Is “African” Time really a bad thing?

Dr. Chris Anyokwu


By Chris Anyokwu

When people want to poke fun at us, Africans, one of the things they love to say about us is what in their considered opinion they consider our poor appreciation of time; our so-called I-don’t-care attitude to the notion of the evanescence of time.  They claim that we are not punctual at appointments, meetings, official programmes; at anything for that matter.

A wall clock. Credit. Seiko Clocks USA

African, to be sure, in their regard, carries a rather strong whiff of negativity, a pejorative charge so much so that folk from saner climes would like to give us a wide berth.  Ours is like the billy-goat’s stench, even before you encounter the ruminant, its offensive odour has given it away.  Beyond the colour of his skin, notably the black African, he is said to be incurably notorious for the vice of lack of time management.  Some go as far as saying he would on purpose attend his own funeral behind schedule.

Black Africans. Credit:

But is the notion or practice of “African time” such a bad thing?  Is it really a vice in the grand scheme of things?  Is it some habit to be execrated or deprecated?  Must we flagellate ourselves with ritual birches of self-defenestration for being socialised into this race-defining habit?  Has it in any demonstrable way impeded our collective remorseless march towards Jerusalem – that is, civilisation, like the rest of the world?  Question upon nervous question, you would say, right?  Yeah!

Our topic today deliberately sidesteps the extremely belly-churning and blood-pressure – raising matters of politics (if I say “Bu” and you say “ha” and another one say “ri”, omo na you sabi!)  So, today, like Timaya, Nigeria’s ghettoized crooner, we want to “flex” a bit here, dissecting the not-so-important or momentous issue of time.  And, in having fun, we want to jaw-jaw over our attitude regarding the Invisible Deity before whom we all genuflect regardless of our professed religions.  We all, poor earthlings, live in time, time itself is a phase segmentation of eternity.  Furthermore, sentient beings that we all are, are fated to die, to expire at some point in time.

Dante. Vatican News

Keep in mind, also, that some hold the belief that there’s life after death, perhaps in Dante’s Purgatorio, Inferno or Paradosio Homer’s Hades or the Christian heaven or the Muslim’s Paradise.  In the same vein, other religions talk of the “cycle of life”, like the Yoruba tripartite notion of birth-death-rebirth, that goes on and on ad infinitum.  Whilst this belief in human soulal existence, his eternal repose after temporal evacuation from the Vale of Tears, is a moot point, there is, nevertheless, a consensus over our corporal tenancy on this side of the grave.  What we make of our individual temporal allotment of time is down principally to how we, each of us, manage time.

Using a rough-and-ready binarism, it is: slothfulness versus hard work, punctuality versus lateness, etc., etc.  From time immemorial, Africans have always taken life rather playfully seriously.  As my Ika people always say: “ebe ogb’oso agbaru, k’ojigen egenru/ slow and steady win the race”.  This stately deliberation and unhurried/laidback approach to life and living prioritise outcome rather than speed; quality rather than quantity; fidelity to protocol, to procedural sanctity; to tradition rather than to the puerilities of instantaneist result.  Or to hollow achievement a la Achebe’s Okonkwo.

This is the reason we place high store by tact, circumspection and deep thinking which people who suffer from tunnel-vision or blinkered by literalism mischaracterise as tardiness.  In this connection, therefore, one is reminded of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, which, in part, counsels: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds…”  Oh, the continuing tyranny of the Western metropolitan gaze!.

Bob Marley

Yet, we must give thanks and praises for small mercies.  None of us can escape the shaping hand of our environment, for the environment itself has everything to do with “African Time”.  Has it ever occurred to you that the so-called “African Time” syndrome was developed by the absence of modern conveniences?  Imagine, for a second, the usually difficult terrains and topographies of many African communities.  Imagine these “s–tholes” made worse by lack of basic necessities and infrastructure such as good roads, rails, waterways, potable water, electricity supply, primary held-care delivery system and recreational facilities.  These hellholes are fraught with danger being as they are home to wildlife and two-footed merchants of terror.

