African timer?

Today I learned about a very interesting concept called Chronemics which is the study of the role of time in communication.

Turns out the way we perceive time and approach it in our lives depends on the cultural lens.

Case in point: The African timer.

This is used to describe ( often pejoratively) the lackadaisical and relaxed attitude Africans ( or black people in general) have towards time-sensitivity. This results in tardiness in meetings and appointments.

This negative connotation is due to African cultures being compared to Western ones, and using the latter as a golden standard.

This is catastrophic in many ways. Western culture is individual-oriented whereas African cultures are collective-oriented. In other words, the Western work ethic tends to one task at a time, whereas African work ethic tends to the personal relations and doing many things at the same time.

Names that have been coined for the respective time cultures are ‘mechanical time consciousness’ or ‘monochronic’ (Western) and ’emotional time consciousness’ or ‘polychronic’ (African).

The reason why it’s catastrophic is that it’s an internalized and accepted form of imperialism. It dehumanizes and invalidates the black person’s culture and temperament. It’s erasure of ancient traditions, and white supremacy.

If anything, the monochronic (Western) model dehumanizes the individual by treating them as automatons slaving away in the factories. Time is used to control the person. That’s why catch phrases like ‘time is money’ are a thing; they were coined with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. And it makes sense; factory owners need reliable labourers to ensure they get their money’s worth !

Polychronic (African) time is more fluid and less stringent. The focus is more on connection and shared experiences. This is also why the idea of privacy and boundaries is foreign.

“The contrast between African time and Western time is illustrated in the award-winning short film Binta and the Great Idea. The protagonist of the film, a fisherman in a small village in Senegal, can’t understand the new ideas brought back from Europe by his friend; these are symbolized by a Swiss wristwatch, which rings at various times to the delight of the friend, but for no apparent reason. The fisherman is shown making his way through the various ranks of officials with his idea, which in the end is a sharp criticism of Western culture’s obsession with efficiency and progress.”

The Somali culture is clearly polychronic, and I think if we look at it through this lens, we can come to appreciate our culture and unconditionally accept it as opposed to side-eyeing it as something backwards and defective.

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