Posted: March 18th, 2023
Cultural Perceptions of Time in Africa
Time is a foundational factor in every culture. The perception of time is different for most cultures and the determining factor to those differences is often based on the means of production. “Most cultures have some concept of time, although the way they deal with time may differ fundamentally.” (Kokole 1994, 35) Tracing the perception of the concept of time in Africa can be seen as tracing the European racial prejudices of the intellect of the indigenous populations in the colonized regions of Africa. Much of the information regarding the development of time concepts in African culture is colonial and based on the European interlopers recorded ideas.
Some of those recorded ideas are those of missionaries and others are those of capitalist adventurers, with the intermittent mark of a very few true historians.
In Mali, as in many other parts of Africa, there are mixed systems of timereckoning: Islamic time overlays Bamana time, and French imported time overlays Islamic time. Whatever temporal structure people apply, they understand that the other systems impinge on their own. (Kone’ 1994, 84)
One of the very first true historians recognized the correlation between an African oral tradition and European Calendar time to Sub-Saharan African culture. A great debt is owed to Emil Torday. The reenactment of the events of the day of discovery for Torday by Davidson in 1959, a pioneer in the tradition of western narrative history, serve as an excellent example of a proof of both historical record-keeping in Africa and the idea of organic time.
For the benefit of this European, one of the first they had ever set eyes on, the elders of the Bushongo recalled the legend and tradition of their past. That was not in the least difficult for them, since remembering the past was one of their duties. They unrolled their story in measured phrases. They went on and on. They were not to be hurried. They traversed the list of their kings, a list of one hundred and twenty names, right back to the god-king whose marvels had founded their nation.
(Davidson 1959, 3)
The establishment of cala nder time to a history of Africa came about while the Bushongo elders transverse the oral tradition of the kingdom of their people they came to a kingdom that was to them nearly uneventful yet to the European sense of history as linear the major even to f this kingdom was paramount to the recognition of developed culture in Africa prior to the colonial insurgence:
It was splendid, but was it history? Could any of these kings be given a date, be linked — at least in time — to the history of the rest of the world? Torday was an enthusiast and went on making notes, but he longed for a date. And quite suddenly they gave it to him.
As the elders were talking of the great events of various reigns,’ he remembered afterwards, “and we came to the ninetyeighth chief, Bo Kama Bomanchala, they said that nothing remarkable had happened during his reign, except that one day at noon the sun went out, and there was absolute darkness for a short time. “When I heard this I lost all self-control. I jumped up and wanted to do something desperate. The elders thought that I had been stung by a scorpion. “It was only months later that the date of the eclipse became known to me… The thirtieth of March, 1680, when there was a total eclipse of the sun, passing exactly over Bushongo… “There was no possibility of confusion with another eclipse, because this was the only one visible in the region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”
(Davidson 1959, 3-4)
Yet, despite the early work of a true historian with the infinite patience and attention to detail of Torday in the early 20th century, the European school of thought was based on the almost universal assumption of indigenous Africans as intellectually inferior to Europeans and from this erroneous assumption came the idea that African cultures were unhistorical. It was well into the 20th century before these perceptions were challenged by modern academics.
The situation remained largely unchanged until the seminal works of Edward Evans-Pritchard. In his groundbreaking study “Nuer Time Reckoning” (1939), Evans-Pritchard established that the Nuer of southern Sudan recognized a number of temporal structures or “planes of rhythm,” including physical, ecological, and social, all of which were integrated into their social formation. Above all, he demonstrated that time in Africa and other precapitalist societies — and, for that matter, everywhere — is a product of culture and the environment rather than intellectual capacity.
(Adjaye 1994, 4)
It is widely understood that European intellectuals did not begin to understand Africa and her diversity of culture as anything more than outside observers until well into the 20th century, some would say not until into the second half of the 20th century. African history to this point had been based almost wholly on the early colonial writings and the historical perspective of the African people themselves did not become widely observed until recent times.
