In as far as punctuality goes, the Botswana of more than 100 years was not any different from today’s. However hard they tried, two missionaries doing pastoral work in the Bangwato territory, James Hepburn and William Willoughby, just couldn’t get on the same page with the natives with regard to religiously showing up on time.
“Worshippers kept turning up late. Like Hepburn, Willoughby had to deal with what he referred to as ‘Chuana-time’, a phenomenon to which Willoughby would never fully reconcile. Hepburn’s longing for a bell remained unfulfilled, whereas Willoughby’s annoyance with the late comers produced better results,” reads a quote fromLittle Giant of Bechuanaland: A Biography of William Charles Willoughby Missionary and Scholar which John Makgala and Phenyo Thebe have incorporated into “There is no Hurry in Botswana”: Scholarship and Stereotypes on “African time” Syndrome in Botswana, 1895-2011”, an academic paper they co-authored.
“Khama [III] presented him with a two and a half hundred weight bell intended to ‘sound far’, calling the faithful to worship ÔÇô on time. A tower, paid for by Khama and some local Tswana and Europeans, was added to the Church, making it more ‘ornamental’. A nice appearance, as Willoughby admits, was not the intention, but the bell in its new tower failed to overcome the problem. Phalapye houses were scattered over a wide area. Even before Hepburn left, Phalapye’s population had reached 30 000 spread over twenty miles. Thus, the bell could only be heard across the town on wet days. Eventually, the bell was transferred to a small European church built near the populace. This proved more successful, but because it was so far from the Mission House, the deacons made responsible for ringing the bell were not always themselves free of the infection of ‘Chuana-time’.”
During the time that the British were perpetrating the protectorate scam on Batswana tribes, Khama is said to have been uncomfortable with this idea. His discomfort stemmed from the fact that white people “are always in a hurry.” Makgala and Thebe, who are both lecturers at the University of Botswana, quote a variation of this sentiment with regard to tax collection.
While they agreed to their people paying tax for financing the administration of the protectorate, Khama and two other dikgosi, Sebele I of the Bakwena and Bathoen I, insisted that they collect the tax themselves because their subjects wouldn’t be comfortable dealing with people who were “always in a hurry.” A little over a half a century later, racially defined attitudes towards time hadn’t changed.
“In 1946 the issue of lack of punctuality was raised quite strongly by Resident Commissioner Aubrey Forsyth-Thompson during a session of the African Advisory Council, with the Batswana Chiefs in attendance. Forsyth-Thompson lamented that government officials were particularly frustrated by the lack of a sense of time on the part of the Batswana, even educated ones,” Makgala and Thebe say.
The study goes beyond the Botswana situation to illustrate the point that generally, there is no hurry in Africa. Among those interviewed for this paper was the former UB vice chancellor, Professor Bojosi Otlhogile, who said of late-coming: “It is a perennial problem. I spent the bulk of my time fighting it even amongst non-Batswana.” Another was Neil Parsons, a former professor of history at UB who provided personal accounts of his time experiences in two Southern African countries. In the former, time checks on Radio Zambia were completely arbitrary: someone would bang a gong “saying it was 8 o’clock precisely when the newsreader was ready and not what a precise clock said.” In Swaziland, King Sobhuza II would keep people waiting in the searing heat for up to five hours. Parsons discerned a proclivity in African leaders to observe “royal time” by keeping peasants waiting in order to “show power over and humiliate” them.
“Some politicians do the same just to make us feel small and powerless,” Parsons told the authors.
More than a century after their first contact with westerners and despite having adopted a western way of life, Africans still have a casual attitude towards time. This condition has exercised minds of scholars and some of those that Makgala and Thebe quote attribute this to culture.
“Keletso Atkins, in her fascinating study on the cultural origins of an African work ethic in the British colony of Natal (South Africa) in the second half of the nineteenth century, demonstrates how the Zulu’s idea of month-end through observing the moon was roughly at variance with the European commercial and capitalist observance of the calendar for month-end. “The moon is dead! Give us our money!” the Zulus would say to their European employers. The use of the lunar reckonings by the Zulu was condescendingly referred to as “Kafir month” as well as “Kafir time” by Europeans.” From UB itself, the authors quote historian Dr. Bruce Bennett (a New Zealander) who says that Africans are doing exactly what Europeans did before industrialisation: “Europeans found it hard to adapt to factory time when they had been used to time based on nature (in farming) or on events (e.g. the apprentice starts work when the master has finished breakfast and goes into the workshop). My point on religious time (…pre-industrial urbanization) was that Europeans had some cultural items which may have given some (even if limited) preparation for the transitions to industrial time. The conclusion of all this is simply that it is not surprising or particularly ‘African’ for a society changing from agrarian to industrial life to experience time issues.” In a reiteration of this point, Otlhogile is quoted as saying that “no Motswana man would have gone to church leaving livestock in a kraal.”
While the culture dimension sounds almost persuasive, the authors raise the point that even urban Africans who have largely severed ties with traditional religious and cultural practices which have a bearing on their attitude to time, still conform to the syndrome of African time in official government, private business and personal interactions.
Makgala and Thebe note that this laissez-faire attitude to time has reduced productivity in the economic development of nations. They state that in the particular case of Botswana, this lack of productivity has frustrated effort to attract foreign direct investment. Interestingly, there was a time when, according to literature that the authors quote, Botswana’s civil service “was generally believed to be the most efficient in the whole of the African continent.” This was during the administration of Botswana’s first president, Sir Seretse Khama. That changed in the early 1990s when, according to Professors Mpho Molomo and Brian Mokopakgosi (also UB scholars), the Botswana Democratic Party began “to reward party activists and supporters by appointing them to positions in the diplomatic and civil service, and the councils, land boards, and tribal administration.”
The paper concludes on a serio-comical note by reproducing an item that was published in Below the Belt, a prose-comedy column that appeared in Sunday Standarduntil February last year: “At the continental level, the African Union should invest in a time piece suited to Africans’ attitude towards time. The clock/watch should have its own unique mechanism. At 6.00 a.m. it should stop for two hours to allow African workers to get as much sleep as possible and report for work at 10.00 a.m. Central European time; at 1015 the hands should start moving so fast the time piece turns into a fan and before you know it, its 1300 ÔÇô lunch time; the hands then move so slowly that what in Europe would be 20 minutes becomes five seconds; at 1330, the hands get stuck for an hour; from 14.00 the hands become fan blades again andvoila! It’s time to call it a day. For ease of doing business, all African countries will synchronise their time so that lunch break in Lagos takes as much time as in Gaborone ÔÇô three hours. No longer being colonised by Europe, Africa should assert its independence in every sphere. Time has come for us to free ourselves from the oppression of the white man’s time and fully embrace our own African Time.”