Are People of African Origin Conscious of Time: True or False?

There is this notion or belief that people of African origin are not conscious of time. Two cultural reasons are given as the basis for this behavior; they are: Africans are blessed and endowed with almost everything in abundance, so much so that they did not see any need to be in a hurry to do anything or develop the habit of being on time. The proponent of this position went a little further to suggest that Africans unlike their European counterparts who would risk their lives just to be on time, are laid back and relax when it involves keeping up with time. Secondly, they argue that Africans rather be late than on time because they care more about establishing and maintaining relationships than being preoccupied with time.

At one point, this writer believed this notion to be true of all Black people. It was not until I began to pursue my lifelong interest in African history, which led me to discover that it was false. As a matter of fact, the evident suggest that Africans as a race of people were conscious of time not only from a cultural point of view but also from their interaction with their oppressors. Therefore, to suggest that the so-called practice of CPT (Colored People’s Time), AST (African Standard Time), and LST (Liberian Standard Time) are based on people of African origin’s cultural orientation. This claim is unfounded! If it may account for something, it could perhaps be a form of passive resistance on the part of Blacks, nothing more and nothing less.

From earliest times, the rotation of the Earth or the apparent location of the Sun in the sky has been used to establish a uniform time scale. The Babylonians and Egyptians used the sundial, or shadow clock, to divide daylight into short, defined period (Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia Compact Disc, Grolier Interactive Inc., 1997). The West Africans, specifically, the traditional African Liberians derived their time concept from the Sun. Like the Babylonians and Egyptians, they too, made use of the position of the Sun to tell time. In addition to this method, they also rely on the Rooster to tell time (the time of the day the Rooster crows). Secondly, the impact of Slavery, Colonialism and the Ward system introduced by the Settlers in Liberia, could not have allowed the people of African origin not to observe time, because the observance of time was key to the progress of these institutions.

While there are some truths to the claims that Africans are blessed by God with almost everything, and that they placed more emphases on creating and maintaining relationships, instead of being preoccupied with time, I beg to say that both statements are not only incomplete, they are also half-truths. To understand how this myth got started, we need to examine how the following institutions used time: Traditional African Society, Slavery, Colonialism and the Ward system as it were practiced in the Liberian.

Prior to the invention of the Time Clock as it is known today, traditional African people observed time in several ways. For example, individuals observed time by  looking at the position of the Sun during the day as well as the position of shadow produced by Sun during the day. Furthermore, Africans could tell time based on the time of the day Roosters crow. For instance, in African villages, individuals got up to go on their farms or to perform their duties when the Sun came up and stopped work when the Sun went down.

The system of Slavery and Colonialism created a kind of condition in which those who constituted the labor forces were at the mercy of those in control – the masters. These so-called masters were the ones who manage and control time. To justify their position, a scheme was designed whereby they presented themselves as humanitarians. Such scheme was propagated by the likes of David Hume, Hegel and other influential Westerners.

In 1768, for example, David Hume wrote that “the Negroes (are) naturally inferior to whites. There never was a civilized nation of any complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” Hegel on the other hand wrote in his Philosophy of History that “it is manifested that want of self-control distinguishes the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and as we have seen them at this day such have they always been…. At this point we leave part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit.”

The myth mentioned above gave rise to the popular belief that Africans were uncivilized savages. It was this rationalization they needed to justify their enslavement of Africans, which eventually led to the colonization of them. Since Africans were considered property under the institution of slavery, the system worked them like mules – from sun up to sun down. Time was an important element in this arrangement.

It was based on the time and other variables that the African slaves could develop and perfect the plantation system, which turned into the congenial climate for the southern plantation owners. The “peculiar institution” of slavery, increased the wealth and prestige of plantation owners. Slaves cultivated crops of tobacco and, further south, rice and sugarcane stimulated a systematized traffic in slaves called the triangular trade. Ships leaving England with trade goods touched first at the West Coast of Africa and sold their merchandise for African blacks. After the notorious “Middle Passage” from Africa, the next stop was either the West Indies, where slaves were in demand on plantations, or the English colonies; at this stop the slaves were exchanged for such agricultural products as sugar. The return voyage to England with a valuable cargo completed the triangle.

