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Diary Entry – Business Vs. Busyness

By Saurabh Khetrapal | Updated September 11, 2018

I was in Tanzania from January 26th to Feb 9th of 2015. I spent a substantial amount of time with several individuals (both Tanzanians and foreigners) who have dedicated their lives and resources to various projects and initiatives that ameliorate the lives of the less fortunate…and they are making a profound impact on the lives of Tanzanian children and adults.


Now, in spite of these kind folks’ dedication to their causes/missions, I discovered that there certainly is a tempo of progress that one should expect. This is part of the cultural DNA of the country and its peoples. And just to be clear, it’s not just Tanzania…and frankly, this slow pace is not unique to only Africa either. This laid-back/non-hurried attitude is inherent to most cultures in developing nations. Swahili-speakers say “Pole Pole”, Hindi-speakers say “Araam Say”; and I am sure there are similar phrases in Tagalog, Xhosa, Thai, Spanish…you name the language.


As someone who straddles 3 different cultures from 3 different continents – I am an Indian-African-American – even I sometimes forget about the realities on the ground in Africa. I too lament over the slow pace of progress as well as the seemingly lax attitude towards issues that I consider urgent or of paramount importance.


Here is a true anecdote from my recent Tanzania trip that illustrates this point…

It had been just a couple of days into my trip and I had woken up very early in the morning due to jet lag. We were staying at a beautiful tented camp in Southern Serengeti, and aside from enjoying the constant bird songs all around me, I had worked feverishly from 4 am until 8 am on formulating and developing several ideas that (I was convinced) would help Alex & Ester – my Tanzanian hosts and fellow philanthropists and safari operators – as well as other community workers in Tanzania. So, by the time I showed up to my breakfast meeting with Alex and our safari guide/driver, Ombeni, I was revved up – effervescent and well-prepared to share all my “amazing” ideas with them. I walked into the dining area of the safari lodge and saw Alex and Ombeni sipping on their hot beverages. I strode right up to the table, clutching my laptop in my arms. As soon as Alex and Ombeni were within my earshot, I began unleashing all the wonderful ideas, strategies, and execution plans that I had been working on that morning:

“For the orphanage and boarding school, I think the best strategy would be for us to…”

“And for the water-well project in the Maasai Land, a partnership with other local and international NPOs would really benefit us…”

After about 4 minutes of my excited and excitable soliloquy, I realized that both Alex and Ombeni had a look that can only be described as an amalgamation of surprise, overwhelm, and disgust.

“Is everything OK?” I asked, fearing the worst.

A couple of moments of silence…

And then Alex looked straight at me, smiled, and said in a calm voice: “Good morning, Saurabh.” (Pause.) “How are you this morning? How did you sleep? Was your room comfortable? How are the kids doing?”

Right then, I realized that even though I had grown up in Tanzania, and for the first 18 years of my life, I had been completely immersed in this beautiful, caring, generous African culture, the past 24 years of living in the US had had a significant effect on me. I had confused the African method of conducting “business” with the American definition of “busyness”.

That morning in January, I learned a valuable lesson in respect, patience, and the importance of being aware of the cultural context that I am in before defining expectations for myself and for others.

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