Mzungu Memoirs

African Time

“African time (or Africa time) is a colloquial term used to describe a perceived cultural tendency, in some parts of Africa, toward a more relaxed attitude to time. This is sometimes used in a pejorative sense, about tardiness in appointments, meetings and events. The term is also sometimes used to describe the more leisurely, relaxed and less rigorously scheduled lifestyle found in African countries, especially as opposed to the more clock-bound pace of daily life in Western countries. As such it is similar to time orientations in some other non-Western culture regions.”

– Wikipedia

We have heard it said, “Americans have watches, Africans have time.”

“Africa time” is one of the things that drive us mzungus nuts about Ugandans, but it is one of the things that we probably could benefit the most from if we truly learned to embrace it.   It is not so much about “a relaxed attitude to time,” although it is partly that, as it is a heightened attitude toward relationships and respect.  Ugandans feel that the relationship they have with a person is more important than the time it takes to accomplish a task.  Consequently, they see deadlines and meeting times as fluid, dependent more on the time required to cultivate a relationship connected with that deadline or meeting.  For example, if a Ugandan is involved in one meeting, he will not move on to the next until he is satisfied with the relationship that has been cultivated with the first even if it means being an hour or more late to the second meeting.

Another example of relationship cultivation is the Ugandan greeting.  Ugandans greet with “Hello” always followed by “How are you?”  If you greet a Ugandan without additionally asking the question, they will often answer “Hello, I am fine” anyway.  This is not just an inquiry by rote; Ugandans are genuinely interested in how you are doing.  And they get offended when you don’t inquire of them.  I have, on more than one occasion, failed to ask the question of someone I was greeting and gotten the conversation or task at hand off to a rocky start.  Fortunately, Ugandans are very forgiving of mzungus and the relationship is quickly mended after a short time.

In fact, just this morning, I was trying to get the attention of the guard on duty to prevent him from doing something that I would later have to undo, but I didn’t greet him in the proper Ugandan fashion first.  When I was done explaining that I didn’t want him to do what he was doing, he asked how I was.  I of course responded and asked how he was, so the relationship was quickly mended, but it was definitely a goof on my part.  I think our guards, as well as many of the other Ugandans that I deal with on a regular basis like the boda drivers, realize that I am a relatively new mzungu and am still learning, so they give me some extra leeway.

And Ugandans take their greetings to the streets.  Because this is a largely pedestrian society, you meet many people walking along the road, and many will greet you even if they don’t know you.  This is particularly true when you have a child in tow.  Ugandans love children, and apparently feel it is important to teach the children (all children whether they are theirs or not) this custom of greeting.  Caleb is still getting used to being asked how he is, particularly by complete strangers.  Sometimes, particularly in the more metropolitan areas, people on the street will have a more serious or gruff demeanor and not always greet you.  But Robert has observed that when you greet them in the proper Ugandan fashion, their faces just light up and they are quick to respond.

Tied to the Ugandan importance of relationships is their attitude towards respect for one another.  Ugandans are, by and large, very humble people, and always regard the person they are greeting as more important than themselves.  This is often seen in the way they shake hands.  Ugandans will often touch their forearm or elbow with their left hand while they are shaking with their right.  I believe, the closer the left hand is to the elbow of the right arm the greater the respect is being shown.  Women will sometimes drop to their knees in a bowing motion when they shake hands, but I haven’t seen this as much.  I’m slowly remembering to use the sign of respect when I shake hands, but it is not as intuitive you might think.

There are many other subtle ways that Ugandans show respect and cultivate relationships, and I could probably go on for a while longer.  It blows my mind how humble these people that we have come to serve really are.  Ugandans are such a wonderful example of the humbleness exemplified by Christ that we are to emulate.  I hope that I can pick up even just a fraction of the Ugandans’ humbleness and carry it throughout the rest of my life.  I really think I would be a better person for it.

“For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:12

posted by Robert in Uncategorized and have Comment (1)

One Response to “African Time”

  1. Peace says:

    Thank you so much for seeing the positive side of our weak area. This attitude will save you from many conflicts. It is true we don’t have watches but we do have loooots of time. However, it is good to have a watch and have no time too, when it comes to being productive in order to take dominion over the earth.