African and Western Conceptions of Time and History
Bert Hamminga – The Western versus the African Time Concept – referring to John S. Mbiti (African Religions and Philosophy, London: Heinemann 1969)
The difference between the Western mechanical and African emotional time consciousness is a highly instructive one: it explains a lot of intercultural differences and problems of intercultural contact in any kind of business. Of course, also Westerners experience emotional time. Important events in your life, say a new job in another town, a marriage, a baby “mark” your past in that some things will later be experienced as before or after this or that important event. The typical holiday experience is that after a few days you feel you left home ages ago, while upon return it feels you just left. In waiting for something time “goes slowly”, in hurrying for something time “goes fast”. The difference between Western and African time consciousness is that a Westerner asks: “when did your grandfather die”. The answer is “15 years ago”. The African asks “When was 15 years ago”. And the answer is “When your grandfather died”. What is the difference? That is far less obvious than it seems at first sight.
Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) writes her young Kikuju cook: “His memory for recipes was awesome. He could not read en did not know English, so cookbooks had no value to him, but he piled up everything ever taught to him, with the help of his own system that I never got hold on, in his unattractive head. He named the diverse dishes after some event on the day he had learned to make them, so he spoke of the sauce of the ‘lightning that struck in the tree’, and the sauce of ‘the grey horse that died'”.
The African interpretation of time starts thus: events occur in some order: there is “before” and there is “after”. In African languages, there is a number of tenses that indicate roughly “how much” before, and how much after. There usually is a tense for “at that time”, for “after that”, for “a considerable time after that”, and “a very long time after”. That does not sound strange to a Westerner. He also has such rough ideas on events. But the Westerner’s clock and calendar gives him the option of filing the event as having occurred at a certain numerical date-time. The Westerner deems that more “precise”. He wants to have trains running on schedule and fly to the moon. Africans have different aims in life. They want to “live” their own way. Traditionally, Africans have no concept of historical progress: in every life of every person the same happens. There is no thrive to change things. They have another idea of preciseness: emotional preciseness. The past is a chain of events. It has its places that are marked in memory, just as when you travel far through an unknown area. You will remember the river crossed, the mountain pass climbed. In time, you remember your eldest brother getting his first child, your great grandfather dying, your harvest spoiled by torrential rains, a war. Those are the tops of the “hours” in the memory of the African. Between them are the minor events as “minutes”. Westerners would say these hours do not have equal length. Africans are not interested at all in such considerations. By talking and passing over history orally to one another, they cut themselves a wooden past that feels like a comfortable place well connected to the present. A history to rest upon comfortably. Not so Westerners, who run puffing after the time they created to be their master! The kind of conversational context in which you create and pass over to younger generations the history in a time framework in which history itself is the “clock”, is dubbed “Zamani” (an abstraction of a Kiswahili concept) by Mbiti.
About “cardinal” and “ordinal”: if you count things you use cardinal numbers (like money, tanks and Western time). You use ordinal numbers if you merely want to indicate where (between which other things) units have their place in a succession (like the ranking in a competition and African time). Thus, cardinal numbers you can meaningfully add and substract, ordinal numbers no not carry such meaning (rank number 2 and 3 in a competition are not “together 5”).
Mbiti tells: Waiting for the start of a play by the Ebonies in Jinja, I met a Ugandan sister who just returned from her first visit to London. I asked her: one Ugandan week, how many London weeks would it be. She immediately understood my question, did not think long and said: six. This would have tremendous consequences: it means that in one week’s hard work, a Ugandan suffers six times as much as a Londoner. If he is free for one week, he enjoys six times as much than a Londoner. If the number six would be a reasonable estimate, which I would be inclined to think, it would be very irrational for a Ugandan to work as hard as a Londoner, especially when you add that the Londoner feels sure about the future enjoyment of his working results and to the Ugandan the future is very unsure and hypothetical.