Certain parts of the world are notorious for what Nigerians would call it ‘African Time’. African time is described as the ‘perceived cultural tendency, in most parts of Africa, toward a more relaxed attitude to time’. All events begin late: our meetings, parties, naming ceremonies, church services etc. Heck, brides and grooms arrive at their own weddings late! Lateness is widespread and when asked why, we Nigerians will nonchalantly declare that ‘African time’ – as the name implies – is part of whom we are. Apart from chucking this down as a cultural trait that all Africans possess, how else can we explain why Africans (as well as a lot of other nationalities) persistently come late to events?
Uncertainty plays a significant role in the phenomenon of late coming. Specifically, two sort of uncertainty: structural uncertainty and uncertainty regarding the behaviour of others. Structural uncertainty arises as a side effect of living in a nation like Nigeria where anything could happen the next day: the Police stops you (happened to me), traffic jams happens (shout-out to Lagosians), buses/cars randomly break down or the First Lady could be having those parties that shut the whole city down…literally. These factors contribute to involuntary late coming; you get held back even when you plan to be early.
The other type of uncertainty – distrust concerning the behaviour of others- explains why we love to voluntarily arrive at events late. Game theory – the study of strategic decision making – does a great job at explaining why uncertainty makes people come late. It’s been used in Economics, Political science, Psychology, as well as Logic and Biology. Interestingly, it’s also pretty handy at explaining our culture of African time. Now let’s apply this to our habit of lateness. We’ll start by using two Africans – Tunde and Ada – who have arranged to meet up. They want to spend as much time as possible at this meeting. However, neither Tunde nor Ada is certain that the other party will arrive early. This modified venn diagram illustrates the outcome based on their individual decision:
As we can see, predicting the decision Tunde or Ada will make poses some difficulties. Clearly, if they both come on time, they get the most out of the meeting. But if they’re both not certain that the other person will arrive early, this makes them more likely to hedge their bet on going late. Depending on what Tunde does, the utility maximizing decision could be to come on time or come late. Ada also faces the same dilemma. Evidently, uncertainty/lack of trust between the two exacerbates this issue.
Next, imagine what happens on a much larger scale where there’s a meeting of 100 people. Since the level of accountability and trust is lower in a bigger group, the attendants will have less faith in everyone arriving on time and feel less guilty about arriving on time. In the case of Africans, we already start off with the mindset that others will come late, consequently we plan to also arrive late. Funny thing is…every other attendant is thinking the same thing.
Tie this into conformity (our strong desire to follow the majority) and you have few individuals who want to be seen as different or as mumus (‘morons’ for Non-Nigerians) for coming early. Eventually, almost everyone will certainly come late. Let’s take this a step further. If everyone expects everyone to come late, the next issue would be to figure out how late one can be in order not to be the first person at the event, but also not completely miss the event. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the Game Theory computation we all create in our minds when making our decisions based on ‘African time’.
Btw: Have you noticed how no one is ever late to wedding receptions or interviews at the American Embassy?