“No hurry in Africa” is a commonplace; a view expressed to demonstrate the difference between the way of life on that continent and that in Europe. There is though a changing ethos in Uganda, which is moving along from the days when truly the clock was of secondary importance to the rising and the setting of the sun.
Nowadays many things operate to a timetable which is more or less adhered to. A concert or a film at the cinema for example will start at the hour which is ordained on the ticket (sometimes more promptly even than here in France). Departure with your tour company , if you are going on safari, occurs at the hour printed on your itinerary.
But there is still enough of the “plenty of time” attitude which is at the same time both refreshing and frustrating. It is relaxing not to have to be consulting your watch every five minutes. Most of the time, I go with the flow and accept the minor inconveniences that result from a laid-back approach to time-keeping. Ugandans have a talent for waiting which I have never fully gained.
It is nevertheless part of the British mentality to make a real effort to be there at the appointed hour. On one Kampala occasion (I was the driver), we made an appointment to be at our friends’ house for nine o’clock in the morning ready for an early departure for the villages where our projects are centred. We wanted an earlyish start because I prefer to be back in town before the rapid descent into the Ugandan darkness. I was finding night driving around the city increasingly difficult to negotiate, with its lack of street lighting and with so many vehicles only putting on their headlights when it is 120% necessary. That is to ignore the dangers of bodies darting out into the carriageway to cross haphazardly between vehicles.
The traffic, as always in Kampala, was horrific. I have been told that I drive like an Ugandan; one of the things that means is that you do not leave even the tiniest of spaces between your vehicle and the one in front; which is an invitation for the gap to be filled many times over, delaying your journey even more. So I was delighted, after such a rush across town, when we arrived no more than ten minutes after the appointed hour. That was truly early in Ugandan terms. We were ready to be off.
But then ten o’clock came and went without any sign of our departure. It was only after eleven o’clock that – becoming rather frustrated – I approached George and, pointing determinedly at my watch, commented, “Aren’t we rather late?” A quick look at the time was followed by a relaxed, “Not really, no.” Ah well; sit back and wait; another example of how time trembles and modifies itself to meet the needs of human beings.
One of the first things that I had to learn very quickly is that the word “Now” has a completely different meaning from what it signifies in UK. In the beginning, you have to puzzle when somebody tells you, “I am coming now”, and nobody arrives. For many Ugandans, that word signifies “soon”, or at least in a while. It is important, if you want something done immediately, to use the word twice; it is now-now that means immediately. That is logical is it not?
The truth is that, even in the capital, there is a mix of time cultures. The mindset of traditional village life when the rhythm of the day was all powerful has still not entirely disappeared. Yet people aspire to the routine of a 21st century, business-like society, when “time is money.” Things are not helped by the madness on the city roads which almost slows movement down to the pace that you can attain on foot; the traditional mode of transport. Of course, the perpetual city “jams” give everybody a ready-made excuse. An hour late? It was the traffic. It is quite possibly the truth; or maybe not. You can never know for certain. We have met one person who missed his flight from Entebbe to Paris because he had plenty of time to get to the airport. Unfortunately for him, he had not.
You cannot always accept delays with equanimity. It was our final day in Uganda and we had an afternoon departure from Kampala to be ready in time for our flight that night. I do indeed hate being late. However, there was work to be done, so we agreed on a venue and I made appointments with three different people to rendezvous there. Meetings were planned for midday, 1.00 pm and 2.00 pm. Nobody will be surprised to learn that all three arrived at the same time; at 3.00 pm. But at least we caught our flight.