Ludger Müller, 23.04.2021

In her book "Menschwerdung eines Affen," German ethnologist and Africanist Heike Behrend describes, among other things, the understanding and handling of time among the Tugen tribe in the Tugen Mountains in Kenya.

Basically, the Tugen assume that time runs in a circle. After about 100 years, events recur. Everything is repetitive: the droughts, the conflicts with other tribes, the domination by others, the tribal leaderships etc. In the course of a lifetime, a person passes through seven or eight phases, at the beginning of which he or she also gets a new name. The roles he assumes are not his individual roles but have been held by others before him and will be held by others after him. For example, Heike Behrend reports that a woman of whom she had taken a photo portrait carelessly put it aside. This could be explained by the fact that she sees herself in her role and not in her individuality.

Different ways to handle time

The seasons are read by the Tugen according to the position of the sun. Depending on the season, the sun rises or sets at a different place on a mountain range. The Tugen call these distinctive places of the mountain range the houses of the sun. Times of day are determined by the stands and the lengths of the shadows. 

Heike Behrend was disappointed and annoyed at first, when the arranged conversation times, shadow booths, for meetings were not kept by the Tugen. For her, that was wasted and lost time in which she could not pursue her ethnological work. Finally, she understood that for the Tugen, time cannot be lost because it is always there. She realized that she was not "losing time" either, as she ended up making other interesting observations and conversations that she would not have thought of in her pre-planning. 

Once, a village teacher who owned a watch invited her to show her sights in the area on a sightseeing tour. He had arranged to meet her at 10:52 am. The further course of events was again bound to a precise schedule, e.g., arrival at a sight at 11:33 am and so on. He insisted on keeping his schedule and so they had to rush to meet it. In this way, he showed the ethnologist from Europe her own way of dealing with time caricaturally. However, we also have our very different concepts of time.

How time is determined in the Western World

We let the year be roughly determined by festive days, beginning and end of vacations, seasonal times, etc. For us Europeans, the sun does not rise and set "in its houses". On the other hand, we are quite adaptable when it comes to time management. Some examples: the company determines vacation times, Easter falls on the first Sunday after the cyclically determined full moon, which takes place on or after March 21, the beginning of vacations is determined by the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, the Bundesliga game schedules by the German Football Association, the regulations of summer and winter time are determined by laws and ordinances of the federal government, family celebrations by the family traditions, etc.

Different allocations of time

We also have different categories for the allocation of time: in the circle of family and friends, "soon", "immediately", etc. are understood as time definitions differently, but roughly the same, depending on the personal experience and the group. Our neighbor, for example, called during the afternoon coffee with his wife and said that he would come "in a moment". In this case, "in a moment" meant when he and his wife had finished their coffee. Craftsmen may have a completely different understanding of time when they say, "in a moment", "soon" or "quickly" to customers.

Divisions of time

Usually, people arrange to meet at or around a full or half hour, e.g., for a social gathering, such as a barbecue. One then usually arrives shortly before or shortly after the appointed time. Professional shift times are legally regulated in hours, time clocks usually use a 6-minute cycle, professional appointments are usually also only set to the nearest quarter of an hour, appointments that are clocked, usually in five-minute increments, timetables are usually set to the nearest hour and minute.

For everyday private life, a clock that tells the time in quarter-hour increments is actually sufficient, much like the striking of a hall clock or church clock. Otherwise, according to experience, the closer time determination "shortly before" or "shortly after" or " around" is sufficient. If we go into the time determined and clocked by the technology, we must (?) adapt ourselves to it and have a clock with minute indications, better with second indications, in order to make clear how much we have adapted ourselves to the technology, better still to the soft goods. In doing so, we often don't realize how much we can resemble the teacher presented above, who demonstrated the absurd haste when we certainly don't want to lose time from a clock. For the Tugen in Kenya, on the other hand, time obviously cannot be lost because it is always there.

Photos by Klaus Botta

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