Monday, November 16, 2009

Swahili Time vs Mzungu Time

Photo Source: Google

Monday wasn’t a good Tanzania day for me. It took me 7 hours to buy two Zanzibar beds and makuti (braided palm leaves) for my gate. ….. Really not difficult items as far as I’m concerned. Both items are available to buy next to the road. All you have to do is pull your 4x4 up onto the side of the road, haggle a bit over the price, load it up, and off you go….

Look, I speak the language fairly well, after all, I’ve been here for 5+ years, AND one of the 1st things that I learnt was to keep time – the SWAHILI way!!

It works like this: as we are almost on the equator, you tend to have perfect 12 hour cycles, no matter what the season. The first hour after sunrise is 1 o’clock (what we know as 7 o’clock in the morning), hour number 2 after sunrise is 2 o’clock, therefore – in SWAHILI TIME – midday (12 o’clock for us) is 6 o’clock.  The same for night time “usiku”, not too difficult – even logical if you think about it, but you need to make sure you have your wits together when discussing time with our local friends. 

Coming back to the story…. Time was of essence on Monday, my mom was visiting and I was really anxious to have a decent bed in the house for her. After repeating VARIOUS times what time I’ll collect my precious new beds and makuti – IN SWAHILI TIME , I paid my 50% deposit to dismantle everything and went away in a flurry of hand shaking and huge smiles.  The agreed return time was in 2 hours so I gave them half and hour extra as I did not want to be upset, the required job should take a whole 15 min.  Returning later as discussed to find that neither items were anywhere near ready, everyone was sitting exactly where I left them. No one would look me in the eye and explanations were all over the place with some dust kicking and shrugging of shoulders…. “samahani mama…” (sorry mama) Eish.  

My frustration was mounting, my mom arrived in a few hours time and I had no bed in her room. Biting my tongue, we agreed on a second time – in SWAHILI. It was one of those really hot days where the humidity surrounds you like a cloud, hampering your breathing and clinging to every inch of your body.

I returned the second time to find the situation wasn’t any better, the day just ended up in pure frustration (and tears….) and my duka (shop) friends couldn’t understand why this mzungu dada (white sister) promptly voiced her disapproval at the utter lack of co-operation after literally paying for everything upfront, she promised that she’ll never come back EVER to buy anything from them. I mean how difficult is it to unscrew a few bolts and tie a couple of makuti leaves together…….

Alas, my mom arrived to a bedroom without a bed. Finally at the dusty end of the day, hot, humid and without power, I heard this chink chink on our gate and here stood these wonderful people of Africa with what I’ve been fighting for all day….

Question remains: Who’s time is the right time? We got our bed and makuti, no one slept on the floor, so why was I so impatient?




I went back two days later to buy another bed.

Desert Rose


  1. Oh, I can totally relate to your endeavour. Even though at the end of the day things work out, the extra-ordinary effort and time put in is what is so frustrating. So much for something so simple. I just have to remember to breathe!

  2. An amusing,entertaining and informative tale - thanks for sharing this with us.