Scott Hanselman

South Africa 2008 - African Math and Just Now

December 25, 2008 Comment on this post [42] Posted in Africa
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I've decided the one thing I just will never get used to is the (relative) inaccuracy used in numbers around here. This is likely because I'm an American, but more likely that I'm a programmer. Could be a little of both.

There's the lateness thing, first. The level of relaxation, nay, apathy, around being somewhere on time is driving me batsh*t crazy. Seriously. If someone says to be out the door at 10am, and 2:30pm finds you getting into your car, you've got a problem. How hard is it to stand up, pick up your keys, get in your car and drive away.

I can get up from a dead sleep, shower and be in the car in 15 minutes. I'm lucky if this house is out the door by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. I was up at 8am this morning. These people didn't get in the car until 3:15pm to do the day's errands. Really.

At first I thought it was just basic lateness as many folks around here talk about African Time. Actually, most non-Western, even non-American groups, I have found to be really chill about time. But around here, it's out of control.

And not just time. All numbers. Here's some actual examples just from today.

How far is it?

Maybe 15 minutes. Like 7k.

Actual Time/Distance: 65 minutes and 50k.

How long will it take?

Really, 2 hours tops.

Actual Time: 4.5 hours.

When will he be waiting?

11 sharp.

Actual Time: 1:30pm

How many people are coming?

Like, maybe 20.

Actual Count: 55 and uncounted children.

How much petrol (gas) do we have?

We're totally cool. Piles. Really.

Actual Gas: Turns out "E" doesn't mean enough.

When do they close?

They're always open. Maybe they close at 8 or 9. It varies, they are flexible.

Actual Closing Time: 6pm sharp. Doors close, and metal walls slam shut hiding the building.

It's so bad it's comical. I can't write this stuff. It'll be a sweet wondrous miracle if we don't miss our plane home. The scary part is that I had to lie and say it's an hour earlier than it is, and that still might not be enough. I may need to say it's another day.

(Yes, I realize I'm in another country, Yes, I realize I'm time obsessed, Yes, I know I need to be tolerate, yada yada yada. Still, I reserve the right to ridicule the culture I've married into and I reserve the right to tell my wife things like "and this is why your continent is screwed up." It's all in good fun, so poop on you. ;P )

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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December 25, 2008 4:13
I hope that your extended family is really OK about these observations and criticisms, most people I know don't like to be criticized about their culture so openly! They might make this kind of remarks themselves, but don't like when it comes from a foreigner. It's easy for the hosts to mix this kind of criticism with ingratitude.
December 25, 2008 4:29
umm... yeah, we tell friends and family the flight (or dinner) is an hour earlier in the states. sounds like you should go with the day earlier technique there.
December 25, 2008 5:10
Sounds like they have a bright future in project management.
December 25, 2008 7:24
My theory is that the further North you go, the closer to realtime you get. When I lived in Baton Rouge, 10:00 meetings started at 10:30. Extrapolating that to SA ends up pretty close to what you are experiencing.
December 25, 2008 9:01
There is African time and then there is South African matter..we keep time... :) Unfortunately after all these years in the States I still can't shake my South African Time. Funny thing happened I called my wife honey come you read this blog quickly it will only take 2 secs :)
December 25, 2008 9:27
Things do not get closer to real-time as you move north, since they are much the same in the northest corner of Africa.

First, there is the theory that vacations are to be enjoyed. A watch can only put constraints on what you have to be doing at any given time. So if you are truely on vacation, the only solution is to "chill out". Time is not a dimension any more.

The problem is when this happens when you are not really on vacation, but there is an iterative solution to that too:

Day 1: you are supposed to get out the door at 10:00, but others keep you waiting until 13:00. It is OK to get pissed the first day, but it is your fault if you let yourself be irritated by same again. Day 2: you are supposed to get out the door at 10:00 but it does not look like Wife is ready. YOU get out the door on time ALONE: take a book, head to your favorite cafe, turn you mobile phone off. Let her be irritated that you were not at the door at 14:00 when she is ready. Come back when you feel like it (the latest, the better), but be prepared.... Day 3: she is worried as you are that if you do not leave on agreed time, you will not leave on her "I am ready" time either. Things become converging towards real-time.

