Here at the University of Botswana they have a great appreciation for committees, meetings, protocol and procedure. Meetings are always very formal. An invitation is sent out, along with an agenda ahead of time. Of course, this is generally a moot point as no one ever arrives on time. Fortunately I am a quick study. It only took me one time to arrive at 8:59am for a 9:00am meeting where I sat in the conference room alone until one other person finally arrived at 9:36am to recognize the importance of never being without a book. The chair of the meeting didn’t even arrive until 9:42am! By about 10:15am four of the six people who were supposed to be in attendance had finally surfaced.
As the meeting finally began to gain some traction around 10:40am, someone pointed out it was tea time. Tea time!?! You just arrived twenty minutes ago! Why should I reward you for being 72 minutes late by interrupting this meeting for tea? The funny thing was I was the only one who had this opinion. When Ms. 72 Minutes Late suggested tea time the other faculty willingly stopped mid-sentence to commence with the tea preparations.
The Batswana love their tea, and nothing will stand in the way of it. In the U.S., like most people, I don’t have time for tea, or meals for that matter. I barely scarf down breakfast in the morning as I am frantically responding to emails on my iPhone while rushing out the door to work. Chances are, if I remember to bring a water bottle to work with me I might down a liter by the time I finish my 10am class, more so because I talk so much I get parched as opposed to making a concerted effort to hydrate. I seldom eat lunch before 2pm. Normally around 3, when things start to slow down and I finally realize I’m hungry I eat something at my desk while answering emails, talking on the phone and being interrupted every five minutes by either my department chair or a student. I think the last month I was in Texas every time my boss entered my office I was eating. This became such a frequent occurrence he would even mention it, “Sorry, I know I come in here every time you are eating but do you know….” I’m not a perpetual grazer, but if I don’t eat at my desk chances are I will roll out of the office around 6 or 7pm not having eaten anything all day.
My eating habits, or general work habits for that matter, would never be considered acceptable here. My colleagues wander in to the office around 9:30 or 10. I normally see them standing in the hallway between our offices chatting with one another as they all arrive until tea time at 10:30. I don’t dare knock on someone’s door between 10:30 and 11 as I will be interrupting tea time and told to please come back later. (On a side note, I’ve never seen anything quite so bizarre as entering an office where three men the size of NFL line backers are gathered around someone’s desk drinking out of tea cups embossed with flowers on the sides. The matching porcelain teapot, sugar bowl, saucers and miniature pitcher with creamer completed the set. Wish I had gotten a picture of that scene AND the look on my face.)
Tea time concludes around 11 and then I believe people get back to work, though I can’t be sure. My favorite time of day is between 1pm and 2pm, the lunch hour. I stay in my office and work because no classes are taught during that time and the entire building clears out. Not a soul to be found aside from myself and the security guard. It is quieter in my building during lunch hour than at 8pm on a Saturday night. And that’s not an exaggeration, I’ve been in my building at 8pm on a Saturday night and there was plenty of noise and movement at that time. That was a surprise.
You would think since everyone returns from lunch at 2pm and the work day ends at 5pm that would give everyone a full three hours in which to work. Not quite. The afternoon tea time goes from about 3:30 to 4pm. However, by the time you finish tea time at 4pm, there is only an hour left in which to work, and you can’t get anything done in an hour, so you might as well go home.
Recently a fellow American friend (he works in Namibia) and I were chatting about the peculiarity behind the inability of Southern Africans to show up to a meeting on time, yet you can practically set your watch according to when tea time begins. He suggested next time I needed to hold a meeting that I should schedule a tea time instead. I may just have to try that approach.