Calendars and Time

In African cities, many people use the Western system of clocks and calendars for official and business purposes. They divide the day into 24 hours and the year into 12 months based on the earth's movement around the sun. As in the West, a general system of dating is used to create a common framework for past events from many locations.

Traditionally, however, African societies have not used formal, structured methods to measure, count, or keep track of hours and months. Instead, they marked time by the rhythms of daily life and by the events of a community's or people's shared history. This approach still shapes the idea of time in rural and traditional African cultures.

Months, Seasons, and Years

People in North Africa, where Islam is the dominant religion, use the Muslim calendar, which has 12 months in a year. Unlike the Western calendar, however, Muslim months are based on the 29.5-day cycle of the moon's phases. Each month begins on or near the date of the new moon and contains either 29 or 30 days. The Muslim year has a total of either 354 or 355 days—10 or 11 days shorter than the Western year, which is based on the solar cycle. This difference means that the Muslim months do not occur in the same season every year. Over a period of 32.5 Western years, each Muslim month moves through the cycle of seasons.

In sub-Saharan Africa, some groups do not identify and name months. People in these cultures are aware of the phases of the moon and the yearly cycle of seasons. But instead of using a calendar to schedule their work, they carry out their activities—hunting, farming, rituals— in accordance with regular events they observe in nature. Such events include the positions of the stars and the sun, the flowering of plants, the rise and fall of rivers, and seasonal changes in temperature, rainfall, and wind.

Other indigenous groups—especially those centered on agriculture—do have systems of named months, with calendars based on the lunar cycle. Like the months of the Muslim calendar, the months of a traditional African lunar calendar do not occur in the same season each year. For this reason, the timing of agricultural activities cannot be based on a lunar calendar. Even in calendar-keeping societies, farming is thought of not in terms of months or dates but as a succession of tasks, such as tilling, planting, weeding, scaring away birds, and harvesting.

Each task is performed when certain conditions occur. A few groups correct the imbalance between the lunar calendar and the solar cycle by adding an extra month to the calendar or by repeating a month when the calendar falls significantly out of line with the solar year. In most cases, however, traditional African calendars are used mainly for timing social and ritual activities. Even when a calendar of months exists, the year does not necessarily begin in one specific month. A group may observe separate agricultural, ritual, and legal years that begin in different months. The year usually starts in whatever season is most important to a particular society, such as the rainy season.

The people of sub-Saharan Africa did not develop systems of dates applied across large areas and based on historical events. However, some states in West Africa and East Africa have maintained royal genealogies, or lists of their kings. Scholars and historians once believed that such lists provided an accurate chronology for these societies. But in recent times, they have realized that many factors make the king lists inaccurate. The list-makers sometimes added early names to make their societies appear more ancient. They also dropped the names of rulers who were later overthrown or adjusted the lists to support the current ruler's claim to the throne. Though valuable as cultural documents, king lists are not reliable as chronologies.

Hours and Days

Some traditional African societies divide each month into halves—before and after the full moon—and count days within each half. More important than the counting of days, however, is organizing them into weeks. Most groups define a week according to the cycle of local market days. The week is as long as the interval between the beginning of one market cycle and the next, usually around five days.

The African day begins at dawn or sunrise, not in the middle of the night as in the Western system. Indigenous groups do not divide the day into fixed hours, minutes, or seconds. Instead, they organize the day by the changing position of the sun and the social activities associated with it. A typical daily sequence might be: first light, sunrise, breakfast, going to the fields, noon, cattle returning, sunset, supper, and sleep, followed again by first light. The night is not usually subdivided into any periods, and a 24-hour period may be called a “day,” a “night,” or a “sleep.”