Africans and the lateness epidemic

In Africa and among Africans in the diaspora, lateness to everything is the norm and a lax attitude towards time has become acceptable. I cannot generalize on an entire continent or people but many people can agree that it is a huge problem if not a continental epidemic. I have heard that this issue not only extends to Africans but people from the Caribbean and parts of Asia (brown time) as well.

Many Africans have a very relaxed attitude towards time, especially when it comes to weddings, funerals, appointments, meeting with friends, parties, church services; many things start late and there is so much complacency around being late. It is accepted with the commonly used term “African time”. People have accepted it as a cultural phenomenon with some people using the concept of linear time as a “western phenomenon” and that our concept of time is different. It’s very common for people to use African time so nonchalantly to describe their lateness. Songs have been written, funny videos and memes have been made and the humour generated just ascertains the acceptance of it. We joke about it, laugh about it, tell dramatic stories about late events for entertainment purposes then we go about our days (late most of the time) without realizing the flaw in our own complacency about lateness.  It’s quite bad that in 2007, the government of Ivory Coast promoted an ad campaign with the slogan “African time is killing us- let’s fight it” and an event known as punctuality night was held to recognize civil servants who were regularly punctual (The person voted most punctual was awarded a villa in recognition for his punctuality).

Sometimes we rank ourselves according to the extent of our lateness creating scales of who usually arrives the latest with the least late people feeling accomplished. There are also lateness acceptability ranks with a range of how late is acceptable to categorizations of which African countries perform the poorest on punctuality during their events. I believe we only make these comparisons to feel better about our own level of lateness but the bottom line is “late is late”.

Hosts and event organizers usually put event times much earlier (taking into account the culture of tardiness) in order to ensure people come around the desired start time. This is a huge disadvantage to those people who keep time and end up having to wait many hours for the event to start. Then there is always the assumption that everyone else will arrive late so you might as well show up late too; but everyone is thinking the same thing about everyone so we all just go late. Of course there are many factors that cause involuntary lateness. In busy, poorly planned urban African cities, unreliable public service vehicles, poor roads, and traffic jams contribute to significant lateness. However, people misuse these excuses even when they deliberately left late and avoided proper planning and time management. Africans living in the diaspora who cannot use these excuses find other ways to justify their lateness.

I confess that I have ascribed to the African time mentality, purposely choosing to go later knowing that an event will not start on time or that many people will also be late. However, there are some great examples of people around me who never falter in their discipline with time regardless of when other people arrive.  My dad is one example of someone who never falters on his punctuality. He completed his PhD in Japan where there is a very high regard and adherence to time-keeping. Perfect example: when the driver of a fast train in Japan inadvertently left the platform 20 seconds ahead of schedule the top management of the railway company had to issue a sincere apology for the inconvenience caused. Delay certificates are also issued to passengers to produce to work when a train is more than 5 minutes late.

On the other hand, African time stands up as a social norm and it’s about time we scrutinize ourselves personally and as a collective in how we view time. We should also start to publicly criticize the acceptance of lateness.  We should put value on time and understand that we should at least respect other people’s time if not our own. We also need to consider how lateness is affecting us personally and as a continent. Are we paying a heavy price for our tardiness with reduced productivity and slower economic growth?

Share your thoughts!

One thought on “Africans and the lateness epidemic

  1. Wow, I never really explored the effects of tardiness on a larger scale. How much more efficient would systems run in African countries if we prioritized time keeping! I enjoyed this thought provoking article and will take a deeper look at my own timeliness.


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