cradle to grave. The future is a bright and promising thing to Americans. We are told we can achieve anything, that tomorrow will bring greater rewards. This spirit of action and optimism is no small thing–on it rests my faith in changing the world, even if slightly, for the better. But I can’t deny all of the anxieties and insecurities it has produced in me. The future can be a heavy burden to bear. And it has sometimes stolen from me the most important thing in life: presence in the now.
Last week I finally moved in with a Tanzanian family. My little brother Victor was fascinated by my wristwatch, delighted in hearing the alarm and seeing the incandescent light flash off and on. I strapped it around his thin wrist, wanting to show him how it is worn. He beamed and thanked me. I hadn’t meant to give it to him, only to show him the mechanics of “keeping time.” But now I think there was something symbolic in this gesture. Because time is not something to be kept, but something to be shared. And though I was unwilling at first, I’m beginning to love having time instead of it having me.