Remember agreeing to get out the door at a certain is only a promise. And, as somebody said, promises "engage" only those who believe in them.

When I returned home to Morocco from the US, it used to piss me off that you cannot get on your way to a 09:00 doctor apointment until 10:00. You get pissed until you find out that when you get to the doctor's at 10:10, you find that the doctor himself did not get in until 10:00 when the first apointment his secretay gave is 08:0. Lesson: no more doctor apointments before 11:00, and feel free to get in anytime around 12:00.

December 25, 2008 11:58
LOL I understand where you are coming from. I live is South Africa and i have probably used/experienced alot of the things you mentioned!

One big positive here in South Africa is that a couple does not mean 2 i means anything from 2 up until about 7 or 8. So it is great going out for a couple of beers in SA :-)

Hope that your trip has been great!
December 25, 2008 12:41
You should try the caribbean then. I remember feeling completely the opposite while being in NY on a project. Everybody is in a hurry, and I could swear I saw someone walking at the speed of light. You guys have to chill a little and go with the flow ;). I blame the cold weather. The hotter it gets, more easy going people is.
December 25, 2008 13:35
Did you come across the terms "just now" and "now now" yet? They're used interchangeably and "I'm coming just now" or "I'm coming now now" mean anything from "I'll be there in a second" to "Get off my back, I'll come when I'm damn well ready".
December 25, 2008 17:33
Wow, you constantly blow my mind at the similarities between RSA and Uganda!! I thought African time was a colloquial figure of speech from my country!! In Uganda civil servants get in at 9am, have lunch from 12 to 3ish then leave for home at 5pm if not 15mins to. they are really religious about leaving for home yet somewhat reluctant about coming in to work.

funnier still, they spend lunch hours trying to find people in other offices and can't for the life of them figure out why the people they have gone to see are not in!!!

Your flight will be on time Scott. that is one thing that annoys us. the complete lack of understanding and inflexibility of flight check in and departure times :-)
December 25, 2008 20:59
Scott this is not the way to share cultural differences via criticism and mockery. You could have said the same things with more respect and understanding. Says a lot about you buddy. Changes things.
December 25, 2008 22:22
Scott, you are too funny. I need some code man. Have a safe trip home.
December 25, 2008 22:42
@Stacy, i am sitting in Uganda, I was born here, i am of the tribe from which the country gets its name and yes, I AM A PROUD BLACK AFRICAN. Scott is not making fun of me or my colour or even the continent in which i am. he is making light of a PARTICULARLY ANNOYING culture that is PREVALENT IN AFRICA.
Some of us have grown frustrated at the "African time" reference but have learnt to deal with it.

Scott, an hour of prep doesn't factor into our beloved opposite gender and the number of people who will have to use the bathroom. remember everyone is coming to see you off at the airport and the all need to get up, get ready and have breakfast.
December 26, 2008 0:27
Yip! I am african and it drives me crazy. We attended a wedding on Saturday that was supposed to start at 10am. I called at 9am to find out if everything was going according to plan (I know how these things go). I was told that these was a slight delay ... the starting time was now going to be 11am. Ok! My wife and I arrive at the wedding at 10:45. There are 8 people there ... I feel sorry for them waiting so I buy them cool drinks from a nearby restuarant. We wait ... and wait. We walk around... and wait some more. The groom arrives at 2pm. The bride a little after that at about 2.20pm.
December 26, 2008 3:10
Hey Now Scott,
That is funny.

Hanselmintues fan,

December 26, 2008 5:59
@Stacy: The post is critical, but it isn't particularly offensive as far as I can tell. I'm in a mixed marriage myself and both of us talk about each other's countries in an open fashion. It really does help engender understanding.

