Is efficiency overrated?*

Et votre passport?  (and your passport?)

Je vous ai deja donnée.   (I already gave it to you, polite, to a woman)

As the woman behind the little glass window in front of me began to shuffle through an unseen pile of papers behind the counter which separated me from entry into the Comoros Islands, I speculated on the fate of my passport.  Behind her was row of big mustard-colored envelopes, each with dozens of little “debarkation” forms like the one I had just completed, and given to her with my passport, bursting out from the top like pieces of large white confetti.  An interesting filing system I, thought.  What hope is there for my passport if it has fallen into an equally impressive stack of paperwork below the window which separates us?

She looked up at me again, hopeful.   I obliged and looked through all my pockets with apparent great concentration, although I knew I had already given it to her.   I shook my head, “Je ne l’ai pas.  Je le vous ai donné”   (I don’t have it, I gave it to you…)

Disappointed, she resumed her search.  I could hear the rustling of paper and resisted the temptation to stick my head through the window to see what was on the other side.  I mused for a moment  – “I have been standing in front of her since I handed it over, how far could it have gone?”   However, upon reflection, I remembered that a couple of different people had come by the open door to the kiosk where she stood between the time when I gave it to her and when she finally turned her attention to processing my application.  Each had gone away clutching various papers and passports.  Could mine have inadvertently gotten swept up with someone else’s?

I also began to wonder if the $50 bill I had handed her along with the passport had joined it in some never-never land and whether, therefore, I would be asked for another one.  Certainly, I did not have a receipt for it, nor a passport with a visa to show that the fee had been paid.

At last, with a gasp, she pounced on the recalcitrant passport. She carefully placed my visa into it, and I heard the satisfying “thunk” of the stamp confirming that I was at last officially permitted to enter the country.  I snatched my prize and headed off to find the poor driver from the hotel who had waited patiently as all the passengers in front of me had taken their turn at the window and been released into the country.

One of my colleagues had been speculating at dinner earlier in the week whether there was an “arbitrary push for inefficiency” in Rwanda because he noticed that people were being promoted to new jobs without training or experience in the tasks associated with the positions.   His observation reminded me of my obsession with the question of why, when the decision was made to transform Rwanda from a francophone country to an Anglophone one, the plan did not include establishing English teacher training colleges.  In the interests of sustainable development, when a country eventually reaches a point where it does not depend upon outside aid to satisfy the basic needs of its population, I cannot for the life of me figure out why this was not part of the transition plan.  The decision strikes me of being exceedingly inefficient.   No one in Rwanda speaks English as a native tongue.  Yet it is required to go to school and has become one key to upward mobility in the society.  Wouldn’t it have been more efficient to have English teacher training colleges on every street corner than to simply hope that everyone would be able to learn it from teachers who could not speak it themselves?

But there does seem to be a tendency here to confuse the decision to do something with being able to do it, which might account for the job promotions my colleague was wondering about.   That is, previous experience in a job is not necessarily required to get a that particular job.  If job assignments, even national policy decisions, are based upon something other than efficiency, then the fact that someone has no prior training or experience is not as important as the criteria which are used to assign jobs.  That I don’t know what those criteria are doesn’t change the fact that they are undoubtedly there.   Still, promoting someone to a job does not mean that he, or she, can actually do the job.  And, of course, being able to do a job is certainly the most efficient way to get the job done.

What I have realized is that “efficiency” is a very American concern.  In the United States, the premise is, of course, that the shortest trajectory from where one starts to where one wants to go is always the best.   But what if this is not true?   What if something gets lost in the search for the fastest way to get a job done?

Certainly the satisfying “immediacy” of having online access to everyone and every piece of information with the click of a button has only fed our obsession with efficiency.   I fear that, in our quest for the immediate, aka efficient, we have sealed our fate – soon we will have more virtual relationships than human ones.  Because what could be more efficient than being able to chat with, sometimes faceless, acquaintances without having to get up, take a shower, comb our hair and shave, get dressed, lock up the house, and walk (or drive) somewhere?

Driverless cars, washing machines that not only wash and dry our clothes but also fold them, the assembly lines of industrialization in the 1900’s were just the beginning of our chase to get further, faster, and sooner.  Most of us no longer find ourselves passing time with neighbors at the Laundromat.   Soon there will be no cab drivers to regale us with stories as we are transported from the airport, air travel representing one of our greatest achievements when it comes to efficiency.  We will be the most efficient population on earth and, in all likelihood, the loneliest.

As far as I can tell, the quest for efficiency is eventually going to cost us our humanity.  Sure, it took me quite a while to make it to the little glass window at the airport but, during that time, I chatted with someone coming for a conference to celebrate a grand religious leader and… I had the time to have a “pillow adventure” with a group of airport staff.   You see, as I stood leisurely waiting (no point in rushing in a country like the Comoros), I happened to notice that, somehow, my blue, pink, and green neck pillow snake (complete with its ears and beady black eyes) had fallen off my rolling hand luggage between my seat on the plane and the terminal.  I remembered distinctly clipping it to the handle, when I stood to leave, so it had to be somewhere, either along the exit aisle or on the tarmac outside the plane.  Of course, it was pretty hard to miss, so I was surprised someone hadn’t already brought it in in search of its owner.

Anyway, not wanting to leave my stuffed traveling companion behind, and given that I was at the end of the line anyway, and… since there was only about 200 yards between the door to the airfield and the plane from which we had just emerged, it looked like it would be a piece of cake to scurry back and retrieve it from wherever it had fallen.  But… the doors were locked.

So I dusted off my French and told, and re-told, my story to at least half a dozen airport employees before they agreed to unlock the glass doors, which had apparently, unbeknownst to me, been sealed as soon as we had all entered the the tiny terminal, trapping us in a sort of never never land where we could not go back without passing the scrutiny of the small woman who could barely see over the counter of the booth that separated us from our freedom.   Finally, some fifteen minutes later, after several consultations between airport staff members, the door opened to allow me, along with an assorted mixture of escorts in different types of uniforms to return to the plane to look for my pillow.

Luckily for me, because they most certainly would have thought I was mad if I hadn’t found it, it was peaking out from under a seat near the front of the plane.  Apparently, it had escaped from its green shiny hook when I passed by on my way out of the plane.  Victorious, I grabbed it and waved it in the air, much to the amusement of nearby passengers who were on the plane waiting for it to leave for its next destination.  Members of my escort team nodded with pleasure, and we all marched back to the terminal together, like a soccer team (yes, it took that many of us to rescue a cushion) who had just won the world cup.

For a brief moment in time, and only because I had been inefficient, I had had an adventure, and I was able to interact with people to whom most travelers pay little attention as they make their way through an airport.

Presumably, I offered them an interesting, perhaps even entertaining, interlude in what would have otherwise been another day of watching people of all shapes, sizes, and colors, come and go without ever getting to go anywhere themselves because, unbeknownst to me at the time, my pillow escapade had made us both – my pillow and I – famous!

I must have been the “talk of the town” at the tiny airport tucked away on a little volcanic island, most certainly unknown to anyone who hasn’t ventured into the middle of the Indian Ocean themselves, because, two days later, at the neighboring domestic airport, one of the men guiding me towards the minute plane that would take me to an even “ittier-bittier” island than the one I was on smiled and, pointing to my curly multi-colored friend, now securely attached to my shoulder bag, remarked in French, “I see you have not forgotten your pillow!”