File: Gunmen

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Credit: Poetry Foundation

In a word, life in the tropics is insupportably difficult, exacerbated in large part by torrential rains, sweltering sunshine and mosquito-and-tsetse-fly trouble.  All of this affects child-care, family life and work ethic and play.  Add, also to the mix our superstitious belief-systems, our religious orientation.  There is a general belief among us, Africans, that excessive and speedy physical exertions ultimately end in futility. Ile aiye, ile asan/Vanity upon vanity, all is vanity (Yoruba saying).  So what’s the point in making haste, inordinate haste to achieve anything?  What will be, will be, as the Spanish saying goes.  The universality of this unassailable fatalism finds congruency in the animist metaphysics of the African world which pivots around time-honoured pieties of predestination or Destiny.  The African believes, thus, that time is a servant, and not a master and, as such, should be corralled and controlled by humans and not the other way round.

This is where the African attitude to time differs fundamentally from that of the Western mind.  The West, for instance, practically worship time.  As a matter of fact, time is the dominant problematique of Western imaginary from Homer through Dickens, to T.S. Eliot.  English metaphysical poetry turns, if anything, upon the thematics of Carpe Diem (Seize the Day).  As American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his oft-anthologised poem “A Psalm of Life”, lyricises: “Art is long, and Time is fleeting./ And our hearts, though stout and brave,/ still, like muffled drums, are/ beating/ funeral marches to the grave.”  Longfellow himself, an apt pupil of “ancient monuments” derived his inspiration from the popular Latin dictum: Ars longa, vita brevis/life is short, art eternal. 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Credit: Poetry Foundation

This Western cultural understanding of the ephemerality of time tends to make the white man cultivate a rather mechanistic, almost robotic fetishisation of the clock: a strict adherence to the dictates of the chronometer such that his daily life takes on a metronomic efficiency.  The tick-tock rhythm of time echoes the dum-dum of his own heartbeats.  And he’s got a proverb to rationalise this as well: “Time is money”.  Money in this context imbricates and totalises the essential reification of human labour-power; it emblematises crass mercantilism and gross materialism.

Contrariwise, the African believes that life or success/achievement in life cannot be reduced to gold and silver.  That is to say, for the African, there’s more to life than primitive accumulation, the malignant virus with which our political class is afflicted.  Thus, whilst the Westerner strives for Being, the African embodies Becoming; the one communicates finitude while the other locates infinitude or  “infinite riches” (to echo Ben Okri’s novel).

Ben Okri

Thus, the paradoxical wisdom of the Black cosmogony predisposes the African to pay what appears like scant attention to time’s iron sway, its coldly ruthless hold on Nature, floral and fauna.

The African speculative cast of mind, sadly, also has its obverse.  It spawns atavism, a kind of womb-yearning generated by Neo-Tarzanist terror at the bright lights of modernity.  Secondly, it vouchsafes a misapprehension of the quantum leaps in science and technology as the coarsening debasement of the sacredness of life.  (Compare: Rene Descartes’ cogito ergo sum versus Senghor’s “I feel, therefore, I am”).  Senghorian mystical Negritude and allied mythologies of nativism are all hocus-pocus in the agonistic coliseum of present-day social intercourse.

Leopold Senghor

Truth be told, Africans have become victims of the collateral damage done by their own retrograde welterschauung, they have precious little to show for their age-old habit of poor time management.  The West has got a lot to show for their Calvinist attitude to time: industrial-military establishments, automobile manufacturing (from biofuel to electronic), beautiful cities, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, rock science, space exploration, etc., etc.  Whilst they live to eat; Africans eat to live!

This is huge and mind-blowing if you think about it.  Their attitude to time enables them to plan, strategise and execute projects, be it in sport, politics, diplomacy, space travel, nuclear weaponry, news reportage, school calendrification, church service, business appointment, amatory rendezvous.  Let’s stop kidding ourselves: “African Time” will be the death of us all if we do not change tack.

*Chris Anyokwu, PhD, writes from University of Lagos.