Africans tell westerners: “You have the watches but we have the time.” My wife and I were recently in Tanzania visiting our daughter and her family – and we experienced African time warps.
One Sunday we arrived for a church service exactly on time. We were only that late because of mechanical problems with the vehicle – twice – on the 60 km journey on a dirt road. Unusually, the church building was already full and the congregation was singing. But when we arrived, rather than being ushered into the service we were taken away into the village. Chairs from the church building were carried to the village so we could sit on them while drinking tea in the home of the church’s evangelist with the pastor. And for 30 minutes, the church carried on singing while their two main leaders offered hospitality to their visitors. Only when we had been refreshed could the normal service be resumed, after we had followed our chairs back into the sanctuary.
Nobody minded the fact that the service was delayed – nor that it would also end half an hour later than planned. They understood that people are more important than punctuality. They all had time, but nobody had a watch to watch.
So should we westerners all discard our clocks? I have some friends for whom the idea of laid-back African time would be a dream come true: no time-pressure, no deadlines, lateness as a virtue rather than a vice. But is this western equivalent of African time closer to a biblical norm, as is undoubtedly the case in Africa? I think not. For one key reason.
African time prioritizes people over punctuality. They were all happy to let time pass in order to show welcome and respect to people. But in the west, when we disregard punctuality there is usually only one person that we are prioritizing: me. People who are late for an appointment or late for a church service are those who have lots of time – for themselves! They are happy to make somebody else wait (and waste their time) in order to do the things they are doing rather than being punctual with the appointment. They don’t mind being late for a church meeting because their sleep time, their make-up, their breakfast coffee is more important than being a key part of enabling a whole body to come into God’s presence as one.
The Africans are right: the time matters more than the clock. People are more important than punctuality. But the crucial issue is: which people are more important than all that time? If taking time ignores the clock for the sake of others, we are being biblical, not merely African. If we ignore the clock to take time for ourselves, we are being western, not biblical. I don’t want anybody to refer to me as their late friend Brian until after I’m dead.