11 October 2011

Let's Do the Time Warp, Again

Have I talked about Africa Time yet? If I haven't:

Time moves in a different way here, it's thought of in a different way here, in the local languages it's even told in a different way (somehow, like, seven am on your watch is one o'clock in the local languages, the first hour of the day; I could be remembering that wrong, but either way I remember it being really confusing during our language training). I forget who told me this, maybe because they were quoting someone who was quoting someone who was quoting someone else, but they said that in Africa –maybe just for PCVs or Americans or Westerners in Africa? I can't remember; it's beside the point– the days are interminably long, the weeks unbelievably short. I think this is two-thirds true: There are definitely days that last for weeks, but –conversely and just as often– there are hours that last for seconds; I don't think I've ever had a week that's lasted for more than a couple days (and at the first of each month, I find myself saying, I can't believe it's [insert name of month] already, even though I know I said the same thing last month and the month before and every month before that one and I'm even consciously aware, as I'm saying about this month, that I say it at the beginning of every month, and, yes, I said it this month, too).

Having been here for fourteen months now, having been in Ngora for a year as of later this month, I've gotten used to it, more or less, but it's still … weird, I guess. It's a time warp. There've been a lot of days when, for one reason or another or no reason at all, I've been out in the village or somewhere and we're not really doing anything or we're waiting for something to happen or something that was supposed to happen has happened and now we're waiting for the next thing and we're just sitting around, usually in the shade of a mango tree, talking when there's talking to be talked, not talking when there's not, and it seems like I can actually see Time passing, walking west down the road, following the sun, kicking up rusty dust with each footstep, and without my noticing, three hours have passed. Or, just as often, the opposite happens, when Time comes lazily walking out of the tall grass, half-hidden in the shimmer of heat waves until he comes closer, until he gets to where we're sitting and then he just sits down next to us in mango-tree-shade, maybe letting out a little sigh as he lowers himself to the ground, he's tired, he's been walking all day and it's so hot out, Time just needs to rest for a bit and this looks like as good a place as any, and then I'll look at my watch thinking that three hours escaped without any realisation on my part and I'll find that it's only been ten minutes. (This happens during rainy season, too, naturally, but I can only picture Time's languid, lethargic walk happening when it's really hot out; if it were raining, he'd be running towards the nearest covered place like everyone else here does –sit under cover when it's sunny, sit under cover when it's raining being the general wisdom around here; when I sit out in the sun when it's not too warm, like these days, 75 in the afternoon sometimes when it's not a raging monsoon, everyone tells me to sit in the shade, aren't you hot, isn't that sun too much, and they laugh when I say that it feels good to sit in the sun sometimes, especially for a Seattlite, and then they say you'll be our colour soon if you sit out there [out there being in the sun, as opposed to in there, which is, of course, in the shade, a foot or two from where I am, out there], which is possible, my freckles being more than capable of merging together like the pieces of the T-1000 in Terminator 2 [though they are less capable of becoming a killer humanoid robot … probably]; though I do take full advantage of the sit under cover when it's raining philosophy, because sometimes it just really works out in your favour, Example A [for Awesome] being the day after St Patrick's Day when I still had a half-litre bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout left over and it was about ten in the morning and I was putting off going into work when, praise the God of the Irish, I heard that unmistakable pop! pop-pop! pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop! of rain on the tin roofs and I couldn't go to work then, couldn't go out in that, so I sat and popped open my half-litre of ten am Guinness and watched the rain … abruptly stop after about two sips; but then I couldn't go into work then either, because I was drinking, and you can't aren't supposed to go to work when you're drinking, even if you're drinking Guinness the morning after St Patrick's Day, so it still worked out in my favour– so maybe the metaphor should be that three hours pass without my noticing when Time's running to get to the nearest corrugated tin sheet of an awning while ten minutes feels like three hours when Time's sitting in mango-tree-shade, but I don't know, and you're probably just skimming ahead, looking for the closed-parenthesis that's the end of this little digression. It's right here.)

To put it a little less (pretentiously and annoyingly) wordy, or to let a real writer (Roberto Bolaño in The Savage Detectives) put it differently: Lately I've been noticing that time can expand or contract at will, and also: it's as if time had fractured and were running in several directions at once. Exactly. That's exactly how time –or Time, since he's apparently working of his own volition– works here.

