Time is not an honored African tradition

Oblivious to Western notions of time, a fisherman doesn't know when he

Hamid Bakari has no idea a new millennium is approaching. He isn't sure how many days there are in December, and he can't say what day of the week it is.

But, Mr. Bakari, a fisherman who hasn't ventured beyond the mangrove trees of this tiny island off the coast of Kenya, knows precisely when the moon will rise on this and every night. Counting on his fingers, he says, "Seven days after the new moon, I will not fish. Fourteen days later, it will be the full moon, and on the 17th, again I will not fish because of the tide."

Next to Bakari - under an ancient mangrove in the heart of Lamu's stone town - sits farmer Kibwana Shee. He says, "I heard white people were happy about something. I had not understood that it had to do with time."

Time is something Bakari and Mr. Shee appraise in far looser terms than any inhabitant of the industrialized world. The moon tells one how to fish - with line, net, or trap - and the other how to farm. Like everyone else on this island, which came under the influence of Islam nearly 1,000 years ago and whose population does not exceed 30,000, they are Muslims and are observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. "One month after Ramadan, we clear the fields," says Shee. "At the following moon, we burn them down."

Both are illiterate sons of illiterate fathers. They are not sure how old they are. Bakari thinks he might be in his mid-40s because he has memories of the floods "everyone remembers." He reckons he was 5 years old then.

Shee's father told him he was born the year after hordes of elephants strayed down to the Kenyan coast, laying waste to his and everyone else's crops.

Neither understands the sense of closure the followers of the Christian calendar attach to a thousand-year cycle. Nasser, the Swahili interpreter, explains that it has to do with "achievement," looking back over 1,000 years and assessing progress. It's a long explanation, at the end of which an old man by the name of Hussein Shekuwe intervenes.

"The importance of time is that it allows you to know what your activity should consist of," he says, to what is suddenly revealed as an indifferent audience.

"He is always making these statements, Shee says, "He wants to be a politician."

Nasser launches into a second, lengthy explanation. The people of the Christian calendar are very excited about the millennium, he explains. Then he asks if his audience sees the reason for all this commotion.

They don't. Out of politeness, they nod, but wait for Mr. Shekuwe to point out that "white people" - of which he admits to having seen only the tourist variety - "get excited about everything."

In the case of the year 2000, he notes: "It's not as if the sun is going to rise from the opposite direction," which, according to the Koran, is how humanity will learn of the end of the world. Also, he says, "People will walk around half-naked."

At this point, two tourists, one clad in a bikini, the other in a tank top and shorts, stroll past us. "Like that?" asks this reporter. "Yes, like that," Shekuwe says, averting his eyes. "But what is 1,000 years? Is it more than three or 40 years?"

No one is sure what he means. Frustrated at not getting due attention, he beats his stick on the ground. "Time passes until it ends," he says, over a chorus of protests. "Until then, there is no difference about time: It just passes."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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