The vastness of the continent makes clear one of the major difficulties that went almost unrecognized by early historians and that is the issue of the sheer number of cultures of differing ethnic, cultural, intellectual and perceptual histories. Nearly the entire continent’s population was grouped together as a nameless homogeneous “native” African people. This is especially true of sub-Saharan African’s with some exceptions made of those coastal Africans who had experienced more exposure to European travelers and traders. For these reasons as well as those mentioned above it is difficult to separate the true historical concepts of one or all of African culture from those of the perspective of European outsiders who have had an immeasurable impact on the culture or cultures being studied.
The task of the modern historian is the gleaning of the original sources for the grains of cultural perception that is the least likely to be influenced by the interjection of the European tradition. A note worth making about the issue of organic time and to dispel any simplistic ideas associated with the use of agrarian rather than quantitative time models was made by Kone’ in 1994:
Although the Komo farming ritual and the Tswana king seedtime ritual are important in marking off the beginning of important times, they should not be taken as ritual time by which people are summoned to action. People observe the so-called ritual times because these times are doxic and because people see in them the potential for benefit. Even if the Komo, Dogon, and Tswana rituals described above were to disappear, their people would still know when to farm, because it is not the rituals that tell them when to farm, as the West believes. (Kone’ 1994, 84)
It is far to simple to assume, as some westerners do that because a temporal system is based on ritual or tradition dictated by a natural cycle that it also dictates action.
Extensive work was done during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by American historians based on the perception of time and how it relates to labor and work ethic of dispossessed members of the African continent who became unwitting members of the American slave population. Most studies of this nature were undertaken to explain the ruling class’ dissatisfaction with the production level associated with the African-American population before and after emancipation. Studies that were engaged in before emancipation were often at the will of those who were looking for further evidence to prove not only the right of the white man to subjugate the black man but the necessity based on their inferiority. In the African continent the impetus for such study was based on dissatisfaction of the level of production namely the work slow down, stoppages or labor contract issues, in this case the length of them.
The issue of labor has largely been the focus of many studies on the perception of time. Regardless of culture, ethnicity or point of origin the ideas surrounding the change from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy undoubtedly change the perceptions of a people. The changes of a societies form of production are clearly a source for change to its culture. It can also be said that any new proletariat often falls victim to the expectations of the labor regulators. It must be noted that whether through coercion, force, or simple economic necessity a populous becomes the proletariat of a stronger society changes will be profound. This is true of new immigrants to any culture and also of newly colonized peoples who almost instantly must live by the rules of another culture so unlike its own that the very fiber of reality must seem altered.
In this paper I will analyze the changes in time perception of three subsets of African regional culture. This examination will isolate three factors that are a large part of the dissemination of change in time awareness: changes in labor practices, changes in regional dynamics or relocation, and changes in affiliation in relation to loyalty to family or origin. The regional or ethnic subsets I will examine are: the Bantu-Kongo of modern Nigeria, the Nguni Zulus of modern South Africa, and the Akan of central and southern modern Ghana and parts of the adjoining eastern modern Cote d’Ivoire,. Additionally I will discuss other regional affiliations of Africa based on the importance of the issue the history of the particular culture gives testament to.
The Bantu-Kongo region is defined as: “Kongo” refers to a cultural, linguistic, and historical group of people that is descended from a larger body of Bantuspeaking communities who migrated south from the Benue-Cross river region of present-day Nigeria into the equatorial forest of West Central Africa and beyond.” (Fu-kiau 1994, 17)
The three factors to be analyzed as foundational to the change in definition of cultural time perception, labor changes, relocation, and changes in family or regional loyalty are especially interesting here, as this region was already comprised of people who have undergone relocation. This relocation was ancient, gradual and serves as a cultural aspect fundamental to the identity of the region. Another distinction particular to the Kongo is the level of knowledge about the region that predates European colonialization. The evidence clearly suggests that not only was there a rich history in this very successful region but that this history outshines that of western civilization during the correlating timeline. Evidence of recent history makes clear that though the Kongo was one of the most successful of the Bantu nations its decline was rapid and directly correlates to the interjection of colonial Europeans. As early as 1960 European colonial government began to acknowledge the existence of a rich cultural heritage existing long before colonial rule, yet it is of interest that much of the archeological work done regionally was at the site of colonial entrepreneurial When they were mining tin they began to uncover so much artifact that its further analysis could not be neglected.
