The concept of time in Latin America

Let’s go on another of our journeys into the land of all imaginations. You are part of a precious endangered tribe in the Amazon rainforest. The jungle is to you as the egg to a chicken. It is your placenta- your lifeline, your bond to mother nature- the mother of all creatures, the home of all that is living and life herself. The jungle provides all you’ve ever needed from roof to forage; energy to buddy and medicine to enemies.

She is apt at everything- especially taking care of her own very self. You have fear for nothing- not even that all her goodies might finish some day. Cut one tree down and a bigger one stands in it’s place. Take an insect she’s already laid a thousand eggs. Kill an animal and her children will breed ten thousands more. At least that was how you lived. In Paradise, there was no need to rush. Your language has no expression of time- you live in the now, taking no thoughts about tomorrow. Numbers are simply indicated by multiples of ‘small amount’ and ‘large amount’.

You don’t care if you’ll eat tomorrow cause all you need do is take five steps into the river and fish. You don’t care about yesterday cause there’s absolutely nothing that can be done about it. When something can no longer be perceived, it simply seizes to exist.

Ahorita: Now, Later or Never! – Fiyin Kolawole – Medium

Far from reality as this may seem, it is the life of men as we: The Pirahã, an indigenous tribe in the Brazilian Amazons. Their lifestyle is simple- living on the banks of the Maici River, these distinct people are about 400 in number and they break the back of the religiously held linguistic belief that every language is based on recursion. The Pirahã don’t speak in complex sentences, don’t have what we know as conjunctions, they neither think about the future, tell fictitious stories nor learn from other cultures- they believe that their culture is complete and does not need anything from the outside world.

Delving into indigenous tribes in Latin America makes us understand their perspective of time. There’s so much emphasis on ‘the now’ in not only indigenous linguistics but also the Spanish language and the general Latino culture. Spanish speakers especially those from South America are happily satisfied about the present, habitually late for appointments and generally unthoughtful about the future.

While this may seem highly unacceptable to the West and most of the 21st century world that depends on a sequential perception of time, Latin America loves her hedonistic friendliness with the present; there’s a lot we can learn from this seemingly myopic understanding of time:

  1. Time in itself is the creation of man: It would therefore be derogatory to allow ourselves be absolutely controlled by the thing that we created. As much as the buildings we build, the cars we design and the plants we cultivate should not control us, time shouldn’t control man. And neither should man control God.
  2. The beauty of time is a measure of satisfaction derived from it: This utilitarian ideology is the basis of living in the now- the desire to make the best of every moment. In other words- to derive the most pleasure from every moment. The 21st century man is often pre-occupied by thoughts of tomorrow that he underestimates the value of today and what can be achieved in it. Need a break? Jump on the next flight to some South American paradise.
  3. The most tangible things are the intangibles: The most relevant things in life are usually not the things that we can see such as the digits of the clock, but the things we can perceive- such as the fulfilment of doing what we want. Even contemporary history shows that human terrestrial lifetime is more meaningful when we focus on non-materialistic things. Many spiritual and religious philosophies align along this line. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. He therefore admonishes his readers and us all to pursue after those things that really matter- eternity.

It is not bad to have a consciousness of now. However, in the kind of global village that we live in, South America needs to be wary of a couple of things in order to make itself relevant and competitive among peers. Some of these issues are especially prominent in the education sector:

How the Spaniard actually sees. Source: Richard Lewis quoted Business Insider

Inertia and Laziness: Try teaching English anywhere in Latin America, give a simple instruction in English- like- tell your students to copy from the board. Repeat the instructions in Spanish 3 times. Two minutes later, at least 2 of your students will ask you- “¿qué hacemos?” meaning “what do we do?”. As you are tempted to call them dumb, remember that it’s more of a cultural issue than a question of intelligence. They just don’t want to do anything. Because culturally, they’ve been doing nothing but salsa, rumba and rum for decades! This attitude not only causes laziness amidst students, it also fosters an endemic resistance to change and innovation in the larger society.

Communication and Information: I was speaking with a former colleague about our Latina boss one day and she said as succinctly as a European that she is-

“they are masters of talking a lot… I’ve never been in a situation where all the people can talk so much and so beautifully but actually say very little information”.

This might well be hasty generalisation, but a lot of Latinos do talk to much. This is in part due to the nature of the Spanish language- using just too many words for saying something simple. In my experience, Latinos talk so smoothly for a long period of time such that in the process of processing what you just heard, you might forget what the discussion was about in the first place.

For every English syllable, there are probably at least 1.5 Spanish syllables

If Spanish-speaking countries, especially in South America are to accelerate their growth and keep their Paradise-like joy, they need to seek a balance between these key lessons from their disposition towards time and the problems that result from such. I am Fiyin Kolawole and I hop I’ve scored a point against my South-American friends.😜.

Time is money, amigos!



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