Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Time in Burkina Faso
I am sure you have all heard that the American view of time is different from the view of time in developing countries. I have just had a couple of examples that I will tell you about.

I had an appointment for 9:00 with the director (principal) of an elementary school. I went there on the appointed day at 9:00 and was told by one of the teachers that he had left, and maybe he was over at the health center. I went over there to see if I could find him. They were doing annual physical checkups, with people lined up at various stations, like the eye chart with the Es that face different directions. I didn’t see him in the crowd, but I was explaining to someone who I was looking for and he said, “Oh there he is, just arriving at the school.” I went back over there and the director told me he had received a notice from the Inspector (superintendent of schools) that there would be a meeting that day at 9:00 so we could not meet after all. Come back at 16:00 (4:00 pm). I am sure the teacher who told me he was not there called his cell phone about it and he left his meeting with the Inspector to come tell me we could not meet, or was also late to that meeting.

I arrived at the school at 3:50 and waited around until 4:30. Then I sent him a text saying that I was there and that if this is not a good time, tell me when I could see him. Within 5 minutes he appeared on his moto, shopping bags in hand. He said the meeting at lasted until 1:30. I guess that means he needed to take his 3 hour lunch break late. (Yes there is a 3 hour break in the middle of the school day here, to let the children and teachers go home for lunch and a rest in the heat of the day.)

The second example is even worse. Someone asked me to be somewhere at 8:00 am for a meeting on a particular day and, when she did not show up after 2 hours, I called her. She told me the meeting had been changed to the following day. I had some things I wanted to discuss with her rather than in the meeting with others so she said to be there at 7:20 and we could talk before the meeting. I was there at 7:15 and she arrived at 8:00 so we did not get a chance to talk until afterwards. Another day she and I had a meeting scheduled with a group of girls at the private college (junior high school). She was supposed to stop at my house at 7:00 so we could discuss the plan for the meeting that was to be at 8:00. When she had not arrived by 7:30 I called her and told her I would ride my bike to the school and meet her there. No, no, no, she said, I am on my way. Wait for me. So I waited at my house and she finally arrived at 9:30. We got to the school at 10:00, after I convinced her it would be a good idea to go straight there rather than stopping off to see some folks along the way. We arrived at 10:00 for this 8:00 meeting. I had expected all the girls to have given up and gone home, but there were actually 50 girls sitting around waiting for us. Amazing.

On the other hand, I have had a couple of meetings with a man who spent quite a few years in the US and he has been early for the three meetings we have had. As he says, in the US people say “Time is money.” Think about the value of people’s time in the US considering the salary of each person waiting at a meeting place for someone who is late. It is certainly true that, if you consider the value of their work they could have done in the time they are waiting for late comers, money is being wasted.

I was warned to expect people to be late here and for meetings to be very late in starting, an hour or more not being unusual. What I was not prepared for was people who know they will not be there for a meeting with you who do not bother to let you know about that. It is one window into the cultural differences. This being late for meetings is chronic. I have heard people say they should tell people to get to a meeting an hour before they really want to start. To my way of thinking, that just rewards late comers and makes the problem worse, but it is such an ingrained part of the culture I doubt if I can fight it. I was able to convince my language tutor that if we agreed to meet at 3:00 I expected him to appear at 3:00, not 3:30 or 4. Maybe it is knowing that the job might disappear if he did not conform to that American standard, or maybe he is more westernized, but he is always on time now. It is possible for Burkinabé to arrive when expected, just not the usual custom.

I think I have already mentioned that the same thing happens in church. I arrive at 7:30 and usually the pastor and one or two other people arrive about then. They begin the service and after a half hour or so there are 30 people in the room and the choir has started to trickle in. By 9:00, when the service is almost over, there are probably 60 there. Some of those late comers may actually be arriving early for the next service that is in Moore, but I don’t think so.

One of the reasons things tend to be late here is that people stop along the way to chat with all the people they know. When they arrive, there is the ritual of greeting everybody in the room with good morning, how are you, how is the family, did you sleep well, etc. These ritual greetings are a deeply ingrained part of the culture and people tell me the relationships take precedence over any idea of time. Good thing or bad thing? I am not sure I will adapt to it here. I am sure when I get home I will still be that compulsively prompt person you all know who has been indoctrinated with idea that if you are not early, you are late, because only one person can walk through the door exactly on time.

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