by Robert Reese
A veteran missionary compares “African time” with “American time” and shares how cross-cultural missionaries in Africa benefit from seeing time as a precious commodity.
After serving as missionaries for nearly twenty-one years in Zimbabwe, my wife and I recently resettled in the United States, and I began to lead small groups of Americans back to Zimbabwe for short-term mission trips. During these trips something interesting happened: I was reminded of the clash between African time and American time.
As I escorted groups to remote villages where we had helped plant churches, I found that our experiences were different in each village. Preparing for the most remote village, I mailed the village pastor a letter to let him know what day we expected to arrive. Because I knew the mail service was poor, I mailed the letter six months in advance. As we approached the village, the pastor (who was also an old friend of mine) was standing on the side of the main road waiting for us. On the basis of a letter mailed six months earlier, he had walked five miles from his home to meet us and was prepared to wait all day if necessary! Our group was amazed and impressed, partly because it appeared the pastor was incredibly efficient (meaning, he valued the economy of time). Actually, we were the efficient ones, as the pastor knew, to be able to keep the appointment that day; the pastor, however, was effective (meaning, he was able to use time in a way that values quality of relationships).1 He valued our relationship and the event of hosting the group so much that he was willing to come and wait for us. This was one of the few times that American efficiency and African effectiveness synchronized into harmony.
Being inefficient unnerves Americans, but not Africans, who view time differently. Americans talk about saving time, losing time, wasting time and spending time as if it is a commodity to be marketed: “Time is money,” Americans muse. For Africans, however, time is one of the few free natural resources left. An African craftsperson may carve an exquisite wooden basket with intricate designs of animals and plants, but upon selling the item, he or she may not factor in the time it took to make the basket. Time is free for the craftsperson.
During a visit to another village, we were the ones running hours late due to a delay in our airline flight. We fretted the whole day about being late, only to discover that many people were patiently waiting for us at our destination. If this situation had been reversed, with Americans waiting for Africans to arrive for a church function, I wonder if we would have this kind of patience. Because of the great respect the African Christians showed us, we were able to put the frustration of the delay behind us and enter into the spirit of common fellowship.
When the shoe was on the other foot, as it was bound to be, and we found ourselves waiting for Sunday school teachers to arrive at a workshop, we discovered how impatient we were by comparison. As members of the American group anxiously glanced at their watches, noting that the appointed meeting time had come and gone, I pointed out that Africans are not ruled by the clock; instead, they tend to go by the height of the sun, also called “African time.” I explained that because there is so much unknown about the future, Africans prefer either the present or the past (Mbiti 1969, 22-24). After all, it is in these two realms where personal identity and important relationships are founded. Some of the locals had seen us drive up and were now certain that the promised event would take place. Africans are event-centered more than clock-centered (1969, 19). Sure enough, the Sunday school teachers began to trickle in and we eventually enjoyed a wonderful workshop.
The American groups have never failed to be impressed by the events themselves, once they get going. Africans typically pack more vitality into church events than Americans. Church rituals that take five minutes in the United States, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, are expanded and celebrated. Africans love to get together; worship for them is an experience. Anthropologists have noted that traditional cultures have “sacred time” (Hall 1983, 23-26) when they escape ordinary time by entering into a ritual or ceremony. During some exuberant worship services, time seems to stand still as the Africans put their hearts and souls into meeting with God. By contrast, our American services seem just as much slaves to the clock as everything else in our culture. When I recently filled in for a preacher in a US congregation, I got a friendly phone call warning me that twenty-five minutes was the maximum time allowed for a sermon. After that, I was informed, the congregants would get restless. How different this is from the African worship service!
In America’s headlong rush into the future, which we call progress, we dispose of whatever seems old and “in the process manage to break the few remaining threads that bind, stabilize and give unity to life” (1983, 87). This tendency makes us seem pushy and self-centered. In our attempt to be efficient we may sacrifice important relationships. During one occasion, our American group was camped at the home of a young African pastor who was not used to entertaining so many Americans and whose English was not very good. During morning tea, our group used most of his chairs. Our host was the only African in the room. Our American group leader announced that since the tea was ready, we should not wait any longer. Our leader invited our host to pray for the tea so we could get started. I interrupted, saying that we were in the home as guests and that it was more appropriate to let our host decide both when to pray and who would pray. Our understanding of time often causes us to take the initiative away from Africans who prefer to let things unfold more naturally.
