Time in Kenya moves differently.
In America, time works against you. Each tick is a moment lost. Each tock an opportunity missed. Every second is precisely counted and every minute measured. Time waits for no one.
In Kenya, time holds little power. Each tick is a mere concept. Each tock a chance encounter. Something may have a start time, but it may not begin for another hour. Time waits for everyone.
In the month that has transpired, it’s been interesting to see how time manifests itself here.
In the school, the bell may ring at its specific time, but the teacher might not arrive for several minutes, knowing that the previous lesson has likely not concluded. As a punctual American who unapologetically arrives to class early and customarily ends class with a minute to spare, there have been moments of frustration as teachers “steal my time.”
During meetings, schedules only indicate the order of operation. Even if there is a strict end time listed on the paper, you can expect to go overtime for at least 30 minutes. The timetable didn’t account for the extra voices invited to speak and the meandering sermons that each person would confer.
I have come to expect that anytime someone tells me to be ready at one time, I have at least 25 minutes after that before I need to prepare to leave.
Where time has the most abstract meaning is during the liturgy. Mass is an experience of expansive joy rather than restrictive scheduling.
Beginning with songs, shouts, and cries for jubilee. The opening of the liturgy is a full-body experience. After several songs, the procession starts with a parade of dancers of all ages, beginning first with young children to wise adults; they line the central aisle carrying with them a spirit of great energy. After their dancing has inspired the congregation, the Cross, Gospel book, Servers, Deacons, and Priest finally process towards the alter with extraordinary enthusiasm. As the Priest bows before the altar and reads the opening prayer, the music stops for a short line of prayer before resuming again with continued shouts and singing. After every few lines, songs stop and restart. In the time it takes to get to the first reading, most services in America would be finishing communion and preparing for the announcements and final blessing.
Through the readings, the Kenyan Liturgy moves with the same tenor as liturgies around the world; however, following the Gospel, the clock returns to Kenyan Standard Time for the homily. Always beginning with the call and response incantation, “God is Good. All the time.”, the Priest lectures at the pulpit for no less than 45 minutes. With occasional breaks for additional calls and responses from the assembly, the congregation patiently and enthusiastically listens to his meandering monologue. Emphasizing an endless array of topics, the tapestry of his words weaves a discursive and unique design that is as intricate as the various clothing dawned by the community. With a final amen and concluding “God is Good” incantation, the choir shouts with joy singing additional litanies before, during, and after the Creed.
Moving into hour two, the collection and presentation of gifts invites another visitation from the liturgical dancers. Lining the isles with waving arms and clapping hands, the community convenes towards the alter depositing their tithes in the various buckets. After the first round of donations concludes, the second round of donations quickly follows. This time the buckets are brought to the altar steps, and the Priest and servers receive the gifts in hand. Ranging from assorted fruits, chicken, water bottles, napkins, sugar cane, random toiletries, and a cornucopia of various items, people carry each precious gift, dancing and shouting the entire way. Eventually, a table off to the side of the alter is overwhelmed with offerings, and the dancers conga-line their way back down the aisle.
Given all the pomp and circumstance of the early parts of the Mass, when it is time for the main event, the Eucharist seems plainly ordinary. Loosely constructed lines that pays relatively little attention to cutting shuffle towards the minister with simple reverence. Western Churches embrace this moment for silent prayer and adoration. Here in Kenya, light music and singing continue throughout—comparatively, it’s the closest experience to quiet heard during Mass.
Once the tabernacle is closed, the community erupts again in music as a third donation offering and thanksgiving for the priest convenes another song and dance. Yet another table is covered with a feast of foods and buckets filled with coins and notes. Time continues to tick towards hour three.
Tuckered out by shouts and dancing, you’d think that announcements would be kept brief as people are eager to exit Church and begin their day. However, announcements present an opportunity for additional speeches, prayers, and potentially even homiletic addendums. Eager to go nowhere, the Church waits.
Eventually, the Crucifix crosses the door’s threshold marking the conclusion of the liturgy. Once over, smiles dawn on faces as people greet one another and hustlers gather outside the gate to sell tea and snacks. The rising sun is the only vestige of the passing time.
Laughing as I look at my watch, three hours have transpired, and not a complaint was uttered. In America, cars would have emptied the parking lot long ago, and doors would have likely slammed as parishioners left frustrated for the time being wasted.
What is it that makes time work?
Why is it that time moves at different paces? Clocks may keep time, but like a sieve, they have limitations.
In my travels around the world, America is one of the few places that bows to Grandfather time. Elsewhere, siestas, conversations, and breaks are the masters of time.
While I may bear my frustrations over regularly running late here with a grin, after years of rigorous schedules, limited vacations, and strict deadlines, I will enjoy my lazy Sunday and third cup of tea.
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