One of the hardest things for me to get used to each time I visit Uganda is “African Time”. It’s not a stereotype. Nor is it an insult. It simply is.
African time means when my language teacher didn’t show up at all during the hour-long lesson we’d scheduled, he offered a quick and sincere apology at the beginning of our next lesson and then we moved on.
African time means that when it starts pouring rain and I’m stranded under the overhang of a store until the storm passes, there will be no animosity for my tardiness waiting for me whenever I arrive at my destination.
There are really some nice things about African time, but it still frustrates me. I’m a time oriented person. I like to know what time it is. I like to be on time. When I’m late, it upsets me. It means I naturally look for the most efficient way to accomplish a task at work. It means balance between time at work and time at home is vital to me. A few years ago, I wrote down 100 Things I Believe and one of my core beliefs is, “I believe that time is my most valuable resource.”
African time is hard for me. It’s hard for me not to feel disrespected and unvalued when someone doesn’t hold my time in esteem. In Uganda, I have to constantly remind myself that African time isn’t something I should take personally.
I was having this particular conversation with myself on my last day in Gulu as I sat in the tiny rectangle of shade behind a cabinet I’d had made for the primary teachers. The primary teachers, especially Mr. Martin, had asked for a cabinet to lock their supplies in. Aside from student desks, they have no furniture in their classrooms. Imagine that, teacher friends, not having a single shelf, drawer or cupboard.
So Mr. Martin had hired a couple of local carpenters to build a cabinet to his specifications. My job was to make sure it was paid for and picked up by the school truck before I returned to the US.
There I was waiting in the shade of the cabinet for the principal to come in the school truck and pick it up. I’d been sitting and waiting for over an hour. Each time I called the principal, he assured me they were just on the edge of town and would be there any minute.
As I sat and waited, Denish, one of the carpenters sat down to keep me company. He told me about how the main carpenter, Moses, is his teacher and mentor. Denish and Moses told me all about traditional marriage ceremonies and the dowry needed to marry an Acoli woman. It was fascinating and before I knew it, I found myself forgetting all about waiting for the cabinet to be picked up.
Denish told me about his wife and two children, how he wants four more and about what a beautiful life he has. Happiness shone in his eyes. I just listened, seated in a wooden chair Moses had made only yesterday.
Denish told me about being abducted by the LRA and being a child soldier for six years.
Six years. It’s unfathomable to me.
I kept listening. This is not something former child soldiers usually discuss openly. I knew I was on sacred ground and I tried to take careful steps to listen without judgment, to ask sincere questions and not brashly pry open his past. Denish unfolded a horrific story, but as with so many of the stories here, it ended with escape, with hope.
He talked of going to a rehabilitation center where he learned to stop killing. I told him that my son also went to that center. He simply nodded.
I asked if his nightmares had stopped.
He still has nightmares. Every night. But he wakes to his wife and children. And then he comes to work and builds beautiful furniture, rebuilds himself a little more each day.
The daily gunmetal thunderheads rolled in and Denish shook my hand and told me he had to ride his bicycle home before the rain came. I asked to take his photo. He smiled and posed with me by the cabinet. He asked if I wanted to show people the snap of the cabinet. I promised to show it, but I told him that most of all I wanted the picture to remember him, to remember his story, and on hard days to remind myself to wake up with the intent of creating something beautiful each day.
The principal of the school arrived at the carpentry shop two hours late. He apologized and gave me a puzzled look when I remarked how glad I was that he was late. He muscled the cabinet into the truck and as I walked back to my hotel room, the rain sprinkled and spattered the red dirt road. I reached the covering of my hotel just before the deluge torn open the sky. I hoped Denish had made it home already. As I dried off and watched the storm from my balcony, I thought about what an unexpected treasure it was to spend two hours with Denish.
Maybe African time isn’t so bad after all.