Embracing Uncertainty — A Reflection on “African Time”

Reintroducing 2020

A common Eastern Nigerian name, Onyemaechi — means, who knows tomorrow? In addition to denoting that humans have no way of knowing tomorrow, I like to think that it also suggests that we should embrace uncertainty and an indicator that future thinking wasn’t absent in the culture. What might be this relationship with uncertainty and the future?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

One way to describe what the world experienced in 2020 and its after effect is that the year 2020 was late by all counts. The year was not punctual, she didn’t stick to the neat, precise schedule of anything anticipated by the world. Who was going to tell her that she’s on “African Time”? Would she have listened, apologized for being disrespectful of our clockwork lives, and adjusted to be more timely? There’s a chance that she might listen if informed respectfully and without an air of disdain for her tendency to respond to her environmental stimulus and not a clock. The phrase ‘African time’ is attributed to the less rigid way Africans approach time. It connotes unpunctual. In most modern African contexts today, it is unappealing to be on ‘African time’. The expectation is punctuality or an apology backed with reasons why scheduled times were not adhered to.

Prevailing Time Culture

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This disposition to not be on ‘African time’ is hinged on a philosophical leaning that there is a time for everything and essentially ‘holding a time block for one thing only’. Events or processes are inextricably linked to schedules and time blocks, with everything having to begin and end at a fixed time. This construct promotes time as a resource or commodity of high value and most mainstream values in today’s world are built on that. The success and propagation of this view of time imply that one has to increasingly have control over environmental factors or be more intentional about prioritization. This feeds into a deep sense of efficiency and in turn productivity. However, as seen with the global pandemic, it does little to build muscles for times when our far-reaching but artificial control over the environment is stretched beyond its capacity.

Another Look African Time

Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma'aji on Unsplash

Without making a case for or against ‘African time’, it goes against the grains of efficiency. At its core, it is founded upon a deep and long relationship with uncertainty. In truly African contexts (low middle-income countries), there is a limited number of things that can be depended on to happen in a predetermined sequence — by way of speculative retrospection, it is a time culture that has internalized the limited influence humans have over events and the adoption of a fluid response as those events unfold. Outcomes are hoped for and processes are left to emerge over time. Most Africans end up being raised in parallel realities concerning time cultures, one in which punctuality mattered and prevailed and another where everyone cared less. Within one reality, such as in schools and TV programs, there is a resemblance of schedules. Once outside those bubbles, everything depends on randomness and the involvement of key people — learning to wait until the bus and flight come along or until the shop owner is ready to open for business. There is hardly anything African that is on a schedule. There are downsides to this disposition but enough articles on time management and efficiency have been written.

Timely 2020 Response

One phrase that became popular through the global pandemic was ‘slow down’. It was the only way a world on tight schedules could process a breach in their program — which they couldn’t punish with a despising explanation-demanding look. As leaders and communities around the world internalized their lack of control — the failure of their organized and orderly schedules of events and processes to tackle the disruption, they embraced and promoted a call to ‘slow down’. It begs the question of how fast are we moving and is that speed always required? How might the insistence to maintain certainty in schedules at the outset of the global pandemic have caused more harm? Punctuality’s trained response to uncertainty is to barge through and re-engineer environmental obstacles to fit right back into the schedule.

Photo by Margit Bantowsky on Unsplash

The call to slow down was not about the speed at which we respond to the pandemic, that should and remained a race. The call was to the urgency to return our lives to business as usual. It might be a little longer before we pick up the fine ways in which uncertainty has inserted itself in our ways of conducting business but it does seem that we have had the chance as a human race to take the class. The following are some ways I think we can get better at embracing uncertainty in work and life.

Value the wellness of people over schedules

Well-structured schedules are simplistic and bland ways of viewing the complexity that the passage of time bestows on us. Making the best effort to control time is impressive but presumptuous, what we can control is how we treat each other. One devastating outcome of schedules is the damage they inflict on people — they suggest that regardless of all other impulses and constraints that we feel the only option is to chug along for the sake of keeping to time. It then tries to compensate by recommending that time for responding to those natural impulses and constraints should be scheduled. The alternative prioritizes wellbeing and uses time as a resource to ensure that people are thriving as a determinant that shapes schedules.

Build workarounds in the face disappointments

The notion of fixed outcomes should be dismantled — things not going as planned are natural and the response should be remaining adaptive in the face of unfolding realities. Chasing fixed targets is great but unnatural and overrated, sucking the beauty out of living. Fixing targets have driven significant portions of productivity over the last couple of centuries and should not be dropped. However, the reality is that so many of those outcomes pursued are moving targets and rarely achieved onset time. Perhaps, the goal should be to take the notion a step further and introduce and normalize “adaptive outcomes”. That way, the value gets placed on processes — focus on processes is a great way of embracing uncertainty. Go with the flow.

Accept the limitations of solutions

All sense of control and solutions are limited by time and closed systems and tend towards being more elusive beyond the closed systems we operate. But ultimately, we live in a world of interconnected systems that imply that closed systems are mere models that provide perspective and aid our appreciation of reality. This puts a perspective on solutions, that they are only as good as how closed the system in which they are conceived and chances are high that outside the closed system they could be a problem. This humility to accept that solutions are only that good keeps us open-minded and softens the impact of uncertainty. Perceiving them as grand and comprehensive delivers more impact when they are eventually unbundled by uncertainty.

Frequently revisit the purpose of efficiency

Part of the principle on which the concept of efficiency thrives is that time is linear and can be used, saved, expensed, or wasted in that manner. In reality, these concepts of time are not necessarily accurate. A counterfactual is that time is cyclic, independent and in line with the first law of thermodynamics, heat energy can’t be created or destroyed. The connections we make to time are constructs that are borne out of our choices. Time has alternative uses. Let some actions be taken as the result of conscious planning, and others as a reaction to the unfolding of events. Let’s be less infuriated when things don’t happen on a clock, that way, separating our lives from the clock.

Several reflections have been done on the year 2020, let’s just say that this is “a reflection on African Time.” You can read more about different Time and Culture here.



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Nonso Jideofor

Nonso Jideofor

Designer, Futures & Foresight Practitioner