As for how time is thought of here:

The best –or at least my personal favourite– example of how time is thought of here is in the different ways that you can say you're doing something now (and this is definitely not unique to Uganda, these phrases, I mean; I first heard them / was really confused by them in South Africa; it is Africa Time, after all):
  • Now: This literally just means in the future. Seriously. Like, I'm coming there now really means I'm coming. At some point. Probably today. No guarantees though.
  • Just Now: This means in an hour or two, or maybe four.
  • Right Now: If something's going to happen right now then it's going to happen in, like, twenty or thirty minutes, or so.
  • Now-Now: If you're doing something now-now then you're doing it, well, right now (I mean, the American version of right now).
Going back to the Bolaño-well: their perception of time had suddenly diverged from ours. Right.

So, things'll happen when they happen, they just might not be happening yet, even if they're happening right now. And when now means later, people show up to things, more often than not, later. And the funny thing is that everyone knows that people don't come to things on time –don't keep time in Ugandan English– that things take way longer to get done than they could, that things don't happen when they should; everyone knows that Africa Time is a real thing and, yep, they even call it Africa Time. And if that sort of thing frustrates you, well, don't live in Africa. (I, despite or due to being somehow simultaneously Type A and Type B when it comes to keeping time –if I'm ready to go or want to go or if this [gosh-darn] taxi would actually just keep moving, even at two kph, instead of stopping every thirty metres [which is the bane of my travelling existence], whatever, I don't want to wait, at all, and I hate being late, at least in places where it matters, ie: not here; at the same time, if there's not really anywhere to go, or not any particular time to be anywhere, or nothing really happening, I can happily kill time for hours, like it's my job; which I guess means that I want to either be going or staying, just don't want to be waiting– simultaneously love and hate Africa Time, the love being when I can say I'm coming into work just now and go in two hours later, the hate being when, well, really only when the taxi keeps stopping every thirty metres or sits in the Kampala traffic for days and days, though I guess that really has nothing to do with Africa Time, just me being impatient, and so I guess, on the whole, I'm pretty alright with Africa Time, there are certainly times when I end up getting stuck some place where I'm just waiting for hours for something to happen and I don't have a book with me and I would rather be somewhere or anywhere else, but chances are pretty good that no matter where I am, about half the time I'm probably spacing out and thinking about things that are absolutely in no way related to whatever's going on around me, and so when I end up getting stuck some place where I'm just waiting for hours for something to happen and I don't have a book with me, I just crank the spacing out up to eleven.)

(Way to Kill Time #73: Writing Super Long and Pointless Blog Posts. But hey, #74 is Reading Super Long and Pointless Blog Posts, so there ya go, you're catching on.)

So, the reason I bring up Africa Time now-now:

A few weeks ago, on a Friday, my friend Emma –Emma being a man's name here, short for Emmanuel– asked me to come to church –or to 'go for prayers' as they say here– on Sunday. Sure, I said, and he said it starts at seven and I said that's fine, because I usually get up around five am so that I can go to bed around nine or nine-thirty since there's nothing to do after it gets dark, and he said I'll call you when I'm coming to pick you, and I said ok. Sunday morning: my phone rang at six-fifteen and Emma said I'm coming to pick you and I said ok and I got up at got ready, and then my phone rang again two hours later, eight-fifteen, and Emma said ok I'm on my way and I said ok and got up off of the couch where I'd laid down, semi-napping, after seven o'clock had rolled around and he still wasn't here, and then my phone rang an hour later, nine-fifteen, and Emma said I'm here, let's go, and I said ok and went outside and said good morning, Emma, and he said good morning and we started to go for prayers and I asked when do prayers start, Emma? and he said at nine, so we were already fifteen minutes late, which was better than the two hours and fifteen minutes late that I thought we were and I said ok and Emma said we'll go to my place first and I laughed and said ok and we went to his place and sat for a bit and then went to church at ten-fifteen, or four hours after Emma had first called me and said he was coming to pick me, and we were right on time, we showed up just as church was starting. (And then we left church three hours later – and it wasn't even quite over yet. What if we had been 'on time'?)