By the way Scott, I just listened to the podcast with Victor. It is great that you are engaging with your (temporary) host country than hiding out in the downtown Marriott. I'll bear in mind what you are doing when I head back to Korea next year!

December 26, 2008 9:44

Great post. I was about to write a long response about punctuality but decided it is best to discuss in a F2F conversation. I will say that I have seen/heard Germans to be very punctual. If you get invited to dinner at 6:30, show up at 6:30, not 6:35 or 6:40, otherwise, risk being ostracized. In the Philippines, if you get invited to dinner at 6:30, show up for a midnight snack and you are still OK. Americans are in the middle, but closer to Germans. Indians are also in the middle, but closer to Filipinos. I'd love to see a graph showing how different nationalities do with punctuality.

I could go on and on about personal experiences, but I'll save it for a later time. Have a great flight back home and Happy Holidays to you and the family :-).
December 26, 2008 11:47
I always thought that I, as another white geek, together with a beautiful black woman as my partner, I might have something in common with you - but the truth is, I have no idea how different the cultural divide can be...

that said, I love to read about you and Mo, your children, and your adventurers. A truly happy new year to you!
December 26, 2008 11:53
shesh.. and maybe, just maybe, us white dudes can figure out how to spell 'adventures' :)
December 26, 2008 12:02
@Stacy, I appreciate your opinion. However, I think you're not seeing the way this is intended. I went to a Braii (BBQ) last night and every takes turns gently teasing everywhere. The black folks tease me about my hair, skin (sunburn) and country, and I tease them about being late, their g'ovt and their TV shows. And they are all in good fun and all true. I've been in this culture for almost 10 years and joshing is a part of it. I am sorry if that doesn't come across in this post.

@Andrew - Thanks! If it only wasn't so hard to upload them.

@street - Ya, African != African-American ;)
December 26, 2008 17:41
Ha ha ha, African time, if you are unprepared for it, it can really make the whole day sour. Imagine standing in a queue late for a movie and you still want some pop corn but the lady behind the counter is on the African clock and not on your movie clock, it could ruin the movie for you.

I would also suggest a backup plan with the being on time for your flight thing. My one friend had to stay 3 days longer in Cape Town once because his lift misjudged how long it really takes to get from his place to the airport.

On a side note it is spelled "Braai" and not "Braii".
December 26, 2008 17:50
Just saw the fine print beneath your post, about the right to ridicule. My tribe (The Afrikaners) are many times in the hot water because we aren't very politically correct, but calling a spade a spade is many times the only way to mend problems and advance as a nation. No doubt you have been hearing about the COPE and ANC politics playing out now, which in my mind is a great thing.

But enough seriousness, glad your family introduced you to a "lekker braai", hopefully some some nice sosaties (kebabs).

December 26, 2008 19:37
First, let's clarify completely while we're at it. There is African Time, South African Time, and Cape Town Time. Here's the breakdown:

South Africa Time: 6:00 p.m. means "aim for before 8:30 p.m."
African Time: 6:00 p.m. means "aim to make it that day"
Cape Town Time: 6:00 p.m. means ... actually, you're lucky if you see them... ever... seriously... ever!

Also, my wife is German, now living in Cape Town, so you can imagine the chaos! I've seen people not get paid for work because, despite repeated phone calls, they can't be bothered to deliver or even send the paperwork.

In fairness, I'm definitely guilty myself of not being 100% punctual... we can all be thankful Scott got back to the Cape Town airport in time for his return flight ;-P
December 26, 2008 21:15
I'll have to forward this to my wife (midwesterner of Norwegian descent) because her family is punctual to a fault and she absolutely hates how my family (Ugandans) implemented CP time. My family, while being tardy a lot, hacked our way around this problem by always saying things were earlier than they needed to be.

For example, if you need to be at the airport by 3pm you would lie to everyone and say you absolutely need to be there by 1pm. The few hours of cushion time help to mitigate any *cough* lackadaisical attitudes and helps you relax without getting frustrated with anyone.

