How people perceived time in the past

by Laura Wanjiru  - September 12, 2022

How people perceived time in the past


Time in the African context is based on events and is not mathematical. Instead of numerical calendars, there were the phenomenon calendars that existed. That is, an event or phenomenon at a certain time is what will be related to one another. For example, an expectant mother would count the lunar months of her pregnancy. Therefore, the days, months or years are all characterised by events as this is what makes time meaningful.


Days were characterised by the rising of the sun as this was reckoned by the entire community. It did not matter whether sunrise is at 5am or 7am. If someone was to meet another after sunrise, then it would be the general timing of 5 to 7. A good example is the Ankore of Uganda: 6am-milking time (akashesbe); 12noon: time for people and cattle to take rest (bari omubirago) and so on.


Lunar rather than mathematical months were reckoned because of the event of the moon changes. Various months were symbolised by the different happenings. For example by the weather or events such as cultivation, hunting, depending on the main community occupation and were termed after these occasions. Months could hence be 30 to 35 days depending on how long the event runs for. An example of Latuka people coined October ‘the sun’ because it was a very hot period. December as ‘Give your uncle water’ because the water was scarce and people were often thirsty.


Years in turn were made up for the events but of a wider scale than that of days and months. They could be 350 to 390 depending on how long the events have taken place and before the cycle begins all again to the following year. If the year had a lot of agricultural activity it would be the agricultural year, that is if the community is agricultural in nature. For the regions near the equator, the year is made up of the two rainy seasons and two dry seasons before the cycle begins again to the next. Therefore, the actual number of days is irrelevant.

From the aforementioned, the mathematical calendar did therefore not make sense as different years differed in number of days. Besides the reckoning of time and its chronology, African perception of it is both passive and indifferent. People expect the days and months and years to just come and go. Each event is expected to go on forever and falls back into the past, and it is that follows the realm of eternity- it all lies in the past.

Contrary to the African perception of the reckoning and chronology of time, the West and technological society recognise it as a commodity which might be utilized, bought or sold. “TIME IS MONEY”. The Africans on the other side understand it as something one makes and cannot be a slave of it.

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