Swahili Time: Back to the Future

Salvador Dali persistence of memory

For a while in college I had a “Goofy” Watch. The watch was a pun executed into solid matter. It had the Disney character Goofy as on the face, but that was only part of what made it goofy. What made it funny was that the whole thing ran backwards. The numbers went the opposite direction from what you would expect and the hands ran counter-clockwise.

It was kind of funny and would always confuse people – especially when they looked at it to catch the time. It also confused me. A lot. I couldn’t fully adjust to telling time backwards, because every other clock I looked at told time the normal way. If I forgot to read my watch correctly, I would find myself five minutes late … or early. Eventually I got tired of having to think so much and gave it up.


I’m having that feeling again here in Tanzany due to what the locals call “Swahili Time.” Swahili Time exists because Tanzania is on the Equator and the length of the day doesn’t change much over the course of the year. The sun always comes up around 6:30 am and sets around 6:30pm. The variation is like 20 minutes between equinoxes.

Because of this regularity, the residents of Tanzany tell time in relation to when the sun rises and sets: 6 am is 0:00, 7am is 1, 8am is 2 and so on up to 6pm when the sun sets and time it goes back to 0:00 again. They differentiate between morning and night by adding that on: “4 in the morning” (10 am) versus “4 at night” (10 pm).

Now while this is different way of telling time, it is logical and makes sense and I don’t have any problems with it.

What really makes Swahili Time like the Goofy watch is that everyone sets their clocks according to East Africa Time (GMT +3). So when asked what time it is, a resident of Tanzany will look at a clock where the small hand is on the 10, and give tell you that it is “4.” Or if you ask someone to pick you up at the airport at “4,” they might show up at 10. (Or they might not show up at all – that’s always a possibility.)

As far as I can tell this is a Tanzany thing not a general African one. The Kenyans don’t use Swahili Time it and they both speak Swahili and live near the Equator.

Swahili Time would make total sense to me if the clocks were consistent. If Tanzanians want to set clocks “1” when the rest of the GMT +3 time zone set it to “5”, then live and let live, I say. But verbally telling time in one system and visually representing it in another means that anytime you talk to someone about a time related subject, you really need to check and double check what time you are talking about.

And that’s just goofy.