Surveyor of Antiquities was appointed in 1943 and has since made excavations at Ife in the Western Region and in Southern Zaria and areas on and near the Jos Plateau in the north where tin-mining operations have revealed valuable material. From the former site have come important finds in bronze and terracotta which display very considerable artistic achievement. In the north the material provides evidence of a culture which flourished some 2,000 years ago and which was probably associated with the working of iron.
Regardless of acknowledgement by Europeans of rich and ancient African History it is clear that just such a history does exist. The perception of time as associated with ideas of progress based on wealth thought to be a European phenomenon. The truth is that this may only be true in a sense of capitalism. Just as there are fluctuations in economy in a capitalist society there are also fluctuations of wealth in any non-industrialized society. It is clear from the representations of time in the history of an oral tradition that the expectation of fluctuation is based more on the results of the natural rhythm of nature, in other words natural occurrences like the seasons, weather, unusual occurrences like a drought or even an eclipse the recognition of success as an issue of wealth is universal. In a non-industrial society wealth might be judged by the level of one’s hunger or lack there of while in another it would be determined by the numbers that dictate economic health or lack there of.
In the Bantu-Kongo region it can be said that the culture and economy began a rapid decline as exposure to European colonialism began. The rapidity at which changes were assimilated in regards to relocation, a normally gradual or seasonal issue deteriorated the familial and location loyalties that would lie at the heart of a strong non-industrial culture. The rapid decline of the Kongo state can be clearly associated with European colonialism but the idea of permanent relocation the worst of which was the slave relocation to one of the other colonial nations, was a deteriorating factor that can be seen to be linked directly with the creation of a labor force.
Though not always as extreme as a the permanent relocation of a slave the expectations of wage labor relocation as permanent removed the gradual nature of migration from the family and location even in a cultural situation where migration was a dynamic of nearly all memorable history, which in the oral tradition was vast.
It has been mentioned previously, as a universal example of the forces of labor changes that South Africa’s labor history follows the pattern of the degradation of cultural dynamics. Atkins quoted above in footnotes makes it clear that there is both little prior knowledge of that which came to South Africa before the Europeans and the fact that though the South African’s were willing to engage in wage labor the results of the attempt at uniformity between the European work standard and the culture of the South African people clashed mightily and resulted in opinions and prejudices that continued to haunt the labor relations between blacks and whites in south Africa and the rest of western civilization almost to the end of Apartheid and possibly beyond. (footnotes 8-9)
Time was at the nexus of the “Kafir labor problem.” No sooner was a work agreement made than confusion arose from the disparate notions of the white employer and his African employee regarding the computation of time. Otherwise said, the record of persistent desertions from service was in very many instances related to the fact that the terms of master-servant contracts, which were based on European units of measure, did not accord with the African mode of temporal reckoning.
(Atkins 1994, 123)
Like most other non-industrial societies the Zulu used a lunar calendar and also had a subsystem of holidays that beseeched the European settlers who relied on them for labor. It is particularly evident that these sorts of differing ideals about time negatively effected the growth of the sugar industry, one of the largest cash crops available to the South African European colonist. The workday length of the Zulu was dictated by sunrise and sunset for two reasons one being a belief in the need to rise after the dew has burned off the grass, a preventative for disease and two the belief in evil spirits that would attack anyone outside at night. During the intense labor period of sugar cane production continuous industry was required to complete the task with any great success.
It is generally known that the Kafir looks to the sun’s course to regulate his hours of labour; that “puma langa” with him, commences about an hour after sunrise, and that “shuna langa” begins with the same time before sunset. It is difficult either to induce or compel him to work either before or after those periods of the day, which have received his arbitrary definition of sunrise and sunset.
These conflicts in the ideas of workday length, lunar calendar, holiday work stoppage, translation differences between seasonal concepts like years constituted an almost insurmountable barrier between the colonists and the labor force. The only solution was a very precarious balancing act based on complex and careful communication between the native and the colonist, on occasion there was a successful exchange and on other occasions a worker would leave their employment six months prior to the time the colonist assumed they would be leaving. When communication broke down to an extreme there may have actually been conscription and forced labor practices or piece work (by the completion of the job) hiring rather than length of time hiring.
