Waiting as a Way of Life

MOSHI, Tanzania—The Swahili language has at least three proverbs on patience. “Pole pole ndio mwendo” means “slowly, slowly, indeed we go.” “Haraka, haraka haina baraka” means “hurry, hurry has no blessings.” And “Haba na haba kujaza kibaba” means “little, by little you fill the pot.” Patience is the currency of life here, where nothing goes as planned or works as designed.

I realized this during my third hour of waiting at the municipal office. I need the mayor’s permission to enter each public health center. I go to the end of the hall on the second floor, announce myself to the secretaries behind the glass, and take a seat in the row of velvet chairs in the hallway outside the office. I don’t sit in the first seat, because if I invest that much in getting seen quickly my will to wait will surely be broken. I take the third or fourth to last seat. Then the hallway turns into my library. The first time I went to the office, I finished J. M. Coetzee’s autobiography. The second time, I finished “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” The third time, I finished “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” I laugh at the funny parts and tear up at the sad ones, and my neighbors eye me nervously; I am not taking the government seriously enough.

Or maybe I realized it the tenth time that the power shut off mid-shower and the water went from warm to freezing. If you ask three people in Moshi why the electricity cannot stay on for 24 hours in any given district of the city, you get three different answers. The rainy season was light this year, so the dam isn’t full and the hydropower isn’t working. A man fell on the electrical lines, and it’s taking a long time to fix the flesh-wire mess. The government was working on a secret new power source, but corrupt officials stole all the money. Maybe all of this is true.

Meanwhile, I’ve developed coping techniques for the showers. Holding your breath staves off the cold quite well. You duck in and hold your breath for a few seconds, and then duck out when you have to breathe. The need for oxygen, it turns out, trumps the need for warmth. Alternately, I once read that there is a sect of Buddhist monks that stands in freezing rain to build character, so sometimes I think, “I can out-character that certain sect of Buddhist monks.” If none of these work, I remember that I can complain about it later, or better yet, spread my own ludicrous rumor about why the power is out. Can you believe the guards at the central station were watching a Manchester United vs. Barcelona game, and let a rogue impala canter in and wreck the transformers? Neither can I.

Or maybe I realized it today, on the minibus. There were sixteen people sitting in the thirteen seats and eight others standing against the doorway. “Shut the door!” a woman yelled at the bus conductor, which was a bit unfair, because the door was only open because half of the passengers were hanging out of the vehicle. As we ambled down the hill, we saw a large woman with an outstretched hand ahead. Everyone was hoping she would pass on the bus and take the next one, but she ignored the grumblings and snarls from kids in the back whose faces were already pressed up against the windshields and heaved herself inside. It was too much for me, “Acha!” (Stop!) I called, as usual, too weakly, so it took three Tanzanians yelling at the bus conductor that the poor foreign girl wanted to get off half a mile back, to stop the bus. I extracted each limb out of the ball of humans and walked the rest of the way back to the hostel.

Most hours of most days none of this really bothers me. I can feel my personality inching down the alphabet—I think I’m at a type C and sliding. I’m sure this will result in problems when I arrive in Cambridge in late August and think—I don’t have to register today, I’ll just email someone and say there was a fat woman on the bus this morning. Or, I can be ten minutes late to the editorial meeting, because everyone else will be twenty minutes late. Or, I can answer my emails tomorrow because this headache could turn into malaria. But type C personalities don’t care about that. Haraka, haraka haina baraka.

Anita J. Joseph, an editorial chair, is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House.

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