Tanzanian mama checking levels of growth in the seaweed farm. Although considered a rapid-growth crop, seaweed still takes two months to grow before it is harvested. Photo courtesy of: Alexia Hallée

Tanzanian mama checking levels of growth in the seaweed farm. Although considered a rapid-growth crop, seaweed still takes two months to grow before it is harvested. Photo courtesy of: Alexia Hallée



Time is a concept I learned at a young age, but now I’m realizing that it isn’t actually quite so simple to figure out.

Four little letters but somehow so complex…


It’s not different time zones or measurements (telling time in Swahili is different than in English) that make the concept complicated, but time discipline[1].

“Pole pole” (slow slow) is commonly said in Tanzania, meaning “slowly” or “slow down”. When I first heard the phrase, I assumed it referred to the general lifestyle in Tanzania. After all, I heard it said as a joke when I walked too fast in the markets, and again as a reminder when waiting for meat to be barbecued at lunch.

I even saw it exemplified at work with TCCIA (Tanzania Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture). At the Youth Entrepreneurship Programme TCCIA assists with, only three meetings were scheduled per day. For two weeks, my day’s work was to go to three meetings a day, going through youth entrepreneurs’ business plans with them. This was a far cry from the never-ending meetings Western culture can pack into one day. “Pole pole” indeed.


However, over the next few weeks, I grew confused. How could we afford to take our time and do things “pole pole”, when time seemed to never be enough?

USC professor Genevieve Giuliano said, « Low-income countries have cultures, in general, in which the value of time is relatively low. In places where economic opportunities are limited, it’s easier to give up an hour of work for leisure »[2]. I’m not fond of such a blanket statement and I disagree that “African time” is because of laziness, lack of effort or opportunity[3].

Every day at work, my coworkers comment that it’s a busy day. When entrepreneurs didn’t show up to classes or meetings, my co-worker simply said, “Sometimes, they can’t; they’re really busy”.

There’s the all-too-prevalent struggle of managing family and business roles for women. With high domestic workloads, there’s already limited time available to manage a business, let alone attend trainings and meetings[4]. For male youth, sometimes the timing of classes isn’t compatible with their business activities[5]. Everyone’s always busy with their daily work and jobs.


Is that where it’s ironic? “Pole pole” but not have enough time?

I’ve learned, though, that Tanzanian sayings about slowing down don’t mean slow down on the practical side, but more so that we should slow down in our attitudes.

People are so busy that their limited time is spent on what they deem important. Anthropologist Edward Hall said “polychronic” cultures are « oriented toward people, human relationships and the family”, meaning that following a schedule is less important than friends and family[6]. For one youth entrepreneur, that meant going to the funeral of a friend’s mother instead of a business meeting.

This emphasis on relationships and community is special. The community is where to go for support, celebration, or help. It’s where most people have credit circles, rather than at banks. Social networks are for accessing markets, partnerships, business capital, mentoring, and advice[7]. Slowing down means taking time to greet, get to know people, and develop deep personal relationships that matter.


Some things can’t be done or completed quickly. They aren’t matters to rush through and check off a to-do list. This includes development – especially development. Development work is slow[8]. “Haraka haraka haina baraka” (haste, haste has no blessing) is another Swahili proverb, saying that haste makes waste.

It takes time to grow partnerships. It takes time to foster, develop, or build anything. That’s why I’ll continue learning Swahili, and spend the extra few minutes in greeting people (in numerous ways as is the custom). That’s why YEP will continue to schedule three meetings a day. That’s why TCCIA will continue to visit members in-person about their business challenges, instead of relying on online/phone surveys. For when we communicate more – but most importantly – listen more, we have fewer misunderstandings and better relationships. Perhaps this way, peace can be found. Even if one doesn’t have much else, is there anything more important?


We often say “time is money”[9]. We question whether we can afford to spend time on certain tasks. However, we also say that “money doesn’t bring happiness” …so why do we still attempt to measure time in monetary terms?

We no longer only measure development by economics and GDP, so maybe we shouldn’t look at time as money anymore. With the Human Development Index and Happiness Index now, maybe time should be viewed in terms of blessings instead.

What you spend your time on can bring blessings – blessings we don’t normally consider beneficial for our development. Isn’t personal development, relational development, cultural development…etc. just as important for overall development?

Maybe we even need to revisit the concepts we think we know, the ones we think we understand and can define:





Time is of the essence.

…but what, is time essential for?


[1] White, L. T., Valk, R., & Dialmy, A. (2011). What is the meaning of « on time »? The sociocultural nature of standards of punctuality. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology42(3), 482-493.

[2] Engle, J. (2005, December 11). Punctuality: Some cultures are wound tighter than others. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2005/dec/11/travel/tr-insider11

[3] Kapchanga, M. (2013, June 13). Time for Africa to abandon tardy culture to avoid punctuality problems. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20141113154030/http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/788640.shtml

[4] International Finance Corporation. (2007). Voices of Women Entrepreneurs in Tanzania. World Bank Group,1-36. doi:10.1596/25927

[5] Urassa, J. K., & Yusuph, M. (2018). Accessibility and Use of Entrepreneurship Education by Rural Youth: A case of Kilombero District, Tanzania. Journal of Co-operative and Business Studies,2(1), 1-20. Retrieved from https://www.mocu.ac.tz/doc/Urassa1.pdf.

[6] Hall, E. T. (1984). The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time. New York: Anchor.

[7] International Finance Corporation. (2007). Voices of Women Entrepreneurs in Tanzania. World Bank Group,1-36. doi:10.1596/25927

[8] Zebib, B. (2017, October 16). Development is Slow. Retrieved from http://volunteer-blog.ca/development-is-slow

[9] Thompson, E. (2017). Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism. Class,27-40. doi:10.1002/9781119395485.ch3