The South African Nguni Zulu seem to have been fairly adaptive to the idea of wage labor and the migratory changes that it caused. They attempted to maintain the standards of their culture that enforced family and home, returning with each seasonal work stoppage and maintaining the dictates of their representational ideas of calendar and the like. It would seem for a longer period of time they were living lives closer to their nature but in later years and due to natural disasters and tyrannical colonial representatives the Nguni endured the forced urbanization brought about by industrial, natural and political changes and the eventual establishment of the Apartheid system that subjugated the black proletariat majority until recent times. This eventual demise resulted in permanent fatality to pre-colonial cultural identity, and familial, location loyalties.
The Akan people have an expressly different sense of time and the documentation provides proof that the Akan recognize a multiple time structures and calendrical system. Though Adjaye notes that there has been detailed evidence and technological ability to analyze this complicated system the only studies that have done so are those that study the system from the perspective of how it fits into a more traditional European system, most notably a public education system and a system of diplomatic necessity.
The Akan use the term bere (Twi) or mber (Fante) to denote time. The conceptualization of bere/mber, however, has many manifestations, which include the specific time (of an event, for instance), a period, a season, and an epoch. The concept of time as a nonspecific notion also exists, as in the popular Akan proverbs bere di adannan (“time changes”) and bere dane biblara (“time changes everything”). Time, to the Akan, then, is both a concrete reality and an abstraction. (Adjaye 1994, 58)
Though it is not difficult to understand these concepts it can be difficult to understand the way in which this idea plays out in the representation of time. There is a lack of clock time, can be the best way to describe the relativism of the time scale in this culture. Additionally, like may other African cultures the idea of before and after as a guide for when a specific event occurred in a timeline is paramount to the communication of time. It is common to hear a person describing the birth of a child by whether it was before or after a more global event, like a war. Though this might be difficult to understand by western ideas, where the year of an event and the event itself are almost mutually exclusive, rendering the western high school history student to the rigor of memorization games.
An example of just how personal the representation of the language that surrounds time is in the Akan culture is an explanation of the personal naming system. The naming system by design coincides with the days of the week and their inherent governing meaning or ideology. In some cultures the ideas surrounding the month or the year of birth, or even the order and gender they are born to in their birth family become important but this idea in western culture is not as evident as it can be seen to be in the Akan culture:
The first name that an Akan child often acquires is a name that is based on the day of the week on which he or she is born. This is know as kra din (“day name”). There are two corresponding sets of day names for males and females for each day of the week (Table 4.1).
The Akan believe that every weekday has its own controlling or influencing spirit force (kra), which gives its name to that particular day. Thus, Kwasiada (Sunday) actually means Kwasi’s day (da), Edwoada (Monday) Edwo’s day (da), Ebenada (Tuesday), Ebena’s day, and so forth. Each spirit force has its own appellation and attributes that are associated with those appellations, and by inference it is believed that those attributes or behavioral characteristics are transferable to persons bearing the particular day name. The appellation for someone born on Sunday, for instance, is “Bodua,” meaning, literally, the “tail of an animal.” Therefore, a Sunday-born person is said to have the attribute of a “protector” in the sense that an animal uses its tail for protecting itself.
(Adjaye 1994, 59-60)
From this rather personal rendering of the explanation of the meaning of time, a person may be able to see the evident impact that an extreme altering of the nomenclature of time might do to the culture at large. In many cultures that have been effected by the global nature of the colonial era and that of today a nomenclature of this design would be replaced by a double naming system. One where the child would receive a birth name and then a westernized name that would render them more easily perceived in westernized systems of education and communication. An example of this would be traditional vs. American naming of native American children and another example of this sort of evident change would be the Asian idea that expresses the import of the family name before the personal name and the reversal of this when a person immigrates to a culture where the opposite is true.
