Friday, April 4, 2014

The Art of the Queue

Africans have an incredible amount of patience.  I sincerely believe it is a trait which is instilled from birth.  They don’t really tend to complain much and they have an amazing tolerance for inefficiency and lack of performance.  This always stands out to me when I go somewhere and I have to wait in line.  I once walked into the Post Office to buy a stamp.  There were easily 100 people waiting in line.  I took a look around, asked someone towards the front, “Is this really the queue?  All these people are waiting?”  When she replied in the affirmative all I could say was, “You’ve GOT to be bloody kidding me?!?”  And then I turned around and left, sans stamp.

No one thinks twice about waiting in line for hours.  No one questions it or gets irritated at the wait.  It is accepted as a part of life.  It is such a natural state of being that people, and companies, have adapted to this culture of “Don’t hurry, ‘cause you’re gonna wait anyway.”

The reason I say everyone has adapted is because any time you walk into an office lobby it is typically overflowing with chairs- to accommodate the queue.  I remember the first day I arrived I was immediately taken to the Water Company to transfer the bill into my name and pay the deposit.  I went in and stood behind the person at the counter.  Someone came up to me and instructed me that I was jumping the queue.  Apparently the 20 or so people sitting in chairs were all in the queue.  I didn’t exactly understand this concept until I saw the person at the counter complete his transaction and leave.  The person in the chair closest to the counter rose and approached the now available customer service representative.  Then everyone sitting in the chairs got up and shifted one chair to the right.  I was stunned.  I went to the first empty chair on the far left and then as each person ahead of me moved, I moved.

For months I have been sitting in queues wondering why no one institutes a number system, like you have when you go to the deli counter, to avoid the massive queues.  Back in January I went to get my Botswana driver’s license.  The office was scheduled to open at 8am; I arrived at 8:17am.  I was delighted to see they utilized a number system.  I took my number, number 142.  I figured there was no way 141 numbers had been distributed in only 17 minutes.  I figured they were carrying over the numbers from the previous day.  Sadly, that was not the case.  The electronic board announced number 12 was being serviced.  I did a quick calculation and figured 12 people in 17 minutes would mean that I should be helped in about three and a half hours.  I left and returned at 11:45am, just as number 121 was being called.  Fortunately I only waited about another 45 minutes before being helped.  In reality this was a record GOOD time!

I’m pretty sure when Mr. Miyagi said, “Patience young grasshopper” he was not referring to queuing practices in Africa.  Nevertheless, this has become a sort of mantra of mine here.

Here is a photo I took of students waiting in “line” at the beginning of the semester to register for courses.  You may also notice that there are no advisors sitting at the desks with the computers to help them.  The advisors were on their lunch break.  But the students patiently sat there for over an hour until they returned: 

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