Monday, December 1, 2008

Our Conception of Time

Years back, I took several bus trips (from Korogwe to Dar, Dar to Moro, Tanga to Lushoto, etc.). In one of the trips, I remember to have gotten a dirty look from the conductor, when I asked when is the bus going to leave the station (after staying in the bus for three hours). From the look, the answer to my question was obvious: the bus will leave when it is full.

After travels abroad, I learned that Westerners have a different conception of time (good or bad, it is your call). For Americans, for instance, time is very linear and objective - existing outside man, and therefore cannot be invented. Wazungus are slaves of time, they are subject to it and must therefore adhere to its rigours - deadlines, dates, etc. We in Bongo, for the most part, time is much looser concept, much open, much elastic. We create and influence time. Time appears if we want to do something with it, it vanishes if we ignore or neglect it. Time depends on us. If a teacher does not show up for class, that class will not take place - and therefore time will not have revealed its presence - and very few will feel pain about "lost time". In America or Europe, everything revolves around that class taking place - because time dictates that it does - and a lot of pain will be taken for that class to take place. You go to a meeting here "scheduled" to take place at 2pm, and by 3pm it has not started, and you ask why: because many attendees are still coming. 

The idea that you can go up at the bus station and board the bus with absolutely no idea what time it is going to leave is quintessentially African.

Perhaps this is in a way "liberating" insofar as individuals are able to live in time of their own pace.  But it is also a problem since we do not live in an island and to succeed in this competitive world with have to adhere to the rational use of time. I see this as being increasingly the case.

I know that this "African time" thing can be ethnocentric and may feed into the prejudices about Africa and the Africans but is so commonly spoken of and written about that it is worth discussion.  


Elsie is: said...

Thanks January for a great topic. I have always thought that there is a time and place for 'time management' (please don't look at the irony of that statement too closely).

In an 'organized life, when deadlines are to be met and productivity counts for something i think that giving into the idea of time as relative is not exactly helpful, no matter how culturally relevant. umeshaona watoto wakiumwa njaa kwnye sherehe zetu eti kwasababu caterer hajaweza kumudu muda wake? time, place.

likewise, there are situations when the clock is entirely inappropriate. conversations with family, holidays, some social events NK...

the challenge lies in knowing when to respect time, and when timeliness is a nuisance. Kudos, nice blog.

Anonymous said...

i notice that we Africans are so polychronic,one time i went to the clinic and this doctors' phone keep ringing,and he will answer it and talk and talk, didn't even care about the patient.but well.. time is very limitless to us as well as quantifiable, we always have more time, unlike westerners(january is right) to them time is commodity they always do one thing at a time, you'll go the store and the cashier will serve one person and finish and serve the other without interruption, being late is rude etc. but i don't think if we will be able to change ourself.