On South African Time

Meghan Gaucher is a student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and a Classmates Connecting Cultures Blogger corresponding with a writing class at HWS. Meghan is currently studying abroad with Interstudy in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.

'Drakensburg Mountains' "A breath-taking four day adventure, look out for baboons!
Drakensburg Mountains: A breath-taking four day adventure, look out for baboons!

To say the least, the South African culture is “chill”, as our British guide would say, and people seem to just “go with the flow” as one of our Zulu floor mates told me when I asked her to explain her self-motto.  The different types of people, and cultures are unified by the overarching idea of “Africa time:” a slow, leisurely, laid-back sense of the present and future. The flexibility of time is seeped into activities, tasks, and my own feeling of Pietermaritzburg so far. When we arrived at the Pietermaritzburg airport, the smallest airport I have ever seen, I was immediately struck by the slow pace the passengers traveled to the tiny airport. The weather was hot and humid, sucking up the moisture from my skin and drying up my hair, which stood in tiny brown spirals from the thick air.

I struggled to find the baggage claim, looking up and down the tiny hallway that all the passengers stood in. However, as I sat down to accept that impatience doesn’t do any good in the steamy weather, I realized the conveyer belt was actually a man pulling bags off of a cart, one by one to hand out to the passengers! Each bag was dragged out of the pile on the side of the flight attendant, and rolled across the marble hallway to the airport exit that emptied into a small, paved parking lot across from a canopy of weaved hay keeping the few tables and benches cool from the South African sun. This slow cycle of passengers leaving the airport and the quiet buzz of chatter in the hall was snail-paced. Our group seemed too anxious for the inconvenient halt to hopping on our bus to University of KwaZulu Natal University in PMB, but little did we know South African time would be relevant to most situations in the first week we arrived at UKZN. We sat in the parking lot for a long time, going over basic languages and lingo, sucking it up like sweet lemonade from the few guidebooks we had.

Umzumbe Beach, South Coast SA: Strong surf, long walks, and great company!
Umzumbe Beach, South Coast SA: Strong surf, long walks, and great company!

We found out that our Interstudy guides did not realize us girls-all 13 of us- would have so much luggage! These moments I learned to laugh at, and enjoy the company of the girls I would be spending my five months in SA with. This idea of “just now”, that is, “within the hour”, seemed to float with us throughout our time in South Africa, as it did with everyone else who didn’t clarify, “I need to see you now, now” (as in GET HERE IN 5 TO 10 MINUTES!).  Even our registration process at university was slow paced and tentative, and we took our chances like Americans and arrived to register at 8:15am, before most Professors were even on campus. The first people out on registration day, we had to wait a few hours to hunt down most professors, who waddled in still in their summer clothes, dusting off their desks and getting ready for the first semester of the year.

I have been trying to take advantage of this idea of time, and have found so much value in living in the moment, instead of two steps ahead of the time. Maybe I sleep in a little later, or converse with the people around me a little more. The delicate, flexible, and stretchable idea of time is something Americans should all dabble in. My lifestyle at school in the U.S. is go, go, go, never taking a moment to do something that’s not pressing, like sit outside and enjoy the view over the deep Seneca Lake, or take a time to write a letter to a friend at home for her birthday. Americans are so absorbed with technology, which makes it even harder to learn the value of patience and brushing things off until they become pressing. South Africans just go with the flow, and get to a destination or to a task when they are done with the work or task they are doing at the time. Although, yes, this can be a bad way of approaching work, school, and general social gatherings, it can also be a much more relaxed way of living, allowing the mind to relax, to focus on the task at hand, and be able to appreciate the moment-versus jumping seven steps ahead into the near future. I know, I know, Americans aren’t that stressed all the time, but it would be nice to understand the expression “Now, now”, and that being five or ten minutes behind schedule is not the end of the world, and is not worth fussing over, because what happens, simply happens.

I hope to continue easing into this South African lifestyle and immerse myself in the gift of easy time, patience, and living for the moment-not jumping ahead of the experience at hand.

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