One Year in Kenya [Lesson 3/5]

‘Africa time’ is hokum.

This is not a rant about all the time I’ve waited for meetings to start or for events to end. I actually think the idea that a conception of time is geographically based is rife with lazy logic.

Yes, people from some parts of the world often seem to act based on so-called cultural perceptions of time. Yes, during my time in Kenya, I’ve waited for almost every meeting to start well after the agreed upon time. Yes, I’ve attended weddings where ‘lunch’ was served at ‘dinner time’. I think the reason for this is a bit deeper and more complicated than simple geographical differences.

An example:

At the Africa Theological Seminary, where I live and usually work, everything was on time. Always. The remarkable thing is that everything is always on time and there is no bell system or clocks on the classroom walls to remind teachers to wrap up their lectures. In fact, from my reckoning, the only room with a clock in it is the chapel.

Somehow, the same people can be very late for church or a meeting in town but can be on time, with almost freakish precision, when at the Africa Theological Seminary. So what is going on?

Clearly time is not necessarily a geographical phenomenon. It has more to do with social norms and institutional traditions.

Think of it this way: It is often believed that the United States is home to people who are always ‘on time’. It would be considered strange, however, for me to show up for a party at a friend’s house at exactly the time it was advertised it to begin. If the party is to start at 6:00, we will undoubtedly show up at 6:30 or later. Again, conceptions of time do not seem to be geographical.

More correctly, conceptions of time seem most fundamentally tied to social norms and the traditions set up by the various institutions in our lives. It may seem that conceptions of time are geographically based, because history plays out in specific geographical locations. Behind every seemingly geographical cultural characteristic I can think of, there lies a more fundamental reason for the perceived difference that actually influences the local culture. It usually points back to the influence of political, economic, social, and religious institutions on our daily lives.

P.S. This lesson, perhaps even more than others, is not completely settled with me. I’m very open to discussing this further.