Perspectives

In Africa, Time Is Not Money

By Michelle Rabie

I

f you have ever worked with a vendor from an African country, you are probably familiar with the concept of “African time.” African time is not a time zone in Africa, but rather a perceived alternate dimension in which time seemingly doesn’t matter. When you’re on African time, after the deadline has passed, the linguist will promise you that the job will be sent “now,” “now-now,” or “just now.” It is your own fault for assuming that any of those terms mean that you will receive the work any time soon.

Non-Africans often wonder about the reasons behind African time. When you search for the term in Google, you get thousands of results — more than for “African culture” or “African politics.” From the multitude of results, the politest explanation states that we Africans have a more “emotional time consciousness,” as opposed to the Western “mechanical time consciousness.” A more critical take is that we simply use it as an excuse for being late.

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But in reality, we have many legitimate reasons for delivering projects late. We work with developing languages where a lemma ratio of 9:1 is considered good. Using English and Zulu as examples, this means that English has roughly nine times more words than Zulu. With a severe lack of terminology, dictionaries, and standardized orthographies — not to mention a surplus of physical challenges like rolling blackouts, internet outages, damage-prone buildings, and the constant threat of criminal activity — it is actually surprising that we deliver at all!

Many clients and project managers from multi-language vendors in developed countries don’t fully grasp the realities of working with non-standardized, low-resource languages, treating them exactly the same as mature languages. But this is misguided.

Let me illustrate with an example: Imagine a client asks both a French artist and a Zulu artist to paint the Mona Lisa. The French guy has a studio with thousands of pre-mixed colors, brushes, palette knives, and canvasses to choose from. The Zulu artist, on the other hand, has one wonky brush and a palette of the three primary colors. Yet, both artists are paid the same, given the same turnaround time, and measured against the same quality metrics.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Africa has strong, tenacious people. The Zulu guy will get there. He just needs a bit of extra time.

I have lived in Africa my whole life. It is a beautiful continent, but it has been scarred by unspeakable violence and pain. Life in Africa for most people is not a picnic — it is a daily fight for survival. And when you battle poverty, hunger, disease, and oppression, time is not a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder.

So, what am I saying? That because we struggle, we need special treatment? That the rules do not apply to us? That we should be excused from meeting deadlines?

No. We are not asking the rest of the world to fix our problems. We are not asking for sympathy, charity, or donations. But please help us with terminology development by building this process into the project workflow and timelines. Help us by spending more time on creating plain language instructions; it is not that we are stupid, but English is not always our first or even second language. Help us by localizing and writing the source text in plain language before translation so that we don’t spend days trying to decode terminology. Help us by not forcing us to use tools that are unaffordable, difficult to master, and dependent on a stable internet connection.

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As a linguist, project manager, and vendor from Africa, I am asking you to do this not because you are rich and we are poor. I am not asking because you owe it to Africa. I am asking because, as language professionals, we owe it to the industry, our linguists, and our clients.

Africans have a saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” In Africa, time is not money — it is a teacher. It’s a heartbeat, a living thing that must be treasured, not sold.

If you decide not to act on what could very well be the naïve ramblings of an overworked optimist, try and remember only this one thing: the moment you focus on the person instead of the deadline, you have conquered African time.

MICHELLE RABIE is a self-confessed text-addicted logophile with a raging love for (most) people, poetry,
and her cats. This year is her 25th in the language industry.

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