I deeply respect people who still manage to keep time in our circumstances. It takes more than ordinary discipline and principle to consistently pull it off.
About three years ago, I wrote in these pages expressing concern about our general lack of regard for the clock. This needs no illustration: it can be seen in many offices that hardly ever open at the exact time they are supposed to; workers stretching lunch breaks up to 30 minutes or an hour longer; places of worship where the service has to be delayed a little to wait for people; in classes; at the airport; at workshops and meetings… and so on.
It is conventional practice in Uganda to indicate events to be starting an hour or more earlier than when they are actually meant to. So, if the wedding reception is to be at 5:00pm, we sometimes put 4:00pm on the invitation card.
The one-hour allowance is to cater for latecomers, who cannot be wished away. Thus, being an hour late for an event may never make one feel embarrassed. It is within the range of normal, for our concept of time is quite elastic.
Subsequent to the said article, I had a discussion with a friend who insisted that people should not always be blamed for failing to keep time because our environment makes it impossible on many occasions.
By then, I found some sense in his argument but was not really convinced. In my view, if there are always expected encumbrances to keeping time, then we ought to always factor them into our planning such that even if they are to occur, we wouldn’t be late.
I also had a fear that if these justifications are to be accepted, then poor timekeeping will be disastrously normalised – to become something we should always understand and tolerate. Many years on, I still think that many of our poor timekeepers are simply habituated into it, partly because it doesn’t cost one that much in our society. Instead, keeping time can be extremely inconveniencing, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing.
Sooner or later, one starts considering to abandon it. One time I was invited by a university student club at their leadership handover event. I was told it would start at 4:00pm. True to the clock, by 4:00pm I was at the venue.
I found about five students there, organising tables and chairs, and not really dressed for the event. They greeted me with those grins to suggest that I was rather too early. I first sat in one less busy corner in the hope that all was soon to be okay.
A few minutes later, I was asked to move to another chair for the corner to be cleaned. One hour on, the public address system was brought, and the organisers now had to go dress up for the event.
Nothing seemed to bother them! I simply gathered myself and shyly made for the exit. At around 6pm, I receive a call from one of the organisers informing me that they were starting! I just hung up.
It is not unusual to be invited for a function/meeting where, if you keep time, you have to wait for everyone else that had to first sort their other business before coming. Those who do not keep time are accommodated at the expense of the punctual.
At times a lecture has to wait until there are ‘enough’ students to start, that is if the lecturer is not 30 minutes late too. The punctual appear as if they had nothing else to do! They chat until they run out of talk, read newspapers up to obituaries and publisher address, yawn, stretch, … At the next invitation, except if too bent on principle, they become wiser by being late too.
I had adopted a practice of locking the classroom door 10 minutes into my lecture. Whoever came after would have to wait until I am out to get in. I started finding bigger numbers in class on time, which was indication that some used to come late for no good reason beyond habit.
But many continued to come late and, after missing a couple of classes, followed me up to explain. There were those who had malicious employers that never wanted them to upgrade.
They would deliberately give them extra assignments towards the end of the day, making it hard to catch evening lectures. Some commuted from distant workplaces and homes, having to bear with all sorts of vagaries in our transport system.
Certainly, knowing our capacity to lie without blinking, it’s not easy to tell between genuine explanations and cook-ups. But, over time, my own experience sometimes makes me understand how unrealistic it may be to expect that people will always be able to keep time here, even if they wished to.
You board a taxi that not only keeps stopping to pick more passengers but that might sometimes cancel the journey midway and ask you to find another. The driver has just learnt from colleagues’ signals that there are traffic officers ahead!
It suddenly rains and traffic jam builds up rather unexpectedly! A tree falls in the road and it takes hours to be sorted; or a road is blocked for repair, without any prior announcement!
At times it is a whole chain of so many things, each affecting the other. You are driving somewhere for a commitment at a particular time, but have to urgently pass by some other office.
From nowhere, a boda boda rams into your car. You end up in an argument. When you later reach the office you had to check, you are told that the person has stepped out briefly: ‘wait a little’.
The little ends up being 30 minutes, and all else disorganised!
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.