JS Mbiti: He is our ancestor, now joined the living dead

Wednesday March 18 2020

The association of mobile network operators worldwide, GSMA, reports that there were 747 million SIM connections in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017 (covering about 75 per cent of the population). Today, SIM connections on the continent are about 80 per cent, on average.


Kenya’s SIM card penetration stands at 106.2 per cent, yet unique subscriber connection is estimated at 56 per cent. There are more phone connections than people!

Before you write to Mungai Kihanya to explain these seemingly illogical statistics, hear the late John Samuel Mbiti: Back in 1969, long before Michael Joseph referred to the unique calling habits of Kenyans, Mbiti published the greatest book on African religions and philosophy, ever, by the same title. And I am not one to use the phrase “greatest ever” lightly. It may be the first time I am using the phrase to describe an academic work in more than 50 years.

In this book, Mbiti summed up the African worldview in one sentence: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am”. This worldview largely explains African thought and practice, including the use and ownership of mobile phones.

This statement effectively presents one distinguishing characteristic of Africans, communitarianism.



What is communitarianism? Communitarianism explains why there are more registered SIM cards in Kenya than there are people.

First, the concept of a mobile phone as a private possession is not obvious in Africa. Kenyans share handsets, others share SIM cards, and others share both.

Second, many Kenyans buy handsets and/or SIM cards for others. The registered owner of a handset or the registered subscriber of a SIM card is not always the user of the handset or SIM card. True. Many Kenyans have multiple handsets and SIM cards to take advantage of promotion offers from different service providers. But look again. What phone applications sell most in Africa? It is those that promote social connectedness! That is communitarianism.


According to The Economist, Kenya’s M-Pesa is by far the most successful scheme of its kind on earth. It has over 17 million active users, accounting for more than 75 per cent of all adult Kenyans. About 25 per cent of the country’s gross national product flows through this app.

If my sister is stranded because she can’t raise bus fare, she will “Please call me”. Then almost instantaneously, I will pesa pap! And, as Kenyans are wont to say, “She is sorted.” Communitarianism.

Communitarianism, like any value, has many downsides. But this does not take away its enormous value. I pray that this value lasts for a long, long, time.

WhatsApp thrives as much if not more. Every African I know belongs to at least five WhatsApp groups at any one time: nuclear family group, extended family group, siblings group, workplace group, current and/or past class group, religious group, funeral group …


Then there is that other group whose objective you do not understand but you still won’t “left”. That is “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am”.

Today, I write about these “queer habits” to pay tribute to a “gentle giant”, who named that which had eluded many a civilised people. He is our ancestor, now joined the living dead.

Eunice Kamaara is a professor of religion at Moi University; [email protected]