-See you at 8 -So at 2? -Yes, at 8

Kenya and Ethiopia are both near the equator. In fact, the equator passes through Kenya. Accordingly, both get 12 hours of sunlight a day, basically year-round. Nothing too crazy in that information.

In the US, our “day” according to clocks starts at a rather odd time. What is it that makes 11:59 pm and 12:01 am two different days? Admittedly, time is a somewhat arbitrary concept (see: Daylight Savings, and our willingness to agree that the time has all of a sudden changed). However, it would seem as though the middle of the night is a somewhat odd time to change our days, and start over.

This logic would seem to dominate in both Kenya and Ethiopia. In both countries, they tell time differently than we do. For both, the day “starts” when the sun shows up. The night (our pm) then starts when the sun goes down. For instance, 7 am our time is “1 day” their time, since the sun has been up for one hour. Our 9 pm is “3 night” in Swahili and Tigrinya, since the sun set three hours ago. 

I would argue, especially given their latitudinal position, that they have the more logical time system. However, my theoretical agreement with their system hasn’t prevented me from having a lot of confusion and headaches over the timing system.

First, when studying Swahili, the time would ALWAYS do me in. I would sit and think about what number means what. somehow, being able to say “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten” in a language isn’t the same thing as being able to say “seven” in the same language without thinking about it. I’d wrack my brains, say a Swahili phrase, and be proud of myself for coming up with the time. A second later, based on the puzzled look on my conversation partner’s face (or in the case of my Kenyan roommate, the immediate correction), I’d realize I had mixed them up, again.

If anything though, it’s more challenging here in Ethiopia. English is widely spoken in Kenya, so Kenyans are very often used to saying the international-style time when speaking in English. Ethiopians less commonly speak English, so when a time is said in English, it’s more commonly expressed using the East Africa system. Whenever I hear that someone wants to meet with me “at 8:30” it takes me a second to realize, right, they mean 2:30 this afternoon.

It’s also proven problematic when our surveyors record questions about what time our respondents did something. I know with certainty that when the respondent gave the response, they were speaking in Tigrinya and therefore using the East Africa time system. However, I’m less sure when it’s translated, did they translate directly, or did some of the enumerators possibly convert the time to the international system. I’ve been on the point of changing times when individuals woke up at “9” (they must mean the international system, there’s no way they actually woke up at 3 am) only to learn that yes, they did wake up early to attend some celebration at church (apparently, being at church at 3 am is not so uncommon here).

So yes, East Africa, I am happy to concede your time system is better than ours. However, I cannot say I will miss that moment where I hear a time and think, “wait, what time are actually we talking about here?”


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