One of the reasons I originally mentioned waiting during my commute, as the public transport system was inefficient around me, is the experience I have had of Africa time.
If you have ever spent time in an African country – real time, not some 3 week ‘experience’ offered by an ethical agency with access to plumbing and the internet – then you will know the politics and social discourse become more complicated as time goes on. After 1 month in South Africa, I was an expert. After 6 I had a bare-knuckle grasp. My Dad went to Rwanda this year and he came back with more questions than answers. One answer, however, he did discover: the meaning behind ‘Africa time’.
Very good friends of my parents (and mine, I suppose, although the age difference always makes use of the ‘f’ word more difficult) are doctors in my home town and Nigerian by descent. Professional and excellent at their jobs, they are physically incapable of arriving at a home group barbeque or prayer meeting on time. We compensate by telling them it starts 2 hours ahead, but even then they will barely scrape a fashionable entrance. They have always referred to ‘Africa time’ as their excuse, which we adopt with that love of the ethnic that white people embrace so readily, but it had not represented anything more than their cultural difference in the face of our need for punctuality.
However, in African countries, and many others, there is an ethos of travel that makes time for passing friendship and acquaintance. On one occasion in Kigali, my Dad was walking with a new friend to a church meeting, and as they proceeded through the town this man would stop and talk with friends of his on their way. Rather than wave a feeble hand and make some generic gesture of impatience, as one might do in London, this man took time to ask of their welfare and exchange pleasantries: a simple hello here or an extended conversation there.
By the time they reached the meeting, they were nearly an hour late. My Dad, in his Western sophistication, felt guilty and embarrassed by this, but there were no reprisals. They took their place and were greeted with smiles of welcome as the speaker continued. Had they been cornered later, no doubt the Rwandans in the room would have simply asked after the people they’d met.
‘Africa time’ is not a disrespect for agenda but rather a recognition that some things are more important.
Recently at the ticket barriers at London Bridge I bumped into an old colleague, coincidentally a Nigerian as well. We had a quick hello and once the initial pleasantries were over, I bustled down the escalator to the underground.
It should perhaps have come as no surprise when he phoned me at work later that day to continue the conversation from pleasantries to real connection. I had been unable to wait, to take time out of my supposedly frantic commute, and reconnect with my former colleague; my friend.
Since then I have found myself hoping to bump into people I know, desperate to see whether I can throw my schedule to the wind in the face of human interaction…