Geerte Hofstede, a famous Dutch researcher in the field of organizational culture describes culture as ‘The Software of the Mind’.
In computer terms, software is a set of programs and instructions that direct the operations of the computer system. If culture is indeed the ‘software of the mind’, it is our programming and instructions that serve to direct our physical machinery, our bodies.
Of course we are all humans first and foremost, and personality certainly has a large role to play on how we act, think and interact. This said, living here in Malawi has made me think on more than one occasion that perhaps my cultural programming (which I obtained in an English speaking suburb outside of Toronto, Canada) differs at least a little from that of my Malawian brothers and sisters.
The idea that our software is influenced by the societies we grow up in has helped me understand why I find myself scratching my head at certain actions, expressions and activities here in Malawi. More importantly, it helps me understand why I sometimes unwittingly puzzle the people who have so graciously allowed me to stay in their country. In short, living here has made me acutely aware of certain aspects of my programming.
I can say that after being here for almost 6 months, I have noticed that my software is running increasingly in Canadian-Malawian compatibility mode.
Sometimes it is an unintentional adaptation. For example, when I find myself squishing nsima into a ball with my hand, dipping it in relish and popping it into my mouth like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Other times, I have consciously switched into compatibility mode upon encountering a ‘bug’ as I try to operate in Malawi. An example of this is a training session I delivered to my Malawian colleagues. I worked hard to prepare the training - I knew the content, set up interactive activities and carefully prepared the agenda. During the training, my colleagues seemed preoccupied despite what I thought was a dynamic and interesting opening. The problem? I forgot that every meeting opens with a prayer. I haven’t forgot prayers on the agenda since.
Many people have asked me about what it is like to be a foreigner in Malawi. In response, I will dedicate my next few posts to sharing some observations and experiences as a Canadian trying to adapt to life here in Malawi. The purpose of this is not to highlight differences, but to reflect on differing perspectives and attitudes on the things that bind us all in human experience.
Before sharing my observations, a quick disclaimer: In no way do I believe that my observations are absolute or representative of all Canadians or Malawians. Indeed, each human being has various lenses including culture, personality and experience that form the way they view and experience the world.
Malawi is a very diverse country with many ethnic and linguistic identities and I certainly do not claim to write with any authority on Malawi or Malawians.
In the same way, my home country of Canada is made up of many different cultures. It is a country populated largely immigrants (including descendants thereof) who settled at different times in its history. I descend from European immigrants, and by no means purport to represent even that demographic of Canadian culture.
Disclaimers aside, here is my experience. First on the agenda (after the opening prayer of course!) is time.
Part #1 - Time:
In Malawi, things move at an entirely different pace. One telling indicator of this is a 2006 experiment by psychologist Richard Wiseman that looked at walking speeds of people in a spread of 32 cities.
Thousands of unknowing pedestrians were timed on the same day during the same window of time as they walked 18 metres on an uncrowded strip of pavement. Average walking speeds of pedestrians in each city were recorded and ranked.
The findings? Singapore came in the fastest at as 10.55 seconds. My home city of Ottawa, Canada came in 20th at 13.72 seconds.
Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial and financial hub, came in slowest at 31.60 seconds. The experiment says that people in Blantyre took 3 times the length of time as those in Singapore and almost double the time as the second-slowest city (Manama, Bahrain) to walk 18 metres.
Yes folks, I am living in the country that boasts the ‘world’s slowest walking city’!
When I first arrived here, I found myself speeding past everyone on the side of the road. People would call out to me and ask me where I was going, why I was walking so fast?
I thought it a bit odd, because I didn’t feel like I was rushing.
Then a funny thing happened. The other day I was walking to work and counted a number of people (including a mother walking holding the hand of a small child!) passing me on foot. I realized that no one had commented on my pace for months. Gone are the days when I was walking fast enough to warrant questioning… I have adjusted and slowed down!
Walking speed aside, it seems that Malawians have a very different perspective of time than we do back home.
