September 29, 2006 lia

Cultural Lesson #3: Seasons [or lack thereof]

I’ve heard all sorts of theories to explain various cultural work ethics – back in my archaeology days, it was minimal energy output for maximum energy input, I’ve heard theories about how the heat slows people down, religious theories such as the protestant work ethic, and even a theory that simply states “the closer you get to the Mediterranean, the less people obey traffic laws”. What I’m proposing though [and I’m sure it’s too obvious for me to be the first to think of it] is the seasonal theory of variations in work cultures.

Ghana has no real seasons, just short bursts of downpour during the “rainy season”, but nothing that really affects anyone’s daily behaviours. The sun always sets around 6pm, all year round, and there’s always something to eat in season.

In the west, especially in Canada, we have an incredible range of temperatures and weather across the year, instilling a sense of urgency in our culture. Having grown up in Vancouver, I certainly try to optimise every sunny hour that’s made available to me, and considering the 4pm sunsets in the winter, you certainly won’t catch me indoors during daylight hours.

Our culture is clearly constructed around time management, where time is understood as being linear – it can be spent, but never acquired. In Africa, time is considered circular, almost endless and always available.

What’s interesting though is that Africans have some of the shortest life expectancies in the world. Life expectancy in Ghana is 47 years, hence their inability to understand why I haven’t gotten myself married yet [though considering how accepted cheating on one’s spouse is in Ghana, marriage doesn’t seem to have quite the same weight as it does elsewhere. I told some Ghanaian women that in Canada, if your husband cheats on you, you get everythingin the divorce settlement — they loved that.].

Japan, on the other hand, has the longest life expectancy, and yet the Japanese might just have the most heightened sense of urgency of anyone on the planet. Japan and Toronto are two of the most punctual places I’ve ever lived, and they happen to be the two most extreme climates I’ve experienced. [Another very interesting thing about Japan is that they also have the highest suicide rate in the world – connection between long life and suicide?]

Today, for example, is Friday. Due to rotating power outages, our office doesn’t have power every Friday from 6am to 6pm [yes, I’ve tried mentioning to have the central business district trade with another neighbourhood to be without power on Sundays from 6am-6pm when everything’s closed anyways, but people just laughed at me for that crazy suggestion]. In North America, when the tools to do your job are stripped from you, you would hardly be expected to waste your time coming to the office. In Ghana though, one of my friends at work was actually reprimanded for being one hour late last Friday, despite the fact that she is entirely unable to do her job without electricity. Ghanaians seem to distinguish between “working” – mostly composed of socialising – and completing “work tasks” — a small proportion of “work”.

It’s an entirely different way to construct one’s world, and it can be tricky trying to explain to my work colleagues why I get frustrated when at 4:30pm they give me a 3 hour “urgent” task to do, meanwhile I was at work at 8:00am waiting for 2 hours for someone to come to the office.
Luckily for me though, an unscheduled power outage occurred at 5:oopm that day, and I got to go home on time afterall. They may expect a circular understanding of time from my linear self, but I can always count on a power outage to bail me out, no matter what the season.