Approaching the year mark, I thought I’d discuss a cliche of Pacific life, and jot down what I’ve learned about the truth behind it since we arrived here. This is in lieu of a news post, since nothing much is going on.
Solomon Time: What We Thought to Begin With
The story you get told when first moving here is that Pacific Islanders / Melanesians / Solomon people have no sense of time and are hopeless time managers. Everyone is chilled out and vague, and consequently, eveything happens late, or not at all.
When questioned about delays, the locals simply shrug and say ‘ah, it is happening in Solomon Time’ or ‘Relax! It’s Island Time’, as though this were a good, natural thing.
It’s true that they do say this. And yes, it gets pretty irritating. New arrivals are continually advised not to get too stressed and “just be patient or you’ll go mad”. But after a few weeks you start to work out that there is something more behind it all than the soporific effects of the island sun….
Solomon Time: What We Know Now
Of course it turns out that people here have just as good a a sense of time management as anyone else. It’s just that they know there’s no point getting too attached to personal schedules that could be thown out at a moment’s notice by co-worker’s mistakes, bad equipment or demanding wantoks. Many of them are actually not relaxed at all but deeply stressed, which you can pick up in the rare unguarded moment. But there are taboos against agression, or even raised voices, so they all try to appear calm as much as they can.
I suspect the wantok system has an effect similar on time management to the caste system in India. I’ve heard that two weeks planning can go out the window if a Brahman turns up and wants their job done right now. Similarly, people’s plans to attend work or other commitments can become totally hijacked if a senior wantok arrives suddenly with a request to be driven to the airport. An individual cannot plan their ‘own time’ here to the same degree as they can in a western culture. Time is owned collectively.
Making plans or arrangements among social equals is complex because no-one wants to be seen to be putting themselves ahead of others. I have recently seen a group of prison guards spend nearly an hour deciding which code of football we were going to play. Eventually, everyone arrived at the same conclusion without anyone having lost face. It’s seen as better to lose time than face, I think.
Then, there’s also the fact that much basic equipment here is faulty, leading to more obvious kinds of delay. As well, there’s the general lack of education, meaning that basic mistakes are being made constantly. All in all, you’d be crazy to tell someone that “the application is going to be lodged by the end of next week.” Better to be a little vague about it, and try not to stress too much when your cousin-brother turns up and says sorry, he thinks he might have brought the wrong printer cartridge because he couldn’t read the label, and also, the car has broken down again. That’s Solomon Time.
And in fact, everyone finds this very irritatating, locals included.
The most amusing and edifying example I’ve seen of Solomon Time in action was the behaviour of a Swedish guy on our trip to the Western Province. Realising we were new, he sat there for about ten minutes pontificating about ‘Island Time’ and how we all needed to ‘chill’ if we were going to fit in and not go crazy. Just as he was saying this one of the resort houseboys came up to him and told him that the boat to Munda couldn’t leave due to a mechanical failure and he probably couldn’t get back to Honiara for a few days yet. He wasn’t quite so chilled out after that. In fact he stood around cursing and deriding the entire country as being full of inept fools and saying how much he was looking forward to going home.
Relax nomoa, brother! It’s Island time!