BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Invitations for a graduation reception carried the date Jan. 23, 2013, and the time 3 p.m. But by 4:30 p.m., only six people occupied seats for an occasion that was anticipating 100 attendees.
Guest Margaret Tanteh, 29, arrived at 4:50 p.m., followed closely by a half-dozen others. Tanteh says she was not late for the occasion in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region.
“I am just being conscious of ‘black-man time,’” she says. “I am not late for the event.”
Tanteh says that being the seventh person to arrive to the graduation nearly two hours after its start time shows that the population abides by a different time. She says she will never respect the time on invitations because even organizers consider “African time” before fixing schedules.
“Experience has taught me never to respect time set for occasions,” she says, “because if you do respect time, you have to sit there for several minutes – if not hours – before the start of the occasion. Organizers themselves, when stating time for occasions, take into consideration black-man time. And so if you are foolish to respect it, then you’ll warm your seat boringly.”
Tanteh compares late arrivals to an illness.
“Late coming is a disease that is resistant to medication in Cameroon,” she says.
She says the term deserves recognition for the custom's pervasiveness.
“‘Black-man time’ or ‘African time’ should get into English dictionaries,” she says, laughing. “It is a very important issue in Africa.”
Event organizers say that African time – at least an hour later than clock time – delays all affairs in Cameroon. Lecturers say that education is one facet of society that suffers as a result, with tardy lectures cutting learning short. Cameroonians who travel abroad say that African time makes it difficult to function in other parts of the world. Likening the habit to a disease, community members say the cure is forcing people to arrive earlier by starting events on time.
People in Cameroon and Africa have been operating on African time for centuries, according to Bamenda community members. John-Paul Ambang, a part-time geography lecturer at the University of Bamenda, says that white men living in Africa coined the terms upon discovering that Africans were usually late.
Josephine Niba, 41, an event organizer in Bamenda, says that African time is a constant obstacle to her work.
“I seriously take into consideration the notion of African time when fixing time for an event,” she says.
When an event is due to begin at 1 p.m., she lists noon as the start time on the invitations. During her entire career as an event organizer, she says has never had an event or occasion start on time.
“Sometimes, there are a few people who actually respect time,” she says. “But then, the number of those who come on time is so insignificant that you cannot commence the event with them.”
Niba says her tactics to counter latecomers have gained little success.
“Invitations were sent out stating the start time of the event at 3 p.m., followed by a phrase in bold, ‘No African Time,’” she says. “But to my surprise, the event started 45 minutes later because people still came late. However, it started a little earlier than other events that did not carry the phrase.”
Niba says coming late to events is bad because it leaves people guessing when the actual time of the event is, making it hard for people to arrange their schedules.
Ambang says that education is one facet of society that suffers from African time.
When classes start late, lecturers must hurry through the material, arrange catch-up classes during students' free time and risk not finishing scheduled lectures for the semester, he says. This leaves students with insufficient knowledge, which later affects the quality of their work when they obtain jobs.
He says he always respects the lecture start time.
“I am always on time when it comes to lectures,” he says. “Even though students have made it a habit of coming late for lectures, I always start my lectures on time even if I have just one student present. This has awakened many students from the slumber of late coming.”
Ambang, who is from Cameroon, says he earned a foreign nickname from his students because of his punctuality.
“My students call me ‘British man,’” he says. “British man is referred to any man who is time-conscious in Cameroon. I am happy to earn that nickname. It shows how time-conscious I am.”
Not all professors try to start lectures on time, though.
Ambang says the culture even influences him at times.
“I am naturally a time-conscious person,” he says. “But society has contributed in killing my spirit when it comes to attending events, because I know that if I go early, the event will have to start very late.”
Cameroonians who go abroad say the difference in punctuality is jarring.
Daniel Ngomba is a Cameroonian university student who has been studying business administration in Denmark for the past five years.
“When I got to Denmark, the first week was confusing,” he says.
He showed up for lectures late until his new friends in Denmark advised him of the necessity of being on time there.
“I even went to other places late until I came to realize that I was in a different world,” he says. “Thank God, I adjusted in no time.”
Ngomba calls African time a disease that’s nearly impossible to cure.
“The cure for late coming among Cameroonians is as hard to find, just as it is hard to find [a] cure for HIV/AIDS,” he says. “Even an anti-retroviral intended to cure African time cannot help.”
Ambang says the cure is setting positive examples.
“Occasions should begin at stated times – even if it means starting with only one person present,” he says. “This way, people will learn to come early, knowing if they don’t, they will miss out on so many things.”