On African time

England, 2 September 2018

“African apprehend time differently. (…) Time appears as a result of our actions and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even non-existence if we do not direct our energy toward it. It is subservient, passive essence and most importantly, one dependent on men.”

– Ryszard Kapuscinski, 2001 – 

Often we failed to understand the different ways of life in a foreign land. In his book On China, Henry Kissinger  depicted how the separate world the Chinese believed they were living in shaped the whole nation ideology and hence, modern behaviors of our neighbour that we might observe and often judge. Kapuscinski put the African’s ideas of time in perspectives – it’s not that they don’t have any sense of time, theirs are simple different from ours.

I still remembered my sister’s encounter in Burma on the way to Golden Rock. 2 buses both heading to Golden Rock stationed side by side in Yangon, waiting patiently to fill their seats. “The bus will leave when it’s full”. Africans practice this, too. A three-hour wait would make no sense to anyone that is under the spell of European definition of time – one that we have no control over. However in this incredibly diverse continent, instead of be crushed under the definite measurement of time, men create time, manifest time and in their own way stay in harmony with time.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Kenyan did not seem to apprehend “anger”, either. Whether it is stuck in traffic for 2 hours, very late for a meeting or waiting indefinitely for a train to come, they maintain this serenely calm and harmonic manner, with smiles even. We, influenced by European ideology, connect time and the universe, a force we are frustrated to have such little understanding of and influence over. Meanwhile, in Africa, one seems to be so as one with his surrounding that waiting becomes a norm, probably the most activities in one’s life. There is no such thing like “rush hours” or “being late” or “deadline” – why would you do that to yourself when you can make time?

In places where everyone runs against the clock, say New York City (my recent habitat) for instance, we lose it the moment we feel the threat of being defeated by time. We are in constant worry, under pressure to finish some longest to-do list and the world is collapsing if the subway is 5′ late (which happens every single day). Any event that may hinder the physical speed of human being is a serious threat and source of utmost annoyance. In Singapore, it’s small enough of a country to make pretty much everything punctual and assure the minimum waiting time. In Japan, the national railway sent an official apology as one of its train was a 20 second late. Trust me I love and praise punctuality, however, I feel like we are rather in an abusive relationship with time. We are constantly beaten up and at the same time feel so sorry for ourselves.

I really want to learn the secret of the African on their relationship with time!

Here is the thing though – after only a week in Kenya, i feel slightly transformed. If someone tell me 2 years ago that I’d patiently wait 3 hours at the airport for my ticket to get sorted and then happily wait another 24 hours for my flight, I’d had told him a fool. But I did. I was shocked at myself. I’m sure this is partially a result of the last 3 idling resting months that I have got. Maybe African is permanently in resting mode?

“The only ones that try to honk their cars through Nairobi traffic are most likely German diplomats.”


In this part of the world, you see all possible contradictions – where a road makes a nation but no-one can read map; where there was one of the first humans on earth but now a collection of some of the youngest nations; where once lived thousands of tribes scattering around in peace but were forced through  “Scramble of Africa” by the European imperial powers, followed by the independence movement into the now 54 states; where there was told to be so behind the rest of the world but have the most number of countries that totally or partially ban plastic bags, where we see desert and savannah and dryness but one of the biggest flower export in the world, where pizzas are luxury treat but organic kale is an inexpensive stable of every meal. Through evolution and development, Africa is slowly changing.

But one thing I doubt if it would change anytime soon – their ingrained interpretation of time.

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