During the middle of this month I have to go to the UK to do some academic work. And of course because Oxford is quite close to Donegal (just next door really, if you think in terms of continental Africa), I’ll pop over there to celebrate Christmas once again in the land of welcoming publicans and twinkly lights. What I find most exciting about going back to the land of my birth (I can’t say “home” because home is where I go back to at the end of each working day) is that things run a bit more smoothly than in Uganda. Now when I say smoothly, I’m thinking time wise. Even though Donegal time bears some remarkably similar features to African time, still it runs marginally faster – note the subtle qualification!
You know how in Spain they say that things can wait until mañana, in Uganda we go a step further: this is the place where there really is “nothing as urgent as mañana”! African time stands in a league of its own even though it is a distant relative of Donegal time. If your friend tells you she will visit you “tomorrow”, she will probably arrive full of smiles at 7pm while you have waited anxiously since 9am (a bit like the time keeping of an emergency plumber). This laid back atmosphere means you have to cultivate lots of patience to deal with the time “problem” and the overwhelming bureaucracy that is an unfortunate colonial legacy. A fellow Northerner here in Kampala has written a book, The Man with the Key has Gone – that is a common answer to questions about why something isn’t happening NOW. His point is that if you are to keep your blood pressure within acceptable healthy limits, you have to be patient and wait until whatever you are waiting for happens. Once you have learned the trick of waiting patiently and not worrying about things you can’t change anyway, you will be an infinitely happier person.
African time is an amazing thing and seems to stretch – and stretch and stretch. The Germans and the Swiss (the best watch makers, after all) would tear their hair out and start to write nasty letters to the authorities if a train dared to be more than two or three minutes late – here, people simply have the time to wait even if the train will be ten hours late. That reminds me of the old joke about the two Irish farmers who travelled to the nearest town to transact a bit of bank business. When told that the bank would be open in two hours, one lad sagely remarked to the other: “Sure, it won’t take us long waitin’ two hours”.
That describes the attitude to time in Uganda. So, if time is a mental attitude, that means that humans can do what they want with it: it doesn’t mean that time controls humans. In a land where many people know the time of day by looking up at the sky, when people know when it is time to eat by checking on their digestive workings, and when the time to sleep is dictated by the setting of the sun, a watch makes little sense. In fact, when I come home from work I take mine off so that I can be free of its constriction (but also, if the truth be told, because I don’t want a white band on my wrist where the sun doesn’t shine). The Man gets rightly ticked off when I keep asking “what time is it now?” But what I still have to come to terms with is the fact that a university timetable necessitates fairly strict timekeeping. This appears to cause quite some havoc in the minds of the students – and rightly so given the fact that they are not Swiss or German!
Things tend to go from bad to worse when it rains and I think I’ve worked out why. Now in Donegal rain is par for the course – in fact, even a summer’s day wouldn’t be the same without a light drizzle or a soft class of a rain anyhow. Here in Africa, soft rains don’t exist: here the rain is hard, really, really hard as I’ve previously explained. Irish rain, on the other hand, is a bit like snow in Iceland: it comes in many varieties. It can be soft, it can be a drizzle or even a mizzle, a light shower, a bit of a mist, or even at times “sustained” (in weather person speak). You can walk outside on a soft day in Ireland, but in Uganda when rain is hard, you tend to let it do its own thing and keep well out of its way. So that means that you stay wherever you are (especially if you happen to be still in bed when it starts) and simply let it happen. Even if that means not coming to class, so be it. Even if it means missing or coming far too late to be let in to an exam, so be it.
And in Kampala time appears to be suspended when it rains because everything comes to a stop – not idling in neutral stop, more park and hand brake time. Irish drivers who are used to driving to the noise of their windscreen wipers have a great time: they can get right across the city in thirty minutes or less.
But back to timekeeping: in the good old days when everyone worked outside in the shamba (garden), there was no point working when it rained, so you didn’t. And even though most of our students don’t remember those times, they remember the “stay out of the rain” advice. But it’s not only rain that affects time. If the dance, party, disco or whatever is supposed to start around ten, you can bet your bottom shilling that it won’t start starting until midnight at least. I suppose it all comes from living without a watch. Some of my friends have, told me that it’s painful to make yourself do things just because it is time to. I myself must confess that I’ve become a lot more relaxed about time than I used to be. For a while in my life I thought I was starting to turn into my granny by getting ready for a ten-o-clock bus at seven thirty in the morning and waiting on the bottom stair with my coat on until the big hand was on six and the wee hand on nine. Even though I’m rarely more than a polite fifteen minutes late, I still feel I’m making progress on the clock front.
At any rate, when yours truly gets back to the land of light mists and soft days, I’ll still take off my watch because the publicans always call “time” anyway – even though they don’t always mean it, and you can stay a while more if they’re up to a late night and know that the cops are busy somewhere else (especially if that means “busy” in their own bar!).