At sundown he led me past the snoozing security guards and out through the metal security gates that separated the backpacker compound from the local village. We walked along a deeply eroded street of dried terra-cotta mud, past huts and shacks, a barbershop with two chairs and a solar panel for the electric clippers, past a woman selling tomatoes stacked in little pyramids on a spread-out kanga, a group of jumping, pointing children yelling out “Muzungu! Muzungu!” and many pairs of watchful adult eyes. We sat down in a restaurant with a palm-thatched roof and no walls. It had two tables, a mud floor, and four planks of wood for chairs. “Ah, this is more like it,” said Milan. “Some local flavor, bro.”
The waiter was young, dreadlocked, and dreamily stoned. We ordered chicken masala and watched him saunter back to the kitchen to tell the cook, who sent out a boy for onions, called him back, gave him some money, and told him to pick up a chicken as well. Twenty minutes later, with no sign of the boy, Milan was twitching and vibrating with impatience. He stalked into the kitchen, pointed his forefinger, and gave the waiter and the cook an angry blast of Swahili. They sent out another boy to find the first.
Swahili is a mixture of Arabic and African Bantu languages. It contains several words for “hurry” and “rush.” They all come from Arabic, not Bantu, and they carry a negative connotation, implying that hurrying will botch the job.
Milan sat down and fumed. Fifteen minutes later the boys returned with two onions and a freshly killed and mostly plucked chicken. The cook started cutting it up, then answered his phone and wandered off for ten minutes. He came back, finished cutting up the chicken, and started on the onions. He was in no hurry, and it turned out that he had no reason to be in a hurry. The restaurant only had six plates, and they had all just gone into service on the other table. By the time the other diners had finished their meal, and the cook had washed up and dried the plates, the masala would be done perfectly.
As a recent arrival, I found it entertaining and fascinating to watch this process unfold with such amazing slowness, but it drove Milan crazy. Here was everything that bedeviled Africa’s progress and exasperated him about the motherland. “Where’s the system? Why is it so hard to plan ahead? I mean, put away a few shillings and buy some fucking onions, you know. If you want to make a living selling chicken masala, make sure you have a fucking chicken, man. And do some prep work, cut the fucker up ahead of time. Look at this. We’ve been sitting here for an hour and forty minutes now.”