The Swahili Clock: Every Brit's Most Irrational Fear
As a social media manager and Twitter addict, there’s seldom a moment where I’m not scrolling through my timeline retweeting and liking everything I see. I came across this tweet in particular a few days ago by @afroblush that made me chuckle and hence I felt inspired to write this post.
At SwissPeaks we hold our field management and data processing activities in Africa as one of our key strengths. We’ve spent a great deal of time in Kenya in particular, where our partners AfriQuest 360 are headquartered. One of the most potent differences Andy and Simon (our avid travellers) have come to note between the Swahili culture and our own Western culture has a little something to do with punctuality. Or lack of should I say. Being of Swahili descent myself, I understand completely where they are coming from!
The Swahili method of telling time differs considerably from our own – perhaps the reason why meetings and appointments rarely ever start or finish on time! We split our 24 hours into two hurdles (am and pm) determined by how many hours it’s been since 12 o’clock. The Swahili clock, however, determines its time according to how many hours it’s been since sunrise and sunset - typically around 7 o’clock each way.
This means while we consider the first hour of the new day to be 1am, on the Swahili clock, the first hour is considered to be 7 am, or “saa moja” which means hour 1. Similarly, while the first hour of a British afternoon would be 1pm, the Swahili clock would deem it as “saa saba” – hour 7 of the day. The 12th hour marks the end of the day (our 6 o’clock or saa kumi na mbili) and the beginning of night time starts after sunset (saa moja again). Confusing, I know!
Even if arranged days in advance, being at least 30 to 60 minutes late for an appointment is seen as the norm in East Africa. Alongside battling the concern that African field operations tend to be somewhat unpredictable, the punctuality issue means projects also take a lot longer to execute. While being this late for anything sends an irrational tingle of absolute dread in British business culture, we unfortunately have had no choice but to accept it. When in Rome as they say…
At SwissPeaks we are, however, on a mission to destroy the preconception that clean data is not readily attainable in regions like Africa. We believe it is very important that questionnaire translations are as accurate as possible. When translating into Swahili we recommend using the Swahili timings rather than adopting our domestic way of telling time. Using Western time definitions in a text written in Swahili can easily cause confusion. This leaves the interpretational decision on quoting the right time of day with the interviewer which isn’t ideal. With the geographic experience in the area and our long tenure in the industry, we are well on our way towards shaping the future of African research for the better. In British timing that is.