The Ethos of “African Time”

One thing I have quickly learnt through my placement here in Uganda is the concept of “African Time”.  African time is essentially an indifferent, relaxed attitude towards time. For the locals in Uganda, time is a much looser and subjective concept, whereas in Western culture time is absolute and exists objectively. The sense of time pressure does not exist here. This concept is based mostly on relationships and events, with the belief that it is the people who influence time, rather than time that influences the people. As a result, time is coherently a result of action and is dependent on the people to be set into motion.

There is also this cultural acceptance that nothing will start at the absolute time indicated on the schedule. In practical terms, Kapuscinski from Shadow of the Sun explains: This means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon, but find no one at the appointed spot, asking, “When will the meeting take place?” makes no sense. You know the answer: “It will take place when people come.”

That being said, working with Seatini often means keeping a degree of flexibility in my work schedule. There seems to be a mutual understanding among all Ugandans that scheduled meetings rarely begin on time, which results in us leaving half past the hour it was originally planned to start. Even so, we miraculously arrive early or right on time as it appears everyone is running on the same wavelength.

For instance this morning we are hosting a follow up meeting with the Agricultural Sector Journalists’ Association of Uganda (AJAU). The meeting was planned to start at 8:00 am. The car was loaded around 8:30 and were on our way by 9:00. I imagined the embarrassment we would feel walking in late to our own meeting, however, the room was silent and empty. The first stakeholder arrived shortly after 9:30.

It can be challenging sometimes because things just don’t happen as quickly or as precisely as I am used to (thanks to punctual Canadian society). In the European worldview, time exists objectively without any relation to anything external. Everyone must heed deadlines and dates and move within the rigors of time. We have this need for punctuality in all aspects of life, and the endemic that lateness to any function is accepted is criticized by the Western world as unreasonable, lazy – and in an extreme case – like one of the main reasons for the continuing underdevelopment of some countries in the Global South.

Conversely, there are circumstances where arriving late to meetings, events or parties in Uganda is unavoidable. Factors like traffic jams and constantly losing electricity seem to be inevitable. The stress comes because everything takes longer but there is still the same amount of work to complete. However, it always seems to get done eventually.

Overall, I have come to appreciate how time adapts to any given situation here. There is something positive about a laid back environment. In Canada, I feel this pressure to organize everything into a dead mathematical time framework, but in Uganda I can relax these internal conflicts of stress and worry. It will be interesting to experience the transition back home at end of August, and how I come to (or perhaps fail to) adapt to this time difference.

In the words of Kapuscinski: “[everything] will take place when people come.”

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2 thoughts on “The Ethos of “African Time”

  1. Nice post! However, I would caution you against lumping all of Uganda (or Africa for that matter) in one group. Granted, I have done the same in many of my blog entries – but that doesn’t mean it is right. In fact, it is something that I am a little bit ashamed of. There are people in Uganda who get frustrated when schedules do not run on time just like there are people in Canada who do not adhere to punctuality.
    I get what you are saying: in broad strokes, emphasis is placed on if, rather than when, things happen here in Uganda. That said, I am cautious to call such a phenomena, “African Time”. Anyway, I guess I am trying to say that the phenomena you describe is accurate (I am sitting in a meeting as I type this and lunch should have started an hour ago); however, I do not think that we should call it “African Time”. Why? Because such language forces people to focus on differences between North America and Africa rather strive to draw similarities. As you say, “We have so much to share and learn from each other”. Might as well focus on what connects us rather than use words that drive us apart.

    … sorry for the rant. You are the bomb.ca… you rock, don’t ever change.

    Much love,

    Jeremy

  2. Hi Jeremy!

    I hope your meeting is going well. I am looking forward to hearing all about it when I see you in about four hours at the apartment.

    Thank you for your comments and critical points. Please take the term “African Time” with a grain of salt as I am just trying to dig deeper into the ethnicity and cultural background behind why some things play out the way that they do here in Uganda. I appreciate your observations, and yes my terminology may seem a bit pretentious. There are, of course, some exceptions in both Uganda and Canada, which completely contradict everything I have just said here. In fact, some arguments say that “African Time” is a myth and ultimately there is no such thing. Yes using such terms may force people to look at the differences between the global North and global South, however, my context here is not meant to be anything negative.

    Thanks again for your feedback, it is much appreciated like always!

    With love,
    Shelby

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