September 20, 2006 lia

Cultural Lesson # 1: Work Culture

I’ve spent some time thinking about how I could possibly explain the African work culture in a meaningful way that could actually result in some sort of understanding rather than a dismissive attitude that Africans are “lazy”. I don’t quite understand it myself, I just feel like it’s not entirely bad, and that we could actually learn something that might enlighten how we view work in our various work cultures. In less than two weeks, my last two years of stress have been erased, and I am remembering what it’s like to be laid back productive, rather than stress-case productive.
My work colleagues tell me Ghana is 150 years “behind” Canada. I disagree. I think somewhere between desperate poverty and desperately trying to compete for excessive riches well beyond what is necessary so that you don’t “fall behind”, there is some sort of happy median. Somewhere between having a 47 year life expectancy versus the breakdown of collective responsibility and community, there must be something we can all learn from eachother.
I’m going to describe four days of my work here.

Friday. I am told that we will be working at one of my colleague’s houses because it’s our office’s neighbourhood’s turn to be without power for the day, and so we’ll go to a house in a neighbourhood with electricity so that we can work on our computers. I am told to wait at my house for the car to pick me at 9. At 9.30, they phone and say they’ll be another hour. At 11.30, I phone them and say I’m going to the internet café and to phone my mobile when they’re ready. At 12.30, in the middle of uploading something important, they ring me and say they’re ready for me, so I tell them to go take lunch and pick me after. I go home, pick up some Guinness en route, and at 14.45, they phone me and to say we won’t be working today because our colleague, whose house we were going to work at, wants to work on his car.

Sunday. At 7.oo, my phone rings but I ignore it, anticipating that it’s a church invite. At 8.oo, it rings again, so I answer. After asking me if I had any plans, my work colleague tells me he will be going to the office. I, of course, offer to join him, and we spend Sunday at the office productively working on the 4-year Development Plan.

Monday. Work starts at 8.oo. I live with a work colleague who has a car, but I take a taxi in the morning because at 8.oo, I haven’t even seen her yet.

I get to the office at 8.05, and I’m one of only two people on my floor. One of my colleagues arrives at 8.25, and by 9 there are four people in our office all talking at each other at the same time. He says one sentence to one of them, then turns to me and dictates something I should add to the report, and then offers a joke to another, and then in all seriousness officially greets the Assembly woman who has joined us – basically, he’s dealing with all five of us at the same time, taking turns ignoring us, then addressing us, dealing us his deck of cards. This is how I find most important people here deal with business, an intriguing variation from North America’s linear time allocation system.

At 9.30, my other colleague walks in and says to pack everything, we’re working at his house because there are too many distractions at work. Since we’ll be working on two different reports, I should bring my laptop.

It takes us two hours to get to his house, mostly because we keep running into people and socialising with them – something that’s considered more important to a work environment than accomplishing work tasks. When we get to his house:

-Obaa yaa, have you taken breakfast?
-Yes I have, but if you’re having tea and bread, I’d be happy to join you.
-Have you had Guinness and bread?
-Tea will be fine thank you.

After he has taken an hour to go buy bread and prepare everything, we eat. When we finish, I get back to working with my other colleague and ask if he would like me to switch to using my laptop to free up his computer.

-Not now. I’m tired from eating.

And he proceeds to take a nap on his couch next to the table we are working at.

While my other colleague and I are working on the development plan, his phone is ringing literally every 10 minutes. He generally talks for about one minute, and then returns to work with me. At one point, he answers his phone and then gets up to talk in another room. As I’m waiting for him to return, I see him pull out of the driveway and take off, without saying anything to me.

He returns 1 hour later.

My description of this day continues much like this, but I think I’ll stop here. We decide that the next day, since one of my colleagues has to go to Accra to buy a car, two of us will work at the house again. I should go to the office and get the soft copy of the budget so that I can input it into the action plan, and then come to the house. As the car is pulling away I ask:

-What time should the driver come pick me then?
-Come at 8.oo
-If I come at 8.oo, you’ll still be sleeping!

Tuesday. I’m at my house waiting for the driver. It’s 8.30. I start doing some sudoku puzzles from my calendar. At 9.45, my colleague who’s in Accra phones me:

-Obaya, you won’t be working at the house today. Our colleague is going to be at the Water and Sanitation Dept all day. The driver is coming to pick you, and you must go to Water and Sanitation to get the document for inputting
-What time is the driver coming?
-He’s on his way

Since the driver is already on his way, I figure there’s no use reminding my colleague that there’s a soft copy of the document at the office and that I’ll be picking it from the Budget department anyways.

We pick up the document from Water and Sanitation.
Chat, greeting, welcome, fine thank you.

I get to the office at 11.45. Before I’ve even had time to turn on the computer, someone comes in and asks me if I’ve taken lunch.