One of the most infamous, but true, stereotypes of Tanzania, East Africa, is that time does not truly exist.
Having been borne of a North American culture where every second is a potential penny lost, it is strangely perplexing and liberating to live in a land where a clock is more an item of ornament than an instrument of necessity.
Time in Tanzania does not move to the pulse of the working hour and schedules do not align to openings in a day book. More than anything, time in Tanzania is a function of the sun and eating.
When one says that there is such a thing as "Swahili Time," they are not joking. The arrangement of the hours of the clock here is not the same as the rest of the world. Twelve a.m. in Tanzania marks the arrival of dawn (not midnight). If you are confused, trust me, so was for the first half a year that I lived here. There is nothing like making a plan for a trip and thinking that you are leaving first thing in the morning at six and having no one show up until close to lunchtime.
While time by the clock here seems an exercise in frustration, after getting acquainted with the rhythm of life in Tanzania, one thing does become obvious. When living close to the equator, sunrise and sunset are at a near constant and the balance of daylight and nighttime hours is close to equal at 12 hours apiece. In that context, starting the day’s clock with the arrival and departure of the sun makes a lot of sense.
Although the logic may seem foreign, when it is examined more closely the overall rationale is sound. The first hour of the day in East Africa is that in which light touches the earth and the last is that in which darkness begins its descent. From this perspective, my own concept of the day seems to be the one that is flawed.
For most of my life I have always acquainted the beginning of the day with the seventh hour of the clock.
Similar to the division of day and night, measuring and managing the more detailed passages of a day in Tanzania is accomplished by the use of events, or better put, lunch.
Although the midday meal is a near universal indicator of the day’s passing, in East Africa it is put to a new level.
There are really two times of day that matter in here — before and after lunch. Within these two blocks of time, it is better to accept that only one thing outside of normal day-to-day activities will be reasonably accomplished.
From my earliest years as a school boy, I have been accustomed to fair degree of efficiency in planning for the use of my time. Classes were always one hour and breaks 15 minutes.
As I was taught, follow the rules well and a lot can get accomplished.
However, applying this logic in Tanzania will actually get one nowhere. In fact, one will likely end up with the opposite — a lot more time lost.
Trying to divide and manage the day in units of hours in Tanzania is much more akin to a comedy of errors that makes owning a clock or a watch almost nonsensical. It’s not so much that people don’t want to be on time in East Africa, it’s more often a matter that the circumstances of their lives don’t allow them to be punctual.
The overriding reality in Tanzania is that poverty does not align well to time efficiency. Despite the best intentions to be somewhere promptly, life just happens. Local transport will fail, a power outage will delay completing the tasks for a meeting and even the rain can throw off how long it takes to cook a meal or have one’s single change of clothes fully dried on the line.
When it is further considered that most people are a combination of self-employed, unemployed or food insecure, the other question that arises is what of importance, outside of lunch, is really happening to be late for in the first place?
All that being said, understanding "Swahili Time" is really about considering at which point something actually begins.
Agreeing to meet at two o’clock does not mean that everyone will be arriving at the same place at the same moment. It means that everyone will start departing for the same place at roughly a similar time.
In Tanzania, all time begins with the journey.
» Josh Sebastian is from Brandon-Westman and is currently working on international development projects in Tanzania, East Africa.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 29, 2012