Muireann taking photos in Uganda


Mac Cool's Uganda Letter

Photographs and Stories by Muireann Mac Cool


B l o g

African Time

01 Jan 2009

Not everyone keeps time in the same way. African time begins with reading the reliable sky.

More often than not, when I met the girls in Dublin, I was late. On those rare occasions that I was not late I was mad early. Despite my wrist watch and the numerous clocks at home I never could quite manage my time so that I arrived exactly on time. From the bus window the myriad of public clocks along the way reminded me of the precise minutes I had left people waiting. Or worse still, an indication of how many minutes I'd have to stand outside the newsagents in the driving rain waiting for them.

The guilt I used to feel on being late eased on my discovery of African time. If my concept of 'late' was fifteen minutes or half an hour out from what was agreed then I was wholly unprepared for what 'late' really meant in Uganda. Suddenly a flip occurred where I was no longer a late-comer but an excellent time-keeper. I relaxed and the punctuality panic subsided.

Sometimes I'd laugh to myself when I'd have arrived an hour late to the main post office on Kampala Road to find myself waiting another hour for my friend to appear. I'd stop and watch the people around me. Many were also waiting on their friends, lovers and family to show up. Of course it's easier when the sun is shining down.

Depending on who you ask African time can be described affectionately or very derisively. For most with a western perspective the apparent lack of precise time keeping is deeply frustrating. Tourists may wonder why public clocks have stood still for years (turned on only for the Queen's visit during CHOGM) or how a country can function without its workforce accounting for every second and minute of their time.

As Uganda is on the equator the sun rises and sets at more or less the same time every day. As quick as it was up, the sun is down and as quick as it was down it is up. For centuries people have looked to the sky to know the pattern of the day of when to rise and farm, when to rest and eat and when to wash the day down with a drink (preferably a beer or chai). The smooth predictability of the weather and light creates the structure for time and how it is perceived. You don't have to lay down a structure of minutes and hours over an uncertain day like you may in a European winter. The days are the same and they are certain.

Not everyone has a watch but then again not everyone looks out their window to know what general time of day it is. Like in many societies the old and the new are mixed together but overall it can be observed that people have a very relaxed approach or attitude to time. There are few occasions when there are exact stead-fast times. Young grooms have been frustrated when told to arrive in the village for an introduction ceremony to find that they are not admitted to the ceremony because key guests have not arrived or tents have not been put up.

My advice is to listen very carefully. When some one says: “we'll meet around four” be afraid be very afraid because that could be more like six! Also you have to be patient when people are using public transport.

'Saawa emu' – 7 o'clock (One o'clock)

Interestingly, in Luganda, the words to count time do not follow a European model. 'Saawa emu' which can refer to seven am or pm would actually be directly translated as one o'clock. 'Saawa emu' marks the first hour of the day and the first hour of the night. In many ways it makes sense. If the day starts when the sun gets up why on earth would you not start at the beginning, from number one?

[When learning the Luganda time it's useful to imagine a 12 hour clock in your mind and when you hear the Luganda number picture its direct opposite on the clock. 3 means 9 and 4 means 11 and so on.]

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