TAMALE, Northern Ghana
It was well past dark when I switched tro-tros in Tamale, pressing south through the African night.
But the hour wasn’t late enough for traffic in the parking lot to slacken. I jumped out of one van, pulled my pack off the roof and walked through the melee of humans, livestock and vehicles to ask a man selling tickets when the next southbound tro-tro would depart.
He’d obviously dealt with my kind before, and at the end of a long day wasn’t inclined to hide his irritation.
“I don’t know,” he snarled at me, exasperated, and held up two slips of paper. “There are two tickets left. Do you want one or not?”
I bought one, tossed my pack up to another man securing luggage to the roof and climbed aboard.
Within minutes we were rolling. I’d done the drive before in five hours; plenty of time to think about what I’d done to annoy the ticket agent.
He wasn’t annoyed with me per se, but with my Western presumption that public transport would have a scheduled departure.
Such temporal notions do not exist in West Africa; or if they do they are generally ignored.
“Africans apprehend time differently,” the renowned Polish writer, Ryszard Kapuscinski, noted in his 1998 book The Shadow of the Sun, which he composed over four decades of reporting from across the continent.
“For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective.”
Africans — the ones I’ve met — don’t perceive time as a thing that exists beyond the human mind, as an objective entity, like God, that continues regardless of whether we will it.
Rather, time for Africans is a construct of man, activated by human activity. The bus doesn’t depart at a specific hour, but whenever enough people arrive to fill it.
Any other expectation is considered naïve and contrary to nature. After all, who can predict the future?
Any number of factors might delay a person, especially in a highly social society reared on tribalism.
People here greet each other in the streets and inquire every day, quite genuinely, about the health of a person and his family and friends.
It’s considered rude not to do this, as no one is ever in too much of a rush. And since one never knows where or when one might bump into an acquaintance, daily appointments are rendered quite pointless.
Referring to the past is likewise irrelevant.
Most history is oral, and Africans are not in the habit of recording events or statistics in written documents for later reference. The past doesn’t have much bearing on present-day conceptions of time, except in a mystical my-ancestors-are-watching-me way.
Thus Africans don’t really know or care how much time the bus ride typically takes. Today, now, the drive will last as long as it does, no more, no less.
Such a society is living in the moment. It works because everybody follows the same rule of loose appointments.
It is only foreigners, with our preconceived and insidious notions of planning, who have difficulty.
The difficulty we have is chiefly to do with control.
African belief in subjective time begets a strange contradiction: although people control time with their actions, any activity involving more than one person means that time stands still until all required parties are present. The bus only leaves when it’s full.
So you take whatever steps you can to make a thing happen — like buy a ticket and take a seat — and then you wait. And wait.
After a while, waiting equates a loss of control. For Africans that’s just the way it is.
For oburonis, foreigners, it becomes maddening, like when I phoned a tailor at 7:30 a.m. at his request to arrange a meeting for measurements.
My first faux pas was to take him at his word on the timing, for I woke him up. My second was to offer him a choice of when to meet: now, or later.
Of course he said now; this was business, and ‘later’ might never come.
Believing him was my third mistake.
Once I’d waited half an hour at our rendezvous I called again. He told me, “I’m coming.”
I waited another half hour before committing my fourth gaffe, which was to break our engagement.
When I called again he said he was still coming “right now” but I didn’t believe him anymore.
I was as frustrated as the ticket agent had been with me, and for the same reason: my foreign expectations weren’t being met.
Guess I’ll never be African. I don’t have enough patience, and won’t live here long enough to find it.
Former Yukon News reporter Graeme McElheran is currently living and writing in Ghana.