My beach wedding in Diani, Kenya, was supposed to begin at 4 p.m. It started two hours later. The reason: The photographer was late. He shrugged it off, blaming traffic. “I am here now and that is what matters,” he said.
Grrr, “Kenyan time.”
That is what they call it in my homeland.
Unlike in the clock-bound West, where one is expected to arrive at or ahead of schedule, it’s OK to be one or two hours later for an event by Kenyan standards. It is not a big deal at all — that is the true meaning of “Kenyan time.”
And now, “Kenyan time” is a social-media phenomenon, thanks to a new video showing an American man ranting, in English and Swahili, about how Kenyans are always late.
“I define ‘Kenyan time’ as not actually time, just a number used to solidify the event,” said Oregonian and self-professed Kenyan enthusiast Justin Bradford in the video, which was posted in mid-December and has about 25,000 views.
Many Kenyan commenters agreed that, indeed, they are terrible at being on time.
paulinemochama: “So true. My sis was going for a baby shower that was starting at 4pm (supposedly) and she was still getting her hair braided at 6pm and had to go home n change and also buy a gift”
bluetuff1: “hahaha true many Kenyans don’t keep time”
Rosie Lusanji: “Huwaga hawasemi pole, bora wamefika. Woi. [Translation from Swahili: “They normally don’t say sorry—provided they make it.”]
Dennis Karuria: “Sisi hatunanga Haraka Bro. [“We are not in a hurry bro.”] We are the Real African Timers”
TheKEprince: “Hahah was in a company where we used to be at work at 8, but after too much lateness among many people it was pushed to 8.30. I joined the company when it was 8.30 but 1 year down the lane there was a request for 9 am. True we need to honor time as Kenyans and as the global community, it’s very important for us to progress. When someone delays me by 20 minutes, I leave…very simple”
Nor is it new. In 2003, the BBC devoted an episode of its “Africa Live” program to “African time” following the late arrival of a Ghanaian king for a showy ceremonial event in London. A decade ago, Laurent Gbagbo, then-president of Ivory Coast, launched the ” ‘African time’ is killing Africa, let’s fight it” campaign to promote punctuality.
The recent video raises the question, do Kenyans and other Africans respect time? (Some, yes.) Are all Kenyans guilty? (No.) And why is some white dude in Oregon complaining about Kenyans? (Unclear.)
Kenyans exist in time, not for time. Their lives are not defined by seconds, minutes and hours; time is not money. Rather, Kenyans view time as a contextual and flexible variable that individuals have the right to manage however they please. What matters is not the time you arrive but the significance of your presence and participation.
But make no generalizations. While a majority of Kenyans may be guilty of chronic tardiness, plenty are sticklers for punctuality — in some circumstances, anyway. The U.S. Embassy and other embassies in Kenya, for example, are places where Kenyans are on time, or even hours early, for appointments.
The more Kenya folds itself into the global economy through trade ties, business dealings and donor-funded projects with countries such as the U.S. and China, the more its citizens will have to conform to the clock-obsessed culture beyond its borders.
Take the new railway connecting Nairobi to Mombasa. Built and operated by the Chinese, who are far stricter with time, the route’s trains depart precisely on schedule. Kenyans know to be there on the dot. “If there is anything on time in Kenya, it’s the SGR train,” one of my Kenyan friends wrote on Facebook.
Punctuality is also common in schools.
When I was growing up in Mabafweni, Kenya, in the 1980s, arriving at school by 7 a.m. was mandatory. Failing to do so would result in a punishment such as caning or kneeling for an hour on the hard floor. I learned to respect time, which helped me adapt to the U.S., where I live now.
Today, schools still enforce punctuality. For instance, students at the Dr. Ndumi Faulu Academy, which I co-founded with my parents, have to arrive by 7:15 a.m. If they’re late three times, they’re sent home for the day.
Punctuality is a sign of respect and goes a long way toward building trust and confidence. But must it be forced on the many Kenyans and other Africans who still believe in “African time”? Tweet your thoughts @NPRGoatsandSoda.
Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at Auburn University in Alabama. She served as a 2017 Clinton Global Initiative University Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 Food Security New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute. Reach her @EstherNgumbi.