African Summer Time

No time for an original photo this week I'm afraid.

Clea and I were missing the UK this weekend; I tend to keep up with the papers back home and noted that they were all crowing about the heat wave weekend with all the accompanying images of Brighton Beach or Hyde Park. Throw an England v Germany World Cup match, Glastonbury weekend and Wimbeldon into the mix and it should be enough to trigger the emergency repatriation clause in any good Englishman’s travel insurance.

It’s strange that a heat wave should have any attraction to a couple who live in a state of perpetual summer. The weather on any given day in Kampala is sunny and pleasant enough that it would prompt nationwide news coverage if it were replicated in Bournemouth on a weekend in June, but in Kampala, with the weather being as predictable as night follows day, pleasant weather is no cause for celebration. In this regard living in Kampala is a bit like ground hog day, if ground hog day were to fall on a nice sunny day with perhaps the chance of a thunder storm in the evening. Imagine waking up every morning to a perfect summer’s day, it won’t be long before the novelty of cooking outdoors wears off and all the grass under the paddling pool dies.

As it is currently mid summer in Europe it is almost the closest thing we get to winter here. The sun is as far from the equator as it is going to get until, in six months time, it is mid summer in the southern hemisphere. I say almost as the southern hemisphere ‘winter’ is the nearest the sun ever gets to abandoning us as we are about 20 miles north of the equator. For Kampala of course this is all rather academic, you really can’t tell whether the sun is any closer or further away than any other day or month and the change in day length is imperceptible. The only seasons there are in Kampala are wet and dry. We have experienced what is known as a wet season, it does rain a bit more, but the sun is still very much present. A more accurate description would be wetter and dryer season. Not a patch on February in Swansea when the entire city is permanently wrapped with drizzling cloud and you’re lucky to even see the sun before April.

I was wondering about how this lack of seasons effects you when I came across a lecture by Standford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo in which he says:

“The closer you are to the equator the more present orientated you are. The more you are in an environment where climate doesn’t change. It gives you a set of matching sameness rather than change.”

Professor Zimbardo’s theory is that the lack of seasons makes people present orientated. He categorises present orientated people as either fatalistic or hedonistic, living for the present rather than the future or the past. Categorising whole countries, races and cultures based on their latitude is, I admit, a sweeping generalisation, but for me it has at least the ring of truth. The lack of seasons does seem to have an impact on your concept of time.

Back home I used the seasons as markers, before the summer I’ll do this, we want to have moved house by Spring, or more often than not just, I can’t wait for summer. None of this applies here; though Clea has recently started telling me that we need to use all of our life savings to buy a car before the impending ‘wet’ season. I’m taking a more economically minded view of the future and considering an umbrella.

In my last job the seasons marked the year out quite literally because the financial quarter days were a significant part of what I did, paying rents on the buildings that our client’s occupied. It’s no coincidence that the financial quarter days fall almost exactly on the summer and winter solstice and the spring and autumn equinox, spring, summer, autumn, winter. Time is money, in this case in the form of rent. I was explaining to my friend Mike recently why I couldn’t be bothered wasting time haggling in markets because invariably the amounts we end up haggling over were small. Below a certain threshold it’s not worth my time arguing over it, time is money. He laughed and said this is not a concept that exists in Africa. Tell an African that time is money and they will just look at you confused – ‘but there’s plenty of time and hardly any money’.

There is a phrase here ‘African Time’ which is used fairly frequently to explain why everything is late, or more accurately not running to a schedule at all. Writers talk about the African’s unbreakable willingness to wait. You can see an example of this on the buses that run around Kampala. They are privately owned minibuses known as Matatus, they’re cheap, they go most places and are an OK way to get around if you don’t mind waiting in traffic inhaling stale body odour, but they don’t run to a schedule. Generally they’re frequent so it’s not a problem, but if you’re unlucky enough to be on an empty one, don’t be surprised if you just have to just sit and wait until it fills up with passengers. The time for the bus to leave is when the bus is full of passengers. This is a concept that can be a little annoying for a European but is quite natural for an African.

The Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski who spent most of his life living in and writing about Africa and who considered the African the Olympic Champions of waiting wrote the following about Africa’s relationship to time while waiting for four hours for a bus in a similar scenario:

“Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage in a battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not have come into being).”

I’ve embedded the Philip Zimbardo’s ten minute lecture on how we perceive time here: It’s animated!

You can read the introduction to Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book of collected writings on Africa, The Shadow of the Sun, here:

You can also buy it, which I’d recommend because it is excellent.

    • Simon
    • July 10th, 2010

    There’s no such things as time according to some quantum physicists. We’re all just imagining it.

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