What a grand finale by Canon John S Mbiti

Wednesday March 18 2020
mbiti pic

Author and anthropology professor John Samuel Mbiti who died in Switzerland recently. PHOTO | COURTESY


The departed Prof John Samuel encyclopaedic comprehension of philosophy, theology, languages and literature was encyclopaedic. Little wonder that one of the tomes he has edited bears the title The Encyclopedia of Christianity.

While scholars regard St Augustine of Hippo, born of an African mother and Roman father, as one of the greatest theologians of all time, many dons count Rev Mbiti the Anglican canon among the leading global scholars of our century in philosophy and divinity.

The comparison between Augustine, known in Church circles as “the Doctor of Grace” and Mbiti, the expert of “African Traditional Religions as a preparation for the gospel of Christ”, has some merit. St Augustine, born in Tagaste, North Africa, used Platonic philosophy to explain the message of Jesus of Nazareth.


Prof Mbiti, born and raised in Africa south of the Sahara, viewed the traditional religious experiences of indigenous communities as preparation for the proclamation of the gospel of Christ.

In many of his books, the worldview is of ethnic groups in a relationship with a caring supreme being, even though there are instances of mediation by spirits and visits by ghosts inhabiting the space between God and the people.

Human beings respond to a provident God through prayer and sacrifice. Thanks to Mbiti’s efforts, African traditional religions gained a measure of respect.

One of the best known and also most controversial aspects of Mbiti’s research is his account of the African concept of time. His detailed analysis of African languages leads him to the conclusion that time is basically a series of events comprising a two-dimensional long, macro past (Zamani), and a micro present (Sasa) with no future.

He reinforces this conclusion by asserting that Africans have a cyclic conception of time, in contrast to Western thinking that has a linear, cognitive structural outlook.


Several scholars find his conclusion startling. While some strategists use Mbiti’s theory to explain why many socio-economic plans and projections do not succeed in Africa, other thinkers such as Prof Joseph Nyasani, the late philosopher at the University of Nairobi, disagree with Mbiti’s conclusion that “the future is practically foreign to African thinking”.

Other critics point out that the philosopher-theologian has reached such a general conclusion after analysing just two Bantu languages from Kenya. There are over 1,000 ethnic groups in Africa south of the Sahara. Mbiti, they object, has drawn too huge a conclusion from an incredibly small sample.

Prof Mbiti was gifted in coining quotable quotes that are also thought-provoking. The very opening sentence of his seminal work African Religions and Philosophy is unforgettable, even provocative: “Africans are notoriously religious.” This aphorism is oft-quoted in learning institutions across Africa from upper primary schools to colleges and universities.

Later in the same book, he explains that in a traditional African setting, there is no sharp division between the secular and the sacred.

Life is not compartmentalised as is clearly the case in modern Western societies. An illustration of that demarcation is witnessed in the constitutions of many Western democracies that explicitly articulate separation of Church and state as a key tenet in their mode of governance.

One of the consequences of too rigid a compartmentalisation is that values learnt in one social institution such as religion might simply remain imprisoned there because society or the constitution does not allow their being diffused to other areas of human endeavour such as education or economics.


Social critics suggest that challenges such as rampant corruption in society are, at least in part, the result of compartmentalisation, evidenced by people living a double life depending on which compartment they occupy at one given time.

Another well-known saying by Mbiti states that one person can’t embrace the baobab tree.

An invaluable aspect of Prof Mbiti’s huge legacy is his contribution to the growth of indigenous knowledge and literacy not only among the Akamba of Kenya but also across the continent.

No sooner did he complete his studies at Alliance High School than young Mbiti penned a novel in his mother tongue titled Mutunga na Ngewa Yake.

It is remarkable that he continued a productive literary career not just through the use of the English and German languages but also in Kikamba. The novel was followed by his other publication English-Kamba Vocabulary, in essence a dictionary.

The continued commitment of this erudite yet humble multilinguist to write in his mother tongue challenged budding scholars to take an interest in African languages and culture.

Aged 87 years, the theologian and man of letters has danced from the Sasa into the Zamani with a literary bang. Prof Mbiti’s last major publication is his fresh translation of the New Testament titled Utianiyo Mweu Wa Mwiyai Yesu Kilisto from the original Greek manuscripts.

What a grand finale!

Fr Lawrence Njoroge is Catholic Chaplain at JKUAT and professor of development studies and ethics; [email protected]