It is important to note that in these systems, including the plantation system, time was of essence without which domestic chores; the cotton industry and the triangular trade would not have flourished. The evident shows that slaves who failed to follow the schedule established by their masters were punished severely.

The same is true under the colonial system of governance. Chapter I, Article 6 of the Berlin West Africa Conference, which lay down the rules for the Scramble for Africa supports the argument that the colonized had no other choice but to observe time since they were the ones responsible for producing wealth for the West. This document continued the process of usury:

All the Powers exercising sovereign rights or influence in the aforesaid territories bind themselves to watch over the preservation of the native tribes, and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being, and to help in suppressing slavery, and especially the Slave Trade. They shall, without distinction of creed or charitable institutions, and undertakings created and organized for the above ends, or which aim at instructing the natives and bringing home to them the blessing of civilization (M. E. Chamberlain, The Scramble for Africa, 1974, 124).

The monopolization of power and rights over non-Westerners made it easy to effectively incorporate Africans into the world economy in which Westerners were the sole benefactors. As indicated earlier, it started with the slave trade, which dragged African labor into the emerging international capitalist system. Again, everything that took place was based on the efficient use of time.

The returned former slaves (Americo Liberians) were convinced of their superiority compared to the African Liberians; and many thought it was their right and duty to civilize them. Confronted as they were by problems of biological and economic survival and difficulties with the colonial powers, nonetheless, the Americo-Liberians did little to administer to most African Liberians. The notion of their own superiority was accompanied by a massive indifference to local cultures. Moreover, African Liberians who became “civilized” (a term used to distinguish nontribal from tribal people) were acceptable, but the less tribal cultural baggage, i.e., dress, language, name, etc. with them, the better. These factors are the criteria by which an indigenous African was accepted by the Americo Liberian establishment. But “the most obvious is literacy in English. A second is adherence to a Christian – preferably Protestant – church. Closely related is the acceptance of monogamous marriage. Finally, a tribal person must acknowledge or at least not publicly deny the Americo-Liberian version of Liberian history (Thomas D. Roberts et al, Area Handbook for Liberia, 1972, 45 – 47).

The Americo Liberians introduced similar plantation system into the Liberian society. This system had time element built into it. The system came to be known as Ward. Within the Ward system, African Liberian children were made to live with Americo-Liberian families in exchange to be provided Western education and in the process to make them “civilized” as opposed to their “African cultures” which was considered by the Americo-Liberians uncivilized.

In this arrangement, African Liberian children (Wards) were required to perform all the domestic chores and related services from Sunrise to Sunset (5:30 AM – 10:00 PM). The hours were longer in some homes. Ironically, these were a group of people who left North America because of similar treatments they received at the hand of whites. These were people who opposed strongly to slavery and the slave trade, but were quite prepared to compel the tribal people to work for both private and public purposes with little or no compensation.

Given all the reasons alluded to here, the evidence is overwhelmed in support of the position that it is impossible for the people of African origin not to be time oriented; when in fact, their very existence was regulated by it. Therefore, the claim that CPT (Colored People’s Time), AST (African Standard Time), and LST (Liberian Standard Time) have their origin in their African culture is baseless. Instead, I argue that perhaps CPT, AST and LST are some form of passive resistance, and that they have nothing to do with African culture as we are made to believe.

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Siahyonkron Jglay-Kay Nyanseor

Elder Siahyonkron Nyanseor is an Eminent Person of the ULAA Council of Eminent Persons (UCEP), Inc. He is the historian of ULAA; one of its founding members and the 11th President (1986-1988) of the organization. Elder Nyanseor is an ordained Minister of the Gospel. Also, he is a poet, Griot, journalist, a cultural, social and political activist. He can be reached at:
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