In the Akan culture the perception of time made even more personal by the representation of the life clock:
The life span calendrical framework is based on two assumptions: first, that there is an internal rhythm or clock in a person’s life that is punctuated by definite stages or events, such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death, and second, that most people not only pass through these stages of life but also experience them at approximately the same ages. Thus, a person is considered to reach puberty at about 13, and a woman (in traditional or rural settings) marries at about 16 or soon thereafter. Therefore, a person might be able to give some indication of his age by saying, for instance, that he was just experiencing puberty at the time of Ghana’s independence (1957), that is, he was born around 1944. This system of dating has been used extensively during census enumerations in preliterate rural communities.
(Adjaye 1994, 62)
From this brief description of the life cycle clock of the Akan it may be seen that the translation of such a census, for example, by a western bureaucrat or historian might render them speechless. Without the proper sense of understanding of this system the translation would be viewed as esoteric at the least, primitive at the worst. This type of hindsight may give some indication as to the translation barriers that restricted western understanding of the intellect of many African cultures.
It can be seen from the Akan examples above, with very little difficulty that the impact on a culture with such a personalized system of time associated with individual, family and cultural identity would have a difficult time adapting to a culture with a demand for quantitative as apposed to qualitative time representation. The adaptational need for a willing labor resource during colonization would have been challenged by not only the naming system as there are thousands upon thousands of people with the same name. Furthermore, in addition to a rather traditional agriculturally-based lunar calendar in which:
no fixed dates were established to mark the beginning or end of each monthly period, because those changes that marked the passing of the periods were based on people’s observation of natural phenomena…. all Akan groups observe a parallel annual calendar that is composed of nine 40 day cycles known as adaduanan (literally “40 days”). Within each 40 day period — actually counted inclusively as 42 days or alternatively reckoned through the concurrent counting of a 6-day cycle with a 7-day week — there are two identical sub-cycles of 20 or 21 days within which definite patterns of days set aside for specific rituals are designated. (Adjaye 1994, 66)
Clearly the complicated nature of this system would render most linear thinkers rather baffled and cause an infinite cause for confusion and misunderstanding of translation and contractual issues in regards to labor and many other issues, see above mention of the need for an understanding of the calendrical systems to dictate communication in regards to public education systems diplomacy. One can also see the potential for contractual issues in regards to everything from service to land leasing or even ownership.
To further complicate matters of translation of time and labor in the Akan vs. European systems of calendar, as there have been in several other cultures days that are set aside as non-working days, based on holidays very different from our own and they can be set or they can fluctuate based on their association to a different calendar system:
In the Asante calendrical framework, as determined by the adaduanan monthly cycles, certain days are marked out as “bad days” (da bone) as opposed to “good days” (da pa). Such so-called bad days are in reality ceremonial days that are set aside for the performance of certain rituals associated with dead kings, ancestors, or certain traditional offices. They may be grouped into major ceremonial days and minor or “nonsignificant” ceremonial days. The major ceremonial days are regarded as unpropitious or inauspicious, and much in the manner of “holidays of obligation,” no work or major affairs of state may be performed on these days, though no such prohibition applies to the “nonsignificant” ceremonial days. (Adjaye 1994, 67)
Another strike in the communication that was seen through the example of the South African Zulu’s to mark conflict between the laborer and the contractor.
This analysis examines three factors that are a large part of the dissemination of change in time awareness: changes in labor practices, changes in regional dynamics or relocation, and changes in affiliation in relation to loyalty to family or origin. The regional or ethnic subsets I examine are: the Bantu-Kongo of modern Nigeria, the Nguni Zulus of modern South Africa, and the Akan of central and southern modern Ghana and parts of the adjoining eastern modern Cote d’Ivoire. Additionally I discuss other regional affiliations of Africa based on the importance of the issue the history of their culture gives testament to.
Time is a foundational factor in every culture. The perception of time is different for nearly every culture and the determining factor to those differences is often based on the means of production. There is no greater true difference in perception of time than there is when comparing industrialized quantitative time concepts to qualitative non-industrial time concepts.
