Rebecca Jacobson
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On the Passage of Time

June 25, 2010 @ 4:31 AM | Permalink

I am unsure how to mark the passage of time in Malawi. I’ve just been spit out of 17 years of academia, with its easy dividing lines, its semesters and exam schedules and holiday vacations. Now I’m in this landlocked country, somewhere between southern and central Africa (Malawi can’t seem to decide where to place itself), without a job title or a work schedule and only the occasional deadline. I make my own days and have little routine, which can be liberating and exciting, but it’s also exhausting.

And now about 270 of those routine-free days have passed. There have been, predictably, interminable hours and blink-of-an-eye weeks. But rather than marking the elapsed time with those old, familiar rulers, I have had to seek out other methods of measurement.

The seasons scarcely work as a guide. When I arrived in Malawi at the end of September, it was hot and dry. Somewhere around December it became hot and wet. Now the rains have slowed to a sputter and people say we’re moving into winter, but the mercury can still run high during the day. And even if the seasons do change, if winter does arrive and I find myself haggling for turtlenecks and wool socks at the market, my trained northern hemisphere mind does not understand why it has arrived in June, just when I should be riding my bike, eating ice cream, and gaping at wildflowers in the Columbia River Gorge.

Events seem to come at the wrong time. In January, stores flew banners advertising back-to-school book discounts and summer clothing sales. Now, in late June, I pass flyers for winter concerts and winter parties. Mother’s Day was in October. Thanksgiving Day was scorching. When I was in Germany for the Euro Cup, it was light out till 9 and we gathered to watch the games on giant screens, al fresco. Now the World Cup is underway, but it’s dark by 5:30 and too chilly to sit outside (I started writing this entry a month ago; in the time that’s passed, the temperatures indeed have dropped – I could see my breath last week).

With wonky seasons and holidays landing in the wrong months, I’ve paid greater attention to the trees and the plants. The jacarandas were out when I arrived, and as soon as they dropped their soft purple blossoms the flamboyants (an appropriately audacious name for the bright red flowers) bloomed. Then the rains began, and the whole landscape sprouted green.

The fruits and vegetables have become a marker as well. Though part of me misses the round-the-calendar accessibility of the supermarket, I’ve been able to mark the passage of time by the changes in my diet. I watched with sadness as the mango season puttered out, to be replaced by a flood of sugarcane and avocadoes. The tree outside my door hung heavy with loquats when I moved in; then the guavas and passionfruit arrived; now we have tangerines. The initial tomato crop was mind-blowing. There are staples, to be sure, potatoes and bananas and papaya, but I have come to enjoy eating at the whims of the harvest. Still, without the rituals and familiar associations of the shifting agricultural calendar — the apple picking of the fall, the watermelon seed spitting of the summer — I struggle to measure the months by the alien produce in my kitchen.

Every so often I will be jolted by the abrupt recognition that the earth is, indeed, orbiting. A young woman I know gave birth recently, and I watched her stomach grow to improbable fullness and then shrink back to her slim frame. I’ve watched her sister hit puberty, her posture growing straighter and prouder as she’s adjusted to her new figure. Many of the young women I work with have children, and I’ve seen them grow from infants to boys and girls, with evermore animated facial expressions and legs strong enough to stand on. I received an email from my mother when the United States switched to standard time, and then another when the country returned to daylight savings, reminding me of the shifting time difference between my home here and my home there.

I can’t figure it out. Of course the cadence of a place is unique — a New England college campus runs at a different pace than the state capital down the hill. It’s not as if I’ve gone back in time, the way I felt during my three-week stint in rural Romania, in a village that lacked indoor plumbing and landlines. Time simply seems to operate differently here. Its passage feels less real, somehow, seeming to occur in a strange sort of vacuum, in a warped space where the clock ticks without regard for the timepieces of the rest of the world. 


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Rebecca: I love the ending and I LOVE the second picture with the bright blue guy and the sepia tobacco. Angela

Angela Allen on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-29

Thanks Angela! The second photo is my favorite as well.

Rebecca Jacobson on Trafficking in Tobacco 2009-09-30

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