Monday, January 9th, 2012

Why African Time is Best for Children


“Haraka, Haraka Haina Baraka.” (Rushing, rushing gives no blessings) –Kenyan Proverb
There are many jokes about African timekeeping. On one level it is true—the continent is full of buses that run behind and meetings that start late. Certainly African time is much softer than European or North American time. Part of this is historical; there is a unique African concept of ‘no time.’ With nearly all African cultures being communal—‘I exist because you do’—time also takes on a communal aspect. If you are on your own, then time does not exist. Or to put it another way, time starts at an event that involves more than one person. For example, if two people arrange to meet, time doesn’t actually begin until the meeting takes place, so in effect it is impossible to be late as long as the meeting actually happens! The emphasis is placed on the interaction between people rather than the abstract concept.
Even that abstract concept is opposite that of the rest of the world. As Kenya is equatorial, most of the year, the sun rises around six and sets around six. So 7 a.m. is actually referred to in Kiswahili as 1 o’clock. 8 a.m. is 2 o’clock and so on. It makes perfect sense. Most people get up around or shortly before sunrise, use the daylight hours and go to bed not long after dark. The first hour of the day is therefore marked by the first hour that something communal or useful could be done and is also in tune with nature. There are even specific words that do not exist in English for ‘the time just before dawn,’ ‘late afternoon/early evening’ and others.
So what does this all have to do with children?
Any harried parent can tell you that so much of the conflict that arises during the day is when children are being rushed from pillar to post, forced to follow a schedule that does not allow for their natural rhythm. African timing is so much more respectful of this natural rhythm. By taking the meaning away from the abstract concept of time and shifting it to the people and communal interactions, stress is greatly reduced. At my daughter’s kindergarten, for example, an hour is allowed for children to arrive at school in the morning. Children who get there early can play and those who need more sleep can come closer to the time the more structured day starts.
The days that run the smoothest in our home are definitely those when I am not rushed and when I actively build time into our daily schedule that allows my daughter to take her time. They are also the days that give space for the unexpected joys and pleasures that cannot be scheduled. The excitement of finding a ladybird on a leaf as we gently go about weeding the garden, the spontaneous tea and cake with friends whom we bump into at the local shopping centre. Having the time to sit and eat the watermelon that the green grocer generously gives my daughter as we pick up some fruit and veg. These are the moments that warm the heart and make the day special when we reflect on it at bedtime. They are certainly the moments I would rather my daughter remember than, “Hurry up, I’m running late!”

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JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsJennifer Miller   |  Wednesday, 11 January 2012 at 2:20 pm

    GREAT post and SO, SO true. When we started traveling full time (almost four years ago) the very first thing we noticed was the rhythm to our days when we threw away our watches and how much healthier, more peaceful and joyous life is when lived by instinct and bio-rhythms instead of bells, whistles and alarm clocks. EXCELLENT post, I’m sharing it!

  2. Commentsclaire niala   |  Wednesday, 08 February 2012 at 10:53 pm

    thank you

  3. CommentsShahana Golla   |  Wednesday, 20 June 2012 at 5:06 pm

    Well I’m gonna have to look up a couple more things, but this was a good spring board.

  4. CommentsKim at Mama Mzungu   |  Monday, 06 August 2012 at 3:41 am

    Hi Claire,

    I love and relate so much to this post (and really all of yours). I’m an American living in Western Kenya raising 2 kids (a 5 month old and a 3 and 1/2 year old), and I”m so thrilled to find you!! It’s fascinating, enlightening and also often disorienting to raise kids in a different cultures adn there are still so many mysteries I’m trying to unravel. Just when I think I understand something about “Kenyan parenting” I’m proven wrong – and so much differs depending on whether I’m talking to women in the village or here in Kisumu. Anyway, I would very much love to start a dialogue with you – to swap insights and to check my assumptions. Please feel free to email me at Great posts!!

  5. CommentsKathi Hardney   |  Thursday, 06 August 2015 at 12:44 am

    I took a class called Psychology from an African Perspective and it talked about the African perspective on time. I love it. We are exactly where we are supposed to be and at the right time. I would eventually love to move to Africa. I would love some more insight from you.

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