The Value of “Pole Pole”

July 27, 2017 | April, ECH, Uniterra, Tanzania - MVIWATA, Advocacy and Learning Officer

As my 12-week internship is quickly coming to a close, I will be leaving Tanzania with a mix of excitement, disappointment, gratefulness, and accomplishment. My experience thus far has been one of personal growth and practical skill development. Returning with me to Canada, I will not only bring souvenirs, but the memories I’ve made, the friendships I’ve forged, and the numerous life lessons I’ve learned. Perhaps the most important of these lesson is the value of taking things slow.

Upon arriving in Tanzania, the volunteers had a three-day orientation at the Uniterra office. The biggest impression I was left with based on stories from the local and foreign staff was that Tanzanian work culture was going to be difficult to adjust to coming from a fast-paced country like Canada. Not to encourage generalizations, but we were told that the pace of Tanzania was “pole pole,” meaning slowly slowly. As volunteers from Canada, we were raised in a society that pressures us to be time efficient, to get the most done in the 24 hours we are given. As new interns, we were especially eager to start our mandates and get our feet wet in a new country. We were advised that we would have to adjust to this new pace, something previous volunteers had found difficult to do at times. I did not realize the accuracy of their words until the other volunteers and myself experienced this first hand. What I also failed to understand at the time was the depth and significance of this lifestyle.

Canada in the 21st century. A time when technology is heavily influenced by supporting innovations that promote time-efficiency and productivity. As George Ritzer calls it, it is the McDonaldization of the world. Technologies are created with the intent of making our lives easier, to save us time, and to get more done. After living here for 3 months, I have come to realize that this mindset of productivity and control comes with consequences. Self check-outs, ATM’s, and drive-thru’s all save time by cutting out the aspect of human interaction. The “pole pole” lifestyle of Tanzania holds onto the importance of human contact. Above all else, it puts human relationships at the forefront of daily life. It values people by exerting effort and time into learning about another human being, to take it slow, and as they say, “go with the flow.”

Coming from a society that fights against this culture, at first it was difficult, and at times frustrating, to adapt in the workplace. Especially in the beginning, finding the balance between taking the initiative to ask for work while not infringing, and being sensitive to cultural differences in the Tanzanian work place context were important. The difference is not that the organization is not busy, or that there is a smaller workload. In fact, the last three weeks of my internship were full of overnight trips in the field, workshops, proposal writing, and training up until the last day. The difference lies in the choices people make.The pole pole lifestyle chooses to put relationships first, while our fast-paced lifestyle back home further separates us from our human nature. We replace people with objects, relationships with technology, and meaning with convenience, and in doing so, deprive ourselves of that which gives our lives value.

I came to realize that the reason behind appointments being pushed back and late meetings was not due to tardiness, but because they choose to put people first, to accommodate to humans instead of a schedule. A story which was brought up during our Uniterra training in Ottawa is a perfect example of this. In the story, an older gentleman took twice as long to patrol the same neighbourhood as the other employees. The other men had difficulty understanding why. Was it because he was older, or did the job slowly? Instead, they discovered that this man was going into the neighborhood and speaking with the locals, getting to know the residents, sitting down for tea and learning about their families. This proved to be useful later on, as an incident in the town caused the locals to only trust him to get the job done. I have come to realize that building relationships is sustainable. Learning more through the experiences of others, forging bonds through taking the time to talk to others can serve a great purpose in the long run.

We work towards possessing objects which don’t contribute to our happiness and only fuels the need to possess more in an effort to achieve said happiness. In replacing conversations and interactions with screens and automated messages, we become overworked and unhappy. We are working towards the wrong things, and in doing so, we have lost sight of what truly matters. Being busy is hard-wired into our DNA from a young age, so much so that when we do have free time, we are anxious to do something productive with it.

Even locals have taken notice of this. During our three-day orientation in Arusha, we stayed at a guesthouse called Adia’s Place. Adia, the owner, would make us breakfast each morning as we waited to be picked up by a Uniterra staff member and brought to the office. One morning, we had woken up later than usual. As such, when the Uniterra staff member arrived we were all still eating. As an instant reaction, we rushed to get up and go, taking our last sips of coffee and leaving with toast in our mouths. Adia interceded and told us to take our time, not to rush, to take it easy. She proceeded to tell us how she had a pervious volunteer from Canada and noted that because of the obsession with time “you guys are always stressed out,” and we were. From work to class, class to work, from the grocery store to the gym. In an effort to squeeze the most into one day, to get the most out of 24 hours, our lives are passing us by without holding onto what is important.

Developing countries are referred to by some scholars as “backwards societies.” However, I beg to differ. Instead, I would suggest to critically analyse this statement. We are the ones replacing relationships with machines, and people with objects. Yet, as opposed to this technology contributing to a stress-free, time-efficient lifestyle, recent studies have proven that more and more people are unhappy and plagued with anxiety. In a commercialized world, we consume more, buy more, are engulfed in debt and yet are still unhappy and stressed. Apps which are meant to globalize and connect us with people all over the world such as Instagram, are instead negatively impacting our mental health. During my internship, I learned skills and techniques in lobbying and advocacy. I have learned how to ask the right questions, how to hold effective workshops, how to write proposals, and even public speaking. However, despite all this, I would say the most important skill I have developed is how to value human beings more. As such, I would like to thank Uniterra, MVIWATA, and the University of Ottawa for providing me with this opportunity. I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to the locals of Tanzania, who made this experience meaningful by being hospitable and helpful everywhere I went.

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