Last week, my housemate organised a house party. The party was co-hosted by my Kenyan and Chinese-American housemate, the invitation mentioned a 7pm start. As we arrived late to the dinner at 7:30pm, our British and Chinese-American housemates were already enjoying their wine at the table. As all the other guests continue to arrive, our Kenyan host still appears to be hiding in her room. As 8:30pm hits, our Chinese-American housemate, who had already been looking at her watch impatiently for more than an hour, finally paced up to our Kenyan housemate’s room calling for dinner time. Few minutes later, our Kenyan housemate leisurely walked down to prepare her entrée dish. By the time dinnerstarted, it was 9:30pm. This common Kenyan phenomenon was what we often describe as “African-time”.
African time is the perceived cultural tendency, in parts of Africa and the Caribbean toward a more relaxed attitude to time. Whilst time is considered money in many western countries, such expectations cannot be applied in Africa. Business appointments can often run late, even more astonishing, stories of priests or bride and groom arriving an hour or two late to their own wedding arecertainly not unheard of!
“A ripe melon falls by itself” – the famous Zimbabwe proverb is a case in point for many African time philosophy which believes that all things happen when their times come. In studies performed in the time related verbs in Kikamba and Gikuyu languages (Kenyan native languages), “future” is expected to cover only a period of six months and not beyond two years at most. John Mbiti, a Kenyan-born philosopher, further defines the African concept of time as “a composition of events which are taking place now and those which are immediately to occur”. This contrasts with the Western concept of time which is linear, consisting of an indefinite past, the present andinfinite future.
The appearance of a simple lack of punctuality or a lax attitude about time in Africa, reflects a different time culture and resource management. The Kenyan time management adopts the “cyclic time” conception. In these cultures, time is viewed neither as linear nor event–relationship related, but as cyclic. Each day the sun rises and sets, the seasons follow one another, the heavenly bodies revolve around, people grow old and die, but their children reconstitute the process. Moreover, African cultures are often described as “poly-chronic” and flexible,where people work on several activities simultaneously rather than following a strict sequence.
Whilst one should respect the culture of one another, the habit of keeping “African time” is perhaps leaving many Africans behind!