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Ten things to know about Africa #4: Time and agency

January 10, 2011

In this series of posts, I am exploring ten different ways to look at and understand Africa. It’s a very personal list full of massive over-generalisations, and makes no claim to be either rigorous or comprehensive. This post is about the famous subject of “African time”.

One Friday afternoon in Kigali back in the early 1990s, I remember a discussion with a Rwandese colleague about whether two people from Gisenyi in the north-west of the country were coming to a meeting which was arranged for 9 a.m. on the following Monday. The presence of both at the meeting was critical, and the timing too: it was linked to a programme of agricultural activities which needed to get underway as soon as possible, and to the timing of the crucial rainy season. From his answer, it seemed unlikely to me that they would turn up – in fact I was not convinced by the casual manner of his response that they even knew about the meeting. This was before the mobile phone era and we had no way to communicate directly with them. I expressed my frustration – and probably implied as I did so that it was somehow his fault that we hadn’t made more concrete and dependable arrangements. To me it seemed that we had left it too late. “Don’t worry,” he said, “ça s’arrange en Afrique”: which I took to mean that in Africa, things usually work out. And so it turned out: both people arrived in time for a successful meeting on Monday morning. So my very British anxiety – based no doubt on my own sense that we should make, communicate and stick to clear plans; be in control of our own destiny – turned out to inappropriate (yet again).

The caricature of “African time” is that Africans are always late – and I’d guess it is probably true that on average they are more often late than people in some other regons, e.g. in northern and western Europe. The Ugandan Prime Minister Apollo Nsibambi used to make a big deal of this, stressing that if people consistently turn up late they can’t be serious. I remember seeing pictures in Ugandan newspapers of him – the guest of honour – sitting alone at public venues to which he had been invited to speak, waiting patiently for his hosts to turn up and get the ceremony going. I wonder if he still does that; if he has succeeded in changing things, or if he’s just given up. It’s probably wrong in many African contexts to see turning up after the scheduled time as being “late” as it would be in the UK; there’s genuinely a different concept of time operating. Some Ghanaians joke about this by referring to GMT – Greenwich Mean Time – as Ghanaian Maybe Time. I’ve been frustrated by people turning up late in Africa. But I’ve also frustrated people by turning up late, and by being inappropriately anxious as in the example above, so I’m in no strong position to be judgemental about this issue. It’s a phenomenon that’s by no means exclusive to Africa. Yet it is clearly something that’s quite common around and across the continent.

“African time” seems to be an outward manifestation of something deeper and cultural – a different view of the world and one’s place within it. In my experience in Africa, people often seem to have less sense that they are in control of events, less sense of their own agency, compared to Europeans or North Americans for example. One’s ability to implement an action “on time”, or arrive “on time”, is to some degree out of one’s hands. This links back to and is consistent with the comments made in my first post in this series that in Africa people’s sense of self is more strongly bound up with an idea of community, compared with people in parts of the world where individualism is valued more.

If there’s any truth hidden within this massive generalisation about agency and control, it would presumably have important implications for policy makers and non-governmental organisations e.g. trying to incentivise changes in behaviour with regards people’s health or education. It used to be common in parts of Africa to see posters showing two families: one was a well-fed and healthy looking small family, with the children spaced at least two years apart and all smiles; the other was of a larger family, with more children, closer together in age, living in evident poverty and looking malnourished, gloomy and chronically sick. The message was: have fewer children, at more widely spaced intervals, and they’ll be healthier and happier. I always thought those posters a waste of time, because so many young couples were simply responding to family and community norms, and felt unempowered to make difficult decisions about their own reproductive health. Better, perhaps, to target communications messages at the older generation, and especially the mothers-in-law who were very influential and often expected their sons’ wives to produce as many children as possible, as quickly as possible.

This also has implications for employers and how they motivate their staff. Nowadays companies all over the world use some form of performance management, at the core of which is the setting of personal goals which are then evaluated at regular intervals. But how does this work in a cultural context which places a lower value on the sense of personal agency? Do international companies have to re-jig their performance management approaches to take account, or do they just apply one size to all cultures – and how do purely African organisations deal with managing and incentivising effective staff performance?

Finally, I wonder are there implications for peacebuilding. Building peace in a conflict-prone context needs people to stand up and be willing to take a risk, often a personal risk. If my first post in this series (about community), and this one about agency and time are correct, might this limit the number of potential leaders willing to stand up and to be counted and take those personal risks in the cause of peace?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Tom Blomley permalink
    January 10, 2011 8:47 pm

    Really enjoyed the recent update about time – and how perceptions vary between African and European cultures. I remember many years ago, fresh and keen, sitting in a hot Matatu (public taxi) in a bus park in some part of rural Kenya and wondering when the vehicle would go. “What time does the bus go” I asked eagerly to the bored driver. He looked at me with a level gaze and answered “When it is full”. Similarly, I have been at community meetings and when asking the village chairman what time the meeting starts, he has replied “when people come”

    In other words, time was not defined by clocks, or some externally driven force – but time was decided by events and by the action of people.

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