People Who Have Time and People Who Don’t

You know me. I often rant about crappy service here in Africa. Like the time Telkom decided I could do without internet for a week. That’s right, an entire week. And yet I shudder to think what I would blog about in a perfect world. “Hey guys, once again I had a perfect internet connection all day today, bye.” I can imagine the page views mounting for such exciting fare.

No, complaining is definitely the way to go if you’re a blogger.

Still, sometimes I wonder. Shouldn’t I be grateful for the things that do work, when they work, instead of moaning when I have to Google blueberry muffin recipes via cellphone rather than my laptop?

So many people around us can only dream of phone lines and internet connections at their house.

They dream of power or running water.

They dream of a refrigerator.

They dream of a wheelbarrow to carry firewood with.

They dream of pretty much everything I’ve got here at my house, because they probably have mostly none of it at theirs.

Except, the one precious thing they do seem to have plenty of is time.

I’ve always marveled at so many Africans sitting around all day doing nothing. Or patiently waiting in long lines for minibus taxis taking them home at the end of their work day. I used to admire this patience as something very virtuous, but now I sometimes wonder. Is patience only a virtue in my Western-trained eyes, tinted by my eagerness to join the rat race of running against the clock? Because it is so rare to encounter patient people?

Maybe there is nothing special in being patient when you have all the time in the world.

In fact, my admiration for the fabled African patience has on occasion, I admit it, turned to annoyance, when, say, a row of women are walking in front of me on the sidewalk at snail’s pace, chatting all the while, and forcing me to slow my brisk pace to a crawl. I cannot for the life of me walk slowly and am quick to find it disrespectful when people aren’t making way.

But is it disrespect? It might be just a lack of understanding for people like me who never have time to spare. I’m an American, you see. Since about two years ago. When I raised my hand for that oath, I pledged allegiance to the flag, I swore to defend my country, and I signed up to spend the rest of my days running around like a chicken with my head cut off in that greatest of competitions called the pursuit of happiness.

Americans are busy. We have no time to spare. We fill every minute of our day with activity, and when that turns out not to be enough we find ways that allow us to do ten activities at once. We complain that we never have any time, and yet when we are faced with the prospect of an empty stretch of half a morning, we sign up for yoga lessons.

But a lot of people here in Africa have time. Plenty of it.

And here’s the thing. We can blame all the events assaulting us from every angle every day, but what it really comes down to is the state of your mind. We could free up a ton of time and become extremely relaxed simply by flipping a switch in our brains, yet we are such slaves to our own thoughts and cultural heritage and expectations of ourselves that we don’t manage to do it.

Mind you, I’m pretty sure you’ll never find me sitting under a tree and doing nothing. Not even with a venti latte or a glass of Grande Provence Chardonnay. But what of bringing a good book with me? You would think I could regard that week of no Internet as the gift it truly is, forget about unanswered emails and unpaid bills and unwritten blog posts, and enjoy the many other uses of my time I can think of that don’t require a phone line.

I could have baked a cake. I could have practiced the piano. I could have ignored admonishings of “you read too much” and read an entire book. I could have jumped into the pool. I could have gone for a pedicure. I could have made more forays into the township to help ferry firewood. I could, god forbid, have played endless rounds of monopoly and made my kids happy.

But instead, I found myself spending the entire week trying to get the phone lines restored. Just because they should be working. And building up a rage about such inconvenience.

I think I still have much to learn from people sitting under trees. I’ll get going with it just now.

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