English playwright, William Shakespeare, once said, “better three hours too soon than a minute late.” Well, in Ghana, ironically, our attitude to time-keeping—evidence of which is compelling—is often the reverse of that. Lateness is a pronounced phenomenon in Ghanaian society; it is so widespread, it has virtually permeated the national psyche. Jokes abound about lateness – GMT stands for Ghana Man Time – and there is a rather embarrassing assumption that nothing will ever start on time. Yet, sometimes I wonder whether events don’t start on time because people are late, or because the attendees know that they won’t start on time. Indeed, the university community, an integral part of Ghanaian society, is equally susceptible to the menace.
I wish I could single out students alone for blame, but that would be far-fetched, as other administrative members of staff are sometimes caught in a worse situation. It’s an irony that members of staff turn up for work very late, but are the first to vacate their desks during lunch breaks, often returning minutes later than the officially sanctioned time. And as if rules and regulations in such environments are in abeyance, these erring members of staff are seldom punished. Some students, naturally tardy, have always arrived very late for lectures. Others, often for no fault of theirs, have occasionally been guilty of the offence of lateness. Take for instance, a student that leaves home on time for lectures, but eventually arrives late due to the absence of a readily available means of transport at the nearest bus terminal. Of course, there can be no gainsaying that the vagaries of the weather tend to have an overbearing influence on the commuting public, most especially during the rainy season in Ghana.
This Ghanaian “culture “ of lateness—it’s not inappropriate to call it African— is a strand that runs through almost all the universities, giving rise to what has come to be known as “African time,” the perceived cultural tendency, in most parts of Africa, toward a more relaxed attitude to time. It’s sometimes used in an understandably pejorative sense, about tardiness in appointments, meetings, events and which also includes the more leisurely, relaxed, and less rigorously-scheduled lifestyles found in African countries, especially as opposed to the more clock-bound pace of daily life in Western societies. It is not uncommon to witness University lectures take place at 8.45 a.m., rather than the scheduled or advertised 8 a.m., because the professor would repeatedly show up late.
The vexed issue of lateness has assumed such height, one Ghanaian writer observed, “One of the main reasons for the continuing underdevelopment of our country is our nonchalant attitude to time and the need for punctuality in all aspects of life. The problem of punctuality has become so endemic that lateness to any function is accepted and explained away as 'African time' ” Well, if one is angered by the delay and is extremely lucky, ” accept our apology for the delay…it was due to circumstances beyond our control…,” should be placatory enough to one, I guess? It has become such a jaded and trite logic, provoking nothing but wry smiles and stoic resignation! And if one’s bold enough to express one’s indignation, one is instantly labeled as having a complex!
The impact of lateness is noticeable in every sphere of human Endeavour. It causes distraction in lecture theatres, Churches and mosques alike, and stifles productivity at the national level, as countless man hours are lost due to tardiness. Lateness, though somewhat unavoidable in a few instances, is largely surmountable. Beyond stringent punitive measures that seek to encourage punctuality in our universities, and wherever necessary, observing a personal commitment to discipline could prove worthy to overcoming the challenge of lateness. Interestingly, there’s evidence that Africans have effortlessly adapted to the more clock-bound pace of daily life in western societies, a situation that I have yet to witness in as great a scale in this half of the world.
The effort to stamp out lateness must not only be sustained, it must be national in character, prescribing detrimental measures against instances of avoidable lateness. It is only when we have been able to subdue the canker of lateness that our universities can produce disciplined, mature graduates who are poised to ensure the transformation of our society; that our religious pursuits, however the form they assume, would be uninhibited; and that our collective resolve towards enhanced national productivity, could be said to be underway. Let us, regardless of the differences of our roles, collectively resolve to embrace punctuality, going into the New Year, 2013. As renowned Italian historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist and writer, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, aptly put it,” Tardiness often robs us opportunity, and the dispatch of our forces.”
The writer is the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) President of the Ghana Institute of Journalism, Accra.