In his book ‘the Shadow of the Sun’, the late Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski compares European (which he uses to refer in a broader sense to ‘Western’) and African perspectives on time:
"The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. According to Newton, time is absolute: “Absolute, true, mathematical time of itself and from its own nature, it flows equably and without relation to anything external.” The European feels himself to be time's slave, dependent on it, subject to it. To exist and function, he must observe its ironclad, inviolate laws, its inflexible principles and rules. He must heed deadlines, dates, days, and hours. He moves within the rigors of time and cannot exist outside them. They impose upon him their requirements and quotas. An unresolvable conflict exists between man and time, one that always ends with man's defeat – time annilhates him.
Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage in a battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not have come into being).
Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even nonexistence, if we do not direct our energy toward it. It is a subservient, passive essence, and, most importantly, one dependent on man.
The absolute opposite of time as it is understood in the European worldview.
In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, “When will the meeting take place?” makes no sense. You know the answer: “It will take place when people come.”
This is certainly something I can relate to. On more than one occasion, I have showed up for a meeting (panicked because I am 6 minutes late) to find the room empty. Is the meeting going to happen? Inevitably it starts when people show up (and if participants are missing, consensus must first be reached that it can start). In the same way, the power outage stops when it stops, my bicycle is fixed when it is fixed, my visa processed when it is processed and the bus leaves when it leaves.
Needless to say I’ve taken a more relaxed view of time. I don’t try to control it and I have few expectations of it. It would be pointless and stressful to get worked up by something so far outside my control. I do my best to hold myself accountable to my own time commitments but it ends there. I’ve also noticed that something happens to me when I am waiting. I used to fidget, trying to find something to occupy my time – read, e-mail, philosophize, count in my head… anything but idleness! Here, when I wait, I have started going into a passive state. I don’t know how much time passes or what (if anything) I have thought about. It is like I’ve hit the ‘pause button’ while waiting for things to happen.
I sat in on a very eye-opening presentation by a Malawian on ‘Managing your Canadian Volunteer’. At one point, he said that ‘Canadians are very punctual and they will text or call if they will be more than 5 minutes late.’ It is (well, was) true for me. If I was running late and had committed to being somewhere at a certain time, I would let the appropriate person know!
The Malawians were chuckling at this and looking a bit bewildered. The trainer explained that in Canada, time is much more of an absolute. It is considered disrespectful to not honour someone else’s time, as we believe that time is limited. He contrasted this with the mentality he grew up with - in his home village people wake up to the rooster and schedule meetings for ‘when the sun is high in the sky’. This also helped me to understand why the man who repairs my constantly breaking bicycle uses the position of the sun to tell me when to pick up my bicycle.
Instead of always rushing off to the next thing, I am enjoying taking 'my' time. When I get home from work, I chat with the guards at the gate for a few minutes instead of rushing home to make dinner, I meander down to my colleague’s office in the middle of the day to share some snacks and stories, I enjoy my coffee while writing my blog. Maybe this is why my entries have become less frequent?
Time slips by and I often feel like I am living in a parallel reality, a vortex where days disappear. After a number of such days, I come to and I wonder what has happened. I used to panic about this– 'What is the matter with me?' 'Is it the anti-malaria medication?' 'Do I have a psychological disorder?' 'Will I blink and realize that I am an old lady on her deathbed who slipped and fell butt-first into a time vortex?'
After panicking, ‘reason’ would kick in and I would try to ‘take control’. What is my action plan to ensure that the vortex won’t spit me out an old dying lady with a bruised tail bone? I resolve to develop an action plan to prevent this from happening… and then print it on fluorescent paper and glue it to my ceiling as a reminder… then ponder tattooing it on my arm so I don’t forget...
I have finally stopped the silliness (for the most part). Things do happen - I go through productive spurts where everything seems acute and sharp. I don’t worry about the vortex anymore. I am part of a bigger system and things happen when they happen. Time will continue to ebb and flow, with me along with it.