As Time Goes By …

Giving a training course to a group of nurses in Rwanda gave me a new perspective on the concept of time and the meaning of urgency and importance.

This is the next post in the Series, ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’.


It’s curious that we humans, who are all imperfect, expect perfection with our organisations, our families, our relationships, the things we make and with our punctuality. Transportation, weather, snapped shoelaces, odd socks, the vicissitudes of life, all conspire towards making us late.

Yet lateness is as natural to the human condition as are our imperfect bodies, our lopsided smiles, our sticky-out ear lobes, out sticking-in belly buttons, our hairy toes, our hairless heads, our bow legs, our splayed feet and our buck teeth.

Different cultures have different relationships with time. In England a minister recently resigned his job for being late. In Japan it’s considered disrespectful to be on time – one should arrive precisely 10 minutes early.

In some cultures lateness is accepted as an inevitable fact of life; India has IST, which means ‘Indian Stretchable Time’.

In Rwanda and all across Africa, people are never late. They arrive precisely when they mean to. This can mean people strolling in at 10.00am for a 9.00am meeting; it took me some time to understand and accommodate for this.

A brief aside:

Time – a human construct?

Does time actually exist? Sometimes I think that time is a human construct that we have just made up. It certainly works differently for each of us.

For example, my cat sometimes sits for hours staring at a plain wall or the back of a sofa. I don’t think she finds it especially interesting, she is just in her moment and this moment in cat-time lasts a long human-time.

I’m sure cat-time flows at a different pace to human-time. A Himalayan holy-man meditating in an ice cave can sit there for days, but for him, in a trance-like state of mindfulness, it might feel like a few moments. An hour with a bore can feel an age but an hour with a loved one can pass in seconds.

Isn’t time really a sensory perception, a Matrix-type concept, like the way reality is simply the millions of messages your senses send to your cerebral cortex?

There can be nothing more real than being in a moment, like you right now, reading this on a screen, perhaps on a bus or in a bed. These are moments, each an individually-wrapped, hermetically-sealed piece of reality, a ‘now’ that engulfs your senses. And when a moment of reality ends, it’s followed by another moment of reality; a sequence of individual ‘presents’; a row of cocooned ‘nows’, like a row of beads, or better still, frog spawn.

But then it’s us who have connected them in our heads, we have strung together the beads with memory, recalling the bead before, that makes them seem that they flow in to one another. That flow, that memory-string that connects the bead-moments, is time.

(Luckily for everyone I left this indulgent and outlandish digression out of the training.)


Meeting styles were different in Rwanda. They usually opened with a series of thanks for respected individuals in a ceremonial, reverential manner. I felt that meetings were about building up relationships first and then work.

And why not? Projects fail for bad strategy, flawed delivery or not having the buy-in of stakeholders. Each a valuable part of the Project Managers’ trinity – we obsess about the results and the work-streams, the budget and the technology,  the business plans and the project plan. But try getting a project done without having cultivated the relationships first – it’s doomed to fail and that’s a dead cert.

(A few years ago I went on a business trip to Japan visiting large corporations. They have a word for this binding of blessings, nemawashi, which is the gathering of the rice plant’s roots in a paddy field. In Japan the buy-in from stakeholders is achieved even in advance of the meeting – the meeting itself is just a rubber-stamping of something that was agreed in advance.)


Asuka, a British doctor on a placement in Rwanda for AIDS research, had asked me to give a time management training course for the 14 nurses she worked with. I had met her a few weeks before via some mutual friends at a happy hour at the Hotel des Mille Collines by the swimming pool bar, sitting by cane tables, amongst the chatter of middle-class Rwandans, mobile phones and mzungus in their de rigueur linen suits. A Congolese band we’re playing and there was a sudden round of applause as several large lads, the national football team of Mauretania, made their way poolside.

Our own group of mzungus was a collection of ex-pats in Rwanda, Sam, Nat, Emma and Liz, all of us work assignments, or volunteering, a motley collection of people each of us landing up in Rwanda for different reasons

The Mille Collines Hotel was classy and comfortable – you couldn’t imagine this was the Hotel Rwanda‘ – there were no commemorative plaques, no bullet holes, nothing to remind you that this was the place where people were under siege in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, where they drained the pool for drinking water.

Aska, well spoken, private school educated, University of London, was in Kigali working on an HIV research project for SFP. Of course I agreed to give the training as she explained in the background of Congolose electric guitars that the nurses led hectic lives most of them were studying for degrees in the evenings, juggling their lives with families, work and English classes.

Aska’s job as a medical researcher in Rwanda was so different to mine, she spoke using words I had never of before like ‘Seroconversion’, ‘discordant couples’, a ‘coital calendar’, ‘p24’, an ‘antigen’, ‘opportunistic infections’, ‘immunologic (CD4 counts)‘, ‘virologic (viral load) progression, ARV, ‘immunological data neutralising antibodies’, ‘cervical neoplasia’.


When I arrived at her Kiyovu office some weeks later she was busy analysing sheets of medical data and had already printed out the handouts and positioned the overhead projector on to a screen.

Soon 14 nurses shuffled in to the room; they were all on time – an excellent start for a time-management course.

The three-hour training session was based on Chris Croft’s ‘Time Management’ which starts off with defining an individual’s objectives and then prioritizing tasks based on urgency and importance (where importance is defined as being close to your objectives).

During the training, the nurses started to chatter; I felt a sense of losing control of the class. Aska later explained to me that this was how they learned. They would absorb the information and then verify it with a short discussion with the people next to them. It was then I realised that there were different ways to learn; it wasn’t just teacher to class, but pupil to pupil as well; learning, like most things in Africa, was a communal activity.

