Calling Time on ‘African Time’

Well, if time is money, no wonder we’re poor….

‘Africa Time’, ‘Black Man’s Time’, ‘GMT=Ghana Maybe Time’, etc. etc. The concept of punctuality and timekeeping is so poorly regarded in much of Africa that we have all manner of names for it across the continent.

We’ve also managed to export our attitudes to timekeeping so successfully that whether we are in London, New York or Toronto, we KNOW that our people are never going to be on time.

Well, it’s time to call time on this appalling practice and to start treating each other with the respect that we would want for ourselves.

‘Time is Money ….’

Many businessmen and sadly, potential investors, can attest to sitting for hours outside the offices of an African official or Minister, waiting for them to appear for a meeting that had been scheduled weeks ahead. The matter is usually not helped by the attitude of lackadaisical support staff who not only have no clue about where their boss is, but clearly care even less. What does this say about us and our seriousness about seeking investment from people who understand the adage that ‘time is money’?

Well, if time is money, no wonder we’re poor. When an African president (no names mentioned) can keep an entire press corps waiting for hours to open an investment conference overseas, what does it say to foreigners about the nature of doing business with that country? With the best will in the world, how can the international media be expected to produce good news stories about that country and its prospects?

Planning for Lateness

The underlying message when you keep someone waiting is that their time is not as important as yours. Yes, emergencies arise and people are sometimes late through no fault of their own. But what we are seeing in our communities is a systematic and practically institutionalized approach to timekeeping that does not serve us well.

And the attitude is contagious. A friend who normally makes every effort to be on time for appointments with Europeans shrugs off the idea of turning up on time to an African function.

“What’s the point,” she reasons. “I’ll just be sitting there for hours before anyone shows up.”

Thus, planning ahead to be late becomes the absurd reality we are increasingly faced with. Another friend takes a book along with her when she has a function to attend because she would rather spend the time sitting in her car reading than sitting in a half-empty hall waiting. An approach which brings to mind the observation by author Franklin Jones that “the trouble with being punctual is that nobody’s there to appreciate it.”

Talking about timekeeping, been to any African conferences lately? If I had one pound for every ‘important’ speaker who, over the years, has failed to show up or arrived late, throwing the programme into chaos, I would feature in the Fortune 100 wealth list today. And, if that’s not enough, when they do finally arrive, they take twice as long as scheduled to deliver a speech that they clearly have not seen before. I still have painful memories of a keynote speaker at a conference who calmly announced that as she had not prepared a presentation for the topic given to her, she proposed to deliver one that she had given several months earlier on a different subject. I left.

Beware the Invitation

Invitations in our communities now need to come with a health warning, because our people are building in ‘African time’ when planning events. I recall years ago being advised to print an earlier time on my wedding invitation cards as people would be bound to be late. I didn’t follow the advice. I walked down the aisle in a half-empty chapel and, at the end of the service, turned to face a packed congregation.

“If you’re there before it’s over, you’re on time”, said James J. Walker – a view which seems to capture the attitude of many of us towards punctuality.

Invitations in our communities now need to come with a health warning, because our people are building in ‘African time’ when planning events.

But, if people don’t bother to turn up on time, what does it say about the importance we attach to invitations and the privilege of witnessing someone’s celebration of a key milestone? I was the punctual bride, but what does it say when a bride keeps her guests waiting for 2 hours or a host arrives at his own party 3 hours late in order to ‘make an entrance’? What does it say when punctuality, as someone once said, becomes ‘the art of guessing how late the other fellow is going to be’?

We need to stop this. We cannot ask to be taken seriously if we lack the basic courtesy to value other people’s time as much as we value our own. We cannot ask to be given a place at the international business table if we fail to observe the basic courtesies of the other diners. “Punctuality is the politeness of kings” as Louis XVIII is renowned to have said. We cannot avoid exasperation, irritation and condemnation if we don’t learn now to say no to ‘Ghana Man’s Time’ and say yes to ‘Get Manners Time’!

So let’s call time on this practice by not tolerating it any further. Being late isn’t cute; it isn’t courteous and it isn’t acceptable. We need to protest this attitude and take action now, before we pass this legacy on to coming generations. Next time you are kept waiting, leave the venue, walk out of the function, and protest by taking your time back into your own hands. Because, as George Bernard Shaw once said, “Better never than late.”

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