All in Good Time

Jakarta in May is hot at first light, hotter by noon, beads of sweat running down the gutter of your back bone, your head buzzing like a microwave  and in this heat the one thing you know to  be absolutely true is that no one actually knows what time it is and if they did  know they wouldn’t care. So while you know your watch has one time, it doesn’t matter a damn if it is the right time or not as you also know that there is no set time that any event will start or that anyone or anything will leave or arrive as planned , as beautiful and believable and well intentioned as all commitments may have been.

I only arrived from Africa Saturday and on Wednesday morning I was already on a flight to Surabaya in East Java. My work was to provide an induction for two new staff who will be working in Surabaya and Flores to help producers who are poor get better prices for their goods. The timing wasn’t ideal, but I had to hire them as soon as possible and so I had to orient them in to their roles , so what to do, to me this is really important work. A friend of mine once told me, a job is something you do for someone else but work is what you do as an expression of who you are. So that really brings a new perspective to “work – life balance”, in this context, work and life are inseparable and so naturally in balance. But that is deep so early in this postcard.

It is now 7pm Friday and I am in a taxi on my way back to from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport, completely spent . I think I am still jetlagged from the Africa trip, I didn’t sleep well in the hotel and I spent most of the last three days presenting and Lerina translating into Bahasa Indonesian . Lerina works with me, and when Olivia and I leave ,will take over much of our work. She is Batak, which is a tribal group from Northern Sumatra. Bataks were Christianised by Dutch and German missionaries, tend to speak good English, and like to eat dogs and fruit bats. Apparently when roasted bat wings are crunchy and delicious. Lerina is fine with dog, but draws the line at bat.

The inductions I do for new staff are structured like a building project. I give a brief over view , like the architects plan, spend a lot of time on the foundations, put up a framework of the whole structure and then begin filling in the structure bit by bit. In the case of our work in community economic development, the foundation consists of long discussions about the circulation of power. How, when World Vision enters into a dialogue, all the community dynamics are changed and how we are not a neutral player, how we too have our own agendas, forged in our own structures, internal incentives and the messages given to donors. I am committed to making a big investment of time, over many months, in each person we hire and it all starts with a two day induction.

I often struggle with how to make the biggest impact with the time I have available, there are so many time traps. As part of facing this challenge, my team develops statements for each of the projects we are working on, so that we have some kind of anchor to help keep us focused. The statement for our economic development work in  Surabaya is: “In 2009 we can help prevent 1400 children suffering malnutrition and stunting if we help increase the incomes of the 700 poorest families in our  Surabaya project area by Rp 15000 ($1.50) each day.” I imagine myself on one side of a justice scale, and 1400 kids on the other and I think which is more important. This is something worth getting out of bed in the morning for and sometimes being on a plane so tired, that you think your body might just stop or sitting with emails at 3am, because the melatonin tablets you took to sleep aren’t working and your internal clock is telling you it is 10am in the morning.

This focus helps us keep our bearings, it means that if we are in a meeting, if we are being given the run around by our internal bureaucracies’ then it is easier to get impatient , in a good way; we have no time to waste, we have work to do.

And I am thinking about this as my taxi becomes part of Jakarta’s Friday evening thickening traffic. I am wondering how much of what I discussed with the new staff may change their approaches or whether they will fall into the trap of trying to control the committees they will be working with, filling their time but not being effective.. I am wondering how long they will stay with us and what kind of return we may get on my investment of the last three days and all the days to come.

The taxi stops on the freeway; we have just hit the jam. The trip home may take another hour, but it could just as easily be another two. I am not sure what time I will get home, but the clocks in Indonesia all show different times so who actually knows what time it is. The time I actually arrive home is something of an existential mystery. I find taxis are a good place to think, world outside, in all its complexity, and the delicious simplicity of the whole back seat of a cab, nowhere else to go or be, disconnected but part of things; alone with others.

I wonder at the mystery of all the blingie watches on all the wrists of tens of millions of Indonesian men all showing different times, personal times. Now this is a big thought, on the one hand the increments are relative but on the other, time is actually all any of us have, and yes it is actually very personal.

A police car is behind us impatient, lights flashing, siren wailing, somehow it makes me think we need to get out of the way, there is an urgency, but we are all stopped with nowhere to go. Even stopped in traffic we are as a Tibetan Lama I  know sways.“ racing headlong towards death”. So whether in a taxi or doing an orientation or in the field or doing whatever our stuff is, how can we, any of us be sure that we are spending our time well. And I am thinking that it all comes back to our motivation. All we can do, is all we can do and if we do that well then that must be enough, and the consequences? Well they will be known in time. I think we claim the moment, even if the moment didn’t start on time.

We start to move again, Plaza Semenggi on my left in big red neon letters tells me I have about 30 minutes until home, not bad time. I think of an email sent last week by one of our Business Facilitators, a lovely kind man, to one of our project managers whose wife who had been quite ill. “ I hope your wife will finish soon in sickness” and I am thinking she probably will , it is just a matter of timing.

Jock Noble Jakarta May 2009

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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