Shifting Relationship Between Time And Culture In Ethiopia

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Nowadays it has become normal to be “fashionably” late in our day to day activities here in Ethiopia. Not only that there is a coined term for being late, one says “Ye Habesha Ketero” to lament an appointment and or any type of event where things are hopelessly tardy. Sometimes it feels like you can’t really be bothered to have appointments at all since time keeping looks to be an activity that we are hopelessly bad at. But is this a recent phenomenon or something that has always been present and we are just currently noticing its impact in our lives? And if so then what happened in our culture and our way of life to make us realize this happenstance?

It is a given that our culture is in a state of flux and it will continue to be so until we have a common understanding of what our social identity is as a collective. And since the new generation that is currently interactive in our day to day lives, comes with new and differing perspectives this has led us to let go of a lot of our “historical” norms and our ways of doing things. Our perspectives for each of our actions are not necessarily the same as our parents and the older generation before them.

What does this have to do with “ye habesha tardiness” you may ask? I would counter with another query. What made us more tardy nowadays than for example our parents and grandparents, is it because we have less value for the time of the people we engage with, or is it because we just don’t have enough time of the day to do work in our frenetic digitally fueled and perpetually moving day to day living? Which do you think would be the more viable reason?

According to British linguist Richard Lewis there is a difference in the way different cultures view time and interact with it. In an article he wrote for Business Insider he elaborated how there are three main perspectives on the understanding and interaction of time between cultures around the world; The Linear Time, The Multi-Active Time and The Cyclical Time. This difference in understanding and engagement of time has brought about a cascading effect of socio-cultural norms that tended to have a less than ideal chemistry when these different cultures interacted with each other. For example, he explains how the West viewed time in a more linear and task oriented manner whilst cultures in the east tended to look at time in a more cyclical and more experience based mode which gave more onus to the quality of the experience than the success of finishing one’s tasks.

I believe this differing perspective could be applied to our concept of timekeeping and time usage that we are currently adopting. It’s obvious that our culture has seen a massive overhaul in the last 80 years, it has gone from isolationist set of cultural rules to one that relied on a homogenized set of rules that were affixed to all the cultures within Ethiopia to one that got fragmented into trying to understand and enacting the cultural norms of various regions and making them the latest norm for “Ethiopia”. This confusion on how to live and react in modern day Ethiopia has brought among other things the misunderstanding of the usage of time and timekeeping by the current generation. This coupled with the multifaceted digitally driven perspective of world thoughts and actions to our cultural psyche has led us to break the good habits and churn them out with the latest fad that seemed to occupy our already crowded attention.

For example, it has become the norm to start major events, i.e. concerts 2 to 3 hours late because people got on with the fact that tardiness seems to be the flavor of the day. Or shall we mention workshops that have attendees coming 30 minutes to 2 hours late and get on with the program like all is good? Or how about the perennially late Ethiopian wedding ceremonies which don’t hold into account the time, money and effort people spend to get to these events in due time.

It used to be that being on time was a sign of good character and upstanding wholesomeness (jeez), so it behooves me to think how this new generation of tech-savvy, knowledgeable and worldly Ethiopian generation has utterly and completely decided to be forgetful of the time perspective that our past generations had. Every other culture around the world has inherited it from their generations.

In lieu with that, even our usage of time has become a confused jumble of collective misunderstanding; one part of the society seems to think that keeping busy is the most important thing to do while others prefer final output and disregard the time that is taken to produce it. We can also see how there is a gross mismatch in people’s understanding and respect for time in relation to others use for it.

All in all, I believe that our understanding and usage of time is a good understanding and indication into the inclination that our collective Ethiopian psyche is understood in. Thus it would be remiss to disregard this phenomenon and shrug our shoulders as people relate our Habeshawinet with unpunctuality and inefficiency.

By Michael Shiferaw

Michael Shiferaw Zewdie has worked for over ten years in the media industry in various roles with very different scopes and client list. He likes writing and interacting with various people on social issues, History, Technology, Sports and everything under the sun as long as it can elicit a good debate.





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