By Ato Bob*
As for September 11, let us not too easily grant the Americans possession of that date on the calendar. Like May 1 or July 14 or December 25, September 11 may seem full of significance to some people, while to other people it is just another day. – J. M. Coetzee, South African Author
Although we may take it easy sometimes and while away time, we mostly live by the day, hour and even minute of the day, month and current year, keeping score by using a calendar. As soon as we are in December, we start thinking and planning for the New Year. Apart from the remembering of the past and the celebration of the new, we have to look for a new calendar. Shops and firms give them away in advertising their wares and services, while in most African countries they are sold in the streets. These colourful very large calendars often show past & present politicians, musicians, hair or dress styles, while a small section at the bottom features the actual calendar. However, whether these local, official or electronic ones in our phones, tablets or computers, all use the same twelve month Gregorian calendar is a good question.
Origin of the calendar
The purpose of the calendar is to reckon past or future time, to show in how many days until a certain event takes place – the harvest or a religious festival – or how long since something important happened. The earliest calendars must have been strongly influenced by the geographical location of the people who made them. In colder countries, the concept of the year was determined by the seasons, specifically by the end of winter. But in warmer countries, where the seasons are less pronounced, the Moon became the basic unit for time reckoning; an old Jewish book says that “the Moon was created for the counting of the days.”
Most of the oldest calendars were lunar calendars, based on the time interval from one new moon to the next a so-called lunation. But even in a warm climate there are annual events that pay no attention to the phases of the Moon. In some areas it was a rainy season; in Egypt it was the annual flooding of the Nile River. The calendar had to account for these yearly events as well.
From Julian to Gregorian
It is therefore logical and natural that different calendars developed throughout the world depending on local situations, interests, believe and natural environment.
Have you ever realized that our current and still evolving means of modern communication allows whatever is done or happens to be instantly known globally? Moreover that this was not so from time immemorial till the last fifty or less odd years?
The ancient Greeks modelled the first rudimentary calendar, attempting to align the solar and lunar years, as the sun and moon appearances were the obvious returning patterns. It was however Roman Emperor Julius Caesar who is said to have brought the Julian calendar to Rome when he visited Cleopatra in Egypt, while others even have it that Cleopatra’s astronomers made the adjustments.
The old Roman calendar of 304 days over ten months starting with March and had Ianuarious and Febrearius added as stopgaps. This could not work, so drastic changes were made to create a calendar as we now know it now with 365 days running from 1st January till 31 December. This Julian calendar became and remained almost common use in Europe till 1582.
Although the Julian calendar was a great improvement, it still was not satisfactory. It caused Easter to drift away from solar season of spring, which the Roman Catholic Church found undesirable. So it was Pope Gregory XIII who introduced the Gregorian, Western or Christian calendar, now named after him in 1582. This change was initially adopted by Catholic countries with Protestant and Eastern Orthodox following much later mostly for the ease of international trade.
While the Gregorian calendar is now in worldwide use for secular purposes, various medieval or ancient calendars remain in regional use for religious or social purposes, including the Julian calendar, the Hebrew calendar, the Islamic calendar, various Hindu calendars, the Zoroastrian calendar etc.
There are also various modern calendars that see limited use, either created for the use of new religious movements or reformed versions of older religious calendars, or calendars introduced by regionalist or nationalist movements.
African and Afrikan Calendars
The Ethiopian calendar being seven years behind us, having a thirteenth month and still in actual current use is the best known example of an African calendar. I actually observed this when I lived in Addis Ababa as it was only in the few English papers and correspondence that ‘western’ dates were used. The Ethiopian calendar is like the Egyptian Coptic calendar having a year of 13 months, 365 days and 366 days in a leap year (every fourth year) and it is much influenced by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which follows its ancient calendar rules and beliefs. The Ethiopian calendar is always seven years and eight months behind the Gregorian (Western) and Eastern Orthodox Church calendars during September and December and eight years and four months behind during January and August. Therefore, the Ethiopians celebrated the new millennium on September 1, 2000 Ethiopian calendar (September 12, 2007 Gregorian calendar). This means that 11 September is Ethiopian New Year and Christmas falls in early January.
Egypt is called by some as the birthplace of the calendar, which started with recording the annual seasonal flooding of the Nile’. Since Egyptian life and agriculture depended upon the annual flooding of the Nile, it was important to determine when such floods would begin. The early Egyptians noted that the beginning of the inundation occurred at the rising of a star they called Serpet (Sirius). It has been calculated that this sidereal year was only 12 minutes longer than the mean tropical year which influenced the flooding, and this produced a difference of only 25 days over the whole of Ancient Egypt’s recorded history!
As early as 4241 BCE, the Egyptians had created a calendar made up of 12 months of 30 days, plus five extra days at the end of the year. This 365-day calendar was amazingly accurate for a people who still did not know the Earth revolved around the sun.
The Berber calendar is the agricultural calendar traditionally used in regions of North Africa. It is also known in North-African Arabic dialects as the fellaḥi “rustic” or ɛajami “foreign” calendar. It is employed to regulate the seasonal agricultural works, in place of the Islamic calendar, a lunar calendar considered ill-adapted for agriculture because it does not relate to seasonal cycles. The Berber calendar, a legacy of Roman Mauretania, is a surviving form of the ancient Julian calendar, the calendar used in Europe before the introduction of the Gregorian calendar with month names derived from Latin.
The Igbo African Calendar Book Series features an illustration of African Igbo dating system prior to the introduction of the Gregorian calendar to Africa.
The Mande calendrics are the result of combination climatic, social and astronomical factors. The moon, seasons and stars are used for reckoning time. The major star studied by the Mande is Sirius, as did the Egyptians. Mats play an important role in Mande calculations. The mat and mat motifs play an important role in Mayan society as well. These designs are carved in a calabash with a figure that resembles the Kananga sign in which the lizard features prominently.
Afrikan calendars feature dates like Kwanza mostly celebrated by African-Americans.
Whichever calendar you keep, it seems that time and place, but also how you are connected whether local or global, determines your calendar.
*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org