One recent morning in Nairobi, Kenya, I was sitting in the ninth-floor lobby of a downtown office building, waiting for the Tanzanian High Commission to issue me a visa. Several Kenyans were also waiting. But the office was as empty as a ghost town.
One man, holding a handful of passports for his clients, chuckled. “They are just taking their tea,” he said. “Tanzanians love their tea!” Another man looked at his watch and shook his head in disgust. Finally, a woman sauntered down the hallway and sat at a desk. After a few minutes, she looked up, took our passports, and told us to come back at 3:30.
In the elevator on the way down, the Kenyans were fuming. “It’s unbelievable,” one of them said. “Those people are so lazy.”
It might have been unbelievable to them, but it wasn’t to me. I had once lived in Tanzania, and one of the most difficult and disorienting things about it was adjusting to Tanzanian notions of time. There, time seemed to expand around events rather than contract to constrain them. Transitions were gentler. The flow was more measured. Things happened in a way that suggested time was not finite, but something of which there was plenty, if you knew the proper way to wait.
Kenya used to be more like that. But Kenya, or at least Nairobi, has changed.