Tuesday, May 30, 2006

efficiency and safetey are....Western values

Once again this week we have encountered the fact that other cultures just don't place the same value on efficiency or on word-keeping that we do.

For the past two years, the library of the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo was housed in boxes and piles in the assembly hall while the library was renovated. The entire library--two floors--was supposed to be finished in time for a move back last September. Well, when I began working there at the beginning of October, they were just moving books in, but only to the first floor. The second floor was not finished, the shelves were not installed, etc.

This past week a bunch of guys came and started working there. They sawed. They varnished. They moved things. All with windows and doors closed and a full staff working. Several people who worked over the weekend are sick now--not just with respiratory issues but even with skin issues. Standing at the door of the library without going in even results in an incredible feeling of ickiness to accompany nearly being knocked out by fumes.

The library has been open during all of this...which is happening during the last week of exams. Karla, the foreign languages librarian, has forbidden Jennifer or I (and preferably everyone else) from going in the library, and ordered the windows and doors opened, etc. Which means that this week we had to learn about the library computer program on a different computer...which meant that the computer program needed to be loaded onto the other computer in the other building, etc. Now, the seminary has a network, and the library program is on the network, and every staff person is supposed to have a login that allows them to access their own computer and all its programs from any computer on campus...but in reality, no. It took 24 hours to get the program loaded onto the other office computer and hooked up with the library computer. and that's with a couple hours of nagging the computer man. crazy.

Graduation for the seminary is this weekend. There are a bunch of guests coming from around the world, a few dozen students graduating, and a whole weekend worth of events. That means that the third floor of the main building (what will ultimately be a research center for Middle East Christianity) needs to be cleared and prepared. No work has been done on it all year, so it's covered in sand and work materials and who knows what else. Naturally, today workers came and began hauling out sand in bags. This is the method they chose: one person at the top fills a bag with sand (probably with about 15-20 pounds worth), then carries it to a person on the landing, who carries it to the next landing down, who carries it to the next landing down, who carries it to a guy standing about five steps from the bottom--where they switch on the steps and that guy takes it outside. This sounds like it should work beautifully...except that they stand around a long time between bags because there's just one guy at the top scooping-and-hauling sand.

I know both from fairly wide travel and from my education (thanks Dr. Clarke) that efficiency is really a Western value, and more specifically a North American value, and that it hasn't always been the goal even in the US. I know that it's a relatively recent development, along with the value that "choice is good." And I am willing to be inefficient in some things--I do believe that building relationships is what's important, that cultural values are important, that sometimes stretching out the work makes it more bearable and leads to more job security. But when you're talking about something that was supposed to be finished a year ago, and it's not done--and it is probably a 5 person job and there are 10 people doing it--then I think we have a problem. Especially when you decide to do that job during the most inopportune time available, and put other people at risk in the process. Or when a job that could have been done 3 months ago is put off to four days before the time everything needs to be perfect. It seems that perhaps there's a better, less stressful way.

If you are going to do things at the last minute, at least do them efficiently so they're done on time without you having to work around the clock--divide the work efficiently, know the limits of safety and attention span and strength/fatigue, and get the job done. As an experienced procrastinator, I have to say: Egyptians get a failing grade on the procrastination front. It seems to happen all the time, but not well. If you're going to procrastinate, that means you have to actually work hard and work well when it's crunch time.

I want to be understanding, but everyone is so stressed out, I'm just annoyed. So much stress could be avoided by doing the work the week or month before rather than the day before. So much illness could be avoided by doing the lacquering at your shop rather than IN the library. So much frustration could be avoided by doing things when you say you will, rather than one year later. No wonder this is a western value--it's an industrialization mindset. And Egypt not being a fully industrialized society, let alone post-industrial like most Western countries, lacks that mindset. And what I have to say about that is this: oy.

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