One of the ways you can tell how long people have been in country is their behavior in a que, or line. It is one of the realities of life in the third-world that there is no concept of personal space like in the west. Someone waiting in line in America will keep a few feet back from the person in front of them but here people will be pressed check to jowl.
I recall visiting a bank a few months ago. There was a line of about two-dozen men waiting at one of the customer service desks. The men were all pressed against one another single-file. You could not have passed a piece of paper between them, they looked like a centipede, just all legs and arms. While I was waiting for a teller I saw in a different line a young western woman. The young lady was standing several feet back from the person in front of her and eying nervously the person standing closely behind her. “Newbie,” I thought. I’ve been here long enough and have gotten used to the way things are that I am now comfortable standing right behind the person in front of me and don’t mind the person behind being equally close. I’m sure I am going to have to re-adjust myself upon my return to the US else I will cause offense and make people needlessly nervous.
The same is also true in terms of being served. Unless you are prepared to push and shove your way to the front of the line and demand to be served you simply will not be served. If you expect to stand politely waiting your turn western-style you will certainly starve to death if you are at a restaurant. It certainly takes some getting used to but once you get the knack it becomes second nature.
Washing hands before and after one eats is such a part of the culture here, all restaurants have washstands. I hadn’t been here long and was waiting patiently in line for my turn when someone just cut directly in front of me, they just jutted in as I was about to wash. At first I wondered if this was because I was a kawaja, a white person, but then I noticed people doing this to others as well. I soon learned of the need to protect your space and to shove your body in front of those trying to cut-in. It’s not an aggressive, hateful thing as would happen in the US where angry words would be exchanged. Here it just more matter of fact: I allowed a tiny opening and someone took advantage of it, so what’s the problem?
Setting-up a copying machine on the sidewalk or side of the road where you can find power and then charging for copies is a very common small business here. One day I desperately needed to make a copy and there was no power at our office (surprise) and so I was forced to use one of these street copiers. But as I was waiting my turn these short ladies, nurses from the hospital across the street, kept jutting in under me and pushing up to the copier. Realizing that I would have been kept waiting all day, and as I was taller than the ladies, I simply reached over then and shoved my document into the hands of the guy running the copier.
The lack of personal space extends to transport as well. Riding in a matatu, one of the Toyota minivans that have been adapted to hold 15 or more passengers, you have to be prepared to be pressed tightly against the person next to you. Riding from Yambio to Ezo last month I was squeezed into the rear of a Toyota Landcruiser with 19-other people, a third of them mercifully were children who didn’t take up much space. Still, every bump was agonizing as we all crushed in upon one another.
I remember riding the bus from Stonetown to Jambiani Beach on Zanzibar in December, 2010. Here the bus was more like a small stakebody truck which had benches and a roof built over the rear section. Upon the roof were loaded dozens of bags of sugar and flour and other goods for shipment way out on the island. Although we started out with only a handful of passengers, because we stopped often soon the back was full except for the seat next to me! No one wanted to have to sit next to the white guy until the very last passenger, number 24 I think, came aboard and there was no where left to sit. It’s an interesting experience to be the passenger no one wants to sit next to because of how you look.
It is so difficult as a westerner to get used to this, it goes against every notion of politeness and decency and yet it is the way things work here. I have now gotten used to throwing elbows in lines and pushing my way forward. It is one of those traits which it will be hard to drop once back home, like passing cars anytime or considering motorcycles as anything other than annoying pests.