Thursday, 14 April 2016

Some ponderings about Island Time

When I was younger, I used to run my paper run route as fast as I could in a race against my stopwatch. When catching the bus, I’d wait until the last possible moment before leaving home, sprinting down the hill to the bus – timing it to perfection so that I’d arrive at the perfect moment to board the bus with not a moment lost. Maximally efficient use of time! Not only did I maximise the time for other things at home, but also killed two birds with one stone by completing the required task and also getting in some exercise!

I think I come from a family context that is somewhat obsessed by time. I am realising that I’m obsessed by time. I've been reflecting on the attitude (my attitude which is normally dressed up in piety and other good things) that time is a ‘thing’ I can ‘own’ or ‘possess’ for myself, use for maximum benefit. The way I use time shapes my identity, speaks to the sort of person I am. I take pride from being admired or praised for how I use my time. I am offended when my time is wasted or misused.

From our first couple of months in Tokelau, it is fair to say that my view and conception of time is not very “Tokelauan”. The concept of time in Tokelau almost doesn't exist at all – at least not in any form I'm familiar with conceiving of it. If the idea of time is driven by anything – it’s probably most closely linked to the rise and fall of the tide – something you wait for, and submit to. It’s not to be controlled or optimised. It’s never a quantity of scarcity – it’ll rise and fall again. The analogy of the tide of course is pertinent because the people of Tokelau are a fishing people, and good fishing depends significantly on the art of reading the tide. Every Tokelauan is very tuned in to what’s happening with the tide – but it’s not something you control and use up.

As I watch and observe people in their daily life here I become aware that they have not “commodified” time as I think we have in the “palagi world”. People are content to sit, and be, for hours at a time. Even if they are ‘waiting’ they’re not so much waiting as just ‘being’ and ‘belonging’.

For example, if the almaga (the village workforce of able bodied men, which I join in with a few days a week) lack the equipment or materials required for a job, or some machinery has broken down (all common occurrences in this remote place), they are all quite content to sit, in silence, or chatting, or joking and laughing – without a question of “What next?” or “How long” ever seeming to occur. On days the ship from Apia is due in, it’s frequently later than expected. No one ‘waits’. If you asked when the boat is due – you really only get a shrug of the shoulders. Everyone just ‘be’s’.

On Thursday a couple of weeks ago my ability to cope with this totally different approach to time was tested to its limits! Chrissie was sick at home so I was on Rainy. After a few hours at pre-school – which if you know me you’ll understand I found testing – I had the task of taking Rainy over to Fale (the main village) to pick up some cash from the finance office and a few things from the store. During the day it emerged that both places would be closed the following day – and I thought “Good at least I’m getting it done today!”. Arriving at the store at 11:45am, I found a large que extending out the door. I decided to go for the Finance office first – its queue was similarly long. It turned out everyone was getting ready for a long weekend. We settled down to wait – yes I still think of it as waiting. Rainy played with some of the other little kids and knowing that I had at least until 1pm until the next return school boat and only a few things to get I was fairly ok.

At ten minutes waiting – I was hot, but fine.

Twenty minutes – still fine.

Half an hour – still at finance office, water nearly gone, Rainy being plied with chewing gum and other treats people were giving him – still fine.

An hour – I'm not so fine. I'm hoping that the shop queue will have gone. By this point I'm inside the finance office, Rainy is running round outside – no idea what sort of havoc the ‘palagi’ boy is causing.

Soon after 1pm I get out of the Finance office. Sadly the queue in (out of) the store is just as ominous. I realised I won’t be catching the boat I planned too! Poor Rainy. He’s doing so well. I'm feeling grumpy. MY TIME is being WASTED.

Half hour in the store. Rainy is wearing thin. He’s hungry, he’s thirsty, he’s tired. And people are still giving him treats.

Finally at the front of the queue at 1:50pm. (Side note - in Tokelau you read out your shopping list to the staff, they write it down in a book, write down the prices, add them up, then collect the items from the shelves and put them on the counter for you and you pay in cash. Not the easiest way to shop for a family of 7!). Several of the items that I came for are not in stock. Eggs, Frozen veg, any veg, etc. “So will they come in the next boat?” *Shoulder Shrug* “Hmmmn!” I decide to load up with what I can get – which means I leave the store carrying nearly 30kgs, towing a very tired Rainy, fuming inside about – well about everything. Fortunately I manage to get the final school boat of the day at just after 2pm. That’s followed by ten minutes of ‘sweat-walking’ in direct sun (over 40oC and humid) with 30kgs and a sad, tired boy. I was over it. Completely over it.

During this unfolding ordeal and reflecting in hindsight – what struck me most was that while I ‘waited’ and became increasingly agitated – everyone around me appeared completely chilled out and at peace – hanging out together, enjoying the company, not caught up in their own personal needs and how much greater their needs were than the next person. Everyone is there for everyone else. No-one for themselves. This is all part of being community together, shaping the collective identity. I was struck by the arrogance and self-centeredness of my feelings… “My Time”, “Me”, “Now!!”

While I realise that the way I value time is not all bad – in fact there’s a lot of good about it, I think there’s room for an adjustment in how tightly I cling to “my time”. I was struck and challenged recently by this excerpt from Life Together by Deitrich Bonhoeffner talking about the call to serve one another in small and big things…

“Those who worry about the loss of time entailed by such small, external acts of helpfulness are usually taking their own work too seriously. We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our more important daily tasks, just as the priest – perhaps reading the Bible – passed by the man who had fallen among robbers. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the cross raised in our lives to show us that God’s way, and not our own, is what counts. … [It] is part of the school of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service. We do not manage our time ourselves, but allow it to be occupied by God.”

I think there’s a very true sense in which people in Tokelau emphasise serving one another, rather than being preoccupied with their own time. My hope is that our time in Tokelau will be for me a “school in humility” where I can allow my time to be more fully “occupied by God”, receiving the good from both cultural approaches to time. For me that means being more at peace with Island time.



  1. Thanks so much Matt For your ruminations, they are teaching us too.

    1. I absolutely agree. Thanks for sharing this, Matt. I could so relate to the mounting feelings of frustration as you waited. It would take me sooooo long to learn not to 'wait', with the idea that this was a holding pattern before getting on with the real business of living, and instead dwell in the reality that the real business of living is made up of all aspects of our lives with each other, including the line at the grocery store and the opportunity that presents to "be".

  2. Thank you Matt, this is a really excellent description of how things are in Tokelau, also in my own experience of visiting there as a real palagi and a former efficiency freak.
    Just spare a thought for my (Tokelau statistics) job which still needs to be done and meet prescribed targets that can only be achieved with the villagers' cooperation....
    We all know about "island time" - it must be because of Tokelau's remoteness that things are so much "worse" (for want of a better word, you describe it much more understandingly) - I tend to think if it as "island time squared"...
    Best of luck with your transformation! - iapiinapia

  3. WHat I took from your korero Matt was "Remote doesn't mean detached" quite the opposite. What you hear in a city seems to be noise. Until I did a listening test with a music class- I heard 3 cars drive past. Then a slightly average boy surprised me - he heard different. "Sir it was a Subaru, Mitsubishi and a commodore" Touche'. I suppose what I'm saying is it takes time to notice the important things, the small things. I hope we get you back Matt.