According to Hall, Africans and Americans generally march to a different drumbeat and we seldom seem to synchronize (1983, 188). In the early years of the ministry that my wife and I had in Africa, we believed we had much to teach Africans about time management, so we held seminars to teach them planning and goal-setting. Because we were forceful, the Africans quietly listened; however, nothing changed. In fact, although they never suggested we learn to view time as they did, our view of time eventually changed. Without ever attending a seminar, we began to understand that their view of time was more closely tied to natural rhythms,2 and so was more human. They stressed “involvement of people and completion of transactions rather than adherence to preset schedules” (1983, 46). We tend to use time to accomplish tasks while Africans use it to build human relationships. We are good at multitasking with technology, some of which we use in shorthand communication with other people, but Africans are good at multitasking face to face with people, discussing an issue until they reach group consensus. The way we use time makes us domineering and proactive; the way Africans use time allows things to develop naturally and slowly.
HOW TO UNDERSTAND AFRICAN TIME
What, then, should a missionary headed off to Africa for the first time do about this clash of thinking concerning time? Clearly some major adjustments will need to be made, and the missionary should be the one making them rather than expecting others to accommodate to American expectations. Sharing the gospel or the Christian life cross-culturally includes adjusting to another’s way of looking at life. The goal is to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint enough that communication becomes not only possible but effective. With regard to entering the African view of time, the goal is to begin to harmonize as if in a dance, so that we are not continually stepping on each other’s toes. What should a North American missionary do to achieve this goal in practical terms? Below are five suggestions.
1. Relax. Consider your encounter with African time like a ride on a raft down the Zambezi River where the current is more in control than you are. Fighting the current will only wear you out; relax and let it take you where it wants to go. Start to enjoy the beauty of the voyage instead of worrying about whether you will reach your destination on time. Think of the voyage, which represents the flow of African time, as the object of your trip rather than what you will accomplish or where you will arrive. Your voyage, of course, is in the company of African people who are very much at home on the river; allow them to be your guides and companions.
2. Observe. Once you are relaxed it is easier to observe what is happening around you. Take in the beauty of the landscape; even more importantly, observe how Africans use time. As an observer it is easier for you to let the Africans remain in charge. Allow enough time to observe so that you resist the temptation to take over. Remember that the goal is to become more effective in building relationships. You will want to enter into what your hosts are doing in order to become more effective, but you must see how they do things first. Respect them as much as they respect you by trying to understand their ideas about time and timing.
3. Learn. Observation leads to honest questions about how and why Africans use time the way they do. People seldom analyze why they do the most fundamental things, so the answers may be unusual, varied and quite revealing. Hopefully your questions will reveal that you have a genuine interest in synchronizing with African time and that you are a student of African ways. Your questions can lead to building relationships. As you feel more at ease in African culture, you can begin to join in the people’s lives.
4. Participate. Learning is best done by doing, but Americans tend to rush into doing before really learning. We try to lead the dance before we know the steps. Dancing has to do with harmonizing the timing of partners as they think and move together. Africans are generally experts at dancing and relationships; they have learned how to flow with time through centuries of coping with formidable hardships and few resources. This has made them graceful survivors from whom we can learn a lot. We try to approach time as conquerors while Africans approach it as survivors. We define ourselves by what we do, whereas Africans identify themselves by who they are. We can learn the art of being from them.
5. Share what you know. Finally, you may earn the trust and understanding of your hosts enough to share Christ. If you have allowed enough time to get to this point, chances are good that you will have changed the way you share what you know because you will have started to move from one way of viewing time to another. Not only may you gain effectiveness in communicating, you may also add considerably to what you know of the Christian walk by drawing nearer to African believers. The journey changes you as you travel. You will not be able to reach this point on most short-term mission trips, which means that short-term trips are primarily for learning, even if your objective is to teach something. North Americans certainly have much that is worth teaching others, but the reason they may hold back for a while is to enter the world of African time in order to communicate more effectively. What a joy it is when African and American minds and hearts come together in harmony and understanding!
1. The distinction between efficiency and effectiveness is from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, 161.
2. For a thorough discussion of natural rhythms determining African time, see E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer, 94-138.
Covey, Stephen. 1989. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1969. The Nuer. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hall, Edward. 1983. The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. New York: Anchor Books.
Mbiti, John. 1969. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.
Robert Reese and his wife were missionaries in Zimbabwe for twenty years. Robert currently works for World Mission Associates in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
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