Friday, 1 March 2013

Time Is Relative

I'm not sure who decided to put Ghana on the 00:00 time zone but that was a stroke of genius. This is a country where time means nothing, time is literally 00:00. The average Ghanaian's concept of time is hard to explain. For any given event, people are either likely to be outrageously early or frustratingly late. Very few if any at all will be on time. There's no known formula to calculate how early or how late people will be.

During my research for this article, I came across a previously undiscovered document that stated that Albert Einstein first came up with his famous relativity theory after being frustrated by a Ghanaian who was always randomly late from what could be a few minutes to a few hours. One day out of frustration, Einstein just screamed, “DO YOU THINK TIME IS RELATIVE?”, and the Ghanaian, nonchalantly, replied, “Yes”.

When there are queues or food (or any kind of freebies) involved, most people will hours early. For example, the Presidential Elections was supposed to start at 07:30 on December 7, 2012. At some polling stations, long winding queues had already formed as at 23:00 December 6, 2012. People had brought mattresses from their home and were sleeping in queues. Meanwhile, at that time, the election officials were in their homes sleeping soundly. People were over 12 hours early for the polls! At 07:30 when the election officials were supposed to be at the station, most of them were no where to be found. Voters were 12 hours early, officials were 2 hours late at some stations. People would be late for weddings but slip out of the church early to the reception hall just so the can get a good place to sit when the refreshment is being shared.

Ghana Commercial Bank (GCB) have given the popular saying, “Time is Money” a whole new meaning. Long queues, poor network and slow tellers have combined to create a unique “Time Sink”. Customers waste long periods of time just to withdraw their own money. Sometimes, after waiting long hours, they are left disappointed and have to come back later to endure the same frustration.

I remember being broke in the University (KNUST) and getting a cal from my Dad that he had sent me some money through GCB. I went to meet a long “snaking” queue in the small banking hall. After waiting for about two hours the queue had barely moved. A teller told us later that the network was having problem and would be fixed soon. Another two hours would pass and out of frustration many people left the bank. I was too broke to go back so I kept waiting till it was left with about 30 people in the bank and the network mysteriously started working. After 4 hours of waiting I finally got my money. With GCB, “It Pays To Wait”, literally.

Being late is a socially accepted norm, in fact being on time seems strange to most people. Christians especially are notorious for being late. Sometime ago, doctor was invited to my church to give a talk. The talk was supposed to be at 19:00. He was there 10 minutes to time and no one was there. He waited till 19:30 then left. 20:00 and people started trickling into the church and people were actually surprised to hear the doctor had actually come on time and couldn't wait for them. Instead of the elders chastising the congregation, they were angry at the doctor (who was supposed doing a talk for free) for leaving.

I was watching a documentary about lateness in Ghana on TV3 a while back and a gentleman was asked why he was often late to work. The man said every morning, there was a lot of traffic on the route that led to his work place so he usually waited till the traffic had reduced before he left the house (he worked at the Ministries). I remember laughing for quite a while. When I was doing my National Service (in the public sector) I found that this was a common practice. Someone didn't come to work early because the porridge seller in his area came at 08:00 so he had to wait and buy some before work. Someone had to listen to sports news at 07:30 before coming to work. Everyone seemed to have a 'valid' reason for coming to work late but the moment it was 17:00 they were out. No one had a reason to stay any longer than they had to.

Scheduling an appointment can sometimes seem like bargaining in the market. What time can we meet, and people will say, “3, 3:30, 4”. If you ask what specific time the person won't have a clue about what you mean by “specific”. After giving you this strange time range, the person would most likely show up for the appointment at 4:30.

Time and tide might wait for no man but most Ghanaians don't care. In fact, most people just don't have time for time. If time can't wait for the Ghanaian, the Ghanaian doesn't care. After all, “Time is Relative”.