On Zambian Time

This is a cross-post of something I wrote for the VSO ICS team blog. The original can be found here.

“Zambian Time” as a concept probably needs some explanation. Maybe the following scene’ll help:

Setting: The living room of a host home. Rain is hammering down outside in sheets, rattling off the iron roof like it’s trying to straighten out the corrugations. The host mother (HM) is sweeping.


HM: You’re going out?

UKV: Well, I’ve got to leave now if I’m going to get to work on time.

HM: But you’ll get soaked!

UKV: It’s not that bad. I’ve got a waterproof jacket, and I don’t want to be late for work.

HM: Hmm.

/long pause

HM: You know, if it’s raining they understand if I don’t turn up at work.

/UKV’s jaw drops faster than the rain

UKV: Uh, right. Well, ‘bye. Have a good day and I’ll see you tonight.


Zambian pace, one of the principal causes of Zambian time, is another way of helping explain it. Zambian pace is the art of getting where you’re going whilst maintaining that pristinely fresh look you spent ages on before you left the house. You want to arrive at your destination still looking great, and of course, because you’ll be walking there, you want to look as dope as possible in the process.

To achieve maximum Zambian pace, one must casually saunter slightly slower than a stroll, and, for a man, each step must be accompanied with a slight, bouncing body drop such that the torso bobs. This will naturally cause the andante shoulder roll as gentle and slow as the swell on a calm Lake Bangweulu.

One must maintain this swag even if it leaves a mixed group of volunteers separating into a group of UKs striding ahead of Zambians like oil poured into water (as one UK put it). Diligently achieving Zambian pace may well lead you to arrive at your scheduled meeting an hour after it was scheduled to start, but it’s fine because nobody else is there either. And even if they are, you can’t arrive anywhere looking sweaty and flustered, homie. Got to look fresh.

Zambian time could also be a carol concert scheduled to start at 18:00 to which a group of volunteers arrive at pretty much 18 on the dot. They rush in, flustered and ready to slip quietly, apologetically onto a back bench, then see the priest giving them a strange look from the other end of the cavernously empty church. The practicing choir doesn’t miss a beat as they run through what they’re going to perform in an hour’s time.

Another manifestation of Zambian time could come in the insistence that timetables and schedules are malleable, flexible objects that can be moulded and shaped to fit whatever circumstances arise. So for instance, the idea that every UK volunteer, the UK Team Leader, and the Project Officer have better things to do than sit in an immigration office waiting for their visas to be processed for hours simply doesn’t arise.

Although then we wouldn’t have been treated to the sight of a salaried government employee spending three hours at his desk laboriously tearing up documents. Hopefully he has “Shredder” written on his business cards.

So, in a nutshell, “Zambian Time” is a certain casualness about timekeeping that takes a bit of getting used to. If something’s supposed to start at 12:00, people will turn up at maybe 12.30. If work starts at 8.30, it really starts at 9:00. If a taxi’s booked for 13:00, it’ll arrive at 13:15 at the earliest.

It’s probably summed up best by that immigration office again. They knew ten of us were coming, they knew exactly what we wanted, and they even joked about how we were late and they were expecting us earlier. Then, after a four hour wait for them to process forms, we were told that they only had seven work permits in the office at the moment and that three of us would have to come back tomorrow.


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