Slow down and embrace the abyss

I have never been much of a planner.

I have always operated from a firm stance of ongoing exploration. Even when my path seems clear, whether it manifests as graduate school, or as a job with a substantial contract laid out before me, it still seems that the less I have to plan in advance in life – the less I have to commit to the various set-in-stone paths that human beings feel so comfortable charting out for themselves – the better off I am.

Here in peri-rural Uganda, long-term planning ostensibly revolves around crop cycles – how to prepare for the transitional periods when the rainy seasons turn dry and the crops cease to grow under the blistering dry heat of the equatorial sun. As such, people here seem to live their lives more fluidly from day to day than we are used to in the West.

With the advent of a global push for the current consensus on modernity, a development industry has risen from the ashes of the (officially) abandoned colonial regimes of the 19th and 20th centuries and seems to focus on teaching Ugandans how to “plan.”

Savings cooperatives inculcate the values of financial planning. Family planning and birth preparedness trainings seek to ensure that families themselves are planned out well in advance. Education interventions are designed so that youth and their families may invest in a brighter future future. Immunizations are pushed on communities to plan for imminent physical hardships and seek to prevent otherwise impending ailments and disease.

In the industry itself, we create work plans for our jobs and timelines for donors to ensure that all projects and programmes are rolled out, scaled and implemented in an effort to make progress towards time-bound indicators. We streamline professional attitudes and behaviors to push newly employed Ugandans to show up to work “on time” and accomplish tasks according to a pace that is in line with the pace of the modern global workforce.

The process of international development seems focused on rapidly temporizing a dynamic, fluid, and in many ways, timeless place. These increased modes of structure arguably systematically facilitate the improvement of development indices along the lines of health, education, infrastructure, commerce, and political stability.

Though here we see yet another clash between modernity and tradition – Ugandans are some of the most hard-working people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. But a lack of systematic and regulated diligence in any work stream, those who call the shots in development work (generally Westerners) tend to have an aneurism trying to prove to their donors that things are being done the “right” way.

We as an industry are effectively redefining the modes and merits of planning throughout the developing world, with little regard for how this process is impacting the cultural contexts in which we work.

And here I am, emerging from a one-year fellowship that has allowed me to learn from this sense of timelessness, a sense of tradition juxtaposed with an elsewhere-formulated conceptualization of modernity, with no concrete plan moving forward.

This seems to really aggravate my Western colleagues – what do you mean you don’t have a job but you’re planning to stay here? Why don’t you go back to the States until you find something? You can’t just BE here!

Since when is the act of sitting and being still something to be discouraged or frowned upon?

I remember when I first moved to Uganda I would walk out of my house every morning – and come home each evening – to find Maama Naafa and her family sitting outside on the front lawn. That’s it. Just sitting, perfectly content with the act of simply being, of existing in the present moment. And all of her daughters and granddaughters, who spend countless hours every day cooking, cleaning, working in the gardens, raising the children and somehow finding time to take care of themselves, would be right there, sitting at her side, taking in the present moment. Just being.

Perhaps cultures that are not yet fully drowned in modernity have been able to preserve something that we are rapidly losing in the West – the ability to just be, to accept the present moment as infinite, and not spend all of our energy trying to manipulate our place within the Great Moment by speeding it up or slowing it down. Just accepting who we are, where we are, when we are, which is right now. There is only right now.

I am a staunch proponent of engaging in work that helps others to improve their own situations through the sort of planning necessary to achieve goals that they set for themselves. I am a gear in this behemoth development machine, ever churning out work plans and logistical frameworks and timelines and indicators and evaluations and reports. I believe that these modes of organization are crucial to effectively work towards goals that can help save lives, empower marginalized people, and elevate the living conditions of human beings all over the world.

However, as “we” storm in with a working culture that has been formulated half a world away, we need to take lessons from the context into which we are injecting these processes.

There is a stillness here, there is a sort of meditative state in which work is carried out. There is no rush, or as the slogans on matatus read, “No hurry in Africa.” While there is an undeniable urgency in addressing the ills that plague societies across this continent, let’s not ignore the opportunity to address an overpowering ill that plagues our own conceptualization of what a modern world would look like: the trap of locking ourselves into methods of hyper-productivity and losing touch with the power of taking life slowly, of connecting with those around us, of stopping to greet your neighbors, of taking your sweet time to complete every greeting, of listening to the sounds of the world around you, of being comfortable with sitting in the shade of a tree without the distractions of the modern world occupying your mind and fingertips.

I stand by my mantra that I am not here to teach, I am here to learn. I have learned the importance of adopting to the pace of your surroundings, of remaining flexible and not expecting change to come at the snap of your fingertips. I have learned that planning is not always the best course of action.

So we will see where life goes, we will see what the season brings, and we will see what there is to learn in this wild and untamed chapter of life.