And that's the best summary of Africa Time yet.

Church was … well, it's kind of hard to say. The sparse brick building, tin roof and wooden rafters and packed dirt floor, was filled with probably a hundred people –not jammed full, taxi-style, but it was full, the women and children sitting on scarves and mats on the floor to the left as you entered, the minister (priest?) at the front, the men sitting at wooden desks and benches on to the right (and the middle being a bit of a mixture, a no-man's land, partially of overflow from either side, partially taken over by Sunday School kids in matching tunic/shorts outfits of tan patterned cloth with explosions of neon-pink fist-sized roses; a very good look overall); it wasn't quite as strict a division as that, though kind of it was: there were a few women in the seats and benches on the right side, a few men (like Emma) holding their kids, but, of course, no men sitting on the left side, on the dirt floor, natch. Anyway. It opened, church-slash-prayers, with, well, prayers, then a few songs and poems from the Sunday Schoolers in their matching neon-pink-rose-explosion outfits, then the guests or newcomers or whatever –ie: me, among a few others– introduced ourselves to the congregation (and obviously I got the biggest round of applause for my Ateso introduction), and then a skit from the rose-explosion kids, prayers again, then the sermon from a pastor –I guess, I'm assuming anyway, that in the Pentecostal, um, sect (?) there's the minster/priest who's the big man, in black robes and a white scarf, old and tall and distinguished-looking, who ran the whole deal, led the prayers, baptised the babies, etc, like an MC, and then there was the pastor or preacher or whatever, a guest speaker from Nyero (a town between here and Kumi), though I'm not sure if it's a different preacher every week, but so he gave the sermon while the minister/priest sat and, I swear, fell asleep at one point (because don't act like your eyes were closed because you were praying or concentrating so hard on the sermon, Father; I know that trick and I'm onto you)– and then more prayers, I think it was at this point that every man on the right side bowed his head though remained seated while every single woman on the left side was up on her knees, not resting back on her heels, but up with ninety-degree legs and hands clasped at her chest and heads bowed and eyes closed and the minister/priest led a prayer for fifteen or twenty seconds, everyone reciting aloud along with him and then the communal prayer ended and everyone just took up their own, still going on out loud –not a whispered, murmured prayer either, but a full-voiced one– praying for different things at different speeds but all quickly until it became just a buzz, a thousand of the giant thumb-sized bees that live here droning on at once, a hundred people calmly speaking in tongues at once (though I'm ninety-nine percent sure it wasn't tongues, just Ateso), the dissociation of the communally-recited minster/priest-led prayer into the buzz and hum of a thousand insects was like listening to the linguistic explosion at the Tower of Babel and it went on for what felt like a long time, babbling buzzing praying repenting confessing beseeching speaking in tongues whatever, the sound rising up to the rafters and the corrugated metal and bouncing back down as it broke apart, spilling out open windows and doorways into painfully bright sunlight, for two or three minutes, long enough anyway for me to think about how long it was going on for and then it kept going for another minute after that until it petered out, most people offering up their final syllables at the same time –was it planned, then? a recitation?– but maybe ten people still going, a hundred bees still droning on, having more to pray for or maybe just wanting to be holier-than-thou –no, that's cynical and unnecessary and probably untrue– and then it was seven people then three then one person left –'Just one more thing, Lord,' I imagined them saying– and then silence, just the hollow echo of prayers and insects off the metal roof, and then people brought gifts up to the front, like tithing, I guess –and the next time I go to church in the States, I'm totally dropping a whole pumpkin in the offering basket– and then another neon-pink-rose song, and then baptising babies and then more prayers and then Emma said if you're tired, we can go, and I said amen, brother, I was barely keeping my eyes open at that point, which is especially bad when you have at least two or three people staring at you at any given moment (and which made me happy that there were so many lengthy prayers / power-naps), and so that was my first Ugandan church experience and I'm kind of ok with the fact that it took a year before I went to church here.

