Everything You Need to Know About Time in Africa

Old clock on a tower in Stone Town, Zanzibar

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If you want to know what time it is right now somewhere in Africa, check this world clock for the current time in every major African city, and this world clock for the current time in every African country. Very handy when you want to phone someone in Africa and don't want to be responsible for waking them up at 3 a.m. just to say "hello". For more detailed information about African time zones and the concept of time in Africa, read on.

African Time Zones

At any given time, the difference between the time in Santo Antao, Cape Verde (Africa's most westerly point) and Coëtivy in the Seychelles (Africa's most easterly point) is five hours, with the Seychelles being five hours ahead. On the mainland, West Africa is three hours behind East Africa. If you travel from north to south along a straight line the time zone remains the same. This means that the time is the same in far northern countries like Libya as it is in South Africa.

Most African countries use the same time zone throughout, despite their size – even in Algeria, which is the largest country on the continent. The DRC is the main exception to this rule, spanning two different time zones. Technically South Africa does too, but only if you include the sub-Antarctic Prince Edward Islands over which it has governance. In 2008, energy crises in South Africa prompted the government to consider splitting the mainland nation into two time zones. However, this has not yet happened.

For an overview of time on a handy map of Africa, click here.

Daylight Savings Time

Daylight saving time (DST), which is used in most areas of North America and Europe, is not currently observed in any African country. This has not always been the case. Several African nations historically observed DST in accordance with their colonial counterparts, but abandoned the concept after acheiving independence. Others have used it on and off for decades (which is why it's always worth checking up-to-date lists like this one before you travel). DST was ceased as recently as 2017 in Namibia and 2014 in Egypt. As of 2019 in Morocco, clocks are set back one hour during the month of Ramadan to make it easier to observe the monthly fast.

The Concept of Time in Africa

Africans have a reputation for tardiness in the same way that Northern Europeans have a reputation for punctuality. Naturally, you cannot generalize about a huge continent with 54 countries and hundreds of cultures. But, when you travel in rural Africa especially, you'll have to slow down. Trains in remote areas can be late by a day or two and it'll be accepted by your fellow passengers with a shrug. A bus breaks down and it can easily take a day for the driver to run to the nearest garage for spare parts. This can be frustrating if you're on a strict schedule, but you'll have to learn to be more flexible with your plans.

A prominent Kenyan philosopher, John Mbiti, wrote an essay about the 'African Concept of Time' which delves deeply into the idea that different cultures perceive time in different ways, which has little to do with whether one wears a watch or not. This BBC article discusses the concept of time in Africa with many African voices contributing their ideas. In October 2008 the Ivory Coast government ran a campaign with a slogan "'African time' is killing Africa, let's fight it". The president awarded a villa to the businessman or civil servant who was able to be punctual for all of their appointments in a country notorious for people arriving late to everything.

However, it's just as likely that you will visit an African country and find that everything happens precisely on schedule. You can never generalize.

Swahili Time

Swahili time is followed by many East Africans, particularly Kenyans and Tanzanians, and starts at 6 a.m. not midnight. So if a Tanzanian tells you the bus leaves at 1 a.m. in the morning, he probably means 7 a.m. If he says the train leaves at 3 a.m. in the morning that would mean 9 a.m. It's wise to double check. Interestingly, some Ethiopians use the same clock, but they don't speak Swahili.

The Ethiopian Calendar

Ethiopians follow an ancient Coptic calendar that runs about 7.5 years behind the Gregorian calendar. The Ethiopian calendar is made up of 12 months each lasting 30 days, and then an extra month is tagged on lasting just five days (six in a leap year). Although this means that the Ethiopian calendar year has the same number of days as the Gregorian calendar year, the former is 7.5 years behind the latter because the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church disagree on the date of the birth of Jesus. Therefore, they started off from two different points many hundreds of years ago.

Ethiopians celebrated their millennium in style in September 2007.

This article was updated by Jessica Macdonald on December 4 2019.

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