Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

A Story about “Africa Time”

Madulammoho’s office is always busy.  The three directors who run Madulammoho are constantly dashing in and out of meetings.  House Managers visit so frequently that I’m not sure who works here and who doesn’t.  Tenants come in to sign papers.  There is constant chatter in the open floor workspace.

When I started working here two weeks ago, they threw me right into the activity right away – just as I like it!  Instead of giving me old manuals to read, my supervisor sent me to an exhibition called “Interbuild Africa” on my second day.

Madulammoho’s driver, Albert, was to drop me off on his way to his deliveries.

The Expo Centre is a 15 minute drive from the office.

About 5 min from the office, Albert stopped to get gas.  In South Africa, you don’t pump your own gas: gas attendants are one more job needed in a country with surplus labour.  Albert told the attendant his gas choice.  We waited, he paid, he started the car.  To my untrained ear it sounded exactly the same, but he immediately turned it off.  He called the attendant back and spoke to her in Zulu.  Turns out she’d filled it with diesel instead of normal gasoline.

A group of other gas station employees came over and pushed the truck back to get it out of the way.  Laughing and joking, they lifted it up so that the diesel poured out onto the pavement.  Periodically they’d lift it again to keep the gas flowing.

This is my second day of work.  I’m in Hillbrow, still a little anxious out from all the horror stories I’ve heard from white South Africans.  We’re stranded in the worst part of Johannesburg.  We’re beside a construction site and there’s a line of a dozen men sitting on their break and watching us.  I’ve just met Albert and am still unsure of how well I can trust him.

I felt like I should probably be concerned, but really I just wanted to laugh.  Here I am stuck in one of the most dangerous parts of one of the most dangerous cities in the world – and it’s only my second day.  Well, I can tick that off my list of things to do.

It took an hour for the gas attendants to drain the truck of diesel and refill it with gasoline.  We then continued on to the Expo Centre and I asked Albert to come pick me up at 3pm.

Albert told me that my supervisor had said he might come pick me up, so I should phone him when I was ready to leave.

At 3pm I phoned my supervisor.  No answer.  I phoned Albert.  He said he’d phone my supervisor and get back to me.  Ten minutes later the MHA receptionist phoned me back.  She told me that Albert was going to come pick me up at 3:30pm.

I walked around a bit more, then headed out to the front at 3:20pm.  Three-thirty comes and goes, but I’m not worried.  I remembered how long the journey took in the morning: half an hour is nothing.

At 4pm I called Albert.  “Are you still coming?”

“Yes, I’m on my way.  Be there soon.”

At 4:30pm I called again – just in case the truck had broken down or something.  Diesel is not very healthy for a gasoline engine.

Albert said, “Yes I’m close.  Traffic is bad.  Seven minutes away.”

Seven minutes.  Sure.

At 4:45pm, Albert finally pulled up.  He apologized profusely as I got in the truck.  He explained that he’d had to pick something up from one of the projects, but it wasn’t ready when he got there, and then the highway traffic was almost at a standstill.

I just laughed and told him, “Don’t worry about it.  I’m just glad the truck is still working.”

To be honest, I was annoyed.  If I’d known 3:30pm actually meant 4:45pm I’d have sat down inside instead of standing at the gate for over an hour.  But it wasn’t Albert’s fault, so what was the point in getting mad at him?

Albert seemed relieved I wasn’t angry at him.  During the morning ride he’d been taciturn, but now he was quite talkative.  He asked me I knew how to drive manual.  I laughed and said, “Yeah, but I’m really out of practice.”  He began a driving lesson, explaining each step as he changed gears and pointing out which roads to avoid.

Now we’re good buddies.  He greets me enthusiastically every morning.  When he heard me and my supervisor talking about getting the company car repaired, he even said “But then you won’t need me to drive you.”

What a sweetheart.

But that doesn’t mean I want to wait 2 hours every time I need a ride.


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2 thoughts on “A Story about “Africa Time”

  1. Lynne Alton on said:

    Hi Bethany!
    I continue to read your blog almost every day. A comment and a question I had after reading the really informative, abridged version of a talk you gave to EWB on Globilization, Cities and Regions ( a young friend of ours took that same geography course from that professor at UBC!) I had an idea of the huge shift of people from country to city but the predictions and the implications for the future are staggering. What your development project is doing in Johanesburg sounds crucial. Wonder about food? Are people in that area growing any of their own food? So often I think that skill/opportunity is lost when people move to a city.
    Another blog that I’ve thought about quite abit is the one you wrote about “blending in”. Wonder how that is going? It seemed a very real challenge. I wondered if I had anything from my life (ex living in Bella Coola as a young woman and getting to know many 1st Nations (Nuxalk) people and this Spring going to India) that was in any way similar to what you are experiencing?? I think pretty different circumstances, history, etc. but I still am going to risk saying what I think ( and risk giving you an unasked for suggestion). I do think you are wise to hang out with and get to know some of the women in the market place. I also wonder -and maybe you are doing this already- if you could be learning something from maybe one of the elder women? Something that would possibly level the perceived balance of power (you know coming from the “developed”country of Canada). In India visiting the young girl I sponsor in her very poor community I was so acutely aware of my living in abundance, aware of my being priveledged.
    On a more local note- Sunday my husband and I are going to a “Save the Salish Sea” Festival in North Van. There is to be music and speakers (one is Naomi Kline) about the proposed Enbridge pipeline and tanker route. I sent an email to your Mom and she said they might go.
    This is long. Must go.
    Stay well. Be safe.


    • Hi Lynne,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m really interested to hear more about your experiences in Bella Coola and India. Even though the circumstances were different, it sounds like we may have had similar reactions and perceptions.

      Regarding food, I don’t see anyone growing food in the inner city. No uses their balconies and rooftops are usually used for hanging laundry. That being said, someone told me about a group of Nigerians who turned a Hillbrow apartment complex into an exotic pet farm. Each floor was dedicated to breeding something different. Apparently it was an engineering masterpiece! On one floor they were breeding some sort of rare fish that needs extremely precise specifications to survive. So who knows – maybe some of those apartment buildings are actually greenhouses on the inside.

      I doubt it, though, because food is abundant and cheap. There are tons of food stalls lining the road. It wouldn’t be economical to use expensive inner city space to grow food. I’m not sure where all the vendors get their food. Maybe they have rural relatives?

      Another consideration is that the government here doesn’t encourage empowerment and entrepreneurship among the poor people. For example, one of my coworkers thinks the ANC hasn’t significantly improved education to maintain a large, uneducated black voting base. Instead, they use vouchers and government handouts to keep people “happy.” Food is another complicated issue because keeping people undernourished decreases their energy and hence co-opts their drive for change. Is that too cynical?

      In contrast to the city, many of the suburban homes have big gardens. It’s hard to believe some of these estates are only a 15 minute drive away from my office! These gardens are mostly ornamental – vines of flowers surrounding pools – but many also contain a lemon or avocado tree. We’re just coming out of winter here so it’s still hard to tell what people are growing. Maybe they have huge vegetable patches and I just can’t see it yet!

      Yes, it would be a great opportunity to learn some things from the elder women here. They’ve gone through so much… Apartheid and its fall, the hope then disappoint of New South Africa. I’m not sure how to start these dialogues yet, but maybe it’ll get easier as we get to know each other.

      How was the festival? People here find the politics surrounding the Enbridge Pipeline surprising. My coworkers say things like, “Canada used to be so green. What happened?” How was Naomi Kline? That would be so cool to hear her speak!

      All the best,

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