Why is 7 AM is 1 AM in East Africa? – the concept of Swahili or East Africa time 

According to William Shakespeare, it is “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late”.  While I couldn’t trace in what context he said this, but I am sure all of us agree with the logic.

Though it beats me as to why would anyone go to a meeting three hours early! But despite your best intentions, if you are in East Africa you may get late to your meeting if you do not understand Swahili time. 

In certain countries keeping time is extremely important and coming late even by a few minutes is considered rude.  Whereas there are countries which are quite OK with people turning up in the evening for a morning appointment! 

Now coming to our topic of time in East Africa or the Swahili time.  A foreigner would be surprised and confused if he agrees for a meeting at  9 am  in Tanzania and the guest turns up for the appointment at 3 pm!  If questioned as to why the person is late for the appointment, one would be shocked to find the guest insisting that they are absolutely dot on time! 

This is because the Swahili time in East Africa, especially in Tanzania,  is calculated six hours behind the normally accepted GMT format of time.  Let us take two countries which are on the same time zone – Tanzania and Saudi Arabia.  When it is 7 am in Saudi Arabia, logically it should be 7 AM too in Tanzania since both are on the same time zone.  But if you ask a Tanzanian the time he/she will look at the watch and  will say its 1 AM!  And when its 8 am it would be 2 AM in Tanzania. 

Confused?  There would be an initial confusion for many about this strange time concept in East Africa, especially in Tanzania.  But it is one of the most logical way of tracking the time, compared to the 12 hour clock which we are all familiar with. 

Photo by Follow Alice on Pexels.com

The 12 hour clock considers 11.59 as the last minute of the day and a new day (actually a new night!!) starts at 00.00 hours which is oddly termed as midnight.  This concept of a 12 hour is said to have started in Egypt and Mesopotamia where the ancients used a sundial during the day and a water clock during the night.  It was during the 15th and 16th century, especially after the British and other European nations established colonies across the world, that the 12 hour clock became an accepted standard in most countries.  Today most watches display the 12 hour clock-face while the 24 hour clock is used mostly in the travel world, military and scientific community.  

The 12 hour clock is of course further modified in some countries during the winter period when the Day Light Saving is introduced. 

In East Africa the Swahili time is different because of a very logical reason.  Unlike in many parts of the world, East Africa is blessed with a minimum 12 hours of sunlight throughout the year.  And for the people in this part of the world the time revolves around the Sun, as it was when the original concept of time started.   Hence the first hour of sunlight, which is normally 7 am is the first hour of the day in Tanzania – 1 am!  The rest of the day continues with the same logic.  https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Swahili_I/Numbers_and_Time

Internationally accepted time format  East African time format 
7 AM  1 in the morning (saa moja asubihi in Swahili) 
8 AM  2 in the morning 
9 AM  3 in the morning 
10 AM  4 in the morning 
11 AM  5 in the morning 
12 noon  6  in the afternoon 
1 PM  7 in the afternoon 
2 PM  8 in the afternoon 
3 PM  9 in the afternoon 
4 PM  10 in the afternoon 
5 PM  11 in the evening 
6 PM  12 in the evening 
7 PM  1 in the night 
8 PM  2 in the night 
9 PM  3 in the night 
10 PM  4 in the night 
11 PM  5 in the night 
12 AM  6 in the night 

 The day and night is divided in equal half unlike in the rest of the world where the new day starts at night! For East Africans the day starts at 1 in the morning (7 am for the rest of the world).  And the night starts at 1 in the evening (7 pm for the rest of the world). 

Interestingly most people in East Africa wear the watches which show the international format of time and the mobile phones also display the international format.  Despite this they are extremely quick in converting the time by deducting 6 hours from the clock face and communicating the same to their friends.   

“Lets meet for lunch at 7 in the afternoon” – this might confuse anyone else in the world.  But in East Africa, especially Tanzania, it is crystal clear. Because the person quickly calculates and knows it is the 1 pm international time.  

So the next time you interact with someone from East Africa, make sure that you clarify on the time.  Ask whether it’s the international time format or the Swahili format.  So that you do not end up arriving for lunch when invited for breakfast!

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9 thoughts on “Swahili Time – When 7 AM is 1 AM!

  1. Very interesting!

    Though I lived in Uganda, I didn’t know the neighbouring country adopted to such a confusing time standard.

    Thanks Suresh, I learnt something new today, as we always learn every day- either conciously or subconsciously.

    1. Dr Suresh K R Kumar – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – An insurance professional with over three decades of experience in different parts of the world, mainly in Africa. A passionate learner and an alchemist of people. A coach and a mentor.
      Suresh K R Kumar says:

      Thank you Bala. Yes it is a unique way of looking at time and most logical I would say. Having a new day start in the midnight is quite illogical!!

    1. Dr Suresh K R Kumar – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – An insurance professional with over three decades of experience in different parts of the world, mainly in Africa. A passionate learner and an alchemist of people. A coach and a mentor.
      Suresh K R Kumar says:

      Thank you Partha. This fact is not really well known outside Tanzania. But a very logical way of looking at time in my view

    1. Dr Suresh K R Kumar – Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – An insurance professional with over three decades of experience in different parts of the world, mainly in Africa. A passionate learner and an alchemist of people. A coach and a mentor.
      Suresh K R Kumar says:

      Thank you Ajith. ഓരോ സ്ഥലത്തിന്റെ പ്രത്ത്യേതകൾ അറിഞ്ഞാൽ നമക്ക് അതിശയം തോന്നും

  2. thebluedrive – Pune, India – TheBlueDrive is an account of our ( Suryakiran & Veena Naik) travel along the India's coast. Starting from 15th August 2016 at Lakhpat, Kutch, Gujarat we will drive along the coast and proceed towards the West Bengal coast. We will be looking at marine life, birds, cuisine and the history of the places we visit. We have now reached Konarkin Odisha and proceeding north.
    thebluedrive says:

    A similar system was followed in India as well in the olden times. The day was divided into 8 Prahars, the first starting with the daybreak or sunrise. Thus we have dopahar or Do-Prahar ( 3 X2 +6 am) being the noon. Ashtoprahar is an expression used in many Indian languages to indicate ‘throughout the day or day and night or round the clock ‘ It is quite logical and appropriate for communities dependent on sunlight based working hours to start their day at daybreak. I dont know when the division of the day into 24 parts reached Africa but quite probably it followed the White Man as it did in India.

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