Letter from Africa: The country where everyone is expected to be late

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A Ghanaian artist making a clockImage source, AFP

In our series of letters from African writers, Ghanaian journalist and former government minister Elizabeth Ohene explains why clock-watching in Ghana is a waste of time.

When Japan's Olympics Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada was forced to make a public apology after arriving three minutes late to a parliamentary meeting, I wondered how many ministers of state here in Ghana thanked God they were not Japanese.

It is accepted practice in Ghana that public officials are late to functions. Indeed, they are expected to be late.

I know how entrenched this is in our attitudes because when I was a minister of state I would regularly arrive at functions at the scheduled time and find that nobody was expecting me to have arrived on time.

A number of us in that government thought if we could get the president to arrive on time for functions, it would change the culture.

So, the minders of then-President John Kufuor set about on an ambitious scheme to get him to be on time for public functions.

I remember the first time he got there at the scheduled 09:30, there was near pandemonium; there were diplomats running to get to their seats, there were dignitaries rushing madly and there were traditional chiefs abandoning their usual majestic pace of walking and trying to get to their seats as a bemused President Kufuor looked on.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Ghanaians joke about their timekeeping, saying GMT stands for "Ghana Maybe Time"

We were determined to persist with getting the president to functions on time in the hope that if people realised the president would be at the function at the advertised time, everybody else would endeavour to get there on time.

It was not a pleasant experience.

Time experiment 'abandoned'

I had always felt deep embarrassment that diplomats sent to our country seemed to spend so much time waiting for functions to start but I then discovered they were often late themselves.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Both President Nana Akufo-Addo (L) and ex-President Kufuor (R) have tried to improve timekeeping

Or maybe after some time in Ghana, the diplomats go native and accept that nothing is expected to start on time.

I am ashamed to admit we abandoned the experiment after three tries.

The main arguments against continuing came from the protocol and security people.

They insisted the president should not be taken to places that were not ready.

At his inauguration, our current President, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, bemoaned the culture of official functions starting late.

He promised he would set a personal example and be on time. He has since then been making a special effort and arrives on time for functions.

This, however, does not appear to have led to much change in attitude towards time-keeping.

'Crazy traffic'

Meetings scheduled to start at 10:00 routinely start anything between 45 minutes to an hour late.

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The crazy traffic situation in our towns and cities probably accounts for some of the lateness, as it is impossible to predict journey times and also provides justifiable excuses for arriving late.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Most meetings start at least 45 minutes late in Ghana

A journey from my house to an office where I regularly go for meetings can take 20 minutes, or 40 minutes or, an hour, or, as it did on one occasion, one hour and 50 minutes.

But the traffic surely cannot be the explanation for people arriving for lunch at 16:00 when they have been invited for 12.30.

And why would your host think it is OK to invite you for lunch and start serving food at 15:00 or invite you for dinner at 19:00 and offer you food at 21:00?

'Get me out of church on time'

This culture of total disregard for scheduled time extends to, and affects, all other parts of our lives.

My dressmaker promises to make a dress for me in three weeks and I am lucky to get it in three months.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
It is difficult to predict when a church service will end in Ghana

But the problem is not only about starting things on time, there is a correspondent problem of not ending things on time either.

The church I go to advertises and indeed starts at 09:00, but there is no advertised closing time - and so the service closes at 11:30, or noon, or 13:00 or, as it once happened on a feast day, 15:00.

It is better not to look at your watch on such occasions.

We are simply not bound by time here.

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