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Thursday, 05 September 2013 22:02

The Clock Is Ticking

Is Africa's relaxed attitude toward timekeeping holding the continent back?

By Mark Kapchanga

NAIROBI, Kenya, September 05, 2013 (CA) -- "African Time" is the term used to describe the very relaxed attitude that many Africans have toward timekeeping, and in the business world it is giving foreign companies a very hard time. Some of the most affected are Chinese companies, which in the past two decades have made huge investments in the continent. The phenomenon of lateness is seen as negatively impacting production schedules and preventing companies from achieving goals on time.


"It looks normal to be late in Africa. It does not surprise anyone and at times I have even seen those who are punctual being ridiculed," said Wang Xiuying, a construction firm manager in Luanda, Angola.


According to Wang, so-called African Time is quite dissimilar to the more clock-bound pace of life in Asian and Western countries. "[In my experience] when an African says I will come to work at 8 a.m. it could essentially be from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. It is seldom earlier than that," he said.


This practice has been condemned for affecting the continent's development and productivity. Six years ago, former Côte d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo launched a campaign, descriptively titled "African time is killing Africa - let's fight it," which sought to inject some sense of punctuality into his country, which has a chronic problem with promptness.


"The cultural deficiency in time is one of Africa's most harmful problems. Time is taken for granted in this region. It is seen as a renewable resource. Yet Africa misappropriates time as it does to other resources, such as minerals. With this tradition, everything on the continent is always running behind schedule," said Nixon Faye, an independent cultural analyst based in Nigeria.


Professor Isaac Nyamongo of the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Nairobi said that this particularly relaxed time management culture is deeply ingrained in Africans, and the West should accept the continent as it is. "It is imperative that we don't compare entities that don't share anything in common. It will take two generations or more to change this culture and it should start at the primary school level."


But Alexandre Sebuhura, a sociology lecturer at the Kampala International University, said that with the current economic boom and business opportunities on the continent, Africans need to readdress their priorities and reconsider punctuality in order to be taken seriously.


"We mislead ourselves that Africans have their own time. This is an archaic mindset that needs a shift if we are to be competitive on the international stage," said Sebuhura.


Africans argue that they exist "in" time, not "for" time. As such, their lives are not defined by seconds, minutes and hours. For many of them, time is not money. Perhaps, it is because of this kind of thinking that about 80 percent of African nations are labeled "Low Human Development" on the United Nations' Human Development Index.


This disparity in time awareness has prompted some international companies operating on the continent to avoid employing local workers. In countries where international companies are obligated to hire local workers, creative initiatives are put in place to influence Africans' punctuality at work.


"We have invested in training, swipe cards and incentive schemes to help change our workers' approach to time. So far, we have managed to take close to 500 of them to Beijing for exchange programs. We hope such a plan will transform others," said Zhang Wei, an engineer for a Chinese firm in Ethiopia.


More importantly, Zhang said incentive schemes seem to be changing Africans' mindset toward time. The call for the continent to change its way of life continues to be met with some hostility. This is because to some, it is still perceived as un-African to be punctual.


In many parts of Gambia, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other countries, time is traditionally measured without a watch. They take into account the movement of the sun and prayer times. Other things are not so much a matter of time, but rather about contemplating the future.


"It is not as bad as is being put. Africans may fail to keep time, but they are very good at making maximum use of the little time they have. No doubt this compensates for the lateness," said Julianne Berhe, a sociology lecturer at Ethiopia's Addis Ababa University. CA (Reporting from Kenya)



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