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"African Time" and its Pre-colonial Roots

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

“African Time”—modern colloquialism for the institutionalized lax manner in which people of African descent attend to appointed and time-sensitive matters—is in many ways reflective of an ancient societal attitude towards time consciousness which has been borne by many non-Western societies up until very recently, with the introduction of the mechanical clock.

Though the pace of economic activity in Igboland never reached that which required the development of clocks or incredibly small divisions of time such as the hour, minute, or second, the Igbo traditionally enjoyed a wealth of observable natural phenomena to assist them in measuring gradual time flow. To keep track of seasons and long time periods, the Igbo made use of the moon, age-grade initiations, animal migrations, plants, and farmland rotations. For shorter time periods, the sun’s movement in the sky, the crowing of roosters and fowl, the lengthening of shadows, and more interestingly the activity of wine tappers, were all useful parameters.

The apparent lack of punctuality and habitual lateness which is attributed to the Igbo and their neighbors as a result of the “African Time” complex can be directly related to their historical use of wine tappers as a timekeeping parameter. In Igboland, wine tappers attend to their trees three times a day: in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Before the advent of mechanical clocks, appointments were set relative to the movement of wine tappers. Hypothetically, two women, Enyidie and Nwanyinma, could agree to rendezvous at a common location when the afternoon wine tappers had set out for their trees. Each woman would observe the activity of the wine tapper closest to her and would base her movement on his.

The issue lay in the fact that both of these women's wine tappers were not synchronized: they did not set out for work at the same exact moment nor did they work at the same pace. Enyidie’s wine tapper could have been delayed by a personal mishap and then set out later than usual. Whereas, Nwanyinma’s tapper could have finished attending to his morning palms quickly and then set out for his afternoon trees early. As a result, both of these women understood the flexibility of the time period in which their appointment was set and thus went about at a rather relaxed pace. Today, despite the presence of modern instruments of time measurement, many African societies still function and conduct business at this relaxed pace, much to the chagrin of those who are accustomed to the instantaneity and precision of the clock.



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