“Give me an example of one of your important tasks,” I asked.
There was a short interlude of silence amongst the nurses, then a hand shot up at the back. A plump lady with glasses and shoulder-length straightened hair stood up.
“Praying,” she said. “Praying is important.”
“Why is praying important?” I asked.
“Because it is close to my objective,” she replied matter-of-factly.
“And what is your objective?” I asked.
“To go to heaven.”
“Okay, let’s put that down.”

So I wrote it on a post-it note and I stuck it on the flipchart.
“Now, give me an example of something that is BOTH urgent and important,” I continued. Another lady, at the front of the class, put her hand up.
“Praying,” she said. “Praying is urgent AND important.”
So I wrote ‘praying’ on another post-it note and stuck it on the flipchart.
The lady at the back stood up and said, “Praying is important but it is NOT urgent.” The class went in to whispers. “Praying to god is not urgent,” she continued. “I do it on Sunday, today is Wednesday.”
“I pray every morning,” countered another nurse, “and when I go home I pray again. So it is urgent too.”

My class on time-management was rapidly turning in to a theology discussion. I started to steer the conversation in to a more familiar, secular remit.
“So, give me an example of something which is important AND urgent but is NOT praying.”
“To own a house,” came a reply.
“No. Owning a house is important but it can wait.”
“It can’t wait if your landlord is going to throw you out.”
“If you can’t afford to pay the rent then how can you own a house?”
An argument about rent ensued. I tried to win them back.
“How do we define importance?” I asked.
“It is all about needs,” said one of the nurses.
“What kind of need? The need for you?”
“No the collective need for society”.


I had never had this answer before in any of my prior courses where needs were taken as meaning the individual’s need.

Perhaps it was because they were nurses or perhaps because they were Rwandans whose society was so brutally torn apart in 1994. We had a short discussion about needs and your responsibility to make your society better.
“Does anyone here have any long term objectives?” I asked. “These are the objectives that are important but because they are not urgent, they tend to be often overlooked.”
“To own a car,” came a reply.
“To help the sick.”
“To cure aids.”
No one mentioned an objective that was strictly related to their roles;  to the group, important tasks were life or society-based rather than career. It certainly got me thinking.
“Okay now let’s talk about something that is urgent but NOT important.”
“Going to hear a singer at the Serena Hotel,” came a reply.
“Unless you want to be a singer, then it is important, and if your landlord is demanding the rent, then it is urgent too.”

A discussion ensued again about rent and singing. Finally I asked for an example of something which was neither important nor urgent.
“Buying clothes?”
“Why isn’t that important or urgent.”
“Because we already have clothes.”

It was such a different answer to anything I had ever heard before and personally, for someone who finds shopping an onerous task and generally keeps my clothes till they fall apart, I felt a sense of empathy.


There came a point where I realised that I too was receiving a training. Me, a creature of the private sector, so used to chasing the buck, with objectives to increase revenue and decrease costs. These women in the room had objectives to cure AIDS, heal the sick and forge a better Rwanda and gave me answers that I had never considered.


I went home that evening and wrote my journal entry about that day. I felt a sense of failure, and started to doubt that the 14 nurses had even found the training useful.  I sent a text message to a friend called Emma who replied:

“Ah that is the problem,” she replied. “You expect too much too quick. With all your good intentions, it might be easy to overlook the fact that one training session probably will not change the way they will plan their time. Time is such a different concept here, plus it is really difficult to truly reach the core. You got them to think about the concept of time and planning, I am sure. That is admirable as it is.”

Perhaps I had got them thinking and that was a start at least? Perhaps in the same way that they had got me thinking?

Emma’s text message made me feel a bit better – the day perhaps hadn’t been such a waste after all.


This post is part of a series called Letters from the Heart of Africa. A full list of the blog posts so far can be found below. I intend to complete this series over the summer of 2018.

Table of Contents:

1.The flight to Rwanda, the contraband and spotless Kigali      

2. A letter from the heart of Africa – settling in fine

3. Getting to work, Rwanda style

3.  Peter and the Soup Confusion

4. A special place of remembrance, hope and beauty

5. Help! I’m a businessman going to work in an NGO in Africa

6. The importance of memory

7. We Need To Talk About Why People Kill Each Other

8. Stolen socks and missing underpants 

9. Banana-leaf balls, making friends and a bitter falling out

10. The Shimmering Lake in the Shadow of the Volcano

11. The Chatter of the Raindrops

12. My friends, the survivors

13. Politicians and popstars

14. The Spotless City

15. Leisure pursuits: tennis, jogging and painful stomach-flattening (please do not try this at home)

16. The Day When Time Slowed Down

17. A Festering Malice: The Grenade Attack

18. The Resilience of Hope

19. A weekend in the rural beauty of Rwanda

20. Feeling down

21. The Nemesis of my sole

22. In Search of Silence and the Missing Female to Female 9 Pin

23. Being mindful – bug bites and quiet nights

24. Unguarded Moments


  1. I enjoyed your musings on time. I know that something is truly enjoyable and truly fun for me when I do not notice the passage of time. Most often it happens for me when I’m creating. Writing, tinkering with recipes, cooking, doing digital design work… doing all these things I find myself looking up and saying, “What!? I’ve only been at this for 20 minutes! How did 3 hours go by!?”

    I also don’t notice the passage of time reading your stories of your time in Rwanda. (Especially when I’m playing catch up, reading a number of them at once, or revisiting them.) Keep up the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

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