The problem for my wife is that she's too literal and punctual so when someone lies about needing to be somewhere at 1 and she's ready at noon she has a long gap of time watching people drift their way towards the exit.

I think the upside of a nonlinear approach to time is that it enables discovery - you get a chance to visit with people longer or learn more about a place. Sometimes I find myself annoyed when people who are obsessed with a task or event forget the overall point or miss a luscious detail in the process.
December 26, 2008 21:28

If 400 years of Afrikaner criticism has not helped the (dark) Africans around them become better people then it is not working any better than slavery or segregation (apartheid). If Scott Hanselman thinks criticism is the way to help us backward Africans I think it is just better to read his blogs and listen to his podcasts than to invite him to Nairobi, Kenya. We are humble enough to learn from those who don't think much of us.

Thought rewarding good behavior to encourage better behavior works better than criticism but again what do we Africans know.

December 26, 2008 21:53

Maybe you can get Abolade Gbadegesin to come down to talk to us in Nairobi, Kenya about building software development teams. He grew up in Africa and seems to be quite unassuming. Am sure he visits Nigeria where he was born and probably bred so maybe he should touch base with East Africa. South Africa is a Western favorite for cultural and racial reasons which do not creatively inspire us soon to be 1 Billion Dark Africans.

December 27, 2008 0:39
very similar to IST - Indian Stretchable Time.
December 27, 2008 1:50
We bass-ackward programming types tend to be literal and punctual, but I suspect, Scott, that you have a double dose of it as a diabetic. I have learned in my associations with diabetics that unexpected delays and schedule variances can be rather troublesome.

I have enjoyed your posts about your trip. Safe travels as you return to the US where we may not always run on time, but we at least feel like we're supposed to. ;-)
December 27, 2008 2:07
@jake, I'm a Black American sitting in Los Angeles. I've never walked a day in your shoes, but I'm glad the translation there is not offensive like you say. I was thinking in American culture :)

@Andrew, I have life-long friends who are interracial couples (Black/White Americans). My experience has been that joking around like this intra-racially is a lot of fun and not hardly offensive. However, there can be a bit of an edge doing it inter-racially, YMMV.

@Scott, yeah the tone and headline struck me kinda odd in a blog post meant for a world audience. The best way to speak to a world audience is to stay away from stereotypical langange. Just because you hear it, doesn't meant you repeat it "in the same way" that you heard it. That's what parrots do. and you're no parrot! *lol* Obama has laid down an incredible interface for speaking to world audiences. Learn it, use it! ScottsPosts : ObamasUniversalVernacular.

I may come across a little sensitive but I know that one person's feather, can be another person's brick.
December 27, 2008 6:54
I remember while I was travelling Japan, I was 20 seconds late for the train and all there was left was a cloud of dust, the train long gone, of course.

In China, a question like: "When does the bus go?" might be answered to with: "20 minutes." This means: "Please, go ask somebody else. I'm only waiting here for the bus to arrive." Well, sometimes of course, it really means 20 minutes and you have to learn how to tell the difference.

In Costa Rica there is something called "Tico Time" which is somewhat similar to what you describe here. It is not necessarily related to wheather conditions or hot temperatures, I'm thankful for every day the public telephone system works, it's rather that people are more relaxed in their everyday life. Concerning the wheather it's almost impredictable on the Carribean coast. 20 minutes of rain, 10 minutes of sunshine, the other way round or both at the same time. And the next day will be the same with almost no noticeable seasons, so why bother so much about time. The Pacific coast can sometimes be hot. So take a break, a siesta, anytime.

"Mañana, es otro dia. - Tomorrow, that's another day."
December 27, 2008 18:14
socially backward asshole programmer.

I believe this is a quadruple redundancy. But I'm only speaking for myself here.
December 28, 2008 0:31
Thanks, I thought this was an interesting perspective on things; particularly for any travel I am likely to do.

