Benin’s President Mathieu Kerekou has been known to keep participants waiting for him to open international conferences in the capital Porto Novo for eight hours. The participants sometimes won’t be fed or allowed to leave the conference hall. Kerekou, however, will offer traditional musicians and dancers to entertain them. For the eight hours the musicians would, naturally, only sing Kerekou’s praises.
In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni kept the masses at the last funeral rites of former minister Shaban Nkutu, who was murdered by the Idi Amin military dictatorship in 1973, waiting for two weeks! Unlike Kerekou, though, Museveni kept the people supplied with drink and delicious food for all that time. It is possible some of them wished for him to be late by a month.
One of the few African Big-Man exceptions is former Uganda Vice President Dr Samson Kisekka. A conservative Anglophile doctor, Kisekka held Africa’s slothful ways in deep contempt. He was such a stickler for punctuality, it was normal for him to arrive at events where he was to be chief guest 15 minutes early.
Because the expectation is Africa’s Big Men and Women will arrive hours late, in a famous incident, Dr Kisekka arrived for a rally at exactly 10am when it was supposed to start, only to find that organisers were about to begin building the VIP pavilion! Kenya’s gruff former president Daniel arap Moi, surprisingly, was also a very punctual chap. And his programmes were made so he would arrive at something like 9.37am or 2.17pm. And he would be there. It seems he was suspicious of round figures like 2.30pm.
This tardiness has given birth to the concept of “African time” or “Black Man’s Time (BMT).” We have a duty to try and explain why this happens.
Before modern times made their way to Africa, before the calendar, and before the clock, Africans used seasons for time. Activities were not scheduled to happen at specific minutes and hours, but in bands – morning, afternoon, evening. Likewise, children were named after seasons, or the band of the day they were born. I was born at dawn, so I am Onyango (nyango is dawn in my language). My father is Obbo, because he was born in the time of year when a vegetable called bbo flowered the most.
The Africans of times past therefore, never visited on Saturday at 4pm. They did so during the rains, or the sunny period. These lasted anything between two to four months. My oldest brother is called Ochieng, because he was born during the sunny season (chieng is the name in my language for sun).
So someone who visited during the chieng season would still be on time whether he came on January 5 or March 5. If an African of that period said he was coming in the morning, he was on time if he arrived any time between 6am to 12 noon.
There was another pragmatic reason for this. There were no bridges those days, so being precise wouldn’t have worked, because you could arrive at the river and find it had overflowed and therefore you couldn’t cross. You would just have to wait for the water to recede, possibly weeks later and you continue your journey. Or there could be a man-eating lion lurking near the path. So you would lie low until it wandered off to another hill or forest.
The problem is that things that performed defunct functions don’t necessarily disappear when they fall out of use because of changes in technology.
It is the same reason why, even if men no longer breastfeed, we still have breasts (tiny ones though). Humans no longer need the appendix, but we still have it. It is inside there like a residual tail of sorts. So while we have watches, clocks, roads, cars, and everything to get us to places on time, the old habits are still in some of us.
Thus while many Africans are keen timekeepers, the majority are laggards who have not yet fully changed. Its very annoying, but it helps to understand the history.
© Charles Onyango-Obbo / twitter@cobbo3