A Student Development Experience in a Development Context

My Journey on Swahili Time

One cultural characteristic Japhet told us about during our first meeting was the concept of “Swahili Time”. In Tanzania, you will generally find that people are less concerned about maintaining a strict commitment to time. When someone says, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” there is a good chance it is going to be more like twenty. The  running joke amongst our group is laughing about whether it will be five minutes (mzungu time), or fiiiiiiiiiiive minutes (swahili time), explanatory hand gestures included.

What would my life be like in Canada if I operated on Swahili Time? It certainly would not work as well as it does in Tanzania. Could you imagine claiming to your boss that you should be excused from showing up for work forty-five minutes late because you’re operating on Swahili time? Not to mention that my friends already complain that I am often slow or late. Do Tanzanians get frustrated by others and their noncompliance to time? In a country that is more rural than urban and where self-employment is quite common, it seems as though the culture is collectively less reliant on a schedule. It is this unison that makes Swahili Time work. When I was little and I used to ask my mother the time, she would to say, “It’s a freckle past a hair.” This phrase is much better suited to a society that is more relaxed about their time commitments. Who knew she was so in tune with Swahili culture?

I’ve noticed that Swahili Time extends itself into other areas. I am still unsure where the population of Karatu lies within the range of 8,000 to 20,000 people, based on the various responses I’ve heard. Our road trip to Bunda last week, which was anywhere from 200 to 400 kilometers, would take 7 or 8 hours to complete but one of the other vehicles would make it there in a much shorter time. For the record, Google Maps places this journey at 344 kilometers and in the end it took us 9 hours to get there (a small gravel road, tons of wildlife to photograph, and a stop at a Masaai village significantly lengthened the journey).

There is another one of my mother’s favourite sayings that is relevant to my story: “Life is a journey, not a destination.” This has never felt more true as I have become accustomed to Swahili Time and the perspective it requires. There is a definite beauty and inner peace associated with removing yourself from the grasp of time and learning to truly live in the moment. When I return home to Canada, this is something I look forward to bringing with me, and not in an excuse-for-my-tardiness capacity. It is the Swahili Time Perspective that I hope to keep – especially with my recent graduation from University and the now impending need to decide on my next step in life. Whatever it may be, travel, beginning a career path, applying for Master’s programs, or some other unknown, I am going to make this decision with my new perspective so it will be one that enriches my journey instead of determining my destination.



2 responses

  1. Tony Rogge

    Great post Mallory! Indeed, there is some variation in how we approach time management in Canada – and in some other part sof the world.

    In Malawi they use three basic categories:


    Just Now

    Now Now

    There’s about a 24 hour lag between Now Now and Now, with just now calling for a detailed conversation. Remember, when it comes to time, or getting logistics sorted, the key is triangulation – I’ve found that it helps to ask the same question at least three different ways. You may find that the information you get from this tactic changes the picture you see and the message you recieve.

    The other experience that I’d like to share with you when it comes to time management at work, and the differences between the Canadian workplace and its expectations, and the kind of rhythms you expereince in parts of Africa, is the fact that many of your colleagues have extended obligations or livelihood strategies that extend far beyond the discreet activitries associated with a particular job. After years of working with my colleagues and friends in Malawi, many Azungus observe and marvel over the fact that so many of our counterparts must occupy many wages rather than take on a single job to craft a comfortable and predictable livelihood. It’s a very rational strategy, but it means that people need more flexibility in their work day. Factor in the relational aspects of ‘African’ culture and the simple logitics of transport, and these three things combined, make Swahili time a very real phenomenon, in fact, a reality, that influences how work is managed, and executed. It really is a different context altogether isn’t it?

    Have fun over there.

    June 1, 2011 at 1:59 pm

  2. Liz Redston

    Good comments Mallory – although you have always been a two freckles past a hair kind of person. Keep focussed on the journey and the destination will be one you are happy with.

    June 2, 2011 at 8:08 pm

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