November 5, 2008


Nearly a year ago, I wrote:

Life in Mthatha is so different to the Protestant-work-ethic-driven, efficiency-prizing, results-maximizing culture I am familiar with in North America.
This continues to be true in so many aspects of my life here and I have more or less adjusted to it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t frustrate me to no end. Here are a few examples.

When people send me packages (thanks!) I have to go pick them up at the central post office. The other day there were only three people ahead of me in line and I still had to wait half an hour to get my packages. There was nothing especially difficult about the packages of the people ahead of me - that’s just how long it took for the post office worker to meander to the back room, find each person’s package, and fill out - by hand - the reams of paperwork necessary to hand it over.

When I rented a car in the U.S in September, it took approximately three or four minutes to fill out the necessary paperwork and get the keys. When I rented the two vans for our choir trip last week, it took 37 minutes (I timed it) from when we began the process to when we were finally walking out with the keys. There was nothing especially difficult about our case - our licenses and credit card were in order and worked. There were just countless small obstacles that had to be overcome to rent us the cars. The computer system in particular seemed notably cumbersome and there were reams of paperwork to sign.

On Saturday morning in Grahamstown, I went to get gas for the two vans. There was a gas station that was literally 100 meters from our B&B. Easy trip, right? Down and back, down and back, maybe 10 minutes max. It was only after 50 minutes that I had the two tanks of gas and I didn’t get them from that station. There were so many obstacles and I won’t tell the whole sorry tale here but it involved debit card machines that didn’t work (despite gas stations that promoted the fact they took debit cards), the impossibility of finding an ATM machine (even though outside the gas station they advertise “ATM inside!”), and, further, the impossibility of finding an ATM that actually worked and had money in it to give.

I understand that the culture and lifestyle are different here and I can accept that. I also understand that as a result of not prizing efficiency as much, African cultures can place importance on other, more important, things in life, like communal life and genuine inter-personal relationships.

But that doesn’t stop me from being frustrated when seemingly simple tasks drag on for so long. And it doesn’t stop me from thinking that these numerous, unnecessary roadblocks are in some way holding back the progress of this country.