The second hand’s turn

 Based on the interest and warm reception of my recent post, I decided to launch a series of reflections featuring stories which prompt an understanding of the world that better considers the experience of others. The series asks: how do I come alongside people within marginalized communities?; what have I learned from this pursuit of mutual-freedom?; and what do I do with the lessons imparted?. In all of this, you’ll encounter people, places, conversations, and moments that inform an understanding of what it means to be Standing in Solidarity.

We sit, waiting for the meeting to begin. The students set the time for 2:00pm thinking that this would facilitate a true start an hour later.

It is 3:30. One person is here, huddled in the Rwandan home of the community member who offered to host the design team meetings. The one attendee is not the host; he left the room at 3:00 to get ready for the meeting. I hear water splashing in the room behind us, where I assume he is bathing now.

By 3:45, people begin to trickle into the room. At 4:00, nearly everyone is here and the group mingles, catching one another up on their families and farms. At 4:30– two and a half hours past the allotted meeting time, we commence.

I’ve experienced this scenario and ones like it in abundance during my time abroad. Hours draw out as I wait to board a bus in Tanzania; it will come, but when, no one knows. When we ask when the workshop will begin in India, we are told “fifteen minutes,” invariably as we watch two hours pass. Tree planting starts an hour after the scheduled time every morning here in Ecuador.

There are many reasons for this: Kevin does not have a phone and there is no clock in the truck, so where would any sense of urgency come from? In many places, roads and vehicles are inconsistent and unreliable based upon shoddy infrastructure. Beyond any of this, though, is an inherent difference in our relationships to time.

In many cultures, they operate on what anthropologists call polychronic time. That is, relationships rather than tasks are of utmost importance. In these cultures, the rude thing to do is to leave a conversation before its natural end based on some arbitrary figure declaring when you should be somewhere else. Walks through town necessitate organic visits with neighbors and friends. There is no such thing as being in a hurry; what would you be rushing to when the most important thing is right in front of you?

Conversely, monochronic culture is driven by tasks and routine; it is rude to be late and unproductive, as objectives are the guiding rule. The Western reader is familiar with monochronic living…it fills your day planner, Outlook calendar, and inner orientation to your mounting to dos. Based on a schedule, timeliness and productivity are the operative values.

Waking early to begin planting, I feel the students’ frustration build as they experience what, from their cultural lens, is disrespect. And I remember my friend and co-worker’s wise words in Rwanda, “As the visitors, it is your job to adapt to our culture, not the other way around”. There is so much wisdom here as he gently nudges us toward the volunteer’s role as guest.

The wisdom, too, is nestled in the cultural norms of the communities we visit. What can be gained from learning this other way? From slowing down and allowing the people in our lives to take precedent? Or from digging beneath initial disturbance to discover the values driving our ways of relating to others?

Solidarity does not come from imposition. It requires that we understand the perspective of another, pursuing concepts and frames beyond our own. It honors difference and respects local knowledge. Moving away from dualistic structuring of ‘right’ or ‘better’, it allows for a new orientation to emerge, one rooted in the realities of the world’s majority.

One such reality is that relationships are everything. When your community is the greatest– perhaps the only– capital that you have, you value it. You do not let a constructed number force its hand.

Time, then, becomes a fluid concept. Culturally specific, unbound from Western bias of efficiency and Reign of the Clock.

An understanding of development that equates it with better integrating people into world markets demands movement away from such an ethos. Time enforces its rule as quotas, production, cost, and demand prevails. The clock crushes rhythms and pace of relationships as it settles in its favored position: central to human interaction. But, what are the costs of such a shift?

Furthermore I wonder, how might our lives be better if we were to put relationship before scheduling? How might our policies change were we to slow down enough to know the people whom they impacted? What can we do to let people trump numbers– be it the digits behind a dollar sign or the click of Grandfather’s second hand?

My bebes in Tanzania, aunties in India, and amigos in Ecuador offer another way to approach life. No longer taking for granted the dominant narrative that our [Western] ways are the best ways, I learn. And I discover the beauty that these lessons on time are both an activity of and movement towards solidarity itself.


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