Postcard from Kampala, Uganda

09.05.2018 - Article

Miriam Ohlsen, DW Akademie’s Country Representative in Uganda describes how the African concept of time affects her daily work.

Miriam Ohlsen
Miriam Ohlsen© DW/ M. Ohlsen

“Welcome back home” a Ugandan colleague wrote recently on my Facebook timeline. And this is exactly how it feels: like coming back home. But in a different way. After countless business trips, Uganda has become very familiar. And yet, I never had an opportunity to have a true daily routine here.

My family and I have been living in the capital Kampala since mid-April 2017. I am enjoying the feeling of everyday day life, which slowly sets in. For I have, above all, one thing: the time. Previously, before my family and I moved here, my business trips’ calendar used to be packed with a meeting after the other. But this has become a thing of a past now. I can now plan meetings and activities in a more relaxed way. This is a good thing, because in Uganda things happen more slowly and often differently as planned and sometimes they don’t happen at all. In Uganda they call it “African Time.” In Cologne we would call it “if you don’t come today, you will come tomorrow”. Whatever you call it, one is here always advised to stay calm and relaxed. Somehow things will work out anyway.

African Time

An example of an African Time is what happened to me, when I went to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to pick up my work permit. I and my Ugandan colleague who was supposed to accompany me to the ministry agreed to meet 3:30 pm. Of course - as a German -, I show up for the appointment on the dot. At 3:45 pm my telephone rings. “Sorry, there is an emergency. I will be there at 4 pm.” “Okay, no problem.”

I use the time to take a walk through the nearby furniture shop where heavy carpets, brocade curtains and thickly padded sofas are being sold. It is interesting to see how different the furnishing style in Uganda is compared to that in Germany, I discovered. At 4:15 pm, my telephone rings again. “Sorry, I have to postpone to 4.30 pm.” “Okay, no problem. Call me once you are here.”

I decide to buy a bottle of ginger lemonade and search for some shade to sit under. The weather here is beautiful! And the air smells so good - like sunshine and green. The idyllic scene is immediately interrupted by the sound of an overloaded truck driving through the road full of potholes, leaving behind a think cloud of smoke. I hold my breath briefly. At 5:00 pm my colleague finally shows up. “Hello! Good to see you. Shall we go?” “Same here! Sorry for the delay! The Ministry is closed now. You will have to come back tomorrow.” Ah. Ok. All right! The next day everything works out smoothly and without any problems… with African Time, of course. Well, good to know that I have so much of it now.

Kampala city
Kampala city© Godong

Personal interaction

With more time available, the interaction with our partner organisations’ member staff also changes. The official business-like relationship we used to have in emails or during short meetings - which often began with a phrase like “how are you” - is now replaced by a more personal and friendly interaction.

Meetings are becoming shorter but more frequent and trusting. And they don’t begin with work-related topics but with informal greetings instead. “How is the baby?” - “She is happy. She started eating carrots this week.” And immediately one is lost in conversations about children, education, eating habits and different customs in Germany and Uganda.

Much later, we start talking business. The training of 25 community reporters in Jinja last week was very good, they tell me. Young people are highly motivated and they want to immediately get started and send news from their communities to our partner radio stations. But there is a problem; the software installed at the radio station to record young people’s messages is not working properly. Whether I can take care of the problem? Of course, I can!

Bahai Temple Kampala
Bahai Temple Kampala© picture alliance

Intercultural cooperation

Before I left Germany, I attended a training on “Intercultural Cooperation”. The different time concepts in Germany and East Africa were among the topics covered. Traditionally, according to our Kenyan trainer Rebecca, the future is an impalpable aspect for many East Africans, and that’s why many of them don’t think much about tomorrow. This would also affect our work on the ground, she said. Really? I thought. How will this impact the sustainability of our projects then? It is something yet to discover. In any case, time plays a very special role in my new life. An African proverb says “The Europeans have the clock, we have the time.” In this backdrop, I hereby solemnly abandon my watch…. at least for the next few years.

Miriam Ohlsen has been working for DW Akademie for the last four years. Together with her family she moved to the Ugandan capital Kampala in April 2017. In Uganda, DW Akademie promotes access to information and youth participation in radio programming. It also trains journalists in research-based journalism and advocates the digital security for journalists, bloggers and human rights activists. DW Akademie's Ugandan projects are funded by the Germany's Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

© DW

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