Tracing the perception of the concept of time in Africa can be seen as tracing the European racial prejudices of the intellect of the indigenous populations in the colonized regions of Africa. Much of the information regarding the development of time concepts in African culture is colonial and based on the European interlopers recorded ideas. Some of those recorded ideas are those of missionaries and others are those of capitalist adventurers, with the intermittent mark of a very few true historians. It is left to modern historians to undertake the task of collecting and assimilating information about the perceptual concepts of time based on the true concepts rather than how they apply to the perceptions or the institutions of western culture. As can be seen from the analysis of just a few factors of cultural time perception, it is a more widely accepted notion now that time is not only nonlinear it is also representative of culture and development rather than the colonial ideas of time concepts as intellectual in nature.
http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=5907117″Nigeria: The Political and Economic Background. London: Oxford University Press, 1960. Davidson, Basil. The Lost Cities of Africa. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959. Fu-kiau, K.K. Bunseki. “2 Ntangu-Tandu-Kolo: the Bantu-Kongo Concept of Time,” In Time in the Black Experience. Edited by Joseph K. Adjaye, 17-32. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. 1 Time in Africa and Its Diaspora: An Introduction,” In Time in the Black Experience. Edited by Joseph K. Adjaye, 1-15. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=55458362″4 Time, Identity, and Historical Consciousness in Akan,” In Time in the Black Experience. Edited by Joseph K. Adjaye, 55-74. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=55458362″7 “Kafir Time”: Preindustrial Temporal Concepts and Labor Discipline in Nineteenth- Century Colonial Natal,” In Time in the Black Experience. Edited by Joseph K. Adjaye, 121-137. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=8992901″Keim, Curtis A. Mistaking Africa: Curiosities and Inventions of the American Mind. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=55458362″Kokole, Omari H. “3 Time, Language, and the Oral Tradition: An African Perspective,” In Time in the Black Experience. Edited by Joseph K. Adjaye, 35-51. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=55458362″Kone, Kassim. “5 Time and Culture Among the Bamana/Mandinka and Dogon of Mali,” In Time in the Black Experience. Edited by Joseph K. Adjaye, 79-94. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. Mazrui, Alamin, and Lupenga Mphande. “6 Time and Labor in Colonial Africa: the Case of Kenya and Malawi,” In Time in the Black Experience. Edited by Joseph K. Adjaye, 97-117. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=27436660″McCarthy, Michael. Dark Continent: Africa as Seen by Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=7963074″Oliver, Roland. The Missionary Factor in East Africa. London: Longmans Green, 1952. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=96892134″Peter Lewis, ed. Africa: Dilemmas of Development and Change / . Edited by Peter Lewis. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998. http://www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=87114002″Pierre L. Van Den Berghe, ed. Africa: Social Problems of Change and Conflict. Edited by Pierre L. Van Den Berghe. San Francisco: Chandler, 1965.
Colonialism has sometimes been seen as a stage in the development of capitalism on a global scale. There is a sense in which capitalism constituted the very essence of colonial expansion, and the logic of colonialism itself, as a political system, was primarily predicated upon the mission of sowing seeds of capitalist expansion in otherwise precapitalist, often agrarian societies. Despite all its debilitating effects, colonialism, in Marxist literature in particular, has sometimes been regarded as a necessary phase in the evolution of the south from a precapitalist to a ‘more superior’ capitalist mode of production. ” (Mazrui, and Mphande 1994, 97)
Some fifty years ago, in a clearing of the Congo forest, a Hungarian in Belgian service sat making notes. For the time and place this Hungarian, Emil Torday, was an unusual sort of man, an unusual sort of European. What he wanted was neither rubber nor ivory nor conscript labor, but information about the past.
And he had come far in search of it. After traveling for many hundred miles up the Congo River from its Atlantic mouth he had continued on his way into the heart of Africa. He had traveled up the Kasai River and then along the banks of the Sankuru, and now, somewhere in the dense green middle of an Africa that was almost completely unknown to the outside world, he had reached the Bushongo people, and sat listening to their chiefs and making notes.”
(Davidson 1959, 3)
Time was organic in the sense that the creation of the time frame within which human activities could be conducted was largely the reserve of nature itself. Sunrise and sunset, wet seasons and dry seasons, long rains and short rains, and so forth are some of the forces of nature that combined to establish the rhythm of work and expenditure of labor in these precapitalist societies. The differentiation of the time frame established by natural phenomena, then, was determined by the particular work to be done. The workday was not eight hours (between 8:00 A.M. And 5:00 P.M., for example) but the succession of agricultural or pastoral tasks and their relationship to one another. Within the limits of this time frame, people took as much time as they needed. Although hard work was valued, freedom from work was an equally important objective.”