I noted from the comments it could have upset the odd person. However I think the key to not being offended is the self-deprecating humor at the start. I try to use this sometimes when what I say maybe perceived as a critisim; something like "I am just the geek here but..."
December 28, 2008 0:53
It's all whitey's fault really
December 28, 2008 17:39
@ Stacy

It may not be wrong to say that forcing African Americans to work for centuries without paying them messed up their work ethic. They got punished for not performing and were never rewarded for performing. These maybe true statements but in themselves will not encourage them to work hard or smart now. Seeing a man of color getting elected as the US President is a different matter all together.

Scott is just being factual (normal). Unfortunately being factual (or scientific) does not make one inspirational. Would have been more thoughtful for him to suggest ways to encourage time keeping in Africa. That would make him a more valuable asset to us. He was writing to inform and entertain his culture not to cure some of what ails Africa. These comments are just to make quite a decent fellow more sensitive.

We Africans know what is wrong with us better than anyone else. We also know what is right with us too. We are more patient with (and respectful) of non Africans than they are of us.

In Nairobi, Kenya, there are at least 1 million of us who are very time conscious for whatever reasons. It could be business competition plus having multinational organizations like the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and UN-HABITAT headquarted here. We keep away from expatriates who cannot go a week with commenting about how incompetent we are in this or that. These are the kinds who CNN and NYT reporters wine and dine with continually for 'information'. Beware!
December 29, 2008 19:07
When I worked in Pakistan a number of years ago, I would go out to different shops to buy something or get something fixed. There would always be a delay, and it took me sometime to figure out the time to reality formula. It broke down something like this:

"Come back in a few minutes" (Stated Time) = "Come back in an hour or so"(Actual Time)
"Come back in an hour" (Stated Time) = "Come back tomorrow" (Actual Time)
"Come back tomorrow" (Stated Time) = "Come back next week" (Actual Time)
"Come back in a week" (Stated Time) = "Come back in a month" (Actual Time)
"Come back in a month" (Stated Time) = "Don't come back" (Actual Time)

If you came back any sooner then the actual time, they would tell you the same thing again. After number times at being disappointed, I finally figured out the formula.
December 30, 2008 1:17
Actually Scott, as a white South African living (and aclamated) in the states for about as long as you have been married, I need to point out to you that what you experienced is by no means an 'African-South-African' experience, rather it is a 'South-African-South-African' experience. Reading about you describing your South-African family brought a smile to my face, I could have sworn you where describing my South African family...
December 30, 2008 1:24
...aclamated? acclimated!
December 30, 2008 2:52
back here in the US, i call that IN-LAW time., honestly given that neither of them have to work a real job, we plan a family lunch, and end up starting at 9PM.. or they say the'll pick you up at a bus station at a certian time and are often up to 8 hours late.

December 30, 2008 12:42
I'm confused as to why everyone here, including Scott (love you dude!), is afraid to state the obvious; African culture is primitive. Maybe I should write 'relatively primitive' to be kind. Political correctness has killed our will to state the obvious.
December 30, 2008 12:44
I meant African CULTURES ARE primitive. Obviously there isn't one monolithic culture.

I can just imagine all the inclusive fools getting abusive.
December 31, 2008 4:21
@Chris "Political correctness has killed our will to state the obvious"

I don't need to resort to political correctness to come up with reasons to disagree with your claim that "African cultures are primitive". Perhaps you meant that some African cultures are primitive in the way that, say, many languages treat a 32-bit signed integer as a primitive? Somehow I doubt that.

Calling a culture "primitive" (without reference to any particular metric) suggests there is a natural ordering over the set of cultures, such that any given culture can be compared against another to yield a relative rank. One doesn't need to know much about cultures or mathematics to know how untenable that notion is. If you think that political correctness is the chief reason that people don't make preposterous claims like yours, then you are certainly ignorant and probably a bigot.

Next time, think to yourself: if you don't want to put even your last name on a comment, then you probably don't need to be making it.
January 06, 2009 20:42
The "how long will it take?" one sounded a lot like Hanseltime to me... :)

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.