The death of Prof John Samuel Mbiti, the Kenyan-born philosopher-cum-theologian, has robbed us of an academic giant whose impact is truly global.
In a career spanning six decades, Prof Mbiti was a prolific writer not only on matters religion and philosophy, but also in the areas of family, marriage, love and language. He leaves a legacy that will benefit humankind for generations.
His publications include over 50 books. The best known among them is African Religions and Philosophy, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Cambridge. The book, now celebrating its golden anniversary, has been re-issued almost every year. It is a classic translated into seven languages.
In this great literary undertaking, Prof Mbiti studies the religious beliefs and practices of 300 ethnic groups across Africa. He arrives at a startling philosophical principle.
His systematic study of religions (in the plural) using the empirical method, so as to deduce a general philosophical conclusion (in the singular), is remarkable for several reasons.
For starters, it debunks the myth propagated by some European scholars such as Herbert Spencer and David Hume that there is no philosophy or systematic thought to be derived from the African condition. The scholar’s analysis of the African concept of time remains one of the most original, widely debated and intellectually engaging aspects of his research.
Prof Mbiti was not only a prolific author, but he also mentored budding scholars to publish their research findings. Besides supervising theses, he wrote prefaces and forewords to publications by graduates who had conducted significant research.
Books based on doctoral dissertations by Gwinyai H. Muzorewa from Zimbabwe and Judith Mbula Bahemuka of the University of Nairobi are graced by forewords by Prof John S. Mbiti.
The late professor enjoyed a long, eventful and productive academic career alongside committed service in the Church. Having earned his doctorate, Rev Mbiti became a lecturer of Religious Studies at Makerere in the 1960s and rose to the rank of full professor. His colleagues and students at the college recall his lively debates with contemporaries such as Prof Ali A. Mazrui, the political scientist, and Okot p’Bitek, the celebrated albeit controversial Ugandan poet.
After Makerere, the multi-lingual Mbiti was appointed Director of the Ecumenical Institute by the World Council of Churches based in Switzerland. Later he was invited as Professor of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Bern. Besides holding this substantive position, he served as visiting professor in several universities across the globe.
Having retired from regular university teaching, the scholar concentrated on pastoral work at a parish in Burgdorf in his adopted country.
In addition to his formidable intellectual prowess, Prof Mbiti owned several remarkable attributes. Any person who knew him attests to his humility. Here was an outstanding achiever who never sought to be recognised or to take the front seat at social or professional gatherings.
Prof Mary Getui of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa recalls an academic convocation in Enugu, Nigeria, where Prof Mbiti did not seem to understand why his presence caused such great excitement.
The celebrated scholar, at the acme of the academic ladder, always helped students to realise their potential. This writer recalls the academic giant giving a talk to young philosophy and theology students at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in 1971 and relating to them in a manner that was truly inspiring.
Several admirers of the famous philosopher have themselves become scholars of repute including Prof Dismas Masolo, the Kenyan author who delivers lectures at several universities across the globe.
John Mbiti is a child of two worlds. Born and bred in Kenya, he lived and worked in the diaspora most of his life. This immensely gifted man has successfully bridged that duality by living in communion with his family, friends and colleagues. He joined his ancestors aged 87 years.
His oft-quoted saying is eminently true in the way he lived: “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am”. Fare thee well, man of intellect, faith and integrity.
Fr Lawrence Njoroge is Catholic Chaplain at JKUAT where he teaches Development Studies and Ethics. [email protected]