After church was over, or after we left anyway, we went back to Emma's place. It's just off one of the main roads that leads from Ngora to the highway that runs from Kumi to Soroti, just turn off at the primary school there, the church is just past the school, all of this on the right as you're going from Ngora to Kapir, to the highway, north. Three huts in a surprisingly concealed little clearing –surprising because it's not as though it's surrounded by trees or anything, one mango tree, maybe, but mostly just tall grass, fields of millet, sorghum, cowpeas; you can't see the road, really, though it's only maybe a few hundred feet away; there are a couple banana trees, too, some eggplant, um, plants; and it was quiet too, a few kids one woman walked by to or from the borehole between Emma's and the school, but other than that the only sounds were the staticky radio, the heavy droning of one of the massive bees that was in the process of burrowing into one of the tree branches that held up the thatch roof of the awning we sat under in the shade, sipping sodas and eating biscuits as a post-prayers pre-lunch snack, and it was a beautiful beautiful day, sunny and bright and warm and breezy, and Emma's two-year-old daughter, Miriam, was an adorable adorable child, bright-eyed and brighter-smiled and dressed in her Sunday Best, a little red dress, white trim, something not unlike what Mom might've dressed Caitlin in as a two-year-old on Easter, and she talked non-stop, happily babbling mostly nonsense, and she called me mamai –uncle– sitting on my lap, falling asleep and making me want to fall asleep, too –and making me, sappily, look forward to having a two-year-old of my own someday to nap with– and playing with my hands my armhair my beard, talking the whole time, while Emma and I chatted slowly about whatever, and then we moved inside for lunch, chicken rice posho atap, and Miriam followed us in before Emma sent her back out, causing her to do the classic, universal sad-little-kid walk: drag your feet as slowly as possible, shoulders slumped forward and arms dangling –maybe swing them side-to-side a bit, loosely, for effect– like all of the bones in your upper body have suddenly ceased to exist, loll your head back and then drop your chin to your chest, preferably whining, 'But I don't waaaanna go...' as you shuffle away, and so we ate lunch, joined halfway through by Emma's brother-in-law and then, full, went back out, took the chairs back under the awning and sat in the shade, picking our teeth with toothpicks and then, when the wood became soft and the tips dull, with our fingernails, and we were actually joining, in the shade, Emma's mother and an older man and his son, and we sat there for a while, me stifling yawns, hoping they'd go unnoticed, Miriam drinking the rest of her uncle's purple soda from a blue plastic mug, calling it ecai –tea– the whole time, saying how hot it was, her eyes and smile widened when her grandmother took the mug and held it to Miriam's ear and she could hear the bubbles, the next best thing to listening to the ocean in a seashell as you'll find in landlocked rural Africa, and then Emma came back from wherever he'd said let me come back from and said Danieli, let's go, and I said ok though I didn't know where we were going but we walked up the path past the borehole to the grass field at the primary school where ten or twelve cows were grazing, tended by Okello, Emma's youngest brother (maybe ten or twelve years old, maybe twelve or fourteen years Emma's junior), and the transaction went down right there on the field: two bulls, massive, healthy-looking animals, one an ashy grey colour mottled with light brown marks and spots, the other solid coloured, that same light brown, both with nine-or-twelve-inch horns, the humps at the bases of their necks like fattened, rounded shark fins, the brown one stood next to me, its ribcage three or more times as wide as mine, its breath snuffling out of a wide wet brown nose as it tore up the already-short grass, and Emma would raise his hand to smack it, would should 'Eh!' and step towards it whenever he thought it was getting too close to me, he obviously wasn't reading my thoughts, didn't know that all I really wanted was for it to nuzzle its wide wet brown nose into my chest while I petted its head, rubbing the fur between its horns, and they negotiated the price –Emma and the older man, mostly, but also the son, and random passers-by who stopped to check on the sale, to see what was up– and a wad of bills was handed over, then, after more negotiating, a few more red 20,000 shilling notes, then more negotiation, we sat down on the grass, stood up again, Okello brought over a young black-white-brown calf, added to the sale and then the older man said to me, his one eyelid shut permanently, the eye missing or blind, making him look like he was winking at you, constantly trying to bring you in on a joke or a bit of hilarious mischief that was about to happen, he said to me you are also a member of this, and he laughed lightly, and said so what are your thoughts? and I said me? laughing, making sure he actually thought I knew anything about bulls or cows or selling or buying them, and he said yes, though I'm sure he knew I knew nothing about bulls or cows or selling or buying them, and I wanted to tell him you should pay a lot, these bulls have testicles as big as my forearm, they'll breed for ages, but instead I just laughed and confirmed my ignorance, and then, after a few more bills were handed over, the stack of shillings, the shilling stack, was counted and recounted and confirmed by one of the passers-by and confirmed –1.8 million for the two bulls and the calf– and hands were shook and then the older man went winking down the road, herding his new cows in front of him, bringing everyone in on the joke as he passed, and Emma pocketed the cash –I asked him later how often he makes a sale like that, thinking that 1.8mil is a cool load of money, he must be doing pretty well if he makes a sale like that every other month or so, but he said just once a year and I said ok and I thought but still, not bad– and we walked back to his place, Miriam running across the compound when we got there, barely slowing down as she planted her face in my thigh and threw her arms around my leg and I picked her up and we sat back down under the awning for a while longer, passing daylight, buzzing bees, stifling yawns, and then an hour or two later Emma said let's go and we got up to go and Miriam's face dropped, eyes wide, mouth open in shock, and and and, oh you could see it coming, she started bawling, couldn't believe I was leaving already and her sobbing made everyone else laugh and made me smile and then Emma took me home and I thanked him for the day, a really nice day, and I laid back down on the couch and took a two hour nap, and I woke up, it was night.

