Finding your rhythm: Nuer perceptions of time

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Finding and embracing your rhythm is an important step in knowing who you are. The hamster wheel approach that we often apply to our lives can invoke feelings of restlessness and anxiety when faced with the view that time is something that we lack. Making the space to understand our pace and take ownership of our time can play an important role in addressing some of the anxieties that emerge from the feeling that we are constantly chasing time.

In his studies of the Nuer people, commenting on the fact that no literal translation of the term ‘time’ exists in the Nuer language, British Anthropologist E.E. Evans Pritchard noted that, “events follow a logical order, but they are not controlled by an abstract system, there being no autonomous points of reference to which activities have to conform with precision”. By focusing more on process rather than production, this part of Nuer history and culture offers a chance for us to learn about an alternative way of measuring progression in our lives instead of perceiving time as a rigid entity which is lacking.

The Nuer people have inhabited either side of the Nile River in present day South Sudan and west regions of Ethiopia since the 19th century. A people renowned for their cattle herding, this sacred craft along with the Nuer connections to nature help in understanding how time was conceptualised in Nuer society. Here are some of the observations made by E.E Evans Pritchard regarding perceptions of time among the Nuer:

Livestock: The importance placed on cattle herding among the Nuer and its symbolism in relation to traditions, social ties and lineages draws attention to an emphasis on process. Tending to cattle is a process which requires patience, diligence and awareness, this process shaped Nuer day to day life. Given the amount of time invested in tending to their cattle, the latter can be seen to represent ‘time’, like time they were perceived as precious and the process of cattle herding symbolised a way of utilising time effectively. E.E. Evans-Pritchard noted that “their [the Nuer] salvation at every crisis depends on the small herd with which they share their home.”, the perceived importance of cattle to the Nuer can also be applied to perceptions of time. Namely, that time is a currency that is precious which can nourish and equip us with the necessary tools to respond to the challenges that we encounter through life when used effectively.

Nature: The close connection to nature among the Nuer reveal how time was measured and managed. One example can be seen in perceptions of the two main seasons in Nuer kingdom, drought and rain: “at the end of the rains, the people burn the grasses to provide new pasture and leave their villages to reside in small camps”. Seeing the presence of different seasons as a way of measuring time and symbolising a new phase draws attention to another way in which time was conceptualised. Time, as with nature, is an organic and fluid entity which we do not have to constantly chase, but, instead apply patience and surrender to for growth to occur.

The two aspects of Nuer culture indicated above highlight the importance of embracing a sense of patience, diligence and awareness in our approach to viewing and understanding time. As with the process of cattle herding, view your time as sacred and a thing to utilise for nourishing yourself in this journey of life. The close associations with nature also gives an example of surrendering to time in order to better understand your rhythm.


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