Officially, Ghanaians go by Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). In practice, however, we use something called African Time, which you can’t set your clock by because it depends on whose clock you’re watching.
Officials arrive late at functions and no one questions them. Recently I had a taste of this with a Japanese colleague who arrived in Accra from London to interview a minister of state. We had an appointment to meet the minister at 11am. We got to his office at 10.45am, to be sure.
The minister, we were casually informed by his secretary, was not in yet. When, by 12.45pm, the minister had still not turned up, my colleague went to enquire if there was any word. His secretary told her: ”Sometimes he reports in about 2pm, especially on Mondays.”
I asked my worried colleague to cool down because these things were normal in Ghana. This was her first visit to Africa, and she looked startled. So I explained to her about African time, which took quite a long time. She took another look at her watch. According to GMT, it was now 1.45pm.
The minister walked in at about 2.30pm with a group of friends. By now there were several of us in the ”waiting room”, but understandably my colleague thought we were going to be the first to be called in as our names were the first on the list. But no, there were three young men who had just walked in, and had come from the minister’s constituency. They were ushered into the office.
My colleague gave me a flabbergasted look and went back to the secretary, ”Are we not meeting the minister?” Another shock followed.
The politely unflappable secretary replied; ”If you don’t mind I can re-book your interview for next Thursday.” My colleague would be back in London by next Thursday.
I reminded her that we had another appointment — with officials at the Central Bank — at 4pm, and suggested we move on.
We got into the first available taxi, only to realise that the driver had other ideas. He started meandering and I asked him politely, ”don’t you know the Bank of Ghana?” He replied that he knew the place very well, but explained he first had to drop off something he’d bought for his mother-in-law.
At this point my colleague lost her cool — this time with me — because she expected me to shout at the driver. Being a Ghanaian I have come to know that no protestation would change the driver’s decision.
A typical taxi driver’s response to such outrage is to say, ”If you are in a hurry, look for another taxi.”
We had joined a long traffic jam and there was no way we could get to the other side of the road. And it was too far to walk. So we sat in the cab, watching the minutes tick by. By now my colleague was sweating profusely, part heat, part fury. Finally, we arrived at the Bank of Ghana and rushed in, just before 4pm.
There was a surprise for us. The official we were supposed to meet had not yet returned from lunch.
I dialled the official’s cell number, but my colleague grabbed the phone out of my hand as he answered. ”Do you know you had an appointment with us at 4pm?” she fumed. The official was calm. ”Yes, I do,” he told her, ”and I just went out for lunch, and on my way remembered to give something to a friend, and got caught up in traffic. I will see you in 15 minutes.”
At 5pm I looked up and saw that my colleague’s face had turned a funny red. It was quite scary, so I moved off and went to look out of the bank’s window.
The official arrived at 6pm. He walked past us without a word and went into his office. After about 10 minutes his secretary went after him to see if he was ready to meet us.
Finally we were ushered in. The official did not apologise. His attitude was enough to tell that we were the ones who needed him, and should not complain. We sat through a 30-minute interview.
There was no chit-chat in the taxi on the way back to my colleague’s hotel. We dropped her off in silence.
For me this was nothing new. Government officials keep crowds waiting for hours before they arrive at functions. Ghanaians who have lived abroad and have come to understand the importance of time occasionally complain. But on the whole, it has become something we all know is wrong, but we accept. GMT is a guide, African time is when officials decide to make things happen.
Earlier this month, National Democratic Congress presidential hopeful Professor John Atta Mills arrived to make a campaign speech to the Association of Road Contractors 10 minutes before the advertised time. His punctuality made headlines.
His hosts weren’t ready and the other guests had not arrived yet. A spokesperson told the Ghana News Agency: ”We are impressed and embarrassed by the Prof’s punctuality.”
Francis Kokutse is the Accra correspondent for the Nation Media Group of Kenya. He freelances for Associated Press, Dow Jones Newswires and Inter Press Service