(Mazrui and Mphande 1994, 100)
Time in the African sense is no mere abstraction that has taken form in a linear progression; rather, time remained circular and episodic, told and retold, based on great events that occurred in a living historical past. This circular pattern of time is realized in such natural phenomena as birth, aging, and death; African time continues after death, because time is circular and not linear. Ancestors could be reborn back into the community of the living, or they could simply dwell in the world of ancestral spirits. For Africans, time is both sacred and profane, dividing the human world into sacred and nonsacred time, the temporal and the eternal. This concept of time differs from the European in that with the latter, time is linear and life ends with death.” (Holloway 1994, 200)
As “unhistorical” peoples, Africans were denied a sense of historical consciousness.”
(Adjaye 1994, 3)
Africa south of the Sahara encompasses some forty-eight countries with more than 600 million people. Although these states reflect great variety in their territories, populations, cultures, resources, and historical legacies, the diversity of this region should not obscure the common problems and challenges evident during four decades of post independence development.” (Lewis 1998, 1)
For much of the first half of the twentieth century, therefore, theories and conceptions about time in Africa merely articulated popular European misconceptions and prejudices, as described above. These may be summarized as follows: first, a denial that Africans, as “natives” and of “inferior mental capacity,” were capable of conceptualizing time in the same way as people in “civilized” (Western) societies, because time conception was thought to be an “intellectualized intuition,” and second, distortions, including characterizations of Africans as unhistorical and lacking a linear concept of time, even when the ability to conceptualize time was conceded to the African. Even the very categories used to analyze life, such as culture, society and time, were themselves European.” (Adjaye 1994, 3-4)
What is really remarkable is how precious little we know about the preindustrial African (in this case, northern Nguni) work ethic, about the ways in which such an ‘inner compulsion’ or ethos shaped the African response to the wage economy, determined work choices, and affected job behavior. A key place in which we might begin to correct this (Atkins 1994, 121) deficiency is by probing more deeply into the changes we can identify in the temporal consciousness of African workers. www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=55458495″(Atkins 1994, 121-122)
Thus, one of the phenomena that needs to be explained is why the early reports of reliable, diligent workers were by the mid-1850s almost uniformly supplanted with accounts of incorrigible contract breakers who refused to work fully the year round. The concurrent development of Africans insisting on selling their labor for the briefest terms — that is, by the day (or some fraction of that time unit) — was critical in both shaping and reinforcing negative attitudes held by whites of African workers.” (Atkins 1994, 122)
Apart from a very few exceptions, South African labor history presents an angle of vision that only allows us to see how external factors — ecological disasters or social controls (devised by capital and the colonial state) — drove labor into the market or, alternatively, how the absence of such factors permitted a temporary escape from wage employment. Most students of the period attribute the self-direction and relative freedom of Natal’s African population to the availability of land, which ensured an independent subsistence, as well as to the inability of the small settler community to agree on an effective “native labor policy.” Important as these economic and political factors were, such explanations fall short of assessing the rich cultural nuances surrounding the problem, a failing that can only distort our efforts to comprehend the substance of Black proletarianization.”
(Atkins 1994, 121)
One of the largest and most powerful of these states was Kongo, which expanded from its Angolan base to the (Fu-kiau 1994, 17) area of modern Zaire and the Congo Republic. Other Bantu kingdoms that were created in the Congo river region included Bemba, Lunda, Lulua, and Kuba. ” (Fu-kiau 1994, 18)
Dating back to the second millennium B.C., waves of migratory Bantu communities slowly pressed south, a process by which the majority of Africans living in the entire region south of the equator came to speak one or another of the 400 related Bantu languages. Within a few centuries, early Iron Age settlements of Bantu speakers were established throughout the region. It was this shared past of common origins and history and millennia of interrelationship that gave rise to the affinity in cultural traditions, belief systems, and time concepts among the Kongo and other Bantu groups.”
