’African Time’ Is an Insult to ‘Africanness’ [opinion]

At one of our public universities, I once asked my students to anonymously evaluate me.

I implored them to be as honest as possible. And, indeed, they poured. One of the most striking comments was: “sir, I don’t mind you, but you are annoyingly punctual”. Yes, ‘annoyingly’!

While reading out the comments to the rest of the class, one student clarified that they were used to lectures starting about 15-20 minutes late. In some cases, without any notice to students, a lecturer will not show up.

As this anecdote illustrates, poor timekeeping has been normalised in our society, to the extent that keenness to time has come to seem abnormal! As such, when you are planning any activity or occasion, you have to include about one or two loose hours for the latecomers. If you plan to start at 10am, then you have to indicate 8am on the programme. Indeed many will arrive after 10! Arrive at 8am if you are ready to look odd.

The common excuse is to generalise the bad practice as ‘African time’. In other words, one is saying that they have not done anything unusual – they are simply being African. With a few exceptions, if you plan to invite a government minister or other ‘big people’ as chief guests at your function, you may always need a plan B.

They will assure you of their attendance and ask to be reminded of the start time, only to turn up late and mess the whole programme without any expression of remorse! And when they finally arrive, everything is halted to welcome the ‘important’ guest who will take hisher front seat with a smile, indicative of an inconsiderate sense of importance.

When their turn to speak comes, they will talk until cows come back! Because most MCs want to ‘respect’ them, they will not treat them like other speakers. They won’t give them time reminders. By the time they are done with their lengthy speech, there is a crisis at the function.

Those who had been given 15 minutes on the programme to make their presentations are now cut down to five. Both because of the sudden time-cut and their own poor timekeeping, the other speakers will also eat into each other’s time. By this time, the cause of the disaster has already left. They rarely stay to witness the chaotic consequences of their poor time management.

I have also witnessed occasions where the chief guest kept informing organisers that he was on his way, up to the end of the function! What we see in the behaviour of these leaders in a way reflects the behaviour of the wider society. We are a people not so keen on time despite the observation that this costs us a lot.

Important meetings are cut short and rushed because they started late teaching time is eaten into, hence not covering some of the course content people wait for hours to be attended to as office-bearers turn up late or delay at lunchtime conversations!

Unfortunately, there is often no price to pay for the latecomer. Not even a price of shame, for it is normal to be late. In his autobiography, Prof George Kanyeihamba narrates an interesting encounter with his former colleague, Hon Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, who would arrive late, and without apology, for meetings he was supposed to chair.

When Kanyeihamba one time raised a point of order to ask as to the precise time the committee was to start its meetings, Bidandi responded that Kanyeihamba was so worried about time because of his long stay in the UK and was yet to adjust to African time. Kanyeihamba recalls in words that must be emphasised: “I vehemently protested saying that there is no such thing as African time. One is either on time or late. Full stop. Thereafter, Honorable Bidandi Ssali would come on time and often remark that he did not wish to offend George”.

We cannot continue degrading ‘Africanness’ by claiming that late-coming is African time. I actually believe that the roots of this euphemism are from the sarcasm of visitors from outside Africa in a way of trying to politely mock us. We ought to desist from owning the stereotype and using it as justification for the bad habit.

Mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that time mismanagement becomes costly for its perpetrators. This should go together with nurturing our children at home and in school to grow up with time consciousness, to learn that poor time keeping is not endemic to Africa. It is a construct that we can and must deconstruct.

The author is a lecturer in Ethics at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.

Source : The Observer

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