Isn’t “African time” just euphemism for poor planning and disrespect?

Recently,Japan’s Olympics minister had to apologise after arriving 3 minutes late to a parliamentary meeting. Some of the members of parliament were so disturbed that they boycotted the meeting for a whole 5 hours in protest.

Based on this, BBC Africa asked the question, how important is punctuality where you are and what’s your experience of it? The responses captured not just the humour but also the prevalence for poor time keeping across the continent.

This habit of poor punctuality has often been branded as African time. Some even say that others have the clock while we (Africans) have the time. Many times keeping time is seen as a mere suggestion. If you get an invitation for a 6pm event, you are often better off showing up at 7 or even 9pm. After all you will be keeping African time. And adhering to the set time will have you branded as foreign or white.

In his book, Shadow of the Sun, Ryszard Kapuscinski describes African time as time that serves the people not the clock. So a bus moves when passengers fill it not when the time they said it would move reaches. The same applies to meetings starting when enough people make it to the venue.

Kapuscinski was simply explaining African time not saying that we should all behave that way. We can shed off this brand by simply being more respectful or each other and planning better. It may not work out efficiently as it does in Tokyo but we can and should try.

For a start, it is not true that we always never keep time. I am sure you have seen how we make an effort never to miss flights. Someone rushing to the airport will factor in the bad traffic and all that can go wrong and will not entertain random small talk because the plane will not wait. It is good that buses that cover cross-border routes and some up country ones also stick to strict time schedules. We also keep time when we have job interviews or very important people to meet.  

So the issue here is more about the importance we attach to an event than just the culture of not being on time. Therefore it is possible for us to train each other to keep time by simply not waiting for those who don’t keep it.

We can give an allowance of a few minutes but there is no point in waiting for more than an hour for another person especially if they did not have the courtesy to prepare you for that wait. When we do this all we are saying is that we have nothing to do with the rest of our time besides waiting.

And I find it disrespectful especially of leaders when they delay to appear at events where everyone else has already gathered. What kind of honour does one possess by disrespecting other people’s time simply because you were named the Guest of honour and nothing should start before you show up? Musicians used to do the same until they realised that city authorities will keep time when it comes to shutting down concerts after the agreed time.

One of the major ways we can fix our poor time keeping is by fixing our public transport system. In those places we envy for time keeping, commutes are done by train or bus at specific times so one know when to be at the station and how long it will take to arrive at their destination. With our common mess of public transport, it is nearly impossible to estimate how long it will take for a bus to fill up and cover a journey.

At the end of the day, poor time keeping need not be something for Africans to claim. For when we do we are simply conceding to the fact that we are poor planners and disrespectful people. We have to put in the effort as individuals and institutions to use time in a more efficient way. Yes we can.



Twitter: @ssojo81

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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