Last Friday my friend and I agreed that we would meet that night for drinks. He called me at 8:50pm and said we would meet at Republic in one hour. Oh, before he came, he would need to visit his uncle in his area. Now, I know he lives out on Spintex which is a 45 min drive to Osu and it’s nearly impossible to visit a relative for 10 minutes. Thus, instead of getting ready myself, I simply went back to watching TV. At 10:30pm, he called again and said he was just leaving his uncle’s place. We confirmed that we still wanted to meet. I arrived at the bar at 11pm and he came about 15 minutes later.
I realize this was a social visit so I should be flexible. Nonetheless, I find that getting used to Ghanaian — perhaps African — sense of time is one of the biggest challenges of living here. In many countries like the US, Germany, and the UK, time has a strict definition. People expect you to be on time; moreover, it is considered rude to be more than 15 minutes late. If you’re going to be late, you must call. Otherwise, expect a tongue-lashing from your boss, teacher, or wife.
One of the first things newcomers must adjust to is when to show for meetings. If you and a local agree to meet at noon, then usually you will be there on time. After about 20-30 minutes you’ll call him and ask him if you’re still meeting him. If he picks up the phone, then he’ll inevitably tell you he’s “coming.” So you’ll wait. Another 30 minutes will pass; if he hasn’t shown up yet, you’ll call him again and ask where he is. Again, “I’m coming.” At this point, you have to decide who needs to meet the other person more. If it’s you, then be prepared to wait. I’ve heard of foreigners waiting for locals 3-5 hours.
What many people do is call in the morning to confirm that there is a meeting that day. Despite the adoption of smart phones, I find that the calendar is a hardly used app. Then, about 30 minutes before the meeting time, you should call to confirm that you’re meeting. Only when the person confirms, should you begin to get ready. I find “meeting at noon” more often means “I’m leaving the house at noon” or perhaps even “I’m getting ready at noon.”
Now this elastic sense of time is not exclusive to Ghana. Several countries are known for their relaxed view of time including Spain, France, Italy, and Greece. According to Robert Levine’s A Geography of Time, several factors contribute to the “tempo,” or more strict definition of time, of a culture:
- Economic well-being: the healthier an economy, the faster the tempo
- Degree of industrialization: the more developed a country, the faster the tempo
- Population Size: bigger cities have faster tempo
- Climate: hotter places are slower
- Cultural values: Individualistic cultures move faster than those that emphasize collectivism.
When I compare the US with Ghana along these five factors, then it makes sense that Ghanaians have a much slower sense of time.
Work and Time
My problem usually came with my workers. For 21 working days in a month, they lived according to their internal Ghanaian clocks. Work started at 8:30am but I gave them 30 minutes grace for traffic or whatever. Of course, they translated this to mean that work started at 9am. Only when I began penalizing them 5 cedis per day for being late did some of them start to understand the importance of punctuality. For the rest, I had to explain that if you’re making 20-25 cedis a day, then you’re losing 20-25 percent of your daily salary for being late. After that, the rest fell in line.
I said 21 instead of 22 working days because on pay day everyone knows the time. Similarly, everyone knows when to leave work. It’s 5pm sharp. “Why do you only know the time when it benefits you?” I asked rhetorically.
Now I only have one guy who works for me as a driver. Over the last several weeks he shows up between 9:30am and 11:30am depending on traffic, when the bus he takes fills up, and whatever else excuse. There are days when he doesn’t show up at all. If I can, I try to help him. Most of the day he’s just waiting, so I gave him things to read and learn. Then yesterday he didn’t show up again. He texted me but lately I’ve had problems with my phone.
Now, I just don’t care anymore. I can get my own lunch and figure out other ways to do my errands. Today, I told him to come back on Monday if he’s serious about working.
Hard To Change
Last week, the New York Times reported how the Spanish were trying to get off of their unique work schedule and fall in line with the rest of Europe. In this case, Spain can no longer afford to dictate to others to not call between 1pm and 4pm when everyone is on “siesta.” Spain is going through some tough adjustments during these challenging economic times. Thus, it’s welcome news to learn that if there’s a will, there’s a way.
You would think that after three years in Ghana, I would adopt a Ghanaian sense of time. I find it a hard thing to relinquish. My sense of time is part of my identity. My family and friends share this sense of time and I’m sure I would be left in the cold if I started offering “I’m coming” as the reason for not responding promptly. Unfortunately, my sense of time is also something that makes living here difficult.