African Time

Waiting at a border post in Zambia it became clear again how time and the use and measure of it is so different in Africa from where I grew up. I am watching a man behind a desk standing in one of the queues I will have to stand in that morning.

The queue is not too long, maybe 7 people in front of me, but this does not lead to any urgency from the man behind the counter. He plays with his one of two phones and gets up. He makes sure not to make eye contact with any of us in the queue, all ready to enter Zambia on this border post with Zimbabwe. Then he gets up and walks away, clearly unconcerned with the queue of waiting people and he disappears for 20 minutes to come back and after some nervous shuffling in the queue with trained disinterest he holds out his hand for the first in line to hand over the stack of paperwork needed to enter his country. I don’t own a watch and take pride in taking such moments of African ways and time and to stay equanimous (having a balanced and calm mind) and friendly. Patience has never been my strongest skill and no better place to go to learn some as Africa is the ultimate test for those of us without patience.

The queue slowly moves and after some time it is my turn to hand over my paperwork to the immigrations officer who does not look at me nor acknowledges my presence. A great dance song currently popular in Zambia rings loudly on his phone resulting in a 10-minute loud conversation while I wait and keep calm.

It is now my turn but only after he shuffles some paperwork around, gets up to find a new pen and sits down again.

I smile and wish him a ‘good morning, I am so excited to visit your country’ and he looks up for the first time. We start chatting about the book he is reading about living a healthy life. He wants to lose weight he tells me, too much drinking and shisa nyama (grilled meat) he says. It takes 10 minutes for him to go through my paperwork, stamps a few papers and directs me to the next queue to pay Community Tax I believe, or is it Road Tax, I am not sure anymore as it takes 5 queues and 4 hours to go through a process that could be done in 20 minutes my European mind tells me.

zambia zimbabwe


I make it through all the queues, spend a stack of USD, in cash obviously as card machines have not reached this level of government yet for some reason (you can think of a couple of them I guess) and stand at the border. The last check of my house on wheels by an officer and I am allowed through. I stand there for a moment and loudly whoop to a surprised crowd of sim card sellers, money changers and cooldrink sellers and scream ‘Zambia here I come’. The crowd laughs and with that wishes me well in the next country on my journey.

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This experience is one of many when in Africa. Border posts, banks, post offices, traffic departments, restaurants and hospitals, all seem to have finetuned the teachings of patience. Africa has its way to challenge those from the west and at times even its own inhabitants by making sure processes are as inefficient and challenging as possible.

One thing is for sure, responding to the seemingly endless waiting while watching staff joke and laugh and sit around can only be done successfully with humour. Getting angry is frowned upon and will only loose you respect. Demanding service or asking for managers will only take you more time as they will listen to you, if they are around of course and not make you wait an hour, and despite some blank looks will not speed up the process in any way.


sunset sunrise


Believe me I have had my challenges of loosing my cool living and traveling in Africa for the last 13 years, but I learned this never ever has had the result I wanted, and I usually had a pretty crap day after that. I started to try and remain calm and patient, like all others in the queue, and to use humour to get through the time taken. I chat to others in the queue, which is perfectly normal in Africa, I remain friendly and when it finally is my turn, I chat to the person behind a desk instead of acting on my mental images of pulling him over the counter on his pink tie and slap the piece of chicken from his hand. As you can see it remains a challenge.

When you visit Africa for your internship or volunteering adventure you will be challenged, usually from the moment you arrive at the airport so be prepared. Bring a good amount of patience and know that you jumping up and down like a toddler (I have been there believe me) will only take more time and won’t change much. Stay cool and calm, talk to those around you, be friendly and you will be surprised how easy it will become to be part of Africa and its own definition of time.

See you in Africa


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