And back to Africa Time:

(Because do you see what happened there? We started off in one direction –Africa Time– and then we got a little distracted –right around St Paddy's Day– then got back on track, back off track, and now, several hours or days later, back on track. Just like being in Africa.)

Spending days like that –long warm afternoons spent sitting in the shade; long lazy conversations that meander with no real direction, that fall acceptably silent, that fall just into long pauses, really, before picking up where they'd left off ten quiet, peaceful minutes earlier, or before taking off in an entirely new direction apropos of nothing but the fact that it's a long lazy conversation on a long warm afternoon and it's understood that the directions the conversation takes don't have to be apropos of anything– makes me think of old men, the ones sitting in rocking chairs on front porches or folding chairs on sidewalks in front of bodegas or on the stairs of stoops of apartment buildings in the city, in summertime heat, early fall warmth, watching time and people pass, they wipe a palm on the thigh of their pants, their hand wet from the sweat of a bottle of beer or a lemonade, they talk when there's something to be said and don't talk where there are just things to think about silently, because sometimes there's just time for that, when you're that age, when you've done enough things and been enough places that now it's time to rest for a bit, to sit and watch other people doing and going while you just talk about it or don't.

Spending days like that makes me feel like I'm in old-man-training.

And, like seventy percent of the time, I'm totally ok with that. Because I don't think I'd really ever do that at home or if I were just travelling or whatever –just sit on the porch or wherever for literally seven hours, just sitting and watching and talking and thinking and passing time or being passed by it. Maybe we do that, but it's different, I think –there's always tv or sports or we get bored and go out to eat or whatever; we wouldn't just sit and do nothing, at least not without feeling a little guilty about it, like we're wasting the day. But that's what it is, isn't it? And is that inherently bad? Maybe it's an American or Western (maybe?) cultural thing: wasting time and its negative connotations. Sometimes when I spend an afternoon, a whole beautiful day, in old-man-training, I do feel guilty, frustrated: let's do something! But usually I'm ok with it. I'm outside. With people. No pressure. Watch. Watch everything, watch the grass, the trees, the clouds, the people, watch the cows go out to graze and watch the boys bring them back in, watch clothes being washed and watch them flap in the breeze on the line, watch people fetch water, pump the handle at the borehole, balance jerrycans on their heads, watch chickens and goats, the grandmother shelling g-nuts, smoke from cooking fires and charcoal stoves, watch football played with a ball made of plastic bags, watch kids knocking mangoes down from trees, watch bicycles and boda bodas, watch the sun move, cross the sky, dip, go down, watch the sky change colours, the clouds gather and threaten rain and blow away before it comes, watch the moon come up, the stars come out, because when am I going to watch these things again? how much longer do I have? because even when time expands and contracts and runs in different divergent directions, even when days last for weeks and hours for days, there's still only so much time, and then what?

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