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.