South African Time

By Alex Shaughnessy

Jet lag is a common occurrence anytime you travel, so it wasn’t surprising that it took me a few days to adjust after crossing over eight time zones. What was surprising was that the adjustment didn’t stop there; time continued to pass in a different way than it does in the United States. To be fair, we were warned that South Africans live their lives at a different pace than the rest of the world. We were informed that scheduled times and events are more of a suggestion than anything else and if you expect something to get done right away you must tell people that its happening ‘now now’. If someone says something is happening now that really means it’s happening later, while ‘just now’ implies that they’ll get to it at some point. At first it was hard to get used to this lack of structure. The transition from a very structured week at home to a more fluid schedule proved to be quite challenging. After a few days, I started to lose track of time and slowly began to settle into this new South African pace.

Think about the last time that you greeted your neighbor, not by waving from down the street, but by stopping and asking them how they’ve been or what’s new in their life.  In many cultures across South Africa it is considered rude if you don’t converse with someone when greeting them. In the U.S., taking the time to have full conversations is often considered a luxury that people cannot afford, we feel rushed to get things done because we’ve been told that our own to-do lists and errands are more important than building relationships with the people in our lives. There’s even people who participate in a South African tradition called sundowners, or having a drink and watching the sun go down while reflecting on the day with friends.

Stopping to enjoy the scenery, to communicate with the people around you sounds nice, but I wasn’t convinced it was a practice that reached all the communities in South Africa. It seemed unlikely that more rural villages were partaking in sundowners or had the luxury of free time. Coming from a culture in which time is not to be wasted I was skeptical that this new time-scheme might be something that only the more developed, affluent communities experienced, but after living in the village of Gondeni in HaMakuya it was clear that they viewed time in the same way.  While they weren’t having sundowners everyday, they were engaging with their neighbors, getting their daily chores done, and finding time to enjoy themselves. Daily chores were just that, chores that were to be done at some point during the day, and it wasn’t uncommon for family or community members to step in and help get things done if someone needed it. Staying in Gondeni made me realize that the difference between this way of life and my own is not that one culture values time more than the other, but that each one has a different perspective on how that time should be prioritized.

The concept that everyone lives their lives and accomplishes their own goals at different paces is an important one. In the last three weeks, I’ve gotten to know sixteen people of all different ages and walks of life that have each been successful on their own paths, and although they’re overlapping right now they are sure to branch out in various directions. As we get ready to return home to the U.S. I know that the passage of time is only as valuable as you make it and that getting to know the stories of the people around you is the only way to really appreciate the one that you’ve laid out for yourself.  I’ve realized that my to-do list can always wait until ‘just now’ and the only thing that really needs to be done ‘now now’ is to remember that forward is still forward, even if you’re moving slower.

Natalie Miller