This week marks the semester’s approximate half way point. Students feel enormous pressure about their grades, students “sit” for their “mid-semester papers” (what Americans call exams or “mid-terms”), and “lecturers” put in extra long hours “marking scripts” (grading papers), coaching nervous students, and holding the line on the inevitable push students will make for multiple forms of exceptions to any and all rules. I’ll name that condition “stress.”
And so it was with both delight and determination that I set off yesterday morning for another tro-tro trip to the American Embassy. In the midst of everything, I had received word that my long term visa paperwork needed to be retrieved to prove I can remain in-country beyond my 3 month tourist visa. (If I were a counting woman, I’d say that I was somewhere between 52 and 77 days on a 60 day stamp in my passport). In other words, I simultaneously celebrated the call and rued the timing. I was determined that I could get into Accra and back out again before a lunchtime meeting if only I set out before dawn.
So I was on the road by 5:40 a.m. and at the embassy in a new personal best, 2 hours 40 minutes. I had high hopes. In fact, the ride in had been so relatively uneventful that I began to feel just a tinge of guilt about sketching notes for this particular blog entry in which I was going to respectfully complain about various infrastructure challenges of late (small things, like disproportionate power load shedding, a water pump confused by power surges, and public transit without schedules or routes). With time, I would have reached nature’s challenges like the packed-earth road-dust, the gecko in the cutlery drawer, afflictions that fortunately I’ve been vaccinated for, and the slowly increasing temperatures. I might never even have mentioned the 7 inch scorpion on the road, because really, life is good here. Everyone is kind and welcoming and helpful. (One man at the tro-tro stop even asked me to marry him last week! Ironically, the guidebook warns such proposals happens quite frequently to women, so I did not know whether to feel insulted or relieved that this man was my first in three months). It was just that I have been feeling a generalized fatigue.
I guess I could have seen my own fatigue before seeing Figure 1.6 had I realized that I now go into shops scanning for what I recognize rather than awed by all that is different, and that I actually now own right-sized buckets for “bucket baths” when the power is out (which prevents the water pump from working…). But, it took attempting the impossible for me to notice. I decided to quickly get cash from the automatic teller machine at the embassy before reversing my trip and being back on campus at Ahsesi for an early lunch. Oh the trappings of luxury.
The kiosk has an electronic touch screen, which as it turns out was not well calibrated yesterday. I kept pressing “yes” and “continue;” the machine kept replying “please press ‘continue’ or press ‘no’ to exit.” And then, the machine changed screens: “Your session has timed out. Your card has been seized because you did not respond. Contact your local branch for service.” In the long silence which followed, there was no indication of a card. It really had been seized.
Before panicking, I asked a woman who was setting up her station behind thick glass if she could please advise me who to see to retrieve my card. Very politely, she explained that I needed to wait for the service man, “he’s the only one who can retrieve it.” I asked when he comes. “At different times each day – sometimes soon after lunch, sometimes before…” NO! (panic began setting in). See, I can’t wait; I live in Berekuso in the Eastern Region; I have a 3 hour trip to make; I cannot just wait until after lunch; I need to return to Berekuso. (I was beginning to feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “I have to get home to Auntie Em”.) She gave me the name of someone in the building, their extension, pointed me to a common phone, and suggested perhaps he could help. There was no answer, all morning.
I verged on becoming an “ugly American,” demanding someone fix the problem. But realistically, there simply was no possibility of that happening.
West Africa had won again.
I took up post on a comfortable sofa, faced the machine and the door so I could watch for my card or the man – which ever emerged first – and settled in. That’s about when I began to see the humor in all of this.
During the weekend, I had been preparing exam questions for my Organizational Behavior class. I had been scanning through chapter 1 on basics of individuals and behavior within groups and organizations. I had seen the formula explaining behavior as a function of the individual and the situation. The explanation is supported by Figure 1.6 – Adjusting to Foreign Cultures. I had chuckled at it Saturday as I thought about my own recent fatigue and frustrations; yesterday, I nearly laughed aloud about the irony. The graph’s Y axis is the degree of one’s acceptance of a new culture; along the X axis is time. There it was, the lowest point on the rapid slope down, neatly bottoming out around 2-3 months with a box and black arrow labeling “Frustration and confusion about new culture – culture shock.” The funny part was that I had found myself sitting unexpectedly and indefinitely in this lobby watching a still machine because my 60-90 day visa was expiring. Figure 1.6 now held new “experiential” meaning for me.
I literally felt a new calm sweep into me as I laughed. Figure 1.6 suddenly served as a framework for me to make sense of my last several weeks (or perhaps it merely provided a sensory analgesic or a route to dissociation as a cognitive balm, but it made me smile whatever it was). After Figure 1.6’s plateau (labeled as “tend to be confused and reject”) was a steadily upward trending line towards “optimism” and even “understand and accept.” I was in a very nicely air conditioned, clean room; there were military guards everywhere so my perceived threat level was green; and I had a comfortable sofa on which to rest and reflect for an indefinite number of hours. I even had plenty of school work to do if I decided to concentrate. Of course, I would not be back up towards optimism for months, and Figure 1.6 shows me reaching utopia around new years or Easter, but it was a trend. And as finance teaches, a trend is your friend.
Figure 1.6 did not appear on today’s mid-semester exam. However, it may be one of the pages I most clearly remember in the textbook for many years to come.
Kurt Lewin, a guru in my field, is noted for saying, “there is nothing so practical as good theory.” In this case, he’s right. He started me up the back side of this particular curve.
Note: The servicemen did arrive before 11 a.m. I retrieved my card, insisted they wait while I got cash and my card back, and made it back to campus shortly before 2 p.m. It was a very long day.