(Fu-kiau 1994, 17)
By far, the most successful of the Bantu states of West Central Africa was Kongo, which developed a highly advanced iron technology, agrarian culture, complex trade systems, and elaborate political institutions well before the arrival of the first Europeans in the region in the late fifteenth century. The high level of material culture attained by the Kongo state by the sixteenth century has been commented upon in both oral chronicles and documentary evidence. In the view of one commentator, “in terms of natural resources [Western Europe was] poorer and in terms of its economic development at the time, in many respects more backward than advanced” (Baran 1961, p. 138).
(Fu-kiau 1994, 18)
In a more detailed critique, Kwame Gyekye (1987, pp. 170-75) also cogently argued that not only does the future exist in Akan thinking but also it is associated with change and progress. ” (Adjaye 1994, 69)
However, the glory of the Kongo state did not last long after the European arrival, which signaled the beginning of its decline and ultimate demise. With the European entry almost simultaneously into the Americas and the establishment there of slave-based plantation systems, the fate of Kongo and that of the “New World” became intertwined for the next several centuries. Kongo, along with the other states of West Central Africa, became the region in all of Africa where Europeans obtained the most slaves that were transported across the Atlantic to labor on American plantations during the 3.5 centuries of slave trading from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. Also, it was Portuguese slave raiding activities that, more than any single factor, accounted for the destabilization and eventual fall of Kongo, politically and economically.”
(Fu-kiau 1994, 18) further point of serious contention was the length of the working day. The crisis was most noticeable in commercial agriculture, where ‘Kafir time’ had a profoundly adverse effect on the development of sugar plantations.” (Atkins 1994, 127)
Inyanga, the word for “moon,” was also the name by which the Zulu called their “moon period” or lunar month. They computed time by the phases of the moon, and the annual cycle was divided into 13 “moons,” 3 each associated with ecological changes and social activities that represented time indicators for holidays and seasons.
Problems also arose owing to the absence of a concept in Zulu to denote our “year.” Bryant tells us that Europeans “quite mistakenly” assumed the term uNyaka or umNyaka signified “year.” However, to the traditional Zulu, the word had quite another meaning. Their annual cycle was divided into two seasons, both of which had approximately six “moons” — uNyaka, the rainy or fieldwork season, and ubuSika, the dry or winter season. The two were entirely separate and distinct.” (Atkins 1994, 126)
Akan” is an ethnographic and linguistic term used to refer to a cluster of culturally homogenous groups living in central and southern Ghana and parts of the adjoining eastern Cote d’Ivoire. The Akan constitute two broad subcategories: the inland Asante, Bono, Akyem, Akwapem, and Kwawu, who speak the Twi, and the coastal Fante, who speak a dialect of the same name. The Akan dialects are, for the most part, mutually intelligible. Most of these ethnic groups constituted autonomous political systems in the pre-colonial period. www.questia.com/PageManagerHTMLMediator.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=55458430″ (Adjaye 1994, 57)
Studies of Akan time perceptions and calendrical systems have been limited despite the fact that the existence of institutions and mechanisms for time-reckoning have been noted in the literature on the history and ethnography of the Akan for nearly two centuries. Beyond early sparse references by Rattray (1923) and Danquah (1968), a full-length monograph on the subject did not appear until Deborah Fink “Time and Space Measurements of the Bono of Ghana” (1974); however, the author’s primary concern was with the applicability of Bono terminologies for measuring volume, weight, and time to formal education, rather than with time-marking systems P.F. Bartle brief five-page paper, “Forty Days: The Akan Calendar” (1978), was an exploratory essay into a single calendrical framework, the 40-day (adaduanan) cycle. Its treatment is consequently restrictive and limited to the 40-day calendrical structure. Similarly, Tom McCaskie “Time and the Calendar in Nineteenth-Century Asante: An Exploratory Essay” (1980) and Ivor Wilks ‘ “On Mentally Mapping Greater Asante: A Study of Time and Motion” (1992) are concerned primarily with a specific aspect of time: the scheduling of diplomatic and other governmental business in Asante.
(Adjaye 1994, 57)
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