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18.11.2002 Feature Article

ABROKYIR NKOMO: African Punctuality

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It’s nothing new back home. You agree with a friend to meet near the Circle overhead at 2pm. You arrive there at 2:45; he arrives at 3:15. No big deal. In African parlance, ‘2pm’ means ‘around 2pm’, which in turn means ‘any time from 2pm,late-ish afternoon… ad infinitum’. It is only a loose guide-a very elastic appointment. We are talking GMT-Ghana Made Time. The concept of African Time permeates the national psyche. At most government ministries and departments back home, few people get to work on time. ‘After all, the work is not for my father’, is a favourite quip. A durbar is scheduled for 11am, yet the dignitaries-including government ministers -arrive at 1pm, for how late you are proves how important you are. If an airline is a perfect indicator of its country’s state of affairs and national character, then Ghana Airways perfectly epitomises this by providing its Ghana-bound foreign travelers with a taste of our timekeeping skills (or lack thereof), even before they set foot upon Kotoka. The aircraft hardly takes off on time, and I suppose the airline always has on standby a pre-recorded apology. There is always the classic excuse-‘due to circumstances beyond our control…’ It has become such a jaded, pathetic cliché, provoking nothing but wry smiles and stoic resignation When you go back home on holiday, you may tend to be far from amused when people seem to be oblivious to the concept ofpunctuality. If you scold them for this, you are branded ‘too known’. Naturally, you must have picked up some abrokyir attitudes whilst you have been away, and timekeeping is one of these. In western society, where a 7.38am train actually leaves at 7.38am (the Germans, the Swiss and the Japanese are specialists at such military precision), only a fool will not make an effort to rush to catch that train, especially if you’ll otherwise be late for work. Once this is ingrained in you, you tend to apply it to other situations. Starting work at 9am means exactly 9am. If you are paid by the hour, then the phrase ‘time is money’ means a lot to you. Ladies and Gentlemen, you dare not tell your boss you’re late because it was raining. The Ghanaman may pick up the time-keeping habits of his host citizens when he travels and settles abroad. However, whilst you can take Ghanaman out of Ghana, you can never possibly take Ghana out of Ghanaman. Unless his timekeeping relates to securing or maintaining his job, you can trust him to frequently relapse into his basic homegrown habits. In abrokyir, when you invite a Ghanaian (or indeed an African) to a social function, expect him to arrive two hours after the appointed time-just like back home. If you are throwing a party starting at 11pm, only your white friends will be pressing your doorbell at 10:58 pm. No self-respecting African will come to your party until well after midnight. If you want to invite an African for a function starting at 6pm, do insist it starts at 4pm, and if you are lucky, he may just make it for 7pm! Of course, the Ghanaian attitude to timekeeping is appalling. In this modern day and age, time is money. The time wasted could be spent doing other productive things. Being late for work affects productivity, which in turn costs money. Attitudes to timekeeping need to change. Hold on. Is African punctuality such a bad thing? What is the point in having your life ruled by the dictates of a watch? Back home, we like to take our time in everything we do. If we have an appointment for ‘around 2pm’ then what is the problem so long as everybody knows this to be a general guide only? After all, if time is of crucial essence to you when negotiating an appointment, you can always insist that the appointment is not based on African Time. Over in abrokyir it is easier to honour an appointment because you can estimate your travel time with a fair degree of accuracy. You catch the 2.34pm train at point A and you know it takes exactly 23 minutes to get to point B. It is a different system back home. You may indeed get to the station early enough, only to find an empty tro-tro, which won’t budge till it’s full. The driver is enjoying a hearty meal of fufu and aponkye nkrakra at a chop bar nearby and will be summoned by his mate only when the tro-tro is fully loaded. After finishing his meal will he stroll casually towards his vehicle, belching intermittently as he engages in friendly banter with the hawkers at the station, whilst you sit waiting and roasting to a fine crisp in the hot, cramped tro-tro. And almost as a casual afterthought, he will make a not-too-quick stopover at the filling station to top up his diesel before the actual journey begins. Why the Ghanaian taxi driver/tro-tro never buys enough fuel before loading still remains an irritating mystery. And if you prefer to stand by the roadside to catch a tro-tro/taxi, you then go through a trial and error procedure. Most of the commercial vehicles speed by, belching ominous fumes, completely full and oblivious to your plight. You can’t afford dropping all the time. In such circumstances, just how do you honour an appointment with any degree of accuracy? Dear reader, when the sun is blazing with a ferocious intensity, it defies common sense to rush just to make an appointment. Plodding along will do just fine-it enables the body to cool down. Akwasi Broni has the benefit of cold weather, so he has to hurry along with good reason- to generate some body heat!! Moreover, when you have just had a heavy lunch of gari and ‘red-red’, the palm oil tends to make you feel rather sluggish, and rushing to get back to work seems to be the highest order of lunacy. You might want to take a short nap first, to enable the gari to rise properly in your tummy. Especially if it is a hot day. The white man’s timekeeping habits may be impressive in that it increases efficiency and productivity etc etc, but alas, that has a certain mechanical touch to it. The morning rush hour is a depressing sight: silent, glum-faced commuters pouring out of buses and trains, charging ahead like a herd of buffaloes, checking their watches every now and then, just to make sure they can get to work on time. A little traffic jam sends their blood pressure up. Their lives are ruled by alarm clocks, those mechanical monstrosities that rudely curtail your blissful sleep, just when you get to the best part of dreamland. Take away a white man’s watch and you have robbed him of his soul, rendering him unable to function, like a navigator without a compass. On the other hand, give a Ghanaian (or an African, for that matter) a watch, and you might as well stick a plaster on an aching belly. At best he’ll treat is as an accessory. African Punctuality is an integral part of the continent’s culture, its social fabric and espirit du corps. It would be a shame to dismantle this concept totally. As a compromise, Africa needs a two-tier timekeeping system-European Time for work, state/public functions, and African Time for informal social events and appointments, and visiting friends. So dear ‘boga’, next time you go home on holiday, do everybody a favour –dance to the beat and switch to African Time. Take it easy, and get rid of your watch, unless of course you want to show off your Rolex. If a friend promises to come and see you at 3pm, expect him after 4pm, and don’t stress yourself. Remember, you are on holiday, after all!! As Bob Marley famously sang, ‘Sun is shining, weather is sweet’ What is the rush?

Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng
Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng, © 2002

The author has 34 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: RodneyNkrumahBoateng

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