Wednesday, April 8, 2009

African Time

African Time is something that both Africans and foreigners joke about. Basically, it means that you come to a program or meeting after the scheduled time for starting. Generally, it's not considered a big deal to be late although there are many Nigerians who advocate that people should keep to time better.

For weddings and social events, I generally go two hours late. Weddings often last three hours (10 a.m.-1 p.m.) and the photos and reception take another three hours. If I have a personal appointment to meet with someone, I will usually go right on time, but if I have an idea that the person may not be there in time, then I will often delay.

A wise older missionary once commented to me, "Some missionaries were on African time before they ever came to Africa." Touche.

I was one hour late to my own wedding. (Oh yes, there's a story behind that.) And people actually came to our wedding on time because they knew that foreigners generally keep to time!
These days it's common to get a wedding invitation that says: 10 a.m. Jesus' Time. I get a kick out of that one. What they mean is: come on time. But actually, was Jesus so bound by time? Seems to me he was on African time--at least that's what Mary and Martha thought when he didn't show up before Lazarus died.

There's kind of an odd counterbalance to all of the laidback African time: Nigerians are excruciatingly proper about time labels in their conversation. Just for the sake of information: It is never proper to begin greeting with: "Hello" or "Hi" or "How are you?" You must start with "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" or "Good Evening." "Good morning" is pretty easy because it starts from whenever you get up. Good afternoon is from 12:01 p.m. til 3:59 p.m. Good evening starts right at 4 and goes until bedtime.

It always gives me a little chuckle when I see people check their watch, or more likely their phone, for the time before greeting someone--especially if it's around noon.

When someone says, "Good evening" to me at 4:00 p.m., I just can't say it back. To me, 4:00 is completely in the afternoon. In my response, I just avoid saying "Good evening."

One Sunday after church I told my friend I would contact her next week. To her that meant a week from Sunday, but I was thinking of the next few days. In my growing up years, phrases like 'next week' and 'last week' were a bit nebulous. But here, it's important to be very exact, i.e. the week starts on Sunday morning and ends on Saturday evening.

We also have some interesting phrases here such as:
the upper week (the week after this one)
the upper, upper week (two weeks after this one)
next tomorrow (the day after tomorrow)
beating up the time (instead of meeting up with the time)

While I'm at it, I guess I could comment on British/Australian uses of time:
I'll meet you at half two. (Is that 1:30 or 2:30?)
We're leaving Sunday week. (We're leaving a week from Sunday.)

Well, I need to beat up the time if I'm going to get my family ready for work and school this morning.

2 comments:

PS (PSanafter-thought) said...

I've always cooked supper on African time, but only after visiting Uganda did I have a name for it. One problem I never had was getting the kids to come to supper because they were always mighty hungry by then!

In Uganda, I saw the ceremony schedule that the teachers had drawn up. It started at 10:00 am. But at 10:00 am, we were asked to take a walk in the neighborhood. I was kind of antsy about that, given the time and the slow strolling pace. However it was a meaningful time and an important memory. The ceremony finally started a couple of hours later, so there was no lunch. Some important people actually showed up a couple of hours after that! With all the talking and translating going on, the ceremony went long. And we were hours and hours late getting to someone's house to pick them up. I don't know how they can operate like that! However, there is something good to be said for valuing the people we are with, rather than the schedule. But arriving hours late doesn't value people either.

The oddest thing was the "scheduled" soccer game that started hours late, nearly at dusk, so they could only play about half of the game.

Jannine Ebenso said...

Oh Mary Beth, how astute you are!

Much of what you have written could have been written by me too! hee hee! (By the way, I too was an hour late for my wedding and Bassey was on time!! There's a story there too - maybe the day we meet we can share?)

Your writing about African time brings back so many wonderful occasions where I have just got it wrong!

Now we are back in the UK, we have to remember that African time does not work here - sometimes we forget :)

But the joy of putting people before the clock is something we 'westerners' can learn from our African brothers and sisters.

God bless

Jannine