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Slowing Down in Guinea-Bissau

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What does it mean to discount something as operating on "African time"?

Recently on our "London to Lagos by bicycle" trip, we have crossed over from the luscious Casamance region of Senegal and are riding strong through lusophone Guinea-Bissau, hoping to reach the capital in a number of days. Bom viagem!

Along the way we have met only a handful of other non-African travellers: two crazy Germans who had sold all their worldly goods and were hippie-vanning it across the world; a lone Slovenian cyclist in the middle of Moroccan desert; and a slightly lost Japanese man who had malaria and was in a perpetual visa crisis.

From these interactions, it occurs to me that within the non-African travelling community, there is a certain discourse that gets recycled. "This is Africa" and "African time" are two of the most common phrases you will hear. They're typically used when something hasn’t gone according to plan (like a bus not running on time) and the traveller wishes to console themselves by exclaiming that it is simply Africa.

These expressions are always said in jest and meant to be harmless, but I wonder if they have more negative implications than we might think. While there are a fair few institutions that don’t function to "Western standards," it seems a bit crass to equate this to African ineptitude. Instead, travellers should look deeper; they may discover it could just be a system that works differently—but works nonetheless.

It seems a bit crass to equate "African time" to ineptitude. Instead, travellers should look deeper; they may discover that it could be a system that works differently—but works nonetheless.

In Guinea-Bissau, one of the main things to do is go to Islas Bijagós, an archipelago of tropical islands just off the coast of the capital Bissau. Known for fierce resistance to brutal Portuguese colonization and for wild carnivals involving ornately coloured masks, the 88 islands are both revered and slightly distrusted by the rest of Guinea-Bissau. Two experiences involving these islands help illustrate how I see time in Africa.

First, to get to the islands you have to take a six-hour boat ride that leaves only on Friday mornings at 7am, and you must be there at around 6am. As 20-something travellers, 6am feels like a rude awakening, so we arrived at the port half-asleep and desperately looking for coffee. Boarding the boat, we clambered into the main seating area and prepared to bed down for the next few hours, thinking that most others would be in the same state of disarray. Not so fast; as the engine started turning, the power came on and Nigerian RnB started blasting out the speakers. Soon the bar (or the giant freezer containing beer) opened and almost everyone started getting their drink on—at 7am! To us, it seemed crazy—most people back home barely speak to anyone until they begrudgingly walk through the door to work, and would have zero energy for a full-flung party at the break of dawn. We rolled over and tried to get a little kip, not annoyed, but a little surprised.

Second, after reaching the main island (Ilha Bubaque) we found a simple room in a series of apartments, owned by a jolly islander named Julio. From this base, we spent the next week cycling around the island, discovering beaches and eating fresh fish seasoned with lime and salt. Julio was extremely friendly and engaging, but the entire time we were there, he sat in a chair day and night, looking out over the ocean. Given the lack of technological props or much to do (we were the only guests), we were surprised that he didn’t lose his mind. As Europeans, the idea of sitting for days on end looking out at the world is unfamiliar. People can barely go two minutes without picking up an iPhone or searching for some other external stimuli. And yet, this man was content to sit.

Now, you could look at these two examples and conclude that the people on the boat have nothing better to do and the hostel and its owner barely function. But what I think it comes down to is there are different ways to intuit time; time can be cyclical, as well as linear. What the European gaze fails to understand is that the hostel owner and the party-goer were both doing their jobs (many on the boat were transporting goods and livestock from the mainland to the island). Occupations and lives are intertwined and so each day—even the morning—is just another segment of time that will repeat itself. Seen in this way, there is no reason why one can’t have a party in the morning and no reason why the owner would get itchy feet—each moment in time doesn’t necessarily need to lead to a change.

In the West, we see time in a linear fashion where every act, every motion, is a precursor to something else. It is all done with the idea of moving onto something else, and our inability to sit and be content is a reflection of our obsession with this progression. It also leads to us compartmentalizing our time and allocating different amounts of energy to different activities. If we see the day as a series of different events starting with the morning and leading to the evening—rather than perhaps just another day—we tend to save our energy for things we feel are more important. This is why we couldn’t get on board with the celebrations on the boat.

However, as in some parts of Africa, much of the population is occupied with their work from dawn till dusk, and will probably work at least six days a week. As a result, time perhaps goes back around and the highly demarcated Western distinctions of what-happens-and-when, need not apply. The lines between work and leisure, rest and play, and morning and evening become slightly blurred. Ultimately, it's important not to make swift conclusions about "African time," as there are different ways that people use and understand time.

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Tom Collins

Tom Collins has always had Africa on his mind. To get there, he studied first French and then African Politics. Armed with these tools, at the age of 24 he set up his company Vodoun Creations, specializing in African travel and contemporary issues.  He is currently somewhere in West Africa on a whirlwind bike ride to Lagos, blogging for Verge along the way.

Website: www.vodouncreations.com

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