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The Meaning of Time

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A personal essay about the perception of time in Guinea, written by a Volunteer

By Kimberly Ross - Peace Corps Volunteer: Guinea (1999-2002)

Upon arriving in my village, I needed to learn the greetings in the indigenous language, Malinke. Unfortunately this wasn't as simple as "Hello, how are you?" and responding "I'm fine," as we do in the United States. Among the Malinke people, it is proper to ask at least five questions when you greet someone. Simply yelling out "Hello!" and waving as you pass a friend would be considered rude, even if you did it because you were in a hurry. Instead, you must stop and shake hands. Then you ask, "How are you? ... How is your day going? ... How are you feeling? ... How are your family and friends? ... What's new?" Even if you know that the person will respond the same way every time (i.e., "Fine!"), it's still important to ask, because it shows that you care and that you are willing to take time out of your day to talk.

For Guineans, it's the act of greeting that counts more than what you are actually saying. It took me about four months to realize this and to get used to it. I had assumed that my neighbors would understand that I couldn't chat because I was running late or that I had an appointment to get to. Eventually, I understood that this was not the case. For Guineans, social obligations are more important than any job-related responsibility.

It has been a challenge to accept the fact that meetings or scheduled events never start "on time." If a meeting is set for 8 o'clock, people begin arriving around 9 o'clock and the meeting actually starts at 10 o'clock. After this happened several times, I asked a friend if all Guineans were habitually late. Surprised, she told me, "We Guineans aren't late. You Americans are just early!" I had been acting like a typical American by arriving 15 minutes before a scheduled appointment, whereas I should have been arriving an hour after the scheduled time, the Guinean way.

In the beginning, I failed to notice the true meaning of the term inshallah—meaning "God willing"—which people add to the end of certain sentences. For instance, someone might say, "See you at 4 o'clock, inshallah!" I now interpret this as, "I'll try to be there at 4 o'clock, but if something comes up, I may arrive a bit later than that." These words give people permission to come later than the scheduled time, so that they'll be able to greet people along the way and take care of whatever other problems may arise.

And in Guinea, many other interruptions can and will arise. The first and foremost obstacle is the weather. In the rainy season, it faithfully pours every day, leaving knee-deep puddles of muddy water that form small lakes in the dirt roads. Plans are often delayed until the rain lets up a bit. In the dry season, the sun's hot rays beat down and force people to take cover in the relatively cool shade of their homes between noon and 3 p.m. So it is common knowledge that any meeting scheduled during midday will have few attendees.

Difficulties with transportation also cause delays. Few Guineans own personal vehicles, so most people use public transportation, such as taxis, vans, buses, motorcycles, and dump trucks. There are no bus schedules or set times for departures and arrivals. Vehicles simply leave when they are full. In the United States, we'd consider a typical car "full" when it contained five people. But in Guinea, as many as eight adults plus a few children will pile into a car. Then about five people will ride on the roof of the car, holding on to the luggage rack. And that's not all.

During each trip, a breakdown or an accident of some sort can be quite normal, even expected. When this happens, all of the passengers get out. Some will push the vehicle, as others cut off tree branches or search for rubber bands and tin cans that may be used to repair the car. (It's amazing what Guineans can fix without any tools or special parts.) Often, these repair jobs can take up to five hours—or even more—but people rarely complain. They simply eat mangoes that they pick off the trees, talk to one another, and sleep along the side of the road.

In the United States, I never thought twice about how easy it was to leave my house 15 minutes before work and arrive on time almost every day. I remember getting upset when I had to wait in traffic for an extra half-hour because of a car accident, or becoming extremely upset when I got a flat tire, even though the AAA would come to repair it within 45 minutes. Now, I've learned to be very patient. I've also become more tolerant. I realize that I don't have control over certain things, and that sometimes I must accept my fate and not get upset about unexpected events and problems. Also, instead of letting misunderstandings complicate a situation, I take the extra effort to talk about it until all the confusion is cleared up. My Peace Corps experience has taught me that a problem is only as big as you make it.