Time in Tanzania

03/03/2015 11:26 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Unless you look at your watch, time is subjective. It passes quickly when you are playing baseball with your friends and very slowly when you are in Psych class and the professor is droning on. But, of course, we are compelled to look at our watches and that makes time objective and digital. It divides our day into discrete units into which we feel compelled to insert some sort of productive activity. Even our leisure time tends to get allocated to something useful like running errands or raking leaves.

In rural Tanzania, where I spend a lot of my time, the local people don't use watches and are very flexible about time. Relationships are more important than being on time. So, walking to a meeting with my friend, Rev. Joas Mpinda, is a test of my patience. He is well known in this community and cannot walk more than 10 steps without encountering an acquaintance. Then he stops and exchanges the news with this person. In his unhurried way, we have just "wasted" five minutes. He would disagree with the word "wasted" because in Tanzanian society, relationships are critical and they need constant tending. There is always plenty of time. We are 20 minutes late for the meeting, but no one has noticed. The others are all exchanging news and strengthening their relationships. Several of the meeting attendees show up even later and no one notices that either.

The only exception to this loose interpretation of time is when a meeting is announced for, say, 9a.m. American time. Then everyone knows that it will start at 9 a.m. precisely.

Our Western preoccupation with time began with the steady improvements in clocks, starting in the Middle Ages so the monks could offer up their prayers at the proper time. As timepieces got more accurate, we were able to divide the day into hours, minutes and seconds. And we tied ourselves to these increasingly small segments of time. It's comforting to know that our plane will depart on time and our favorite TV show will begin at the precise time expected.

But this obsession with time can go too far. In working with a delegation of Japanese politicians and their staff some years ago, an unanticipated delay occurred and the officials had to wait twenty minutes for their tour to begin. It was a nice day and we relaxed on a bench in the sunshine. Next morning, I was confronted by an angry staff member demanding the name of the person responsible for making the governor wait. He also wanted the name of the responsible person's supervisor. I told him that I was responsible and refused to give him any more names. He left in a huff.

The 20 minutes in the sun probably did more for their physical and mental health than the obsessive enslavement to an arbitrary schedule.

Perhaps we can meld the necessity for schedules with the relaxed Tanzanian attitude toward time. Perhaps they will help us. But I fear it will be like the management class I took some years ago. The trainer suggested that persons with Type A personalities (aggressive, obsessive, driven) could improve their health by hanging around with Type Bs (relaxed, creative, caring). He warned, however, that Type Bs might not want Type As around. The Tanzanian term for white people is Wazungu, which literally means people going around in circles. So the Tanzanians may say no thanks to our request that they let us hang around with them.


Time Tanzania