After travelling for several weeks from Kenya to the US to France and then back to Kenya, I thought it would be fun to share some of my observations about how interestingly different the pace of life is in these three places and how pace seems to affect the cultures and mentalities of the people there. When you live in another culture, after some time, what was once “normal” slips away and your new “normal” becomes what you are experiencing in your new home. Thus, when you return home you feel both shocked and amused by how different things are. These are strictly the observations of a lucky wanderer.
Kenya’s pace, anyone familiar with Africa will not be surprised to hear, is slow. People move slowly, work gets done slowly, time is NOT of the essence. The only place that this is not true is in traffic in Eldoret. There is a sense of panic and chaos in the traffic that could cause you to think that things are moving quickly. That is a hallucination because nothing much happens quickly but there is a definite sense of “hustle” when one is on the road. Otherwise, there is no sense of urgency. Time is definitely not money here. There are all sorts of reasons that things move slowly and coming from the U.S., which is quite a bit more fast paced, it does make one ponder. One of the main things that is different here from the US is that in Kenya , very few people are connected to the internet all the time and very few people on the streets are walking with headphones or blue tooths (blue teeth? ). Most often, here, people get where they are going when they get there. Sometimes they just don’t show! Our attitude has become “oh well!” when things don’t go as planned, or people don’t show as previewed. What are you going to do? In the States, some of these situations would be completely unacceptable, people become very uptight, but here, there are many ways to look at it. Some say it’s a lack of respect, some say it’s the issues with transportation and jams, some, the fact that people have family crises regularly. Others are inclined to point out poverty, dependence, and development issues. Whatever it may be, and it may be all of the above, it does increase the necessity to be patient in one’s dealings. The funny thing is, it’s not like people are not under stress here, because they certainly are. Most people’s stress revolves around getting their basic needs met, but for those who are educated and/or in positions of responsibility, they have a lot of personal stress around helping folks in their families as people rely on them heavily. Life is not fast paced but it tends to be burdensome nonetheless for Kenyans.
Another impressive occurrence, that is reflective of the pace also, is that when you are shopping here, you almost always have to wait awhile to be served in a shop or restaurant. In fact, you may not even be acknowledged until you yourself make a point of going up to a salesperson saying “can you help me?” This has happened to me so many times I am now used to it and sort of assume there is some cultural piece I don’t quite understand. It seems absurd, indeed, considering that one might assume that a shopkeeper would want to make a sale. Earlier on my reaction would be, “Well! I’ll take my business elsewhere, harrumph!” but since it is the same everywhere, that doesn’t make much difference here. Business practices and standards are quite the opposite here than in the U.S.
Upon returning home, there was plenty to which I had to acclimate. I so appreciated the orderliness of the traffic and I was struck by the amount of things getting done at once. My first amused moment came while driving on 86th St. and leisurely observing the road around me. I saw a delivery van that had written across it “EVERY HOUR IS RUSH HOUR”. I think I actually laughed aloud, thinking, ‘well, in some places…” That sign expressed so well the culture and approach of the United States. Sometimes the mind-set of extremely fast paced marketing/consumerism seems gross, and insincere, but I have to say I did appreciate while home, customer service and attention to detail that is lacking in Kenya. My second favorite sign that I saw, again on 86th St. in Indy, was a giant big box store called “Buy Baby Buy” Wow! It kind of says it all, doesn’t it? Sometimes it seems that the U.S. attitude that money should drive all activities and that the sale is always the most important thing is paramount in our consumerist culture. That said, a friendly salesperson, a meeting which takes place on time, with respect to others’ schedules, and a market place structure which is designed to actually help the consumer on some level can create a pleasurable feeling for those not experiencing it regularly. I know it is not like the good old days, when you could actually talk to a salesperson and get a friendly response, and certainly the cut throat commercialism is tiresome, but there is a nice in between that can sometimes be found.
France seems to have found it, I have to say. The French, honest to god, know how to live. Aside from having a society that is so appreciative of its history, gastronomic culture and art, it is also a society which does not break people who work, takes care of its people who are struggling, and seems to in general not be so stressed out by the hustle of making a living. The pace is quite different than in the States. According to my French friends, it is becoming more breakneck, in the big cities, but people in general there are not so stressed because of their need to hustle all the time. There is not this culture of RUSHING RUSHING that you find in the States, and the need to bust your butt all the time seems to not be present. In places like Paris , where I recently visited, people are rushing, but that is just the essence of big cities. From what I observed, the French, in general, have yet to don headphones and blue tooths either in the public sphere so you know they are not as focused on the next transaction or communication as Americans tend to be. My experience recently, in rural and small town France, was just so pleasant and mellow. I didn’t do much shopping, although I did go to several markets and I found the pace both lovely and enjoyable and the attention (not cloying but friendly) of the salespeople quite pleasant.
On the farm where I was working, the people had their established routine, and I was pleased to learn, did not get up at the crack of dawn and rush around all day trying to get stuff done before sunset. In fact, they got up leisurely, ate a nice breakfast, drank coffee, then we would go milk the goats. After milking, we would take a break, during which time Farmer Ingo would play the piano, read the paper, drink more tea, and begin to prepare a lovely lunch. One of the best things about the French of course, is that they know how to eat well and they take time to enjoy their meals, their friends and family, over a meal filled with all sorts of delightful dishes. At least the French I know. A meal might include an aperitif, good wine, a lovely salad, good bread, a delicious assortment of cheeses, fruit usually, chocolate, and possibly a digestif as well. I know for sure that some of these are skipped during a busy work week, but having a leisurely long meal in a French home is really quite an outstanding and unusual experience for an American!
I also visited friends in the suburbs of Paris, both of whom work full time, but they make sure they eat a nice leisurely dinner, take time to bicycle, walk or swim each day, and enjoy each others’ company. Both of these families claim that French society is changing and becoming much more fast paced and “Americanized” i.e. people eating more fast food and processed foods, not spending time around the table, and losing focus on family time, but I did not see much sign of it. I hope, for their sake, they can maintain the balance.
One of my favorite moments relating to pace was when I was helping at a market in France, selling cheese. I was asked to only help when the farmer was not there as he didn’t like us running into each other. I pointed out that it would go more quickly if I helped and that there were people waiting. His reaction was just to look at me and say, “yes, they will wait. They like our cheese. “ He was right. They did wait, and they were perfectly pleasant about it, even when I ineptly tried to give them change! On the other hand, I was at the market in Columbus, not a real fast paced town relative to others in the U.S and I was waiting in line, like a few others . We had been there a few minutes and clearly the vendors were very busy and doing their best to keep up. It was a beautiful late summer morning, not even that hot, but from behind me I heard a woman with a very annoyed voice say, “for god’s sake, my hair is going to turn grey standing here. “ Really? If she only knew how most people in the world have to wait and wait for service, food, water, whatever it may be. It felt like such a teachable moment but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything as I figured if she was that spoiled and impatient she would be unlikely to want to take a lesson from a complete stranger! So her pain became my gain as I again noted my appreciation for a patient, flexible and calm attitude when it comes to waiting, wherever I am in the world!