Sunday, January 11, 2009

African Time

Managing African Time

By Biko Agozino

The application of the concept of African Time was evident at a Nigerian High Commission in the Caribbean where the visiting Consul General and his staff were assisted by the High Commission staff to register hundreds of Nigerians for the new electronic ECOWAS passport. The process appeared to be chaotic in a way that seemed consistent with the concept of African fractals. For instance, the staff started work in the PM and ended in the AM daily!

The chaos seemed to have a method to it as they started with a long list of first-come, first served Nigerians that ran into nearly five hundred. But the data-capturing machine was slow, grew too hot sometimes and had to be switched off to let it ‘sleep’ or cool down and so, by the second night which was intended as the last night of the visit, they had only managed to scratch the surface of the ever-growing list. Exceptions were announced for the pregnant women in the crowd and then for families with little children and then there were suspected man-know-man and eye-service as some complained. Then the list was completely abandoned the next day when, without explanation, the team announced that they would stay for two more days, including a Saturday. They now collected the passports of those present whenever they started work and refused to accept any more for processing during that day/night. Some had to go as early as 7 AM and wait until past midnight to be served. Rather than set an office time for the work, they chose to set a quota of work to be done on a day.

Those who grumbled most loudly were often the ordinary Nigerian immigrants, most of who worked as security guards. The High Commission staff had a ready mantra that they chanted against allegations of favouritism: there was a professor sitting quietly among the applicants, waiting to be served and if they could not serve him, it was implied, why would they attend to the common folks? That excuse enraged a few of the men who started shouting on the top of their voices that they too were human even without degrees and without being doctors.

I doubt if there is any other diplomatic service in the world that would meet with a full professor in a foreign land who is also a fellow citizen and have him wait until midnight on two occasions only to be refused registration for a new passport, even if he was the last person to be attended to. The professor surprised everyone by responding to that final refusal, not with anger but with praise for the dedication of the staff beyond the call of duty, wishing them safe journey and told them to manage their time better to be even more productive with their commendable dedication.

That was a testament to the poor management of the human resources available to us as a nation. True, refusing registration to the professor afforded him the opportunity to wait and listen to the biographies of the less fortunate immigrants in more detail as they voluntarily shared their tales of woes, threats, fears and aspirations. The professor encouraged one to write up a particularly dramatic story of love and troubles ‘for papers’ and send it to The Commonwealth Short Stories Competition. He queried what was the point for a high school graduate like him to aspire to writing when a whole professor was not being shown respect just because he was not super-rich? His dream was to save up money and go and reopen his fishing line trade in Onitsha Main Market. But the prize money might help you to set up your shop, the professor implored, urging him not to give up on further education. But how could he, on a minimum wage and long hours of work? He asked.

Okro no be soup, na management, goes a Nigerian saying which encapsulates a sense that management means just getting by rather than satisfactory performance. This might be a clue to our legendary (mis)management of our abundant national, human, natural and material resources. Starting with time resources, we have a concept of African Time that suggests that events would tend to start later than expected and continue beyond the intended time. Trinidadians call it Trini Time and African Americans call it CP or Colored Peoples Time. Where did this laid-back approach to time evolve from?

One suggestion could be the concept of African Fractals which Ron Eglash used to describe the tendency among Africans to design their physical and mental environments in fractal patterns tending towards chaos whereas Europeans prefer lineal Cartesian grids that tend to be easier to control or manage. My hypothesis is that Africans evolved African fractal designs in response to the predatory threats that Africans faced for centuries. If the Africans who turned up in time for meetings with the predators were consistently the ones that were first kidnapped and enslaved, why would Africans act as if keeping to time was beneficial? Any other species of animals hunted as intensely and as extensively as Africans were hunted for centuries would have adapted by evolving complex strategies for survival to make it more difficult for predators to catch them. What Eglash called African Fractals may not be fractal at all, it may be African Wholeness since it applied to the whole African worldview, as a young African Trinidadian painter, Shawn Peters, retorted when I first saw his paintings and told him that the motifs were full of African Fractals.

The chaos approach to the management of time may work better sometimes than lineal time-management but we must also look at ways that we could bring out the best in our amazingly dedicated fellow-citizens through strategic planning and more effective deployment of limited time, human and material resources in public service. I recommend the following:

1) It was admirable and praise-worthy to see our fellow citizens work such long hours at night but they could have achieved a lot more by resting at night and working normal office hours during the day. Working until 2:00 AM on consecutive nights might look like patriotic efforts from our diplomats beyond the call of duty but it is simply wasteful hard work when modern technology is available to help them to work smart and achieve more. It is also counter-productive because the late night means that they sleep in and start the next day at midday, obviously skipping breakfast, while applicants assemble as early as 7:00 AM. This is a penny wise pound foolish approach to time management that should be avoided.
2) Make sure that the tireless lady, who took the finger-prints and digital photos as well as complete the electronic applications (again) while interviewing the applicant to make sure that he/she was a true Nigerian, has a comfortable desk and chair to work those long hours from and adequate division of labour with the rest of the staff. She was even the one who went out to call in the next applicants when the colleague sitting at the door as if the door-keeper could have done that. Later, that role was assigned to other colleagues but it meant that our apparently tireless lady missed the opportunity to stretch her legs and had to stop and go for a brisk walk when her back pain got worse but no one trained to continue while she rested. I advised her to rest her back to avoid the back ache and she complained that her desk would not let her lean back for she still needed to stretch to take the finger-print. Another colleague should have been in charge of the finger-printing. She was sitting on a cushion to help her arm-chair become more comfortable but the wise thing would have been to offer her a more comfortable chair.
3) This whole drama could have been less of an ordeal for the staff and the fellow citizens they were serving if the data-capturing machine, laptop with software and digital camera were supplied to the High Commission so that a team of four from New York would not need to make international travels at huge costs that could have bought the equipments for the High Commission with spare change left. What if the equipments got lost or damaged as they were being carried from post to post? I hope that they have back-ups for the applications they processed.
4) The appointment system should be used to space-out applicants so that parents would not have to drag out their young ones, workers would not risk a sack and the staff processing the applications would be less stressed if the mass of the people did not stay all day and night on multiple days without knowing if they would be ‘lucky’ to be served or ‘helped’. The initial announcement was that the team from New York would not even visit this particular country and advised the citizens here to travel to another country and meet them there for the exercise at huge costs to themselves and risk to their jobs. They later changed their mind and agreed to visit the High Commission but only for a day and half. At the end of the full day or night, they suddenly announced that they would stay some extra two days and work a full day on Saturday as well to help their fellow citizens. That was charming but it was suspected by some that they may have over-slept and missed their flight or that they were doing it for the extra US$20.00 ‘processing fees’ that they were collecting from applicants who had paid the full electronic application fees of US$110. Why not trust Nigerian officials to collect the whole fees in cash from those not able to pay by credit card?
5) This brings me to my final suggestion: It is about information management. The staff could have provided more information to the applicants by explaining that they needed the $20.00 for mailing back their passports by recorded delivery when they are issued, for example, the explanation that I tried to guess for skeptical fellow citizens. The electronic forms should have been saved on the website by the software instead of making the applicant enter the details all over again because the only thing that the reference number could recall was the confirmation of payment slip and not the full application with next of kin and state of origin.