Tales & images from life as me…

TIA Tales – Africa Time

Time, here in Africa, is a very difficult concept. You may often hear people ask ‘do you mean Africa time or Western time?’ ie ‘are we being precise and expected to be on time’, since that is not generally the case.

Of course it doesn’t help that here in East Africa, as well as the loose and relaxed ‘Africa time’ and the more definite ‘Western time’, there is also Swahili time. Whilst far less vague than Africa time (South Africans use phrases like ‘I’ll see you now’ or ‘just now’ or ‘now now’ to combat Africa time and indicate more precisely the level of vagueness. Everyone in SA seems to psychically know what each means but can’t actually explain it to an outsider so it doesn’t help the rest of us at all!)… Anyway, where was I? Yes, whilst Swahili time is less vague than Africa time it still turns things upside down.

Let me explain. Swahili time is based on a much simpler system than our own time really. Because we are near the equator and the daylight hours barely change, it is possible to name 7am as the first hour of the day. 8am is then the 2nd hour, 9am the 3rd etc. Thus when someone says, in Swahili, saa nne (the fourth hour) they are meaning 10am or 10pm. Oh and the day is also split into loose sort of chunks – for example mchana is the mid section but could be anything from around 11am to 2pm. Confused? Try arranging to catch a bus!

“What time does the bus arrive?”

“Six o’clock.”

“Is that English or Swahili time?”


“umm, ok,” I switch to Swahili and am told the same thing – ‘saa sita’, the 6th hour.

“ah so you mean 12 o’clock?”

Blank face.

“Is it mchana?”


“Ok good, ummm, just to be sure can you show me on my watch!”

In fact, although the concept is quite simple once you get your head around it, it causes all kinds of surprising problems. Take, for example, Saanane Island. Its name translates to the 8th hour island but so many guide books (including TANAPA, the organization responsible for the island as a wildlife reserve, and several guide books and websites) call it 8 o’clock island when they refer to it in English. Surely it should be 2 o’clock island?!

The vagaries of time extend to everything here. Perhaps my favourite illustration of this is the amazing old train from Nairobi to Mombasa, where platform announcements go something like this: “The train will depart any time from now.”
Then an hour later: “The train will depart any time from now!”

The real irony i have discovered, though, is in schools. Many children in these countries will walk literally miles to get to school in rural areas in these countries. However, this is, perhaps quite rightly, no excuse for tardiness. Arriving on time for school is a fixed requirement and should they be late the discipline master, with a big stick, will be waiting for them when they do finally turn up. It’s a little different for the staff though.

I once visited a school with classrooms full of pupils but no teachers. On further investigation we found the teachers in the staff room, we asked why they were not teaching. ‘The Headmaster did not come to school’ they said.
“Ok but that doesn’t mean you can’t teach classes.”
“Ah but he has not made the timetable so we don’t know what to do.”
After recovering from our astounded states we pushed further.
“How long has this been going on for?”
“He has not been here all term!”
I’m guessing the Headmaster didn’t get the stick though.

As a little aside, please note: this is not a reflection of all the schools, in fact there are some absolutely amazing schools and education centers here, but teachers are badly paid and poorly treated and some do become lazy as a result. This was a pretty extreme example!

I’ll post more stories next week, and I’ll try to stick to English time so you know you can check in over the weekend and find a little African tale to amuse you. If I’m ever too busy perhaps I can just say ‘a TIA Tale from Melissa Kay will be posted any time from now!’


2 responses

  1. Wow… great looking blog and photos. Though you might want to get an english teacher too check for any grammatical mistakes, though they might be to busy 🙂 Look forward to reading more tales from TIA, I’m sure dashing damien and cheesy john have a fair few you could post on here. take care gary

    January 8, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    • Hi Gary, thanks for checking in a supporting. Quite right, i did sneak in this morning and do a bit of editing! The article about charity work which refers to you and your antics briefly is due to go to print today. I’ll try to find out if there’s an on-line link or at the very least track down a copy of the mag and send a pic! It’s not always easy to find as it gets send directly to 5,000 subscribers rather than being sold all over but I’ll get one in the end! Hope your travels are going well. My brother arrives tomorrow so I’m off on adventures again myself! Keep reading! xx

      January 9, 2012 at 12:04 pm

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