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Cultural Perceptions of Time in Africa
Time is a foundational factor in every culture. The perception of time is different for most cultures and the determining factor to those differences is often based on the means of production. "Most cultures have some concept of time, although the way they deal with time may differ fundamentally." (Kokole 1994, 35) Tracing the perception of the concept of time in Africa can be seen as tracing the European racial prejudices of the intellect of the indigenous populations in the colonized regions of Africa. Much of the information regarding the development of time concepts in African culture is colonial and based on the European interlopers recorded ideas.
Some of those recorded ideas are those of missionaries and others are those of capitalist adventurers, with the intermittent mark of a very few true historians.
In Mali, as in many other parts of Africa, there are mixed systems of timereckoning: Islamic time overlays Bamana time, and French imported time overlays Islamic time. Whatever temporal structure people apply, they understand that the other systems impinge on their own. (Kone' 1994, 84)
One of the very first true historians recognized the correlation between an African oral tradition and European Calendar time to Sub-Saharan African culture. A great debt is owed to Emil Torday. The reenactment of the events of the day of discovery for Torday by Davidson in 1959, a pioneer in the tradition of western narrative history, serve as an excellent example of a proof of both historical record-keeping in Africa and the idea of organic time.
For the benefit of this European, one of the first they had ever set eyes on, the elders of the Bushongo recalled the legend and tradition of their past. That was not in the least difficult for them, since remembering the past was one of their duties. They unrolled their story in measured phrases. They went on and on. They were not to be hurried. They traversed the list of their kings, a list of one hundred and twenty names, right back to the god-king whose marvels had founded their nation.
(Davidson 1959, 3)
The establishment of cala nder time to a history of Africa came about while the Bushongo elders transverse the oral tradition of the kingdom of their people they came to a kingdom that was to them nearly uneventful yet to the European sense of history as linear the major even to f this kingdom was paramount to the recognition of developed culture in Africa prior to the colonial insurgence:
It was splendid, but was it history? Could any of these kings be given a date, be linked -- at least in time -- to the history of the rest of the world? Torday was an enthusiast and went on making notes, but he longed for a date. And quite suddenly they gave it to him.
As the elders were talking of the great events of various reigns,' he remembered afterwards, "and we came to the ninetyeighth chief, Bo Kama Bomanchala, they said that nothing remarkable had happened during his reign, except that one day at noon the sun went out, and there was absolute darkness for a short time. "When I heard this I lost all self-control. I jumped up and wanted to do something desperate. The elders thought that I had been stung by a scorpion. "It was only months later that the date of the eclipse became known to me... The thirtieth of March, 1680, when there was a total eclipse of the sun, passing exactly over Bushongo... "There was no possibility of confusion with another eclipse, because this was the only one visible in the region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries."
(Davidson 1959, 3-4)
Yet, despite the early work of a true historian with the infinite patience and attention to detail of Torday in the early 20th century, the European school of thought was based on the almost universal assumption of indigenous Africans as intellectually inferior to Europeans and from this erroneous assumption came the idea that African cultures were unhistorical. It was well into the 20th century before these perceptions were challenged by modern academics.
The situation remained largely unchanged until the seminal works of Edward Evans-Pritchard. In his groundbreaking study "Nuer Time Reckoning" (1939), Evans-Pritchard established that the Nuer of southern Sudan recognized a number of temporal structures or "planes of rhythm," including physical, ecological, and social, all of which were integrated into their social formation. Above all, he demonstrated that time in Africa and other precapitalist societies -- and, for that matter, everywhere -- is a product of culture and the environment rather than intellectual capacity.
(Adjaye 1994, 4)
It is widely understood that European intellectuals did not begin to understand Africa and her diversity of culture as anything more than outside observers until well into the 20th century, some would say not until into the second half of the 20th century. African history to this point had been based almost wholly on the early colonial writings and the historical perspective of the African people themselves did not become widely observed until recent times.
The vastness of the continent makes clear one of the major difficulties that went almost unrecognized by early historians and that is the issue of the sheer number of cultures of differing ethnic, cultural, intellectual and perceptual histories. Nearly the entire continent's population was grouped together as a nameless homogeneous "native" African people. This is especially true of sub-Saharan African's with some exceptions made of those coastal Africans who had experienced more exposure to European travelers and traders. For these reasons as well as those mentioned above it is difficult to separate the true historical concepts of one or all of African culture from those of the perspective of European outsiders who have had an immeasurable impact on the culture or cultures being studied.
The task of the modern historian is the gleaning of the original sources for the grains of cultural perception that is the least likely to be influenced by the interjection of the European tradition. A note worth making about the issue of organic time and to dispel any simplistic ideas associated with the use of agrarian rather than quantitative time models was made by Kone' in 1994:
Although the Komo farming ritual and the Tswana king seedtime ritual are important in marking off the beginning of important times, they should not be taken as ritual time by which people are summoned to action. People observe the so-called ritual times because these times are doxic and because people see in them the potential for benefit. Even if the Komo, Dogon, and Tswana rituals described above were to disappear, their people would still know when to farm, because it is not the rituals that tell them when to farm, as the West believes. (Kone' 1994, 84)
It is far to simple to assume, as some westerners do that because a temporal system is based on ritual or tradition dictated by a natural cycle that it also dictates action.
Extensive work was done during the late 19th and early 20th centuries by American historians based on the perception of time and how it relates to labor and work ethic of dispossessed members of the African continent who became unwitting members of the American slave population. Most studies of this nature were undertaken to explain the ruling class' dissatisfaction with the production level associated with the African-American population before and after emancipation. Studies that were engaged in before emancipation were often at the will of those who were looking for further evidence to prove not only the right of the white man to subjugate the black man but the necessity based on their inferiority. In the African continent the impetus for such study was based on dissatisfaction of the level of production namely the work slow down, stoppages or labor contract issues, in this case the length of them.
The issue of labor has largely been the focus of many studies on the perception of time. Regardless of culture, ethnicity or point of origin the ideas surrounding the change from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy undoubtedly change the perceptions of a people. The changes of a societies form of production are clearly a source for change to its culture. It can also be said that any new proletariat often falls victim to the expectations of the labor regulators. It must be noted that whether through coercion, force, or simple economic necessity a populous becomes the proletariat of a stronger society changes will be profound. This is true of new immigrants to any culture and also of newly colonized peoples who almost instantly must live by the rules of another culture so unlike its own that the very fiber of reality must seem altered.
In this paper I will analyze the changes in time perception of three subsets of African regional culture. This examination will isolate three factors that are a large part of…[continue]
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