SEVERAL weeks ago, a friend was launching a book. He invited my editor and I to the event, which was some five kilometres from our office.
The invitation signalled a start time of 6:30pm. And yet, by 6pm my boss was still trying to navigate his way past the snail-paced traffic just a stone’s throw from our office.
As we waited for the police to untangle the gridlock, the discussion shifted to what has largely become known around the world over as “African time”. Wikipedia even has an entry for this phenomenon, terming it the tendency to have a “relaxed attitude to time.”
To illustrate the meaning of African time, if you get an invitation to an event in Kampala, Accra or Harare, don’t make the “mistake” of arriving on time. If the invitation says a ceremony starts at 4pm, take your time and show up at least an hour later.
And, possibly, by 6pm, you could still be “on time” for the start of the event, thanks to African time. Or, if the chief guest is “delayed”, then arriving around 7pm could mean you are still “too early”.
In Uganda, it is not eyebrow-raising for residents of a district far from the capital to turn up as early as 6am at a venue where their president is expected to visit them. They wait all day, only for the president to turn up at 5pm and, instead of an apology, tells them he was delayed by other “important state duties”.
To rub salt into injury, the president’s handlers will rush everyone to compress a whole day’s programme into one hour. And then, when he steps up to speak, he will spend more than an hour on the podium with little regard for the time of those who have to travel long distances back home.
Anyway, as we waited for sanity to prevail on the road, my colleague said had he known that the traffic would be this bad, then we would have left at least 30 minutes earlier. He regretted that we would be late. He said he had been on the receiving end of such lateness when organising this or the other event, and was often careful not to subject anyone else to a similar experience.
Having resigned ourselves to the fact that we would eventually be late for the book launch, both of us then relaxed and began to examine the issue of lateness critically.
“Why is it that we [meaning Ugandans, Africans] are always late for many events, but the same people are unlikely to miss a flight?” I asked.
My colleague responded that it was because the costs, or consequences, of arriving late at an airport are much higher than those of arriving late for, say, a party.
Both of us are fairly well-travelled, so there were inevitable comparisons of what happens in other parts of the world.
One of the observations was that when Africans travel to more time-conscious capitals around the world, they generally adapt fairly quickly and keep time. If a train leaves at 8am, for example, visiting Africans will regularly turn up at the station in good time.
Out of necessity
My own experience in South Africa, where I spent a year as a student at the University of the Witwatersrand and a further six months as an editorial intern at the Thomson Reuters Sub-Saharan Africa Bureau in Johannesburg, seemed to fit the stereotype.
When I lived in the Johannesburg suburb of Pankhurst, a 35-minute walk from the Gautrain station in Rosebank, I always planned my time appropriately whenever I was to use the train to work in Sandton.
My boss said my experience with the Gautrain in Johannesburg, and that of other Africans who rarely miss flights, if at all, answered the question of why many Africans are lax about time keeping. He said efficient time keeping largely emerges out of necessity.
In most African countries, he continued, people use planes when flying out of the country, which is not a frequent event. The scheduled bus, commuter or taxi services within cities are not efficient. And, bar Johannesburg in South Africa, there are no metro trains running to a schedule.
In other words, even in urban areas where an African middle class is emerging, there are no conditions to compel people to hone their time keeping habits.
My editor said that in the recent past, at least in Uganda and other African countries he has visited lately, he has noted a conscious effort by event organisers to keep time.
What is now lacking, is the cultivation of individual discipline to stick to agreed schedules.
For Africans to achieve that, we have to make time costly. Time should not just cost money. It should cost more.
One place to start would be to make transportation in Africa more expensive than it already is. The airlines are already doing it by charging passengers who miss flights.
Authorities should develop environments where scheduled transport using trains, buses, commuter taxis and cabs thrives. Passengers would need to pay for particular seats in advance, and if they fail to utilise them, forfeit their money.
Given the pace at which we do everything, ideas of this nature could also take a generation before they are implemented. But someone needs to be brave enough to take us down that road.
In the meantime, as we wait, other African countries could do well to adopt a time keeping practice that has become part of the South African cultural fabric and has extended to places like Kenya.
When South Africans organise an event, the invitation card will say it is scheduled to start at 5:30pm for 6pm. Guests are expected to arrive within that 30 minute window, with the event usually starting at the top of the given hour.
With that kind of scheduling, I realised, South Africans are able to kill two birds with one stone; they accommodate those individuals whose watches are stuck to “African time”, but also ensure that events start on time.