Adjusting to Africa Time
Barack Obama roasted Hillary Clinton for her inappropriate use of the pejorative “Coloured People’s Time” or “CPT,” a self-deprecating term used by African Americans as a synonym for tardiness or even laziness. I was briefed on the equivalent “Tanzania time,” before transferring here: Expect a meeting scheduled to start at 8 a.m. to begin as late as 9, with many of the team members not turning up. When you go to a cafe, expect a decent latency between arriving, getting the menu, making an order, getting the food, getting the bill, and getting change. If you want a quick lunch in Tanzania — budget an hour.
As a taciturn, patient, and naturally guilty small l-liberal, I came to Tanzania prepared to regard African time as just another kind of culturally relativist quirk, like a preference for longer handshakes or taking one’s shoes off before entering a home. However, Africa Time is far from a neutral phenomenon and is the subject of significant internal criticism. One Ghanaian writer wrote “One of the main reasons for the continuing underdevelopment of our country is our nonchalant attitude to time,” and in Ivory Coast, the President announced a “Punctuality day.”
Africa Time has given me an opportunity to reflect on my own Anglo-Saxon obsession with productivity — that condemning, Taylorist obsession with measuring ourselves by our economic output. Lawyers who bill in six-minute increments, consultants fretting over a non-billable water cooler conversation, and doctors and other health professionals forced to align their care within the confines of the clock rather than the needs of the patient will know the grim mathematics of productivity.
Self-help books, experiential consumerism, and new-age woo have added to this economic productivity a kind of “spiritual” productivity (cramming in a Bali holiday on a long weekend, wedging a 45-minute meditation session between finishing work and doing night classes, or those abhorrent mindfulness colouring books). In the Western world we increasingly feel we have no time to spare, so we agitate on getting the most out of the time we do have — unsuccessfully.
In the Western world, we are acculturated to regard ourselves as an arrow pointing forward throughout history to the staccato beat of our limited years, months, and days. Our time is broken up in to discrete, identical, and measurable chunks. Our dreams of the future propel us forward — we pull the future towards us.
In Africa, life is in the legato jazz of the past. It’s weddings, funerals, mishaps, tragedies, and the great fortunes of life. Only in hindsight, through stories, does the song of Africa have a certain improvised rhythm. The future is murky, unpredictable, and probably not worth thinking about.
It is perhaps not a great leap to connect these differences in time to our respective histories as colonisers and colonised. In Africa, history is something that has happened to them. Although Tanzania is now independent, it is now under the neo-colonial influences of development banks, NGO service providers, and foreign investment (with foreign senior and middle management). Tanzania is also a thoroughly religious country, which has its own themes of submission to something greater. That a significant proportion of the population is rural and most of the economy is agricultural also fosters a dependence on the caprice of the climate. Whether it’s the white man, God, or the rain — it’s clear that outside forces are boss. So why turn up on time?
As someone working here, I have had to adjust my internal clock quickly. Indeed, in the sense of Time, our cultures may have much to learn from each other. It may be that a sense of agency and exigency is useful to Tanzania, at a time when it is the 8th fastest growing economy in the world — a rich, vibrant, and turbulent culture. That it is an independent country matters less in a globalised world, where these opportunities are as likely to be seized by foreign multi-nationals as they are by Tanzanians.
Similarly, Australians working in Africa (especially those with intent to “help”) may benefit from casting themselves as servants to the needs of those we’re trying to help — at least for a while. Doing so has its own benefits vis-a-vis people-centred development, but it is a valuable role play to cast ourselves as the non-experts, students, and spectators in the drama of life.
Indeed, there may be some synthesis of the two that is useful. The African tempo and rhythm, that sense of “Being,” is a good mode with which to be agnostic about the future and alert to what possibilities may emerge. The Western tempo, the “Doing,” with it’s urgency and efficiency, could be the tool to seize those possibilities.