Time traveling in Ethiopia

As I type this, my laptop reads that the time and date are

8:14pm, Thursday, September 17, 2015

However, if I were to ask Fikiru the time, he and the rest of Ethiopia would tell me

2:14pm, Thursday, September 6th, 2008

So, what’s going on here?

The Ethiopian Calendar

Ethiopia marches to the beat of its own drum/clock, one of the many benefits of being the only African country to defend itself from European colonization in the 19th century. Whereas the Gregorian calendar, followed by most Western countries, is made up of 12 months with 28, 30, or 31 days and an extra day added in February on Leap Year, the Ethiopian calendar is far more simplistic, consisting of 12 months with 30 days each and a 13th month with 5 days, or 6 days on Leap Year. The 12 months of the Ethiopian calendar roughly align (within 12ish days) with the 12 months of the Gregorian calendar, and their names are translated from Amharic into English as the same names of the Gregorian calendar. For example, Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on Meskerem (September) 1st, which is September 11th (or 12th the year after Leap Year) in the Gregorian calendar.

The Ethiopian calendar is 7 or 8 years behind the Gregorian calendar, after or before September 11th (or 12th), respectively. Both calendars are based on the Incarnation of Jesus, and the 7-8 year difference is due to the different calculations of the date of Incarnation by two different monks back in the 5th and 6th centuries. Thus, while the majority of the world was freaking out about the Y2K bug on December 31st, 1999, Ethiopians were casually eating injera and drinking coffee, knowing that the rest of the world would have that figured out before they celebrated the Millenium on September 11th, 2007 (Gregorian calendar).

Telling time in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, the clock utilizes the 12-hour system and is 6 hours behind what Westerners are accustomed too – what I know to be 6 o’clock in the morning is 12 o’clock to an Ethiopian. Here, a 9-to-5 job is really a 3-to-11 job. While this concept initially seemed strange to me, it actually makes a lot of sense. Ethiopia, being close to the equator, has a pretty consistent sunrise and sunset year-round at [what I know to be] 6am and 6pm, give or take an hour. This, combined with the fact that 3 out of 4 Ethiopians are subsidence farmers, means that most people are starting their day at [what I know to be] 6am. Thus, the Ethiopian clock begins when Ethiopia wakes up, not at some random time in the middle of the night.

Commence confusion

The concept of learning a new calendar and timekeeping system is straight forward – here is a new set of rules, follow these rules, and after a brief learning curve it should make sense, right? While this has largely been my experience at home, putting this newfound knowledge into practice has led to a surprising amount of miscommunication.

While Meskerem is officially translated to English as ‘September’, because the two months roughly align, I’ve met people who have translated it to January, since Meskerem and January are the first months of the Ethiopian and Gregorian calendars, respectively. For a while, I thought Enkutatash, Ethiopian New Year, was celebrated on [what I know to be] January 12th, rather than September 12th.

Written dates have also thrown me for a loop. Last weekend we celebrated Ethiopian New Year, Meskerem 1st, 2008, which is abbreviated as 1/1/08, because Meskerem is the first month of the calendar. However, this also means that my birthday this year, July 19th, 2015 (7/19/15, Gregorian calendar) falls on July 12th, 2008 of the Ethiopian calendar, which is abbreviated as 12/11/08, because July is the 11th month of the Ethiopian calendar, not the 7th, and Ethiopia follows the day/month/year format, just like the rest of the world outside the US. Luckily for me, I don’t often deal with written documents and I stick to using days of the week when planning things with Ethiopians, so I typically avoid this nightmare.

The Ethiopian clock, which is 6 hours behind my watch, is pretty easy to get used to. When children ask me what time it is I stall by asking if they want the habesha (Ethiopian) time or the farenji (foreigner) time, which gives me a moment to look directly opposite of where the small hand is pointing on the face of my watch and recall my Afaan Oromo numbers. Context also helps – if someone says they have to go to the market at 2 o’clock tomorrow morning, you can assume they are referring to Ethiopian time and mean 8am. Sometimes context doesn’t help – for example, I’ve arrived at SVO, our NGO partner, at 9am and asked to meet with someone who told me I should come back at 11 o’clock. This seemed reasonable to me, so I showed up again at 11am only to find that they meant 11 o’clock habesha time, meaning 5pm, after they got off of work. Nearly everyone I speak with on a daily basis refers to the Ethiopian clock and may not even realize that I’m operating 6 hours ahead of them. Confusion kicks in when I’m speaking to someone who’s too smart for his or her own good – they know how farenji time works and they’re translating Ethiopian time to farenji time for my own benefit. When a professor asked me to meet him ‘tomorrow at 3 o’clock’, this could have easily meant a morning meeting at 9am, but in fact he meant after lunch at 3pm. This mostly happens with people at SVO or Ambo University, so I’ve started clarifying if they mean habesha or farenji time before I make a bad assumption.

After almost 5 months, I’m pretty fluent in the Ethiopian timekeeping system and I no longer default to a blank face while I try to figure out 10 + 6 – 12 in my head (hint: it’s way easier to think of it as 10 – 6). Telling time is just another fun quirk of living here (though ask me again after I miss a bus or forget to extend my visa on the correct date) – when I get it right it’s a small success that I can hold on to as a reminder that I’m successfully integrating into this crazy country, and when I get it wrong it’s a small reminder for when I get too comfortable, that “Holy shit. I live in Ethiopia”.


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